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HEROES 2013

'He was everybody's friend'

Marine Lance Cpl. Irvin Ceniceros carried a heavy load as he joined his first patrol outside the walls of Patrol Base Fulod in Sangin, Afghanistan, on Oct. 14, 2010.

Wearing full body armor, Ceniceros also lugged a belt-fed M240 machine gun.

“He had a belt wrapped around him, and he had rounds in his backpack,” recalled Freddy Torres, a sergeant in his squad that day. “It’s a lot of weight. That’s one of the heaviest machine guns we have that you can carry.”

The weight would prove enough to protect the lives of his fellow Marines but not to save his own.

The patrol’s mission was modest, simply “to see what was out there,” Torres said. “We had just taken over that patrol base.”

Taliban fighters controlled much of the area around the base, and roadside bombs were everywhere.

“It was pretty much guaranteed every time you came into our patrol base you’d get shot at,” Torres said.

Ceniceros’ patrol was part of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which had arrived a few weeks earlier as part of the troop surge that President Barack Obama had implemented the year before. They replaced a Marine battalion that had been on minimal patrols.

The British had lost more than 100 men during the four years they manned the base before that.

“We knew it was going to be a tough one,” Torres said.

About 24 men joined India Company’s inaugural patrol on Oct. 14, including several soldiers from the Afghanistan National Army, Torres said. They patrolled for about two hours, no farther than 400 yards from the base, talking to locals, exploring and making their presence known.

Ceniceros, 21, from Arkansas, whom friends called “Ceni,” was well liked and instilled confidence in the troops around him.

“He said things that made you laugh,” Torres said. “He’d mimic songs or movies to get a laugh, to put you in a better mood.”

“He was everybody’s friend, always the guy who cracked a joke,” recalled Sgt. Daniel Evans, who shared a barracks room with the lance corporal in the months of training leading up to their deployment.

Shortly before they were to deploy to Afghanistan, Evans said, they were hanging around the barracks when a company mortar man told them he was headed out to skydive. Did the two of them want to join?

“It was literally a last-minute thing,” Evans said. “Me and Ceni looked at each other like, ‘Screw it, man, we might not come back from Afghanistan.’ ”

A protector

Evans chuckled at the memory of their spontaneous decision to skydive because Ceniceros was “deathly afraid of heights.”

The two had once gone to a Six Flags amusement park. “You know the roller-coaster ride where they take your picture? Every picture of him is him screaming like a little girl.”

Ceniceros was born in Tampa, Fla., and graduated from high school in Clarksville, Ark.

Early on, he took on the role of protector.

“When he was in kindergarten he used to help his friends when some bully kid was bothering them,” said his brother, Abraham, an orthodontist who lives in Mexico.

“He always thought about what someone else was feeling,” said his sister, Vanessa.

At 17, Irvin Ceniceros began imploring his mother to sign permission for him to join the Marines, his sister said. She refused at first, saying it was too dangerous, but relented when her son said he would join anyway when he turned 18.

He was the youngest of the four siblings — three brothers and one sister — and Abraham said his baby brother was “my mom’s favorite kid.”

Perhaps for that reason, Irvin Ceniceros didn’t tell his family he was deploying to Afghanistan, except for Abraham, whom he swore to secrecy. His Marine contract would end soon after his six-month deployment.

During the last conversation he had with his sister, he said that as much as he valued the Marine experience, he missed his family too much to continue a military life.

“He wanted to go to college,” his sister said. “He wanted to do a lot of things.”

‘Let me get up’

His last deed would be that Oct. 14 patrol, for which he was awarded the Silver Star for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy,” according to the official citation.

The patrol returned to an area near one of the walls of the base. Before entering, the patrol leader wanted the group to check out a compound on the other side of a 100-yard wide-open space. That compound was on the edge of warren of twisting, turning alleys that coalition forces rarely patrolled, Torres said.

They divided into three teams, taking their turns crossing the “danger zone,” he said. The men walked single file, about 12 feet apart.

The first team made it over, and the second and third teams were midpoint.

“That’s when the Taliban opened up with their machine guns,” Torres said. The barrels of their guns were sticking out from holes dug through the mud walls of buildings to the south about 200 yards away. Only puffs of dust betrayed their locations.

The Marines returned fire while racing to the safety of a small mud building on the far side of the clearing. Ceniceros, firing his machine gun from the hip, quelled the Taliban guns long enough for all the men to reach safety.

When Ceniceros reached the wall, he set up the gun on the ground and continued shooting.

The Marines were faced with a quick decision: Go back the way they came or head into the Taliban-held area in hope of getting to the camp’s other gate. The latter route meant possibly being shot at from multiple directions.

They would return across the danger zone.

Six or seven Marines at a time would race across as Ceniceros sprayed the Taliban position with bullets.

Ceniceros ran with the final group as he continued to fire from the hip. About 25 yards from safety, a Taliban bullet found a gap in the right side of his armor. He resumed running, though, almost making it to the protective wall where his fellow Marines awaited and were returning fire.

“Right before he got to that wall, he collapsed,” Torres said. They dragged him five yards to safety.

Ceniceros struggled, trying to push the corpsman and other Marines off him. “Let me get up, let me get up,” Torres recalled the wounded Marine saying. “Where’s my machine gun? I wanna get on my machine gun!”

Torres said he believes Ceniceros was lucid but so pumped up with battle adrenaline that he couldn’t focus on his wound. About two months later, Torres would be shot in both thighs, wounds that severed a main artery, yet he remained focused, he said, even calling his own medevac as a corpsman worked to stem gushing blood.

“So from that experience, even though our injuries were different, I could see how Ceni still wanted to get up and get on his machine gun and help out his squad as long as possible,” Torres said.

Ceniceros died within a minute of ending his struggle to get back into the fight.

“At the end of the day, he did save 20-some Marines’ lives by employing his machine gun,” Torres said. “He was one of the last ones to run across, still firing from the hip.”

Twenty-five Marines from the battalion would be killed during the six months they patrolled out of Fulod Base, and another 200 would be wounded. Ceniceros was the first fatality.

A month later, dust rose once again from that deadly mud-walled building. By then, the Marines had slowly gained closer ground behind Building 1 – the designation for the compound that had shielded the Taliban fighters from Ceniceros’ machine gun.

“That house was very important to them because they had all their meetings there,” Torres said. “They could see our base from there. It was extra fortified.”

Torres was part of the Nov. 10 patrol that once again engaged the fighters in Building 1 in a firefight. As the Marines kept them occupied, Torres called in an airstrike with a 500-pound bomb. The building was wiped out, along with almost 20 Taliban commanders and fighters.

The job Ceniceros began was finished by the Marines he’d left behind.

“I only knew him a total of eight months,” Evans said of his friend. “I wish I could have known him longer. ... I think everyone who knew him would say the same thing: He was everybody’s friend.”

olson.wyatt@stripes.com

Heroes 2013: Ordinary people or something more?

Honored for valor and bravery in battle, those dubbed heroes often deflect praise saying they did only what others, in their boots, would have done.

Join the conversation and share your voice.

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