News: Marines plunge into frigid canal to save nine Afghans
Story by Cpl. Reece Lodder
LOYA DARVISHAN, Helmand province, Afghanistan — Dimly illuminated by a sliver of moonlight, eight shadowy figures quietly patrolled a gravel road set against a swiftly flowing canal.
At the front of the squad, Afghan National Army soldier Zaheed deliberately moved a metal detector from side to side, cautiously sweeping the road for improvised explosive devices. Fellow ANA soldiers and Marines from 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment followed closely behind.
As daylight fell into dusk here Dec. 2, they had departed Patrol Base Barcha to re-supply Marines at a nearby observation post. With their mission complete, the partnered patrol trekked through the chilly night back toward the PB.
A vehicle approached, and its once-distant headlights rapidly became larger. Zaheed stopped sweeping and stepped into the middle of the road. He waved his arms and yelled for it to stop, but the driver seemed to be unaware.
The vehicle barreled toward the patrol and became uncomfortably close, so Zaheed stepped to the left and reached for his weapon. The speeding driver panicked, swerved the same way and smashed into him. Both plunged into the canal.
“When the vehicle hit Zaheed, I thought briefly, ‘What if this was one of my Marines?’” said Sgt. Matt Garst, a 23-year-old squad leader from Charlotte, N.C.
Garst shouted for his Marines to drop their gear. He instructed three ANA soldiers to provide security and jumped into the frigid, murky water as the vehicle rapidly submerged beneath it.
“I saw the problem, saw the security we needed and sent everyone else into the canal,” Garst said.
Lance Cpl. James Blomstran wanted to jump in, but he was accompanied by his IED detection dog, Sage, and decided to stay on the road to provide security. Lance Cpls. Ryan Gerrity and Nicholas Dumke jumped in behind Garst.
“It took a split second to realize what happened,” said Dumke, a 20-year-old rifleman from Huron, S.D. “We train for firefights, not for a vehicle going into a canal … we just snapped into reacting to a high-stress situation and did what we had to do.”
Gerrity grabbed the ANA soldier and swam to shore. To no avail, Dumke fought against the wild, sweeping current. He returned to the shore, grabbed a four-foot piece of cloth and began pulling a child in, and then a man.
Garst reached the vehicle as passengers struggled to exit the shattered windshield. He saw two women and an infant drowning. He dove beneath the surface to push them above water, wrapped them in his arms and kicked toward shore.
Gerrity and Blomstran used a sickle stick — a bamboo pole used to detect IED wires — to bring in another woman and child. Garst quickly returned to the vehicle, grabbed a man and dragged him to safety. He pulled himself onto the shore and then drew out Gerrity and Dumke.
Protected by Blomstran and the ANA security, Gerrity treated the injured Zaheed.
“The vehicle’s windshield had shattered from his head,” Gerrity, a 21-year-old fire team leader and native of Cranford, N.J., said. “I didn’t know what injuries he might’ve had, so I wanted to help him right away.”
Gerrity grabbed a heavy, boxy electronic countermeasure device the Marines had been carrying and elevated Zaheed’s shattered left ankle. He then dug a gauze wrap out of his first aid kit, using it to cover several lacerations on the soldier’s head.
Out of the canal, the Marines quickly donned their gear. In the absence of an interpreter, Garst used hand signals and his limited Pashto vocabulary to ask the driver if his entire family was now safe. They counted two men, three women, two children and an infant. The man nodded ‘yes’.
“Once we got the family out and on the shore, I felt good … like I hadn’t let anybody down,” Garst said.
Zaheed was badly injured, so Garst aided Gerrity in treating him. Using what was available, Garst removed two antennas from the ECM device. He fashioned a makeshift splint by setting them alongside Zaheed’s shattered ankle and wrapping it with gauze.
As Garst radioed in the casualty report to PB Barcha, Gerrity stopped a passing vehicle and asked the driver to take Zaheed there, escorted by fellow ANA soldier Zakirullah.
The patrol returned to the PB with the driver of the submerged vehicle to speak with an interpreter and ensure all the passengers had gotten out. Meanwhile, Garst had the rest of the family stay with a neighbor in a compound close to the canal.
Only an hour after the accident, a helicopter arrived to evacuate Zaheed to Camp Dwyer’s Combat Support Hospital.
Though the people they helped didn’t wear the Marine uniform, all that mattered was that lives needed to be saved, Garst said. The Marines were ready to do “whatever it takes.”
“We don’t really train for a situation like this, besides doing vehicle rollover drills,” Garst said. “Even so, we weren’t the ones trapped … it was other people. The Marines didn’t hesitate for their own safety at all. They helped those who needed it at the time.”
Upon mention of the word ‘hero,’ the Marines of Lima Company’s 2nd Platoon smile and shake their heads. They say they’re just Marines — men “ingrained with a willingness to help people and who think on their feet under high stress,” said Blomstran, a 22-year-old native of Cortland, Ohio.
“If any one of the Marines from our platoon was put in that situation, they would’ve done the same thing,” his friend Gerrity added. Their confidence is echoed by the rest of the platoon, and the Afghan soldiers they’re working hard to mentor are noticing.
“We’re proud to serve with the 2nd Platoon Marines,” Zakirullah said. “They’re training us well but we’re also improving because of their example. The Marines are warriors and heroes for saving those lives.”