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Major Gen. Ronald Bailey, commanding general of 1st Marine Division, pins the Navy and Marine Corps Medal on Lance Cpl. Benjamin Nalls, a fire team leader with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, here, March 8, 2013. Nalls received the medal for saving the life of Sgt. Erick Gutierrez, a squad leader with 1st LAR, during a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Nalls fell into a nine-foot-deep, 15-foot-wide canal, and was being treated for hypothermia when he learned that Gutierrez had also fallen in the canal. He immediately jumped back into the frigid water and dragged Gutierrez to the riverbank, saving his life.

Photo by Lance Cpl. James Gulliver

Marine awarded Navy and Marine Corps Medal for lifesaving efforts in Afghanistan

11 Mar 2013 | Lance Cpl. James Gulliver

As the sun rose over the Camp Las Flores parade deck here, March 8, Lance Cpl. Benjamin Nalls, a fire team leader serving with Delta Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, stood in front of his fellow infantrymen ready to receive the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his actions in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

On Feb. 23, 2012, Nalls, a native of Stevensville, Mont., and his squad was patrolling and resupplying Marines who were setting up a cordon around an improvised explosive device.

Nalls said he did not know the events of that day would bring out his true character and show his fellow Marines that he was willing to sacrifice everything for them.

Nalls was the point man for the patrol, it was his job to lead the Marines across several canals to reach their objective. Several of the bridges that spanned the canals were partially submerged in the swift currents of the waterway.

As the squad moved across a bridge early in the patrol, one of the Marines fell into the canal, but Nalls and his squad leader Sgt. Erick Gutierrez, were able to pull him from the water, saving his life.

They reached their objective without further incident, and resupplied the Marines in the cordon with extra ammunition, food and water.

On the way back Nalls searched for an alternate crossing, because he did not want to risk another member of his squad falling into the freezing water.

“He was extremely good at his job and he took pride in being the point man,” said Gutierrez, a native of Los Angeles. “All I had to tell him was we need to get here and he would find a suitable route and get us there.”

Nalls picked a safer crossing and was the first Marine to cross the frigid river with over 60 pounds of gear. While he was crossing, the bridge shifted and Nalls fell into the water where the strong current swept him underneath the bridge, and down the canal.

The canal swept him along for over 50 meters, until his fellow Marines were able to pull him onto the riverbank.

As Gutierrez was crossing, he lost his footing and was immediately swept under by the current as well.

“I tried to drop my gear so I could stay above water, but I couldn’t even unbuckle my chinstrap before my muscles froze up and went completely numb from the cold,” said Gutierrez.

Nalls, heard the commotion, and immediately jumped back into the cold water to save his squad leader.

“I traveled down the river for a few meters I felt Nalls grab me by my plate carrier, and he told me, ‘Don’t worry sergeant I got you and I’m not letting go,’” said Gutierrez.

Nalls was able to pull him to the riverbank where they were treated by the squad’s corpsman. They both were evacuated by helicopter and treated for hypothermia.

"Any one of my Marines would have done it for me. If the situation had been reversed, my squad leader would have jumped in after me,” said Nalls. “Its just something we would do for each other.”

Nalls humbly passed off the credit for the award to his fellow Marines, saying they molded him into the Man he is today.

“What he did says a lot about his character, diving into that canal for me that’s not something you can teach someone, you’re born with it,” said Gutierrez. “He definitely was born with it.”