News: La Jolla, Calif., native recognized for valor in battle
Story by Sgt. Christopher Zahn
QUANTICO, Va. - The year 2010 was a dangerous time to be a Marine in the Trek Nawa region, which lies east of Marjah, Afghanistan. Earlier in the year, Marine forces had gained control of the town of Marjah from Taliban fighters, forcing them into areas surrounding the city such as Trek Nawa where they were still able to put up a stiff fight.
Into that fight went the men of Bravo Co., 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Over their seven-month deployment they operated in a highly kinetic environment, facing enemy forces almost daily and braving some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous terrain.
The Marine who led them, Capt. David D. VanDam, was decorated with the Bronze Star with combat distinguishing device for his role as the company commander. A ceremony was held at the Expeditionary Warfighting School, where VanDam is currently a student, here Feb. 2.
It was a difficult deployment for VanDam and his men. From June to November they operated almost daily behind the forward line of enemy troops, including one stretch during Operation New Dawn where they operated alone for 32 consecutive days.
“At the time, the infantry battalions operating in the area were tied to the big city centers, like Marjah, Sangin and Nawa, so there were a lot of spaces in between them that weren’t covered,” VanDam said. “The most effective way to influence those places and keep some of the pressure hopefully off the infantry battalions was to get in there and stay there.
“So that’s what we did.”
On June 16, Bravo Co., along with the rest of the battalion, inserted behind enemy lines in the dark of night and quickly secured local compounds to use as secure positions. They knew there would be a swift reaction to their presence and as the sun rose, the enemy struck.
The summary of action for VanDam’s award describes the scene as this: “As enemy forces massed on the battalion positions, Capt. VanDam, showing great presence of mind and a coolness under fire which would become a hallmark for his operations, calmly gained situational awareness of the deteriorating situation, directed his platoons to maneuver to reinforce each other as necessary, directed fire support and provided real-time reports to the battalion.”
VanDam and his Marines were in constant contact with the enemy for those first two days while the battalion worked to establish a foothold. Once they had a solid foothold they began operating in, as the citation continues, “the blistering summer heat of Helmand Province, living in local compounds with only what they could carry on their backs. No showers. No hot food. None of the simple amenities available at even the most austere forward operating bases.”
“It was challenging in a lot of ways,” Vandam said. “The health and safety of your Marines is difficult to ensure. There’s no quick reaction force to come get you when things go bad, so there’s a lot of self reliance.”
This first mission set the tone for what Bravo Co., would encounter throughout the deployment. They completed several long operations alone behind enemy lines, collecting intelligence, engaging the enemy and keeping them off balance in the area. Through it all, the Marines stayed true to their fighting roots and took care of each other.
“I was very blessed to have been assigned to 1st Recon Bn., because the Marines there and their enthusiasm for accomplishing the mission, I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said VanDam, a La Jolla, Calif., native. “They motivated each other, not just for mission accomplishment, but for each other.
“They really loved each other and took care of each other.”
As the deployment ended, Bravo Co., was faced with one more obstacle between them and safety. On Nov. 19, the day they were supposed to be extracted, the company came under heavy fire from rocket propelled grenades, 82mm mortar fire and medium machine gun fire. It took two hours to repel the attack, but the enemy was still encircling the company and preparing for another attack. The Marines would have to fight their way across 1,000 meters of open terrain, through fire from three directions to the helicopters; all in broad daylight. Wanting the most direct route to the landing zone, VanDam ordered that the compound wall in that direction be breached, enabling the Marines to run straight to the objective.
The citation continues, “Every Marine in the company knew that, once the wall was breached, every fighter in the area was going to open fire on the breach point and sweep the open desert with fire. The men of Bravo Co., ran out of that breach and into heavy flanking fire, in part, because they trusted their company commander.”
Earning that trust and confidence of his Marines means more to VanDam than the award he received.
“I am grateful to this day to have had the opportunity to work with recon Marines, it was the best experience of my career,” VanDam said.