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Marco Martinez

U.S. Marine Corps / Navy Cross

'No matter where you were, there was someone shooting
at you. It was just pure hell.'

Pinned down in the courtyard by enemy fire coming from inside the house, Cpl. Marco Martinez and several of his Marines hid behind palm trees and returned fire. One Marine took a bullet and collapsed like a sack of bricks, alive but paralyzed.

Due to the heavy fire, the Marines couldn’t risk exposing themselves to reach their fallen comrade. That’s when Martinez glanced to his right and spotted a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, which had belonged to an insurgent who had been killed.

“I picked up the RPG not knowing how to shoot it,” Martinez recalled. “I had only seen them in pictures and in movies. I picked it up, and in about 30 seconds I learned how to shoot it.”

The grenade launcher malfunctioned twice during his quick tutorial under fire, Martinez said. “Then finally I figured out exactly what was wrong with it and shot it through the house.”

The explosion temporarily stunned those inside, allowing the squad to rescue two wounded Marines. It was just one episode in a series of confrontations on April 12, 2003, in which Martinez took the lead in the town of Tarmiya, 18 miles north of Baghdad.

Before the battle broke out, Martinez had a bad feeling about Tarmiya as he huddled with 18 fellow squad members in the dark, confined space of their armored personnel carrier. His platoon from G Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines was assigned as the reconnaissance team to scout the area.

“As soon as we got into the area you felt this weird electricity in the air, like something was not right,” Martinez said.

Sure enough, as their vehicles stopped and squad members dismounted, they came under heavy fire from enemy mortars, the air thick with the suffocating smell of smoke and gunpowder.

“There were so many enemy bullets clinking on our armored (carrier) that it sounded like a Vegas slot machine that had hit the jackpot,” Martinez recalled. “We took two wounded right off the bat.

“There were terrorists everywhere. No matter where you were, where you were stepping, there was someone shooting at you. It was just pure hell.”

Martinez’s 2nd Squad and the 1st and 3rd squads were assigned to clear Fedayeen Saddam fighters from a row of houses. The Fedayeen, paramilitary loyal to Saddam Hussein, were heavily armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

One lobbed a grenade that severely wounded Martinez’s squad leader. Martinez shot the attacker as he fled. With Martinez assuming squad leader duties, the unit engaged a group of fighters hidden behind a tree line. As the Fedayeen began to retreat, Martinez and his men cut them down.

Martinez and four other Marines then entered the first house, which was filled with the enemy. Moving room to room through the three-story house, the Marines systematically cleared it out, eliminating about 15 Fedayeen.

Following a too-brief respite in the courtyard after Martinez fired the grenade launcher, gunfire again came from the house.

“So I charged at that house by myself, firing my weapon until all my ammo was gone,” he said. “By the grace of God I was not hit.”

Martinez grabbed a grenade “and threw it in the window and the grenade detonated, killing some of the terrorists inside the room, and then I went inside the house and cleared out the remaining terrorists.”

Martinez and his men eliminated an estimated 75 enemy fighters.

Martinez was awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor that can be given to a Marine. He was the first Hispanic American to receive that award since the Vietnam War.

James C. Roberts is president of the American Veterans Center. From 1968 to 1971 he served as a naval officer aboard the destroyer USS Henderson.

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Sgt. Marco Martinez, now a student at Cal State Fullerton, wrote a book on his rise from a gang member to military hero. (Photo by Steven Barston)

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Marco Martinez

U.S. Marine Corps / Navy Cross

Born Sept. 6, 1981, in Las Cruces, N.M. Now lives in Los Angeles.

Joined the Marine Corps on June 25, 2000, deployed to Iraq on Feb. 15, 2003. Was assigned to 2nd Squad, 1st Platoon, G Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Was a corporal at the time of the incident, later was promoted to sergeant.

Wrote a book, “Hard Corps: From Gangster to Marine Hero," in which he described his teen years as a gang member before joining the military.

Took charge of his squad after its leader was wounded, leading a fierce fight against Fedayeen forces during a reconnaissance mission in a town north of Baghdad. Taught himself under fire to use a captured grenade launcher and turned the weapon onto the enemy, buying time to rescue two wounded Marines.

Martinez is a full-time student at Cal State Fullerton.

“My dad being a soldier in the Army only fueled my desire to serve. When I was in ninth grade a Marine Corps recruiter visited my high school. I was so impressed by him that I decided to join the Marine Corps when I was old enough.”

Iraq / Baghdad To Balad

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