U.S. Army Reserve / Bronze Star with Valor
His predecessor dead during an ambush, Army medic saved a soldier's life amid heavy fire
Blasted by a roadside bomb, the last truck in the convoy flew into the air and landed on its side. The gunner ran out of the dust cloud shrouding the M1117 armored security vehicle while the driver crawled out through a hole.
Two trucks ahead, Staff Sgt. John Marra Jr. grabbed his rifle and medical bag and jumped down from the turret as enemy small-arms fire peppered the wreckage. His unit, the 303rd Military Police Company, had lost its medic, killed in an ambush three weeks earlier. On Oct. 24, 2007, with the unit nearing the end of a 13-month Iraq deployment, this would be Marra’s first time going it alone in her place.
“I ran, apparently under a lot of gunfire,” Marra said. “I could hear it at the time, but I didn’t know it was skipping off the ground all around me.”
When he reached the overturned truck, he found one soldier dead and another trapped. Further exposing himself to enemy fire, Marra jumped onto the passenger-side door, now the top of the truck.
Still alive inside, but in bad shape, was Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Blaxton, the squad leader.
“The armored doors are 500-plus pounds,” Marra said. “Another one of our soldiers, Staff Sgt. Christopher Riley, jumped up to help me, and we held the door open while we lifted (Blaxton) vertically out the door. He weighs 200 pounds with 60 or 70 pounds of body armor and his back was broken, so we were lifting dead weight. I did a brief check for pulse and breath, and there were no signs of life.”
Marra inserted a nasopharyngeal airway tube into Blaxton’s nasal passage to clear an opening. He immediately heard encouraging gurgling sounds of Blaxton attempting to breathe.
Marra’s job as a military police transition team leader in the Army Reserve was to train Iraqi police. He trained hundreds of Iraqis, and two of them came to his rescue that day in Bayji, an industrial city at the northern end of the notorious Sunni Triangle.
Marra and Riley loaded their critically injured squad leader into the back of the open-bed, non-armored Iraqi police truck and raced to the district police station for further medical help.
“We were trying to outrun the insurgents,” Marra said. “We were bouncing around every which way, winding in and out of alleys. I was in the back of the truck straddled on top of Blaxton, trying to cover his body while performing CPR and trying to insert an IV line.”
At the same time, Marra wondered about the Iraqis in the front of the truck. He had trained them, but were they trustworthy? It wouldn’t be the first time, he thought, if the drivers simply turned over their passengers to the enemy.
This time, the Marra-trained policemen delivered their cargo to safety. Blaxton survived and has since medically retired from the military. He has become a wheelchair athlete and is preparing to pursue a master’s degree in business administration.
Marra dismisses his act of heroism: “Anyone in my unit would have done the same thing. We’re trained to react the way we did that day. Your body takes over. The training is rigorous, and I don’t think I would have been able to do what I did that day without it.”
He also drew inspiration from the memory of Cpl. Rachel Hugo, the medic who had been killed. She died in Bayji, in a similar attack in almost the same location.
As Marra worked to save Blaxton, he recalled a “slow-motion second” in which he “looked over at the alley where we lost her. She’s the one who taught me to put in an airway. She was with all of us that day.”
Ellen N. Woods, a former staff editor at Military Officer magazine, is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Va.
U.S. Army Reserve / Bronze Star with Valor
A lifelong Michigan resident, he was born March 19, 1978, in Trenton.
Married to Kimberly, who began basic training in August before starting officer candidate school. They have one son, Nicholas.
Joined the Army Reserve on Sept. 11, 2004, and was deployed to Iraq from September 2006 to November 2007 with the 303rd Military Police Company, 785th Military Police Battalion, 300th Military Police Brigade. He has since been promoted to staff sergeant.
A cousin served one tour of duty in Iraq and was scheduled for a tour in Afghanistan.
WHAT HE DID
Exposing himself to enemy gunfire, he pulled a survivor from a bombed truck and administered life-saving medical aid during a mad dash to safety.
WHERE HE IS NOW
An unemployed autoworker, Marra plans to go to school through the GI Bill but now is a stay-at-home father in Brownstone, Mich., while his wife attends officer candidate school.
WHY HE JOINED THE ARMY
“I didn't have a great job, and it was really difficult to survive at that time. I thought a lot about joining the Army. … There were two wars going on, and Iraq was really flaring up. I didn't think it was fair that I would sit on the couch while other people were over there – young kids – fighting. That tied the knot for me.”
Iraq / Bayji