When 15 heavily armed insurgents stormed Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, last year, killing two Marines and laying waste to six AV-8B Harriers, Maj. Robb McDonald and his comrades rushed toward the sound of the guns.
McDonald, the executive officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, a Harrier unit out of Yuma, Ariz., said it was chaotic, the black night lit by explosions, the crack of small-arms and machine-gun fire and the pop of rocket-propelled grenades reverberating across the air field. What’s more, it was some distance from the Marines’ billeting area to the squadron’s part of the flight line. Early on , as they raced up the line, the chance of getting hit by friendly fire was almost as high as the likelihood of falling victim to the enemy attack.
But the prior-enlisted Marine had an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon. This was not his first firefight. Before earning his commission and becoming a Harrier pilot, McDonald spent several years in the reconnaissance community. He flew combat missions in Iraq but later joined the Marine Corps’ special operations community and deployed to Afghanistan three times as part of Marine special operations teams. He served in various capacities, including as a joint tactical air controller.
After his squadron’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, was mortally wounded, McDonald took charge, risking his life to lead several groups of Marines away from an aluminum maintenance building that could have become a death trap. He later shot and killed one of the attackers, and directed two helicopter strikes that killed several others.
Just one of the 15 insurgents survived the Marines’ response to the assault Sept. 14, 2012. And two Marine generals were asked to retire as a result.
In recognition of his heroism, McDonald — now the air officer for 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion — received the Silver Star on Dec. 9 at Camp Pendleton, Calif. It goes right next to his two Bronze Stars with “V” device, Purple Heart and eight Air Medals.
Here is his take on the battle:
Q. How do you think your diverse career — ranging from recon, to MARSOC, to pilot, to JTAC — prepared you for this incident.
A. The most helpful thing was the actual ground combat that I have been involved in. The first gunfight you are in, you are not really as tuned in to how to operate as you are on the 20th or 30th gunfight. So being exposed to a whole lot of that in three ground tours in Afghanistan with MARSOC — it prepped me.
Q. This was such a big base, was there a sense that you could end up in a fight?
A. It was very unexpected that the base would get overrun. I was not expecting something like that to happen on this tour. On my other combat flight tours in Iraq at Al Asad air base, you might get rocketed here and there, maybe some mortars. But I didn’t expect anybody to be coming through the wire and running around causing mayhem.
Q. When it kicked off, was it clear it was enemy action?
A. It was immediately clear it was enemy action. The explosions, the huge fires, the small-arms fire and the machine gun fire. I could also hear RPGs popping off, so it was very clear.
Q. What was the first thing that went through your head?
A. The first thing that I thought was to get up to our section of the flight line. I could see there was fighting going on there, and there was not fighting going on where I was at the time down in billeting — our little housing area.
Q. Tell us the next step you took to get up there and help address the situation?
A. I went into the area where our guys were billeted. I made sure that everybody was holed up in there and that they had a plan to stay there and keep everybody safe. Then I told them I was going to the flight line.
A captain [Pete Abramovs] and a chief warrant officer [Joe Ball] volunteered to go as I was leaving. So we started bounding up from squadron to squadron. Going through the squadrons was pretty hairy. It was a really chaotic environment. Every time you went up to a squadron, you had everyone pointing their weapons at you, screaming and yelling. The potential for friendly fire was pretty extreme. In the dead space between the squadrons, there were bad people running around.
Q. Can you summarize the actions of some of the other Marines?
A. The first example is those two guys who volunteered to go with me. They were ready to run toward the sound of guns. That was brave. They knew the risk you were taking to run a mile through that mess.
Lieutenant Colonel [Christopher] Raible, right when the fight started, jumped in a vehicle. He grabbed two guys and went right into it, pulled his gun and was trying to coordinate a counterattack when he got killed. I thought that was pretty brave.
We had another Marine, Captain Kevin Smalley. He is incredibly intelligent, and that really came out that night. There was our headquarters building. There was one Marine in there. She was by herself. She was an intelligence Marine, and she had all the secret equipment in there. She called over to the hangar building where Captain Smalley was and said there were people banging on the doors — she could hear things outside. So Smalley grabbed three guys and said, “Let’s go.” They ran through everything back to the headquarters building to secure it.
Then he started making contact with our higher echelons of command, telling them what was going on. After I got there, accountability was one of the first things I wanted to make sure we took care of. So he somehow got into the admin shop, which was locked, got personnel rosters and started figuring out who was on day crew and night crew. He was moving and shaking and securing the headquarters building, doing all that coordination. That guy is a rock star. He hasn’t been properly recognized at all through this whole thing, and I feel real bad about that.
Then you had Staff Sergeant [Jesse] Colburn along with Lance Corporals [Joshua] Weekly and [Derek] Jenkins. Basically we needed to finish the fight and try to get rid of those [bad] guys on that flight line. I said I need three volunteers, and they just immediately popped their hands up. Staff Sergeant Colburn actually went toward the flight line with me, and I told him to face north as I went south, and I told him, “If you hear anything and I start shooting, you keep facing north, because I don’t want someone coming up behind us and shooting us both.” When I started shooting it out with those guys, he didn’t even turn around. The two lance corporals who were in a position I had put them in ... they were very well-disciplined.
Q. Given there were Marines responding with courage and discipline — many from the aviation community — what’s your take on the rivalry we’ve seen in the past between infantry Marines and noninfantry Marines?
A. The guys in the air wing, they receive their weapons and tactics training at boot camp and their follow on [Marine Combat Training] and that is it. After that they are just turning wrenches. The grunts, they are constantly doing this stuff. So it is more second nature to the grunts. The courage that they have though is the same. Maybe their responses and actions may not be as quick, but their willingness to stand and fight are the same.
Q. Do you and the Marines around you feel like the right steps were taken in the aftermath to hold people accountable and figure out where the gaps were?
A. I really don’t have an opinion on that one way or another. I really think Major General [Charles] Gurganus and Major General [Gregg] Sturdevant are great men, both of them. I don’t know. I really haven’t delved into the investigation enough.
Q. There is rumor floating around, regarding your attire during the fire fight. Were you wearing silkies?
A. I was initially just wearing silkies — silkies and a pistol. And then I ended up borrowing a flight suit and some boots. But when I left my room that was all I had on.
Q. How did you regain control of the base?
A. There were the two skids overhead, the Cobra and the Huey. They were close air support pros.
Going out on the flight line there were four guys on one end and then one guy to the north that were alive — still a threat. I engaged the four guys. Killed one and wounded the other three. Then they got their machine gun. Started firing back, kicked up some concrete. I knew the three guys I had wounded weren’t moving. I could tell by the noises they were making. They were messed up, but I couldn’t get good angles on them.
So, calling in the helicopters, they got back to me right away. I talked them onto these guys and within about 30 seconds they had their eyes on them. They ended up doing two gun runs on the guys and killed them right away. And it was danger close. They were shooting right on top of us, and none of my guys got clipped by anything. Then there was just the one guy left to the north, who I shot a little later when the [quick reaction force] got there and didn’t want to move forward because I told them he was up there. They wanted to stop, so I went ahead and shot that guy. And that was it.