Check out our interactive graphic detailing the heroism of each Navy Cross recipient from Iraq and Afghanistan: marinecorpstimes.com/navycross
In the early days of the Iraq war, a U.S. Army unit took a wrong turn into the city of Nasiriyah and paid a heavy toll. Iraqi forces ambushed a convoy from the 507th Maintenance Company, killing at least 11 U.S. soldiers and capturing six more, including, famously, Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
Called upon to help, Gunnery Sgt. Justin LeHew launched his amphibious assault platoon on a daring mission to rescue the convoy. Under constant enemy fire, he and his Marines assisted in the evacuation of four soldiers, then set their sights on the city itself. They launched a company-sized attack on the eastern bridge of the Euphrates River, facing withering enemy fire in a street fight in which LeHew worked for nearly an hour to recover dead and wounded Marines from another amphibious assault vehicle that was rocked by enemy rocket-propelled grenades.
LeHew, now a sergeant major, received the Navy Cross in 2004 for his actions that day. He is one of 34 Marines approved to wear the Navy Cross for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. The award is second only to the Medal of Honor in recognizing combat valor, but does not lead to the same kind of fame outside the military. Its recipients are far from anonymous in the Corps, however.
Those who have earned a Navy Cross say they are greeted by fellow Marines with a mixture of respect, curiosity, and occasionally, skepticism about their willingness to keep working hard. None of it is easy, they say, considering the award symbolizes actions on some of their most difficult days.
LeHew recalled a situation in 2006 or 2007 when he was approached by a Marine while he was attending a course for first sergeants at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. The man, whom he had never met, pointed at the Navy Cross ribbon on LeHew’s service uniform and asked jokingly, “What do I have to do to get that?”
“One of my buddies almost laid him out on the floor,” LeHew told Marine Corps Times. “He was like, ‘Hey man, really? That’s the question you’re going to ask?’ It made me feel uncomfortable, and I told him, ‘You know what, man? This is really the last ribbon you’d ever want to have. Because while it’s blue and white … it comes with a lot of bloodshed.”
With the U.S. war in Iraq over and combat operations in Afghanistan winding down, Marine Corps Times gathered information on all of the Marine recipients of the Navy Cross since 9/11. The picture that emerged shows this generation of Navy Cross recipients includes 20 recognized for actions in Iraq and 14 for valor in Afghanistan. Most served in the infantry, but the recipients also include two Marines from the motor transport community (Gunnery Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez and Cpl. Todd Corbin), an artilleryman (Sgt. Christopher Farias) and a combat engineer officer (Capt. Ademola Fabayo).
Fourteen modern recipients remain on active-duty, including one infantryman who elected not to accept his award for heroism in Iraq, and chooses to remain in the shadows to this day, a Marine official said. Marine Corps Times does not identify him in this story out of respect for his wishes.
All of the recipients on active duty hold at least the rank of sergeant. Three of them — Master Sgt. Willie Copeland III, Gunnery Sgt. John Mosser and Sgt. William Soutra — are members of the Corps’ elite special operations command. LeHew and Sgt. Maj. Bradley Kasal attained the Corps’ highest enlisted rank, while Chief Warrant Officer 2 Anthony Viggiani chose to become an infantry weapons officer, commonly known in the Corps as a gunner.
Eleven Marines who earned the Navy Cross in Iraq or Afghanistan have left the service. Many of them found relative anonymity within a year or two of receiving the award, but others left the service recently after longer careers. They include Maj. Brian Chontosh, who retired in October after 20 years of service, and Corbin, who left the Corps in July after about 11 years of service. They earned the award for heroism in Iraq in 2003 and 2005, respectively.
The list of modern-day recipients also includes eight fallen Marines, six of whom were killed in the actions that earned them the Navy Cross. The other two, Sgt. Matthew Abbate and Lance Cpl. Christopher Adlesperger, died in subsequent battles within a couple of months of the actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, that earned them a hero’s recognition.
Ready for the drill field
Staff Sgt. Aubrey McDade Jr. is one of several Marines who earned the Navy Cross for valor in the ugly urban fighting that occurred in Fallujah, Iraq. On Nov. 11, 2004, Marines from his platoon in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., were ambushed in an alley by insurgents armed with machine guns and small arms. In the opening seconds of the engagement, three Marines were seriously wounded and others were pinned down under fire.
