Friday, December 31, 2010

The Last Six Seconds

On Nov 13, 2010 Lt General John Kelly, USMC gave a speech to the
Semper Fi Society of St. Louis, MO. This was 4 days after his son, Lt
Robert Kelly, USMC was killed by an IED while on his 3rd Combat tour.
During his speech, General Kelly spoke about the dedication and valor
of the young men and women who step forward each and every day to
protect us.
During the speech, he never mentioned the loss of his own son.
He closed the speech with the moving account of the last 6 seconds
in the lives of 2 young Marines who died with rifles blazing to protect
their brother Marines.

"I will leave you with a story about the kind of people they
are...about the quality of the steel in their backs...about the kind of
dedication they bring to our country while they serve in uniform and
forever after as veterans. Two years ago when I was the Commander of all U.S.
and Iraqi forces, in fact, the 22nd of April 2008, two Marine
infantry battalions, 1/9 "The Walking Dead," and 2/8 were switching out
in Ramadi. One battalion in the closing days of their deployment
going home very soon, the other just starting its seven-month combat

Two Marines, Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan
Haerter, 22 and 20 years old respectively, one from each battalion, were
assuming the watch together at the entrance gate of an outpost that
contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines. The same broken down
ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, also my men and our
allies in the fight against the terrorists in Ramadi, a city until
recently the most dangerous city on earth and owned by Al Qaeda.

Yale was a dirt poor mixed-race kid from Virginia with a wife and daughter, and a mother and sister who lived with him and he supported as well. 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 America's exist
simultaneously depending on one's race, education level,
economic status, and where you might have been born. But they were
Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible of Marine training,
and because of this bond they were brothers as close, or closer,
than if they were born of the same woman.

The mission orders they received from the sergeant squad leader
I am sure went something like: "Okay you two clowns, stand this post
and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass." "You clear?" I am
also sure Yale and Haerter then rolled their eyes and said in unison
something like: "Yes Sergeant," with just enough attitude that
made the point without saying the words, "No kidding sweetheart, we know
what we're doing." 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 alley
way-perhaps 60-70 yards in length-and sped its way through the serpentine of concrete jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the
two were posted and detonated, killing them both catastrophically.
Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A
mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck's engine came to rest two
hundred yards away knocking most of a house down before it stopped. Our
explosive experts reckoned the blast was made of 2,000 pounds of
explosives. Two died, and because these two young infantrymen
didn'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 about the incident a few hours
after it happened I called the regimental commander for details as
something about this struck me as different. Marines dying or being
seriously wounded is commonplace in combat. 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-just Iraqi police. I figured if there was any chance of
finding out what actually happened and then to decorate the two Marines
to acknowledge their bravery, I'd have to do it as a combat award
that requires two eye-witnesses 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. The blue truck
turned down into the alley and immediately sped up as it made its way
through the serpentine. They all said, "We knew immediately what was
going on as soon as the two Marines began firing." The Iraqi police then
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, "They'd run like any normal man would to save his life." "What
he didn't know until then," he said, "and what he learned that very
instant, was that Marines are not normal." Choking past the
emotion he said, "Sir, in the name of God no sane man would have stood
there and done what they did." "No sane man." "They saved us all."

What we didn't know at the time, and only learned a couple of
days later after I wrote a summary and submitted both Yale and Haerter for
posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras,
damaged initially in the blast, recorded some of the suicide attack. It
happened exactly as the Iraqis had described it. It took exactly
six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it

You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. Putting
myself in their heads I supposed 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. Exactly
no time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should
Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the
sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: "...let no
unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass." The two Marines had about five
seconds left to live.

It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their
weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time the truck was half-way
through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. 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. They had three seconds left to live.

For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines'
weapons firing non-stop...the truck's windshield exploding into shards
of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore in to the body of the
son-of-a-bitch who is trying to get past them to kill theirbrothers -
American and Iraqi-bedded down in the barracks totally
unaware of the fact that their lives at that moment depended entirely on
two Marines standing their ground. If they had been aware, they
would have known they were safe...because two Marines stood between them and a crazed suicide bomber. The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the
instantaneous violence Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all
reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even
started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their
feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing
as fast as they could work their weapons. They had only one second left
to live.

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...into
eternity. That is the kind of people who are on watch all over
the world tonight-for you.

We Marines believe that God gave America the greatest gift he
could bestow to man while he lived on this earth-freedom. We also
believe he gave us another gift nearly as precious-our soldiers, sailors,
airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines-to safeguard that gift and
guarantee no force on this earth can every steal it away. It has been my
distinct honor to have been with you here today. Rest assured our
America, this experiment in democracy started over two centuries ago, will
forever remain the "land of the free and home of the brave" so long as
we never run out of tough young Americans who are willing to look beyond
their own self-interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest
and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down, and kill, those who
would do us harm.


Nana said...

Thank you for this post. It is exquisetly poignent.

Nana said...

Thanks for this post. Spare & elequent, the epitome of eternal valor.