CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan – On October 11, 2010, Marines with 81mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, lost one of their brothers.
Sergeant Frank Zaehringer, a squad leader and native of Reno, Nev., died of wounds he sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near a patrol he was leading through Helmand province’s Marjah District.
“He was like a father figure to me,” said Cpl. Zackery P. Haglund, a 21-year-old native of Bayou George, Fla., and team leader with Weapons Co. “He knew his Marines really well, and he wasn’t scared of anything. Whenever there was a firefight, he always led towards it.”
The Marines of Zaehringer’s platoon decided to honor him by firing an 81mm illumination mortar on the day of their loss. Each member of the platoon signed the mortar, and fired it downrange to light the battlefield where the beloved Marine had fallen.
“As soon as we came back from the site [where Zaehringer died], we walked in the patrol base and went straight to the mortar tube,” said Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Fisher, Zaehringer’s platoon sergeant.
“We got it cleared through battalion to fire the illumination round, so we passed it around, signed it, and sent it downrange over where he died,” Fisher explained.
Fisher and his Marines wanted to bring the mortar shell home to Zaehringer’s family, so they made a point to search for it during every patrol.
“We still had about three-and-a-half months left on the deployment,” said Fisher, a 38-year-old native of Shelton, Wash. “Every time we went outside the wire we tried to look for that shell casing.”
The platoon hunted for the casing at very opportunity, but to no avail. They left Afghanistan with only memories of an outstanding Marine.
“We couldn’t find it; we found other shell casings but we couldn’t find that one whenever we went outside the wire,” said Fisher. “We checked houses and even trees in the area and we couldn’t find it.”
Shortly after returning to Camp Lejeune, N.C., Fisher learned that his battalion would return to Marjah for one last deployment. He immediately recognized the opportunity to continue their search for the memorial mortar.
After a year of waiting and training, Fisher and his Marines eagerly returned to the Sistani area of western Marjah in December 2011. They continued their search with the same tenacity as they conducted every assigned, but found nothing for months.
One day in February 2012, Fisher received a call from Gunnery Sgt. Michael Beech, the Weapon Co. combined anti-armor team platoon sergeant, who was located at Patrol Base Duluth. Beech told Fisher that he was in possession of the shell casing he was looking for. The casing was found by an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in Marjah and, fortunately, they kept it from being destroyed.
Fisher immediately traveled to PB Duluth and confirmed that the shell casing was indeed the one his platoon dropped in the mortar tube over a year ago.
“Somehow, at some point in time, during all their cache sweeps, this round showed up,” said Fisher. “When they said they found it, at first I thought they were messing with us. I couldn’t believe we actually found it. To find it, after firing it over a year ago… I think it was meant to be.”
Fisher immediately brought the shell casing to his Marines, who expressed a mixture of joy and disbelief at the discovery.
“I couldn’t believe it until I had it in my hands. As soon as I told the platoon, people started crying,” said Fisher. “I had grown men who are warfighters, crying because we had this one round. They were all ecstatic.”
“I was in shock. I felt goose bumps up my spine after Gunny Fisher told us about it,” said Haglund. “It felt like Frank was right there watching us the entire time.”
Since finding the shell casing, Fisher and his Marines have been working to ensure it gets back to the Camp Lejeune as a memorial for Zaehringer.
“I talked to our commanding officer and got his blessing to take it home, even with all the paper work we had to go through,” said Fisher. “We told the [battalion] sergeant major we wanted to take it and display it in the company office for a while, then bring it home to his family.”
Fisher and his Marines will soon be back on American soil. They plan to present the shell casing to Zaehringer’s wife, Cassie and his parents, Sharon and Frank.
“One way or another, we’re bringing it home to his family,” said Fisher.
Editor’s note: Second Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, was assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 1st Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and 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 ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.