There were two big news stories about Marines last week, perhaps you saw them. The first, an amazing story, was about Dakota Meyer, the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Meyer, without a doubt, deserved our nation’s highest valor award — but he never should have gotten it.
The incident that became a six-hour fight, started on September 8, 2009 in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. A group of American and Afghan troops went to meet with tribal elders, only to be ambushed along the way. Meyer and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez were about a mile away from the pinned down troops and could hear the ambush over the radio. One Marine said over the radio, “We are going to die out here,” and still commanders denied requests for extra firepower, helicopters and backup troops, according to the summary of an investigation into the incident. Several of the group of American and Afghan troops had already been killed when Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez asked for permission to go in and help them. Four times they asked, and you can only imagine their helpless frustration as four times they were denied, being told each time that going in would be too dangerous and an airstrike would put Afghan civilians at risk.
But, defying orders, Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez jumped into their Humvee and went in anyway, with Meyer manning a the turret gun. They began rescuing the wounded and carrying them to a safer spot from which they could be medievaced. They made five trips in all, venturing back into heavy fire each time and — eventually — being joined by just other American troops who aided in the rescue. All told, Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez saved the lives of 13 U.S. Marines and soldiers and 23 Afghan soldiers. Rodriguez-Chavez received the Navy Cross, the second-highest valor decoration awarded to Marines. Meyer is credited with killing at least eight members of the Taliban. Still, four members of Meyer’s team, his buddies, died: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, Petty Officer Third Class James Layton and Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, and for that Meyer says he feels like a failure.
Of course, we know that Meyer is far from a failure, but there were many failures that day, largest among them the failure of Meyer’s commanders to act with even a fraction of the bravery Meyer showed. For him and Rodriguez-Chavez to have to listen to their friends die on the radio, knowing they were only a mile away, and to be denied — FOUR TIMES! — permission to help, is a colossal leadership failure and a confidence killer for all American troops. We should certainly try to minimize civilian casualties, but American military leaders should never ignore their own troops pleas for help in order to protect Afghans. Meyer most certainly deserves the Medal of Honor, and then some, but he should have never been in the position to earn it. Air support might have kept his friends alive and prevented Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez from having to defy orders in order to act with honor — but their commanders didn’t have anywhere near their courage. The investigation report called the actions of key leaders at the battalion level “inadequate and ineffective, contributing directly to the loss of life that ensued.” Thankfully, one of the investigation’s recommendations was “when in doubt, our bias must be to support troops in contact.”
And then there was another story, a far different story, about a Marine also in the news this week. It is a sad story on so many levels but, like Meyer’s story, the theme of those in charge refusing to act is the same.
This story involves Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, a young man whose present appeared to him to be so grim that he chose to surrender his future in order to escape. Lew, in the pre-dawn hours of April 3, put the barrel of his gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger, ending his life and bringing on untold heartbreak for all who loved him.
Lew’s story might have ended as another tragic and frustratingly incomprehensible suicide had he just been a regular lance corporal. But he was a lance corporal who happens to have a aunt in Congress, and so his death has now turned into a scandal, one that likely won’t end until someone is made to pay. Unfortunately, those someones will likely be the wrong people.
Here’s what happened: Four months into his deployment to Afghanistan, Lew was sent to join a squad at Patrol Base Gowragi — a remote outpost in the Helmand province. For those not familiar with Afghanistan, the Helmand Province is pretty much the worst place you can be. It is the home of the Taliban and tends to be the scene of some of the fiercest fighting, including the infamous “surge” that has claimed the lives of so many Marines this year. Furthermore, a “Patrol Base” is far different than a “base.” At the big bases there are thousands of people, tremendous amounts of security and even fun ways for bored troops to bide their time. At a Patrol Base the man power is much slimmer and all are called on to perform a variety of functions. There are no Burger Kings or karaoke nights; just fighting, sleeping and guard duty shifts.
