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Eye protection saves Marine’s vision

25 Apr 2006 | Cpl. Mark Sixbey

Pfc. James Burnett Jr. didn’t enjoy wearing his protective eyewear underneath his night vision goggles, but he had two good reasons to follow orders – his eyes.

The 20-year-old turret gunner with Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment discovered the importance of ballistic eyewear firsthand when an improvised explosive device rocked his vehicle with a massive explosion during a nighttime mission outside Fallujah in early April.

“That blast was so strong it threw me around like no tomorrow,” said Burnett, from Greenbrier, Ark.  “It looked like a star cluster of 300 little dim light bulbs flying out of this huge cloud of smoke going up into the sky and draping off like the leaves of a weeping willow tree.”

The blast tore off his night vision goggles, taking his issued ballistic eyeglasses along with them. The next thing he remembered was waking up on top of his equipment in the smoke-filled cabin of his humvee. 

“The explosion made a crater in the road big enough for a humvee to fall in,” said Navy Seaman Eric J. Delgado, MAP Platoon’s corpsman, who was riding in the vehicle behind Burnett’s. 

He described the explosion as a 40-foot high shower of fiery glass sparks.

“The first thing I thought was ‘Did anyone get hit?’” Delgado recalled.

When the 22-year-old from San Diego got to the vehicle, Burnett was already alert and standing in his gun turret, scanning the area for the enemy.

“I noticed he had blood on his hand and face,” Delgado said. “He was going off about how he lost his eye-pro and how he was slammed by the explosion and how big it was.” 

The corpsman was amazed when he took a closer look.

“His eyes were fine,” he said.

Flying debris had cut two gashes in Burnett’s face, which he said he didn’t feel until blood ran down his throat protector and under his flak jacket.  He sustained a concussion and was evacuated to a military hospital in Balad, where doctors removed a small rock from his face.

Burnett commended the quick action of his driver and his vehicle commander, Lance Cpl. Wrangler Haws, and Cpl. Scott Campbell, for maintaining their composure and reacting without hesitation to assess the situation and keep their vehicle from falling in the hole.

“Those two guys are incredible,” he said.  “I have the utmost confidence in them now, because that was the biggest IED we’d ever seen.  Once I saw them operating and keeping their bearing, now I understand how hard it is.” 

The battalion enforces an order that Marines stay as protected as possible whenever they leave base, requiring body armor covering every essential organ, including the eyes.  Marines wear Kevlar helmets, Kevlar-lined outer protective vests with enhanced small-arms protective inserts completely surrounding the upper body.  There’s also neck and groin guards.  Fire-retardant gloves and ballistic-rated eyeglasses are among the list Marine must wear, despite the heat and chores they take on.

Turrett gunners like Burnett wear even more.  They’re completely covered with added protection against blasts.

“Though their gear is heavy, with the chest plates, side SAPIs, throat protectors, and ‘eye-pro,’ all that stuff is invaluable,” said 1st Sgt. Roy West, the company first sergeant.  “And as we go through this deployment, the younger Marines are learning how important it is to wear the gear.  The ‘eye pro’ that they’re using now is worth its weight in gold.”

West, who is originally from Houston, said the battalion emphasizes the phrase “complacency kills” to every one of its Marines for their own safety.

“As soon as you start relaxing and saying ‘I don’t need to wear eye-pro,’ that will be the day you get blinded,” he said.  “It’s very important that we stress that to the young Marines, and they’re learning it.”

Burnett said that while his glasses saved his eyes, his fellow Marines gave him confidence in their ability to protect each other in future incidents.

“I didn’t really do anything except take the blast,” he said.  “Haws and Cpl. Campbell saved the day. They’re definitely on my Christmas list.”

Burnett was in high school when Darkhorse pushed through Fallujah during Operation Al Fajr in November 2004.  He said he’d thought about becoming a Marine all his life, but the breaking point came during a high school history class.

“Every history book I’d ever read in high school said Beirut was a political war,” he said.  “My dad was in Beirut, and that’s how I was educated about it.  I was the only kid in my high school who knew that 248 Marines died there on October 23, 1984.”

Burnett said he decided he couldn’t do anything about the history books, but could at least be around people who cared.

A football injury from his days at Greenbrier High School delayed Burnett from enlisting in the Marine Corps. A series of physical therapists and doctors examined him, but the screws and cable in his left leg almost ended his plans to enlist.  His first obstacle was at the Military Entrance Processing Station.

“Nobody at MEPS wanted to sign the waiver forms when they saw the pins,” he said.  “They said there was no way.”

Burnett’s recruiter sent waiver papers to a recruiter in Texas, then Louisiana, then Virginia, where a general officer authorized his enlistment.  His father, Sgt. Maj. James Burnett Sr., the sergeant major for Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment had recently returned from serving in Iraq last year when his son signed the enlistment papers.

He’s currently deployed again with his battalion as part of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).  He offered his thoughts in an e-mail exchange.

“Of course I was very proud of his decision to join the Marine Corps,” Burnett Sr. said.  “He made that decision early in life without any coaching or specific direction.” 

The junior Burnett became a squad leader in boot camp, graduated the School of Infantry on Camp Pendleton and received orders to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in 2005. 

“People ask me if I call him by rank and stand at parade rest and I tell them ‘of course,’” Burnett Jr. said. “I call him ‘sergeant major’ around other Marines or in uniform—always.”

Still, being a sergeant major doesn’t mean the elder Burnett didn’t stop worrying for his son.  It’s just gave him a greater understanding.

“I would say that some things you just know are going to be OK, this was one of those times,” Burnett Sr. explained.  “I won’t hesitate to admit that my prayers every night include a request for SKY 6 to provide continuous overwatch on my son.”

Sgt. Maj. Burnett said he’s reassured of his son’s safety because of his training and the professional reputation of the Marines who serve alongside his son, specifically the noncommissioned officers and staff NCOs. 

“My son has always been smart and very observant which adds to my confidence in his abilities,” he said.  “But having listened to him expound with great pride the loyalty and dedication of his NCO’s and Staff NCOs, I knew he would receive the best of care.  Those things took away any anxiety.” 

He has since recovered from his concussion, but a four-inch gash near his left eye serves as a reminder to wear eye protection on every mission.

“It’s funny how one little piece of plastic can keep you in the fight for another month or the rest of your life,” Burnett Jr. said. 

The senior Burnett knows his son is back on the beat and stares down the same hazards.  Now, it’s just with more pride since his son hasn’t backed down even after the wounds.

“My son and the other Marines know we are doing important work here,” Burnett Sr. said.  “There is great honor in helping good people who cannot help themselves.  Good things don’t make the news very often.  But Marines see the good things everyday when they are out there on the streets helping the Iraqi people by providing security and stability.” 

Burnett Jr.’s recuperation is nearly over.  He’s got a scar that won’t completely heal over just below his left eye and after time off to recuperate, he’s excited to get back to work.

“It paid off for my fellow Marines,” he said   “They got their gunner back.”