This Memorial Day story is an excerpt from Lt. Gen. John Kelly’s Nov. 13, 2010 speech to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis, reprinted in The American Legion Magazine.
[Paragraph formatting and emphasis added]
[O]n April 22, 2008, two Marine infantry battalions, 1/9 â€œThe Walking Dead,â€ and 2/8, were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion was in the closing days of its deployment, the other just starting its seven-month combat tour. Two Marines, Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines.
The same ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, our allies in the fight against terrorists in Ramadi â€“ known at the time as the most dangerous city on earth, and owned by al-Qaeda.
Yale was a dirt-poor mixed-race kid from Virginia, with a wife, a mother and a sister, who all lived with him and he supported. He did this on a yearly salary of less than $23,000. Haerter, on the other hand, was a middle-class white kid from Long Island. They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines, they would never have met each other, or understood that multiple Americas exist simultaneously, depending on oneâ€™s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, education level, economic status, or where you might have been born. But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible, and because of this bond they were brothers as close â€“ or closer â€“ than if they were born of the same woman. The mission orders they received from their sergeant squad leader, Iâ€™m sure, went something like this: â€œOK, take charge of this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass. You clear?â€ Iâ€™m also sure Yale and Haerter rolled their eyes and said, in unison, something like, â€œYes, sergeant,â€ with just enough attitude that made the point, without saying the words, â€œNo kidding, sweetheart. We know what weâ€™re doing.â€ They then relieved two other Marines on watch and took up their post at the entry-control point of Joint Security Station Nasser, in the Sophia section of Ramadi, al Anbar, Iraq.
A few minutes later, a large blue truck turned down the alleyway â€“ perhaps 60 to 70 yards in length â€“ and sped its way through the serpentine concrete Jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both. Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truckâ€™s engine came to rest 200 yards away, knocking down most of a house down before it stopped. Our explosive experts reckoned the blast was caused by 2,000 pounds of explosive.
Because these two young infantrymen didnâ€™t have it in their DNA to run from danger, they saved 150 of their Iraqi and American brothers in arms. When I read the situation report a few hours after it happened, I called the regimental commander for details. Something about this struck me as different. We expect Marines, regardless of rank or MOS, to stand their ground and do their duty, and even die in the process, if that is what the mission takes. But this just seemed different.
The regimental commander had just returned from the site, and he agreed, but reported that there were no American witnesses to the event â€“ just Iraqi police. If there was any chance of finding out what actually happened, and then to decorate the two Marines to acknowledge their bravery, Iâ€™d have to do it, because a combat award requires two eyewitnesses, and we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements. If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer. I traveled to Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to a half-dozen Iraqi police, all of whom told the same story. They all said, â€œWe knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing.â€ The Iraqi police related that some of them also fired, and then, to a man, ran for safety just prior to the explosion. All survived. Many were injured, some seriously. One of the Iraqis elaborated, and with tears welling up, said, â€œTheyâ€™d run like any normal man would to save his life. â€What he didnâ€™t know until then, and what he learned that very instant, was that Marines are not normal. Choking past the emotion, he said, â€œSir, in the name of God, no sane man would have stood there and done what they did. They saved us all.â€
What we didnâ€™t know at the time, and only learned after I submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras recorded some of the attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis described it. It took exactly six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it detonated. You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. I suppose it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. No time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: â€œLet no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.â€ It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time, the truck was halfway through the barriers and gaining speed.
Here the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were, some running right past the Marines, who had three seconds left to live. For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines firing their weapons nonstop. The truckâ€™s windshield explodes into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tear into the body of the son of a bitch trying to get past them to kill their brothers â€“ American and Iraqi â€“ bedded down in the barracks, totally unaware that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder-width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could. They had only one second left to live, and I think they knew. The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty.
Hat tip to Peter Somerville.