By Sgt. Michael Cifuentes, 1st Marine Division
What turned out to be a rough patrol for Marines became a story of heroism, complete with a sign of trust from Afghan allies.
Marines serving with 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, set off on a patrol during the nighttime hours of Feb. 23. Their mission was to drop off food, water, batteries, and other supplies to another squad of Marines who were set in a cordon for the night near Qual-e Now, a neighboring village in Khan Neshin district.
The chosen path required them to cross several canals. One waterway was bridged by tree branches that were almost submerged in the canal’s high, swiftly moving waters.
As he moved to cross the tree branch bridge, Lance Cpl. Christopher D. Bast, a fire team leader with 1st Platoon, fell in the canal up to his waist. Try as he might, Bast wasn’t able to reach the bottom of the canal to stand.
“When I fell in I initially felt like I was in shock, unable to say anything over a whisper,” said Bast, a 21-year-old native of Aliso Viejo, Calif.
Sgt. Erick Gutierrez, the squad leader, and Lance Cpl. Benjamin Nalls, the patrol’s point man, quickly snatched up Bast and dragged him out of the water.
The patrol continued on with their resupply mission – Bast now soaked from the waist down. The Marines dropped off the supplies to the squad in the cordon without further incident.
On the way back from the supply drop, the point man arrived at the canal that had given them problems earlier in the patrol. Marines searched for an alternate crossing point, not wanting to risk another member of the squad falling into the cold water.
Nalls was the first man to cross to the canal and, like all the Marines on the patrol, was equipped with more than 60 pounds of gear and body armor. He proceeded to cross with caution, but the bridge shifted, causing Nalls to fall in against the current. The strong current swept him under the bridge and his helmet caught on a tree branch protruding from underneath the bridge.
“I didn’t have time to think. I reached up, grabbed the bridge and pulled myself back up, but I could only get my head above the water,” said Nalls, a native of Stevensville, Mont. “I called out to my team leader, Cpl. Bagley, but I got sucked under and trapped under the bridge. All I remember thinking was, ‘It can’t happen like this. I can’t die like this.’”
He unfastened his helmet to free himself from the bridge, and the current swept him down the 9-foot-deep, 15-foot-wide canal. The Marines estimated the water was flowing at around 10 mph.
As he was swept down the canal, the current flipped his body several times, head-over-heals, underneath the water.
After being swept along for 50 meters, Nalls was finally able to reach for the canal bank where Bast and Cpl. Aaron Bagley, a fire team leader on the patrol, grabbed him out of the water. The current stripped him of his rifle as he was flipping underneath the water.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Meyers, the Navy corpsman on the patrol, rendered aid to Nalls as he began to vomit canal water.
The patrol continued across the bridge, but as Gutierrez crossed, he lost his footing and fell in. The canal swept him down immediately. Bast ran to grab Gutierrez by his armor carrier, but he only reached his handheld field radio and pulled it out.
Gutierrez continued down the canal. He was sinking under the weight of his gear and unable to keep his head above water.
“I was facing away from the canal looking into Lance Cpl. Nalls’ eyes with my pen light, who was facing the canal when I heard someone yell Sgt. Gutierrez’s name,” said Meyers, a native of Williams Bay, Wis. “Immediately, I shined my pen light over my right shoulder toward the canal to see Sgt. Gutierrez floating on his back down the canal. The only things visible were the front brim of his Kevlar [helmet], one of his hands and the toes of his boots indicating he was on his back.”
As soon as Meyer’s light hit Gutierrez in the canal, Meyers said he heard Nalls, who was still sitting in front of him, yell Gutierrez’s name.
“As I turned back toward Lance Cpl. Nalls, he was already running toward the canal and immediately jumped back into the canal up to his neck,” Meyers said. “The whole span of time, from the time my pen light hit Sgt. Gutierrez in the canal, to when Lance Cpl. Nalls jumped back into the canal, was probably less than four seconds.”
Nalls said he knew exactly what happened as soon as he heard everybody yelling his name and knew Gutierrez was in the same exact situation he had been in.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Nalls said. “To me it was clear-cut. I knew what I had to do and I did it.”
Nalls was able to pull Gutierrez to the bank of the waterway, where nearby Marines were able to help the two out of the water. The Marines on the patrol called for a helicopter to evacuate Bast, Nalls and Gutierrez, who were then flown out of the area and treated for hypothermia.
“When you stick your hand at the bottom of an ice chest to get a soda… the canal water felt that cold,” said Gutierrez, a 26-year-old from Alhambra, Calif.
The Marines recovered quickly, according to Delta Company’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Jeremy A. Oberdove.
“Anybody in my platoon would have done the same thing for me,” Nalls said.
Gutierrez said if Nalls wasn’t there to pull him out, he wouldn’t be here today.
Unfortunately, the Marines were unable to recover Nalls’ helmet and rifle that sank somewhere at the bottom of the canal. The Marines cordoned it off for the rest of that night and continued to search for the next two days.
The Marines coordinated with the district governor to dam the canal in order to lower the water level and continue the search. They also informed the local Afghan Uniformed Police who were responsible for patrolling Qual-e Now.
When the level was lowered enough to proceed with a better search, the Marines discovered that the Afghan Uniformed Police had gotten into the canal on their own initiative to search for the rifle and helmet.
The police found the M4 carbine service rifle, returned it to 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, and Nalls was reunited with his weapon.
“They got hand-in-hand, and they trudged their way around the canal, feeling around with their feet,” said 1st Lt. Jorge Colon, a team leader with the Police Advisory Team, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.
Colon and his team of Marines once trained and mentored the police at the Qual-e- Now precinct, but have since stepped back as the police are able to handle operation of the precinct on their own.
“They could’ve just as easily not gone after it, but they went out day after day and recovered the gear,” said Colon, a native of Worcester, Mass.
The squad’s platoon commander, 1st Lt. Logan Deffner, said “for the Afghan Uniformed Police to go into the canal on their own accord, without a tasker from the Marines and recover the rifle was a huge relief.”
The recovery was thought of as a harbinger of the ability local security forces have to operate on their own, and the partnership they have with Marines.
“It’s a great example of the state that we’re in right now – with the transition phase of turning over the main efforts to the Afghan National Security Forces,” continued Deffner, a native of Greenwood, Ind. “It says a lot about the trust relationship we have with them. It says a lot about their ability to do things on their own and take their own initiative.”
Colon said the police unit responsible for the find has been operating independently since December 2011 and continues to advance in their capabilities.
“Because of the professionalism of the AUP in Qual-e Now, the Marines got their gear back,” Colon said. “It just goes to show you: the level of partnership we have here with the Afghan Uniformed Police. They’re willing to go out of their way and put their bodies in harms way with the cold water. They’re willing to stick their neck out and help us get our gear for us. It means a lot to us if they’re willing to do that.”
Editor’s note: 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 1st Marine Division (Forward), which works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance. 1st LAR is based aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.