MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER, TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
“Sorry, guys, I can’t keep going.”
Those were the words of Lance Cpl. Brady A. Gustafson to the Marines in his vehicle as he was pulled away from his smoking machine gun minutes after his platoon was ambushed July 21, 2008, by withering enemy fire in Shewan, Afghanistan.
Nobody blamed Gustafson, 21, an infantryman with 2nd Platoon, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, for not being able to continue the fight, since the opening volley on the Marine mounted patrol included a rocket-propelled grenade that pierced the shell of the mine-resistant armor-protected vehicle in which Gustafson was manning the turret gun.
That RPG severed Gustafson’s right leg, and yet he had the presence of mind to locate the enemy positions and place well-aimed machine gun fire on them, providing cover fire for the Marines in his platoon.
For his actions that day last year, Gustafson was awarded the Navy Cross and meritoriously promoted to corporal by Maj. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, commanding general, 1st Marine Division, at a ceremony Mar. 27 at Lance Cpl. Torrey L. Gray Field at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.
“What I like about today is that this is an opportunity to honor a Marine who had the humility, courage, presence of mind and camaraderie to keep going,” said Lt. Col. Richard D. Hall, the former commanding officer of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines – while they were deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom – noting that Gustafson was more concerned about the welfare of his brother Marines than his own safety.
“He represents what is best about the human spirit. You can’t buy that kind of human altruism.”
The Navy Cross is the highest honor specific to the Naval services and the second highest award in the U.S. military. Gustafson is just the 18th Marine to earn the award since the beginning of the Global War on Terror.
The Marines of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines battled elements of Taliban and Islamist extremists in the Helmand and Farah provinces of Afghanistan.
Gustafson and Company G were patrolling in the village of Shewan, noted as a haven for insurgents, when they were ambushed from multiple positions by insurgents with RPGs and small-arms fire, according to the award citation for the Navy Cross.
After the RPG pierced the side of Gustafson’s MRAP and struck him in the leg, causing the severe injury, he stayed focused and identified enemy firing positions, which he engaged with accurate machine-gun fire.
He noticed that the vehicle to his rear had become disabled by another RPG and instructed his MRAP driver to push the hobbled vehicle out of the “kill-zone.”
By doing so, Gustafson’s MRAP became shrouded in fire. Through all this, Gustafson continued to direct fire at the enemy positions, suppressing their attacks and allowing the Marines to continue to engage the insurgents.
“Of every Marine I talked to, they all said if they had been hit in the leg with an RPG, the last thing they’d be thinking about is staying in the turret,” said 1st Lt. Andrew S. Bohn, 25, platoon commander of 2nd Plt., from Davis, Calif., and an occupant of the second vehicle that Gustafson directed to be pushed out of the line of fire.
Without that presence of mind, Bohn and the four other Marines from that vehicle may not have made it out of the ambush alive.
Only after firing more than 400 rounds, and reloading twice, did Gustafson permit combat aid-givers to remove him from the turret to apply medical treatment to his significant injuries. Lance Cpl. Cody Comstock, a member of Gustafson’s platoon, applied his Combat Life Saver Course knowledge to the situation, wrapping a tourniquet around Gustafson’s leg and dressing the wound while Gustafson was still in the turret.
“All of the lance corporals were going off their training in immediate action - nobody panicked,” said Bohn of his Marines. “There was a much-superior sized force attacking us, and there was only one (noncommissioned officer) in the platoon.”
After the action was over, Bohn recommended Gustafson for the Silver Star, the third highest combat award for valor, but Hall disagreed.
“My awards policy has always been strict (and) conservative,” said Hall, from Mankato, Minn. The former battalion commander noted that the deployment put all of his Marines in harsh conditions, and yet so many of the Marines excelled at operating at a high level that the “extraordinary became ordinary.”
Even so, Gustafson’s actions were special.
“After reviewing what he did, even considering my awards policy and all the actions of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, it was easy, to me, to submit his award as a Navy Cross,” Hall said.
Gustafson, from Eagan, Minn., has a long road to recovery and walks with a pronounced limp on his prosthetic right leg. The fact he suffered traumatic injury made his family even more grateful for his return.
“(The Navy Cross) is the icing on the cake for us, but we know that Brady didn’t do this for the awards,” said Rick Gustafson, father to the Marine hero and an Air Force retiree. “We’re very thankful we have him here today. That’s our primary emotion.”
According to his parents, Gustafson intends to buy a home in his native Minnesota and attend college somewhere near home.
“He recognizes the importance and honor of the award, but at the same time, he feels funny about being recognized,” said Gustafson’s mother, Kim, about her son’s quiet, unassuming manner and reluctance to stand in front of the hundreds of Marines, guests and media at the ceremony. “He was just fighting for
his guys’ lives."