CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — In the summer of 2010, I met Matthew Carpenter, a Chief Warrant Officer 3, on my first deployment to Helmand province, Afghanistan. I was a combat correspondent deployed with 1st Marine Division and assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment during the initial push into Sangin District. Carpenter, was the infantry weapons officer, or “Gunner,” for the battalion.
I knew very little about these revered gunners at the time, and I didn’t know the full story about Gunner Carpenter until we both deployed with Regimental Combat Team 7 in 2012-2013. Carpenter, now a chief warrant officer 4, has fought his way through seven combat deployments on his way to becoming the 7th Marine Regiment’s expert on training, weapons and combat.
Carpenter’s story starts in Perry County, Pa., where he grew up around men who served in World War II and fought in places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Iwo Jima—sailors and Marines who had seen some of the fiercest fighting in American history.
The “rite of passage” in his small town was high school sports, and he played football and wrestled as was of expected of him, but what he really wanted was to be a Marine like the men who fought in the island campaigns during World War II.
Carpenter’s grandfather was a Navy Seabee who fought on Tarawa and Okinawa, who “never had a bad thing to say about the Marines.”
“They were ‘John Wayne’ type guys,” Carpenter said. “Those guys were my heroes.”
In 1989, Carpenter went to boot camp with the goal to become a warrior.
Carpenter became a machine-gunner and was assigned to security forces at Naval Submarine Base, Bangor, Wash., for two years, and then he went to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for assignments with 1st and 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines during the 1990s.
Before the war in Iraq began in 2003, Carpenter, a staff sergeant at the time, worked as an instructor at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, Calif., where Marines are trained to endure cold weather and high altitude combat. Carpenter ran into an old friend, who was assigned to 3rd Bn., 7th Marines, and learned the unit needed staff noncommissioned officers as they prepared for an upcoming deployment.
That meeting became a turning point in Carpenter’s career as he spent the next eight years with 3rd Bn., 7th Marines and 7th Marine Regiment. Most of those years would be spent in Iraq.
We got the call while we were on leave that we were going to Kuwait. So we went to Operation Iraqi Freedom I. I was the weapons platoons sergeant with Lima Company, 3/7. We were the first rifle company on deck in Kuwait.
We were met by Gen. (James “Mad Dog”) Mattis, who at the time was the 1st Marine Division commanding general.
We started the push to Baghdad.
In January 2003, 1st Marine Division, including 1st, 5th and 7th Marine Regiments, deployed to Kuwait and in March successfully completed a large-scale Marine Air Ground assault on Iraq. Throughout 17 days of sustained combat, Marines fought to liberate the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s oppressive government.
The noncommissioned officers ran the show, and they were proficient. It was really impressive. These guys were a well-oiled machine.
We fought for about 24 to 30 hours for the Rashid airfield and it was really the first time we had been blooded (a term infantrymen use for gaining combat experience). It was extraordinary to watch because we had been told about the rigors and stress of combat. We were proud to say that none of those things happened to the men. In fact, we had to pull them back and tell them not to advance. The boys performed heroically, and I was extremely impressed.
That was really the first time I had been in a two-way battle, and it was that way for about 90 percent of the Marines.
The company commander, Capt. George Schreffler III and I, drove into a neighborhood with one of the squads, and the people came out celebrating. I’d never seen anything like it — screaming, chanting, and congratulating us. They were throwing flowers on the vehicles, kids were dancing around, old women were coming up to us and kissing us — it was like something out of a World War II liberation of Paris film.
We hadn’t showered or shaved in about 40 days so we were a mess, but at that point we really felt like we had done some good.
We left in September, and we got back feeling like we had won World War II. The whole regiment was back. We found out at the (Marine Corps Birthday) Ball that we were going back to Iraq (in 2004). I think for the most part all of the guys were excited about going back. We thought, ‘We got this down and there won’t be any issues.’
I was the company gunnery sergeant as a staff sergeant. Our company commander, Captain Rick Gannon II, was the company commander for Lima Company. I was extraordinarily impressed by the man. He was tough as nails, and he cared immensely for the Marines.
When he took command in Karbala, he wanted to personally get to know each one of the boys. He made a point over a month to talk to every single Marine in the company, and it earned him their respect right off the bat.
He pulled me into his office and told me there was a fighting enemy in Al Qaim, and that an insurgency was brewing. He said he didn’t think all the men were going to come back.
I mean, we thought we were going back to hand out soccer balls and bags of rice, but this was the first time prior to that deployment, that I had someone in command tell me this is going to be for real. From that point on, we started to focus on what we needed to do to get ready.
