Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C. --
“You hear your buddies go down …You close your eyes… You think about everything … You hear you’re the only other corpsman. What would you do?”
Chief Petty Officer Jeremy K. Torrisi, a hospital corpsman with U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, faced that question on June 26, 2008 in the mountains of Afghanistan during the fiercest firefight of his life. Torrisi saved the lives of four of his comrades and received the Silver Star Medal at the Court House Bay Gymnasium on Jan 21.
So far, one Navy Cross, two Silver Star Medals, and two Bronze Star Medals with combat distinguishing devices have been awarded in the battle’s aftermath.
“I’m the one getting recognized today, but everybody knows, I hope, the story that went down that day it wasn’t one person, it wasn’t two, it wasn’t three, it was everybody,” Torrisi said during the award ceremony. “Everybody doing their part. We have a lot of guys around today walking, talking, and breathing because of that. I was just part of the well-oiled machine that we were.”
On June 26, 2008, two Marine Special Operations Teams with 2d Marine Special Operation Battalion, MARSOC, and Afghan National Army soldiers set out on a mission to locate a high value target in the mountains of Afghanistan.
After driving across the desert, the teams came to a draw surrounded on each side by mountains. MSOT 1 pushed into the narrow draw with two tactical vehicles and an additional tactical vehicle from MSOT 2. The forward vehicle of the team encountered a cave system with two abandoned cars parked in front.
The team’s vehicles spread out inside the draw. The team dismounted from their vehicles and used their standard operating procedures to insure the vehicles were not rigged to explode; they were not, according to Torrisi, who was with MSOT 2.
That’s when two “ranging shots” gave way to a hail of gunfire that literally seemed to rain down on the team’s position, according to Torrisi.
“I’ve never heard gunfire like that before,” Torrisi said. “It was like four or five guys just depressing on a Ma Duce (M2 50. caliber machine gun) at once.”
The bullets shot into the antennas, doors, windows, gun turrets, vehicles, engine blocks, and tires.
“In the first four to five minutes we received roughly four to five casualties,” Torrisi said.
Among them was Sgt. Samuel E. Schoenheit, an operator with MARSOC and now a staff sergeant.
Schoenheit and Sgt. Carlos Bolanos, the MSOT 1 communications chief, were in the second vehicle roughly 50 meters away from the forward most vehicle. Both sergeants received Bronze Stars with combat distinguishing devices, for their actions in the firefight.
As the gunfire rained down on their position the sergeants immediately began laying down cover fire in hopes the Marines further on the ground would be able to take cover. Bolanos jumped from the driver seat to man a M240G machine gun and sprayed rounds into the mountainside while Schoenheit fired a barrage of Mark 47 Striker 40 automatic grenade launcher rounds.
“When he’s running out of ammo, I’m shooting and when I’m down he’s shooting, we’re talking guns,” Bolanos said.
The Marines received the order to move forward. Bolanos exposed himself to the enemy’s line of fire to move closer to the forward vehicle. He jumped out of the vehicle and the two sergeants resumed laying fire into the mountainside.
However, the enemy positions seemed impossible to find, and their fire was deadly accurate.
A single shot tore though Schoenheit’s night vision goggles and Kevlar helmet, then split and entered his skull.
“My bell was rung pretty good,” Schoenheit said. “At first I blacked out momentarily in the turret and woke up in the truck. In my mind I’m thinking I’m fine, I’m fine, but my ability to speak was shut down.”
Bolanos pulled Schoenheit into a safe position in the truck and bandaged his head wound. Another Marine ran back to the vehicle to take up the automatic grenade launcher and was then shot through the hand and shoulder. Bolanos pulled him into the vehicle.
Meanwhile, Gunnery Sgt. John S. Mosser and Maj. Dan Strelkauskas, then a captain and team leader, were dealing with mounting injuries and relentless fire on the ground near the cave system. Mosser was awarded the Navy Cross and Strelkauskas received a Silver Star Medal for their actions that day. Over the radio, Mosser, ordered no one else enter the draw.
“He was basically saying over the radio, ‘nobody else comes in. If anybody else comes in you’re going to die,’” Torrisi said. Then a bullet ripped through the only other corpsman on the ground, piercing his lungs and other vital organs.
“That’s when I heard (the other corpsman) was injured. … They don’t have any other corpsmen in there… You hear your buddies go down …You close your eyes… You think about everything … You hear you’re the only other corpsman. What would you do?” Torrisi said. Torrisi was in the trunk of a MSOT 2 vehicle that was heading toward the draw to provide additional support. However, Mosser’s orders and the rugged terrain halted them. Torrisi jumped out of the vehicle and sprinted 50 meters through the enemy’s line of fire to the rearward vehicle. He addressed the Marines’ wounds and then sprinted another 50-75 meters to Bolanos’ and Schoenheit’s vehicle.
“The vehicle was getting pinged like it was cool, because they saw me run up,” Torrisi said.
Bullets entered the inside of the vehicle from the turret and windows. Immersed in rapid sniper fire, and unable to provide Schoenheit care, Torrisi did something a little crazy to end the snipers assault on their position.
“I launched a bunch of 203 rounds (grenade rounds fired from an M203 grenade launcher mounted on the underside of a service rifle) up through the turret from my sitting position, probably not the smartest thing, but it stopped the fire,” Torrisi said. Torrisi administered aid and then ordered Bolanos to back the vehicle to a safer location.
The boulders made navigating though the draw difficult, and slowing down or turning around was impossible, Bolanos said.
“There was no maneuvering forward, just backward. There was just one path in and one path out,” Bolanos said.
Torrisi then fireman-carried Schoenheit the rest of the way to the rearward vehicle. Three of the wounded Marines where evacuated by air support.
As the firefight raged on, Torrisi found himself with seven other Marines taking cover tightly along the side of the forwardmost vehicle. Torrisi was shot in the leg while administering aid to the wounded corpsman. He refused aid until the corpsman’s wounds were addressed. With the Marines pinned down, Moser exposed himself to enemy fire to gather more accurate grid coordinates on the enemy’s position. He then radioed in the grid coordinates and air support dropped a barrage of bombs, distracting the enemy.
Three Marines and Torrisi took the opportunity to carry the wounded corpsman to the cave system. The Marine driving the forward-most vehicle smashed it into one of the abandoned cars to clear a path. The vehicles pulled in, and the Marines loaded their wounded into the vehicles and headed to a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that landed inside the danger zone. The severely wounded were evacuated. The Marines then pulled out of the draw, to a safe location where the rest of the wounded Marines where evacuated.
“It sounds cheesy, but we don’t do it for the medals,” Bolanos said. “We don’t do it for the awards. We do it for each other and to make sure we come back safe and sound.”
“I think the family gets the most out of it because they are going to be proud of us no matter what we do,” Schoenheit said.
“It’s an honor, it’s very humbling, but it’s one thing that if you see it on anyone’s chest you know it’s been a really, really bad day,” Torrisi said.