FORWARD OPERATING BASE HOTEL, Iraq, Aug. 6, 2004 ? A hero is oftentimes thought to be one who overcomes some great obstacle for the betterment of his fellow man. Such legends flow freely throughout our society, especially in the Marine Corps, and their memories offer motivation to the weakest and strongest.
First Sgt. Justin D. Lehew doesn't believe Marines are heroes.
"There are heroes in life, but we are not it. We're just Marines," Lehew, company first sergeant, Company C, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), said after recalling the events of a dreadful day over a year ago.
The story of Jessica Lynch was well publicized, but the story of the Marines who came upon her unit's position an hour after the ambush, and the hellish battle those Marines endured that day, isn't as well known.
Lehew, a gunnery sergeant at the time, was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions that day, March 23, 2003. More than a year later and in the same country in which he earned it, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force, presented the medal to Lehew on July 24.
"This is something you'll probably never see again," said Conway, to the Marines who witnessed the Navy Cross being awarded. "This is second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor."
Lehew was a platoon sergeant for Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Task Force Tarawa, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were riding their way through Iraq in amphibious assault vehicles.
"I can remember the day pretty vividly," he said.
Just outside An Nasiriyah, his unit was the foremost unit overtaking the area where 8,000 Iraqi soldiers were thought to be surrendering.
They received a distress call from American soldiers in the area. It didn't make sense to Lehew because his Marines were supposed to be the foremost unit there.
"I jumped on the ground and started asking the Marines if they had seen any soldiers around," Lehew said. "They said they hadn't seen anything."
After pushing forward and searching for 2 1/2 kilometers they began to see burnt Army vehicles and after a little further, soldiers began to appear.
"I saw one pop up in the field we were in, then another popped up on the other side waiving his arms,? he said. ?Then we saw soldiers popping up all over the field waiving their arms."
The Marines just happened to come upon them an hour after the soldiers were ambushed. The Marines did their best to help the injured, two of which were critically injured, while under enemy fire.
"I put my corpsmen with the Army medics, and the soldiers were saying the reason many of them were alive was because of my Marines. I think it was because of their medics doing such a great job," he said. "This wasn't a (combat arms unit), but they did what they could for an hour until we arrived."
Lehew then had his Marines help the best way they could. They started "lighting up" the Iraqi infantry so they could help evacuate the injured.
"An (Army) warrant officer came up to me saying he was missing half his soldiers," Lehew said. "That turned out to be the group that was captured including Jessica Lynch."
Wasting no time, the order to press into An Nasiriyah came. While Marine Corps tanks were busy engaging the enemy in the outskirts of the city, the AAVs pushed into the city.
"Our job was to take the southern bridge," he said.
As soon as they moved into the streets a white van with a blue stripe pulled out in front of them and fired a rocket-propelled grenade. The thin-skinned AAVs swerved, successfully avoiding the RPG. The AAVs were all alone once they arrived at the bridge.
"Once we got on top of the bridge it got quiet for a minute,? he said. ?Then all at once it seemed like Armageddon opened up from all angles of the streets."
There was an Iraqi ambulance that was careening toward the front of the convoy. Lehew fired a warning shot but the ambulance refused to stop, so the Marines opened fire on the cab. When it stopped, and the Marines searched it, they found six Iraqis clad in black. Then more Iraqis in black began jumping out of cars after careening toward a weapons stockpile under the bridge.
"Swarms of Iraqis started converging on our positions," Lehew said. "There had to have been hundreds."
Many Iraqis started firing RPGs out of windows, doorways and cars.
"They were using women holding babies as spotters," Lehew said. "But we had to hold the bridge at all costs."
Reinforcements ? Marine Corps tanks - for Lehew's unit eventually came.
"I jumped up on the turret of the tank and p