By T. Anthony BellApril 16, 2014
FORT LEE, Va. (April 16, 2014) -- On April 22, 2008, Marine Cpl. Jonathon Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter were standing watch along with Iraqi police at the entrance of Joint Security Station Nasser located on the outskirts of Ramadi, Iraq.
All seemed normal until about 7:30 a.m. That's when a truck was seen barreling toward the entrance, swerving around strategically-placed barricades to reach its target unimpeded.
"It was quickly obvious the driver had no intention of stopping," said Ordnance School employee Susan Keophila in a letter to President Obama, referring to video recorded at the time of the incident.
As the driver pressed the dump truck closer to the guard post, an Iraqi policeman bolted from his position, maybe sensing it was untenable. The two Devil Dogs were left to defend themselves and an occupied barracks facility located adjacent to the guard post.
Unwavering and deliberate in their actions, the Marines used small arms fire to thwart the driver's progress. The perpetrator was killed just short of the entrance, but the truck exploded, causing a blast that could be heard for miles. The resulting firestorm incinerated the immediate area, leveling several structures, including a nearby mosque that collapsed.
Haerter was mortally wounded. Yale was instantly killed.
Security cameras recorded the six-second attack up to the point of detonation. The footage is a rare but substantial visual testimony that two young Americans followed their orders, stood their ground and confronted the prospect of death with the surety of courage. They were posthumously recognized with the Distinguished Navy Cross for their actions.
Keophila has watched the video more than once, and each second bears on her consciousness as a call to action. The wife and mother has for the past three years been engaged in an effort of fairness -- a quest to get the awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award.
"I was always a little curious (about the awards that honored them)," said the employee of the Ord. School's Munitions and Explosive Ord. Disposal Department. "I was a little disappointed. The Navy Cross is the second highest award, and I don't want to belittle the achievement of those who are honored with it. It is a tremendous recommendation, but these two died saving 50 people and we don't know how many civilians in the area."
According to the incident report, the truck was found to have roughly 2,000 pounds of explosives. Had it succeeded in moving beyond the checkpoint, it may have doomed the lives of 31 Marines and 22 Iraqi policemen living in the barracks.
"If it weren't for those two doing what they had to do, I know for a fact that none of us at JSS Nasser that morning would be alive," said former section leader Matt Carver in a newspaper account.
To be awarded the Medal of Honor, members of the armed forces must, in addition to meeting other criteria, distinguish themselves "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty," according to the U.S. Code Title 10, Subtitle C, Part II, Chapter 567.
Additionally, credible witnesses are required to verify the actions. The Iraqis were the only humans who witnessed the Ramadi incident. Because it might present a credibility problem, Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly --commander, Multi-National Force - West at the time -- submitted the Navy Cross nominations himself.
"… we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements," he said in the Nov. 13, 2010, speech titled "The Last Six Seconds. "If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer."
The video, thought to be destroyed, was somehow saved but only became available after Kelly submitted the Navy Cross awards. It clearly shows what Keophila has been saying the past three years: that Yale and Haerter executed their duties in the face of an untold danger and saved countless lives at the expense of their own, and the Medal of Honor -- not the Navy Cross -- is the appropriate award for their actions. The video can be found at http://cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4817018n.
Keophila's efforts on behalf of the two Marines have been substantial. She has written letters to, among others, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. She also has the support of the Marines' mothers, and has recently helped move three U.S. congressmen to support the effort. Virginia Congressman Robert Hurt and New York Congressmen Tim Bishop and Steve Israel have sponsored H.R. 4233, which urges an award of the MoH for the fallen infantrymen.
In addition to congressional actions, a petition drive with the same goal on the website change.org is gaining strength. It currently carries more than 38,000 signatures.
Prior to the bill's submission, Keophila went as far as writing to the office of the President of the United States. In that correspondence, she stated " … I can hold this injustice back no longer. Sir, the actions of CPL Yale and Lance CPL Haerter are at the heart of what the Medal of Honor is all about. I beg you to please review this situation and come to your own conclusion."
The last two sentences in that statement are an indication there is a line of passion that underlies Keophila's pursuit; one that her coworker Ken Ravenel said is indicative of her outspokenness, sense of fairness and integrity.
"She is not a glory hunter," he said.
Keophila's efforts for the Marines might seem somewhat unlikely. The retired U.S. Army Reserve master sergeant did not see any substantial combat action during her eight-month deployment and only served with a few Marines. She was, however, assigned to Camp Ramadi the day of the incident, working in a joint operations cell roughly three miles away. The deputy operations noncommissioned officer viewed images of the destruction that were part of a commander's brief and remembered the mosque, the ruins and a crater 5-feet deep and 20-feet in diameter.
"When this explosion happened, it was so big; I mean we heard the roar," said Keophila. "We were in a wooden building at the time. It literally shook the building. …We were surprised that it was so far away because it was so loud. It had to be big."
Keophila also was a visitor to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City five months after Timothy McVeigh carried out his April 19, 1995, attack that killed 168 people. The Ramadi incident drew comparisons.
"The level of damage was astounding," she said of her visit. "We had walked a couple blocks away, and there was a corner store of glass-fronted windows and all the glass was blown out. There was a church that was heavily damaged. Seeing that kind of damage and seeing the (Ramadi) pictures and briefs, it just made it more real for me. (Oklahoma City) made me understand Ramadi better. It's different than just seeing a picture; but I can relate it to something I have experienced."
Above all else, said Keophila, war has a way of bringing all fighting men and women together.
"We're all giving our lives; we're all one," she said. "We're all fighting for our country."
In the big picture, Keophila will need more than passion and patriotism to fulfill her goal of a medal upgrade, a fact she readily acknowledges. She knows that a combination of public and congressional support is her best chance. Now that she's done everything she could possibly do, she has to wait on congressional action. That's a matter of time. And if time doesn't serve her well, she can rest with the idea that she stood up to make something right.
"It won't happen if you don't ask," she said.