At the time, Mojave Viper, a combined arms training exercise created by the Marine Corps to prepare units for combat deployments, did not exist. So, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines designed their own pre-deployment training and even helped to build training sites at March Air Force Base, Calif., that would later be used by numerous units prior to deploying. In the early part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Marine Corps did not have simulated towns and villages for the Marines to patrol, so condemned, on-base housing had to suffice.
In 2004, the battalion returned to Iraq. Carpenter stayed behind for about a month to handle a family medical issue.
On April 16, Carpenter visited Harold Koser, an old family friend and Marine veteran who fought on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima, on his way to Iraq.
He had always told me how proud he was of me, and he wrote me a letter on every deployment I had been on. He told me that he was proud of the Marines who were carrying on the legacy of the Corps.
On April 17, Lima Co., 3rd Bn., 7th Marines, fought a fierce battle with insurgents in Al Qaim. Several Marines, including Gannon, were killed during hours of intense house to house fighting.
One day later Harold Koser joined my fallen comrades, and assumed his post along the golden streets.
Shortly after the battle of Husaybah, Staff Sgt. Carpenter was assigned as 1st Platoon Commander, Lima Company.
Over the next several months, the Marines engaged with a determined, entrenched enemy, Carpenter said. During these battles in Al Qaim, Marines would earn numerous awards for combat valor to include Cpl. Jason Dunham, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for smothering a grenade and saving the lives of his fellow Marines.
In July 2004, Carpenter was promoted to gunnery sergeant and continued on as a platoon commander until the battalion’s return in the fall. In November, Carpenter became the platoon sergeant for the 81mm Mortar Platoon. It wasn’t long until the battalion was slated to redeploy, and Carpenter was assigned the command of a combined anti-armor team.
In 2005, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines deployed to Iraq again — this time to Ramadi.
Before the deployment, Carpenter had submitted a package to become an infantry weapons officer. During the deployment, he was selected for the “Gunner” program. Carpenter turned over his platoon to Staff Sgt. Shelby Lasiter, who received the Bronze Star Medal for actions in Ramadi and later became an infantry weapons officer. Carpenter then went to The Basic School in Quantico, Va., where warrant officers and lieutenants are trained on the basics of being a Marine officer.
Throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines seemed to be a breeding ground for Marine gunners, Carpenter said. Other Marines with combat experiences like Alex Carlson, Matt St. Pierre and Darrell French became infantry weapons officers.
I pinned on (Chief Warrant Officer 2), and since 3/7 was deploying, I ended up back there with all the same crew that had been to Ramadi the first time. This time around we were rebuilding. It was actually pretty neat as we spent seven months rebuilding the city that a year prior we had taken apart block by block.
We deployed again in 2008-2009 as one of the last deployments to Iraq during the drawdown.
This time, the Marines were spread out across Al Qaim, Rawah, Haditha and Hit.
I had some opportunities to go back to several of the places I fought in and walk those same places several years later. It was good because there was some closure. The best thing was every time we went back there, things had gotten better. So the closure was very acute for me.
There were a lot of guys that had bled in these areas and going back was very special.
During this deployment, Carpenter, as the battalion’s gunner, spent two months conducting a seven-day training evolution for each rifle platoon in the battalion on ranges in Iraq that had been designed like those on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. The platoons completed a full scale training exercise that included air support and platoon attacks.
Those ranges were absolutely critical. I think this laid the foundation and set the stage for the upcoming (Afghanistan) deployment in 2010.
The Marines were well trained. The battalion conducted a patrol exercise at Bridgeport, Calif., and Tactical Small Unit Leaders Course at MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, Calif.
In the spring of 2010, the Marines and sailors of 3rd Bn., 7th Marines, who were originally scheduled to deploy with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force to the Pacific, instead deployed to the hot sands of Helmand province, Afghanistan.
In May, the battalion moved into an area known as the Musa Q’aleh wadi.
Division decided we were going to go east looking for the enemy. We were just going hunting for the enemy.
Weapons Company ended up near a city named Doab, and all hell breaks loose.
The enemy was dug in well in Doab, and they were prepared to fight for every inch, while the Marines pushed towards them from all sides.
They had fighting positions. They had terrain models. The guys were starting to realize we had run into a Taliban bed down area.
The Taliban were doing business in Sangin and Marjah, but they slept at night in Doab. We were in their neighborhood, and they were ready to fight for it.
