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Justin D. LeHew

U.S. Marine Corps / Navy Cross

Under heavy fire, Marine coordinated the rescue and evacuation of several troops

The Iraqi rifle fire had intensified, and as Gunnery Sgt. Justin LeHew ordered his amphibious assault vehicle forward, he wondered: “Who are these guys?”

The Marines had been briefed that they would find Nasiriyah peaceful, with the inhabitants “fishing off the bridges.” But on March 23, 2003, the Marines found the Iraqis too busy shooting at them to be catching any fish.

Thirty minutes earlier, an American Humvee and two trucks had careened out of the city toward the advancing Marine tanks. An Army officer leaped from the Humvee, screaming about the trucks and troops he had left behind. He was the commander of the 507th Maintenance Unit, and his soldiers needed help. He had led 18 vehicles and 33 soldiers into the city but had left 15 vehicles and 27 soldiers behind.

The officer eventually calmed down enough to provide some rough information about where his troops might be found. And LeHew, platoon sergeant, Amphibious Assault Battalion for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, got the call to find them.

Driving forward in two amphibious assault vehicles, called amtracs, LeHew’s platoon found one group of Army soldiers 200 yards off the road. They had circled to surround their wounded in the middle. LeHew’s corpsman, Alex Velasquez, leaped out and began treating the badly wounded as the soldiers’ fire kept the Iraqis at bay.

LeHew hustled the wounded soldiers into the safety of his amtrac as his other amtrac found another group of soldiers, also with casualties, and began to load them.

The Iraqis were firing from set positions only 300 meters away, so LeHew jumped back into his vehicle’s turret and began laying down heavy fire from the .50-caliber machine gun.

This fight couldn’t continue, however, as the backs of his vehicles were jammed with wounded soldiers who needed the safety of the Marine lines.

After delivering the soldiers to safety, Alpha Company was ordered to continue the attack into the city. LeHew’s unit again headed north, but the Iraqi defense stiffened as the Marines entered the city: Rocket-propelled grenades spiraled past the Marine vehicles and exploded on the road; enemies jumped out from low-slung buildings, firing their AK-47s and then dashing back to safety.

As the Marines began to dig in, the Iraqis came at them in waves. Taxicabs drove up, and young military-age men leaped out and fired.

Marine helicopter gun ships arrived, firing rockets and machine guns into groups of Iraqi soldiers. The city was ablaze in multiple spots when suddenly two Abrams tanks added to the fury, their main guns turning buildings into rubble.

LeHew spotted an amtrac crawling down the road toward the Marine position, its rear ramp bouncing off the road and throwing off sparks. Two RPGs snaked through the air toward it; both hit, and a tremendous explosion rocked the 23-ton vehicle.

“I knew things were serious when a young Marine fell out the back, and he was on fire,” LeHew said.

The amtrac slowed to a rolling halt, and as burning Marines stumbled and climbed out, LeHew and a medic sprinted across the street to help.

“There was diesel fuel sloshing all over,” LeHew recalled, “and fire was burning next to the ammunition.”

They kept digging and found a Marine alive beneath a dead body. More Marines charged across the road to help free the trapped Marine, but it still took an hour to pull him from the twisted wreckage.

This Marine lived.

Andrew Lubin is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania who has embedded with the Marine Corps in Iraq; Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Beirut, Lebanon. He is the author of “Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq.”

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Gunnery Sgt. Justin LeHew's introduction to Nasiriyah, Iraq, was not what he expected, as he encountered a hostile group of Iraqis rather than the peaceful villagers he had been told would greet U.S. troops. (Photo courtesy of Justin LeHew)

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Justin D. LeHew

U.S. Marine Corps / Navy Cross

Born July 25, 1970, in Columbus Grove, Ohio.

Wife, Cynthia; daughter, Aisley.

Enlisted in July 1988; deployed to Iraq in January 2003. A career Marine, he also fought in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Rescued and evacuated injured soldiers trapped by heavy enemy fire as Marines advanced into Nasiriyah during the first days of the Iraq war.

Promoted to sergeant major, he is with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

“I wanted to do something different with my life.”

Iraq / Nasiriyah

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