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Donnie Brazeal

U.S. Marine Corps / Bronze Star with Valor

In the heat of battle, Marine says, 'You'll do whatever you can to protect your family'

The enemy attack began just after 7 a.m., with several mortar rounds flying over the base, landing well outside its perimeter. Marines on guard duty reported some small-arms fire.

Suddenly a dump truck full of explosives headed full speed toward the base, its driver hoping to blow a hole in the perimeter. He was stopped short, the truck exploding 40 meters short of its target.

The blast on April 11, 2005, shook Camp Gannon, near Iraq’s border with Syria. Inside the command post, 1st Sgt. Donnie Brazeal, of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, quickly prepared for battle.

“Needless to say, it was pandemonium from the outset,” Brazeal recalled. “Multiple rockets, mortar rounds, machine-gun fire … you can imagine the turmoil.”

The dump truck that blew up was soon followed by an ambulance filled with explosives charging toward the base, followed by a fire truck. Miraculously, the Marines managed to stop both vehicles short. Had they reached the perimeter, the damage could have been devastating.

Brazeal heard the fire truck explode. Fearing that the base had been breached, he ran toward the sound. Instead he found several of his Marines in a bunker, pinned down by about a dozen heavily armed insurgents using a nearby wall as a barrier.

Instinctively, Brazeal grabbed a rocket launcher. Another Marine followed his lead, and they climbed atop a dirt barrier. Exposing himself to enemy fire, Brazeal fired the missile toward the enemy position. The insurgents, dazed by the blast, stopped shooting, allowing the pinned-down Marines to regroup.

“When you’re a first sergeant of a unit that big, you become very close with those Marines and sailors,” Brazeal recalled of what was going through his mind during those moments.

“Like any good father, you never want to see anything happen to your sons, so you’ll do whatever you can to protect your family.”

The Marines had become a second family to Brazeal. Many of his Marines were not even born when he joined in 1983, and he felt particularly responsible for their safety. India Company saw heavy action during its tour from January to September 2005, engaging the enemy nearly 280 times.

One such action noted on Brazeal’s medal citation describes when a rocket-propelled grenade flew toward the position where Brazeal and his company commander, then-Capt. Frank Diorio, stood.

Brazeal immediately knocked Diorio to the ground and covered him with his body, shielding him from the nearby blast.

“That man is my brother, let alone my C.O.,” Brazeal explained. “He was getting ready to have his first child, and I told his wife before we left, ‘At all costs he is coming home to see that child born.’ ”

Brazeal was awarded his Bronze Star in a surprise ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy on Jan. 27, 2007. In attendance were two Marines who had served under him at Camp Gannon. They had just returned from their tour. Rather than enjoy their first weekend at home, they made the trek to Annapolis, Md., to honor their first sergeant.

“As we say in the Marine Corps, no man is left behind, and they weren’t going to leave me at this moment,” Brazeal said of the ceremony. “I was very humbled and very proud.”

Tim Holbert is program director of the American Veterans Center in Arlington, Va.

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First Sgt. Donnie Brazeal proudly displays the flag of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, in Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Donnie Brazeal)

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Donnie Brazeal

U.S. Marine Corps / Bronze Star with Valor

Born May 11, 1965, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Now lives in Saverna Park, Md.

Married; one daughter and two stepchildren.

Joined the Marines on Jan. 22, 1983. Was assigned to India Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division. Had four tours of duty overseas – two to Iraq, including the “march up” to Baghdad in 2003, and two to Djibouti. In addition to his Bronze Star with Valor, he received a Navy Commendation with Valor during his initial tour to Iraq in 2003.

A nephew deployed to Iraq at the same time as Brazeal and served in Anbar province. He was wounded and received the Purple Heart but has recovered.

During an attack on his base, he silenced insurgents who had his men pinned down in a bunker.

Retired from the Marine Corps, he works for SRA International in Washington, D.C.

“I come from a military family. My father was a World War II and Korean War veteran. My brothers were both United States Marines, so from an early age I strived to be a part of the military.”

Iraq / Husaybah

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