McDade, then a sergeant and machine gun squad leader, rushed from the rear of his element toward the kill zone and gave orders to his Marines to provide suppressing fire on the enemy fighters. Several attempts to reach the wounded Marines were driven back, but McDade refused to give up, dashing through the alley three times under intense fire to recover the casualties, according to his award citation. His actions saved the lives of two of them, it says.
McDade received the Navy Cross for his actions that day while serving as a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C., three years later. His tour at the recruit depot was cut short, however, when his chain of command decided he was pushing recruits too hard, he said. He was cut orders to Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., rather than finishing his three-year stint at Parris Island.
“I lost sight of the mission of the Marine Corps,” McDade told Marine Corps Times. “Coming straight to the depot from the battlefield, I thought I could train recruits better than they were being trained. I should have been trying to make sure they were basic-trained, rather than training them for combat. The Marine Corps saw it best that I should go back to the fleet, so I did two deployments and here I am again.”
By that, McDade means that he is again a DI. He graduated as the honor graduate from his DI school this spring, and will soon be on the drill field at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego after recovering from a recent surgery. He has unfinished business in making Marines, he said, and likes to think the recruits he will train could someday become senior enlisted Marines or officers.
McDade said he wears the Navy Cross for all the Marines who “made the ultimate sacrifice” in combat, and still struggles with some of the things he saw while at war. He drapes a cloth over a table in his home from November until January, when 1/8 saw some of its stiffest combat. He lights a candle for each Marine in Bravo Company who died.
“It’s just a part of me,” he said. “It’s something I deal with. I don’t think it will ever be easy. I don’t think it will ever be over.”
As a DI, McDade wears his ribbon rack regularly. He does not have a predefined way that he handles questions about the Navy Cross, but said he is a people person and does not have any difficulty with it. He described an interaction earlier this year with an older man he met in a store on base.
“I looked up and I looked at the guy and he just hugged me. And he said, ‘Thank you,’ ” McDade said. “I looked at him and said, ‘Sir, I wasn’t the drill instructor for your kid,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I know — but that’s a Navy Cross on your chest.’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’
“He was about to start crying, and I said, ‘Sir, don’t do that in here.’ And he said, ‘No, brother, I just want you to know that I understand. Thank you for your service.’ I was at a loss for words. I didn’t know what else to say.”
‘I could feel their eyes’
Master Sgt. Brian Blonder earned the Navy Cross for actions in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2008. Then a gunnery sergeant, he was platoon sergeant for a Force Reconnaissance unit attached to 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, as it faced fierce combat in southwestern Afghanistan.
Blonder, now the reconnaissance and surveillance training specialist at Marine Corps headquarters, and his platoon were dispatched to the Taliban-held village of Shewan in Farah province on Aug. 8, 2008. The Marines came under intense fire from rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns that destroyed a vehicle and trapped several Marines in a kill zone about 150 meters from the enemy, according to his award citation.
Blonder’s platoon commander at the time, Capt. Byron Owen, told Marine Corps Times in 2011 that Blonder responded “like a gunslinger,” dropping an RPG gunner from about 100 yards away with his rifle. Over the next eight hours, the Marines remained in heavy combat, and Blonder led a flanking attack through a hail of fire on heavily armed insurgents in a trench. He is credited with being a driving force in the battle in which the Marines killed more than 50 enemy fighters and forced others to abandon the battlefield.
The fight yielded numerous valor awards, including three Silver Stars, but Blonder was singled out above the others. He received the Navy Cross in May 2011 in a ceremony attended by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and a number of the Marines he fought alongside that day.
“When I was up there actually receiving the medal from Secretary Mabus ... I could feel their eyes watching me,” he said of his fellow Marines. “It’s a tremendous responsibility, I think, to be a Navy Cross recipient. Not because of anything I did, but I feel like the medal is a representation of those Marines that day, and on numerous other days on battlefields in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where guys showed a lot of valor, a lot of sacrifice and a lot of heart. They gave their all, and it’s a representation of those actions.”
Blonder also wears a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor in another battle a few months later, on Oct. 27, 2008. In that engagement, the Marines targeted a compound in Helmand province’s Now Zad district where insurgents were making improvised explosive devices. In that mission, his vehicle hit an IED that killed his intelligence officer, 1st Lt. Trevor Yurista.
