As the only Marine in his squad to see the IED trigger string, Lance Cpl. Donald Hogan could have dived for cover and potentially saved himself. Instead, he called out a warning to his comrades and shoved the man nearest to the bomb, saving him.
The 20-year-old died along a roadway in southern Afghanistan that day, Aug. 26, 2009, but the rest of the squad survived. For his instinctive, split-second heroism, Hogan was posthumously awarded the highest decoration the Navy can give a Marine or sailor, the Navy Cross.
Hogan, of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine regiment based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., wasn’t even scheduled to go on the route-clearing mission that day, but volunteered when the assigned squad came up short a member.
“Then boom, the smoke and the dust. I can still hear all the debris … like it was raining. You couldn’t see two feet.”
- Sgt. Rocky Hoard
He loved being in the Marine Corps and threw himself into the job with gusto, said his mother, Carla Hogan, of San Clemente, Calif., who remains in contact with members of the squad.
“They called him the stress monster,” she said. “He was the one who was always worried about whether everyone was behaving properly, or if they had all the proper equipment. ... Sometimes they’d tell him, ‘Hey, stop volunteering so much, you’re making us look bad.’ ”
Hogan was on his first combat tour, but regardless of inexperience, he was a deeply dedicated Marine, said Sgt. Rocky Hoard, the squad leader.
“Hogan was the only junior Marine I had in my squad,” Hoard said. “He had some [crappy] jobs and [crappy] hours, and the kid never [complained] once.”
On that day in August 2009, a child tipped off NATO forces that an improvised explosive device was buried next to a road in the Nawa district of Helmand province that was heavily traveled by Marines moving between a forward operating base and a patrol base.
The squad moved out on foot. Hogan was up front with an electronic minesweeping device, while a dog sniffed for evidence of explosives. They soon passed the area where the IED was reported, but found nothing. So they headed back.
It was a sweltering day, and the squad slowed to let the bomb-sniffing dog — a Labrador retriever that Hoard says was highly reliable but in hindsight, not trained to detect the latest bomb formulations — cool off in a roadside canal.
And then Hogan found what they’d been looking for.
“Hogan just comes to a dead stop because he sees it, a kite string, and he calls out ‘wire,’ ” Hoard says. “I could tell from the tone of his voice, dude, we are [screwed].”
At the other end of the string, 25 yards away in a cornfield, an insurgent lay prone, watching them.
“Hogan pushes [Cpl. Cody Gibson], who’d been standing right on top of the thing,” Hoard said. “He yelled and I got down. I hoped it wouldn’t be too bad.”
Other squad members also had a split second to react before the insurgent pulled the string.
“Then boom, the smoke and the dust,” Hoard said. “I can still hear all the debris … like it was raining. You couldn’t see two feet.”
The IED was huge, and packed with jagged metal. Hoard had wondered before what it would be like to be blown up, but his expectations didn’t match reality as the smoke cleared.
“I have no idea what happens to your body when something like that goes off,” he said. “I was expecting a Rob Zombie film, but it instead it felt like the most peaceful time in my entire life. You can smell everything, your eyes are real sharp, you don’t feel anything. That’s what it’s like being in shock.”
He snapped out of it and cinched a tourniquet around his left leg, which had been devastated by the blast, but blood kept pumping from a torn femoral artery. The first Marine to reach him was Gibson, whom Hogan had pushed off the IED seconds before. He cranked tight a second tourniquet and Hoard’s bleeding subsided. Gibson told the squad leader news he didn’t want to hear: “Hogan didn’t make it. Everyone else is really [messed] up right now.”
In the last moments before being transported to the hospital and the ensuing years of surgery and rehabilitation, Hoard glanced at Hogan’s prone body.
“He just looked like he was laying there sleeping,” Hoard said.
The death haunted the sergeant as he worked to regain mobility in the Camp Pendleton wounded warrior regiment. In the meantime, Hogan’s parents, Carla and Jim Hogan, had become increasingly active in the Marine Corps community around Pendleton. Carla founded the San Clemente Marine Corps Support Group, as well as a charity, Socks for Heroes, that supplies socks — which she had learned Marines tear through at an alarming rate — to troops downrange.
They also reached out to their son’s fellow Marines, but Hoard didn’t respond.
“It’s one thing when you talk to your brothers and try to play it down and say, ‘Well, it’s war,’” he said. “But what do you say to a guy’s mom? So I avoided it at all costs.”
Donald Hogan was approved for the Navy Cross in 2011, but his parents elected to delay the medal ceremony until January 2012, when the battalion, recently back from another deployment, could attend.
At the ceremony, presided over by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Hoard felt the moment had come. He introduced himself as their son’s squad leader and addressed Carla Hogan directly about the day her son died.
“I told her, ‘Ma’am, I’ve played this out 1,000 times in my head, and there’s nothing I could have done better, or different,’ ” Hoard said. “She saw it on my face. Everything was OK.”
Mabus spoke at the ceremony in front of a barracks at Pendleton named in honor of Donald Hogan, but Hoard said the legacy of the lance corporal’s actions will endure in even more important ways.
“If not for him, Gibson would be dead. ... I would have been dead, I know that,” he said. “My son was born three days after that blast. He’ll grow up knowing Hogan’s the reason he’s got a dad.”