After weeks of intense fighting, the Marines left the Musa Q’aleh wadi and the village of Doab. There were three Marines killed-in-action and several wounded. The story of summer 2010 was the Marines who fought courageously.
There was one Navy Cross (the military’s second highest honor), one Silver Star (medal), and at least three Bronze Star (medals) with combat distinguishing device “V” earned by the men for their actions in the fight for the Musa Qal’eh wadi.
Cpl. Clifford Wooldridge, a squad automatic weapon gunner, received the Navy Cross Medal for his actions during a firefight in which he fought hand-to-hand with an enemy machine-gunner.
For most of the guys, even the senior guys, this was the first time they had been shot at. They had now seen the elephant, and now we realized that we were up against a living, breathing enemy that wanted to kill us. This was not a game.
The next task given to the Marines of 3rd Bn., 7th Marines in July was to push into Sangin to cut off the enemy’s movement. Their mission was to go into the area and fight to the Helmand River.
The enemy was everywhere. That was a hell of a fight. The Taliban was in there and in there good. But so were the U.S. Marines, and there’s one thing we’re good at — we don’t lose. We fought like hell in there.
The Marines lived in austere conditions. Most of the infantrymen slept in fighting holes. Hot meals were just a dream they had. Their razors went dull, camouflage paint covered their faces, and the baby wipes they used to shower ran out.
The corn was nine feet tall in the Green Zone. The fighting was unbelievable. I mean the fighting was taking place up close and f***ing personal in that corn — anywhere from five to 150 meters.
The Marines mostly fought out of fighting holes and Afghan compounds converted into hasty patrol bases. Carpenter’s job was to ensure these areas were properly constructed to include force protection and fire support laydowns. With the intense fighting, Carpenter often found himself with the Marines pinned down and fighting on a daily basis. He said he personally witnessed the tenacity and bravery of the men he fought beside.
At one point, the Marines crossed back into the Musa Qal’eh wadi and had the second fight for Doab. This time, several Marines received Bronze Star Medals with combat valor “V” devices.
In the fight for Sangin, numerous Marines were awarded for their bravery, to include Capt. Ryan Cohen, the Kilo Company commander, who received the Silver Star Medal for leading his Marines on the frontlines of battle.
By September, the Marines with 3rd Bn., 7th Marines, controlled Sangin and had established patrol bases in the locations that would become strategic forward operating bases over the next three years. Marines with 3rd Bn., 7th Marines officially took command of Sangin District, relieving the British 40th Commando Royal Marines.
In October, they were relieved by the Marines of 3rd Bn., 5th Marines.
This was really the culmination of my career. During the deployment I did everything I had ever been taught as an infantrymen — from squad leaders course to mountain leaders course and on. Living in fighting holes, survival skillsets, it all came together on that deployment.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Carpenter deployed as regimental gunner with Regimental Combat Team 7 in October 2012.
Obviously that (2010) wasn’t my last deployment, but coming back here has been another portion of the reconciliation process with all those we lost or were wounded.
I can tell you that if the boys could see what I have seen (recently) with what the Afghan National Army are doing against the Taliban, they would be absolutely amazed.
In 2010, we’d do a company sized operation with maybe a platoon of ANA and dragging them with us. Now it’s completely opposite of that: a company of Afghans and a handful of advisers — as the Afghans are whoopin’ it on in the Green Zone. It’s not just the ANA, it’s the Afghan police too.
They aren’t hesitating, and they’re taking it to them.
We got to a point where we thought, ‘Are we ever going to be able to win Sangin?’ I think for the most part Sangin is won for the coalition forces and the only question left is if it’s won for the Afghans.
You wouldn’t have heard me say that two weeks ago because I didn’t believe it until I saw it. That’s the message I’ll take back with me to the boys (from the 2010 deployment). They want to know, ‘Did my sacrifice matter?’
If we want the Afghans to be able to run their own show, then in that regard, it’s working — especially in Sangin.
I had the privilege in June 2013 of talking to Carpenter for more than 3 hours in his office. His assistant gunner, Sgt. Philip Noble, will tell you Carpenter can tell stories for days, and he loves to tell them.
What Carpenter will not tell you is he has been promoted nine times in 24 years or his title of regimental gunner is one of the most prestigious in the Marine Corps. He will not tell you he has been awarded 3 medals with combat valor distinguishing devices — because he is not focused on himself.
Carpenter loves the Corps, but he loves Marines more, and if you get the chance to meet him someday, he’ll gladly tell you all about them.