“I use the attention from the medal to try to tell the stories of Marines that I think are sometimes lost,” Blonder said of the Navy Cross. “You know, heroic actions on the battlefield go unnoticed because it’s commonplace.”
Not all Navy Cross recipients are able to shoulder the responsibilities that Blonder describes. Nearly 25 percent of the present-day honorees died in combat.
Most famously, they include Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was put up for the Medal of Honor by the Marine Corps for saving the lives of several Marines in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004.
Then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates declined to award him the Medal of Honor in 2008, saying forensic evidence did not prove conclusively that Peralta, who already had been hit in the head with a ricocheting round, had the cognitive ability to cover the grenade before it exploded. His family has refused to accept the Navy Cross, and Marines across the country have rallied around them.
Five other recipients earned the award in Iraq, four of whom died in the actions for which they were recognized. The fifth, Lance Cpl. Christopher Adlesperger, was a private first class on Nov. 10, 2004, when his squad was ambushed while clearing buildings of insurgents. He is credited with braving machine gun fire to allow wounded members of his squad to be evacuated, killing several insurgents in the process with his M203 grenade launcher and his rifle.
He, too, was nominated for the Medal of Honor, according to a 2006 report in the Los Angeles Times, but ultimately received the Navy Cross posthumously. He died Dec. 9, 2004, after he was mortally wounded in another operation — a month after the heroic actions that saved his fellow Marines.
Cpl. Michael Ouellette’s mother, Donna, said she still hears regularly from the Marines who served with her fallen son. He died March 22, 2009, in Now Zad, Afghanistan, after stepping on an improvised explosive device.
Michael Ouellette is credited with directing his squad to prepare a hasty defense from an ambush while treating his own traumatic injuries. Ouellette then guided his radio operator through the process of calling for fires from attack helicopters that arrived on the scene, while his corpsman worked on him. He succumbed to his injuries shortly afterward — but not before guiding his Marines out of chaos.
Ouellette’s family has become active in charity work in his home state of New Hampshire, including the Easter Seals, which provides assistance to individuals with disabilities or special needs and their families. The fund set up in the fallen Marine’s name specifically benefits service members, veterans and their loved ones, Ouellette’s mother said.
The work done in Cpl. Ouellette’s name doesn’t bring him back, but it does give the family a chance to honor him, she said.
“I guess the real reason we do it,” she said, “is to find a way to make some good come from something so horrible.”
Handling the responsibilities
LeHew is now the senior enlisted adviser at Training and Education Command at Quantico. Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett selected him for the post in the two-star command earlier this year — a significant boost, considering he worked previously for a colonel at 3rd Marine Regiment in Hawaii.
As one of the first Navy Cross recipients of the post-9/11 era, LeHew said he was “totally ill-prepared” for the attention that goes with the award in the Marine Corps. He credits members of the Legion of Valor, an organization comprising past recipients of the Medal of Honor and the service crosses, with providing him guidance on how to handle it.
“They kind of helped me understand what kind of responsibilities that I was probably going to find as people found out [I was] a holder of the Navy Cross,” he said. “They kind of helped me through, you know, ‘Some people are going to want certain things [from you], and you’re going to have to be very careful with that. And they’re going to want your endorsement on things.’ ”
LeHew said he has written notes to subsequent Navy Cross recipients offering support.
He believes that even more Marines could have received the award for actions early this century if senior Marines had written up awards differently.
“The simple fact is, nobody even knew how to write up any of that stuff, and it never crossed anybody’s mind,” LeHew said. “ … If I’m writing, and I look back at what I wrote in my hip-pocket notebook in the middle of combat on some of these guys, my guys are wearing [Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medals with “V”] for what some guys got Silver Stars for that were out there.
“Nobody knew how to write up a Silver Star. Nobody knew what the left and right lateral limits for any of that were.”
The sergeant major said he is actually more proud of his Bronze Star with “V” than his Navy Cross. He earned it as a first sergeant with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, in August 2004 as it engaged in heavy fighting in the city of Najaf, Iraq. He was the senior enlisted adviser for the unit’s Charlie Company, and earned the award fighting alongside Marines he still admires, he said.
“Even in those crappy situations, the stuff that you saw other people doing — the young Marines around you, the corpsmen, and everything else — those memories that you’re really so proud of sort of subdue those other memories.”