On the very day that Lew got to Gowragi, enemy forces attacked — and Lew, assigned to guard duty, fell asleep. He was only at Gowragi for 10 days, the last 10 days of his life as it turns out, and he fell asleep during guard duty on four of those days. The Marines he was working with were, undoubtedly, furious and frustrated with him. Falling asleep during guard duty is a big deal as it can get everyone on the base killed. It is dereliction of duty in the purest sense.
The other Marines at Gowragi reported the problems with Lew to their commanders and they tried several ideas, like taking Lew off patrols so he could get more rest, in an attempt to remedy the problem. They even asked that Lew be removed from Gowragi and replaced with somebody else. The platoon’s commander, 1st Lt. Jameson Payne, testified that removing Lew from the outpost wasn’t an option.
“There was no reserve of Marines to replace a Marine who was tired. Everyone was tired,” Payne said at the Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding.Only Lew wasn’t simply tired, he was depressed — something that is probably evident to everyone involved now and seems to jump through the headlines in all the stories about his death. Tired Marines can sip a 5-hour energy drink and make it through a guard shift but even extra sleep and constant pressure from his peers wasn’t enough for Lew to stay awake. He fell asleep again on guard duty on April 2nd, the last full day of his life. This time, knowing that there was no chance of getting another Marine to replace Lew, the other Marines decided to fix the situation themselves. The squad leader, Sgt. Benjamin Johns, made Lew dig a foxhole deep enough to stand in, saying that if he had to stand up for guard duty he’d be less likely to fall asleep. Then, after 2 a.m., Lance Cpl. Charles Orozco III told Lew to do push-ups, crunches and planks and made Lew hoist a sandbag while exercising. When the sandbag broke, Orozco allegedly picked it up and poured it over Lew.
Lance Cpl. Jacob Jacoby is also charged kicking and punching Lew, though other Marines intervened and told Jacoby to stop, and he did. Johns, Jacoby and Orozco each faces possible charges of wrongfully abusing, humiliating and demeaning Lew.
Lew’s aunt, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu of California, issued the following statement: “Harry’s death was a tragedy that could have been prevented. He was a patriotic American who volunteered to serve his country. No one deserves being hazed and tortured like he was, especially by (those) who are supposed to be fighting on the same side of the war. The military justice system must hold any wrongdoers accountable.”
I disagree, in part. What Chu calls “hazing” and “torture” sounds more to me like “being in the military” and more specifically like the sort of corrective actions non-commissioned officers take every day to groom troops. Th0ugh it is clear Lance Cpl. Jacoby crossed the line in kicking and punching Lew, the other actions (digging the foxhole and exercise) sound more like what we in the Army world know as “smoking.” Go to any Army post today and you’re likely to find someone getting “smoked” i.e., doing push ups or more creative exercises, in an attempt for someone to teach him to never make the same mistake again. “Hazing” is something more sinister. It exists for two reasons only: To increase the bond between people being hazed, and for the amusement of the abusers. No one was being smoked with Lew, so no one was hazing him as a bond-building exercise. As for amusement, I have no doubt that those Marines at a remote outpost in the middle of Taliban country during the troop surge were not at all amused by Lew. They didn’t punish him for their own amusement and they certainly weren’t amused when he repeatedly fell asleep on watch and put all their lives in danger. Lew got smoked, not hazed, because the Marines there with him were at their wits’ ends with a guy who kept putting their lives in danger. They just wanted to impress upon him how important it was to stay awake.
But I say that I disagree only in part because I do agree with Chu that the wrongdoers, if there were any in this case, should be held accountable. An investigation should take place into why Lew was sent to Gowragi, for starters, especially if he had shown any earlier signs of having trouble coping. And an investigation should look into what, if anything, the higher ups could have done to replace Lew with someone better suited to the assignment once it was clear that his condition wasn’t improving with more rest.
But the Marines at Gowragi were trained to fight the enemy, they weren’t trained as psychologists. They had no way of knowing that their time honored — and long effective — corrective measures would push a comrade past his breaking point. And they shouldn’t be punished for a mistake that likely happened well above their pay grades.