No food. No backup.
It was the summer of 2010 and Lance Cpl. Nat Small and a handful of fellow Marines were alone in southern Afghanistan, the stronghold of Afghan insurgents in spring combat mode.
Small, then 20 years old, was part of two teams of scout snipers stalking “high-value targets” alongside a special Marine tactical weapons team. The scout snipers are trained to sneak up on their targets and kill them from afar.
“Our missions were a little bit different,” Small said. “But the training we get as grunts is still applicable. We do find ourselves in close encounters. We’re not always counting on things to be a thousand yards away.”
Since arriving in Afghanistan that March, Small said the snipers were shot at nearly every day. They were constantly assisting with troop movements, convoys and civilian engagement missions.
“I tell people what he did for me and what he did for us. I want people to know.”
- Nat Small
In the days leading up to Small’s final mission in Afghanistan — his final combat mission as a U.S. Marine — he was exhausted and hungry, but proved to be a near-perfect Marine.
It culminated June 22 in a face-to-face gunbattle with Afghan fighters on a ridgeline overlooking a hostile village — dubbed “The Potato” by the U.S. military — that earned Small the Bronze Star with “V.”
Claudio Patino, a Marine corporal, never saw the end of that fight. The 22-year-old California native became one of nearly 2,000 U.S. combat deaths since the start of the Afghanistan War in 2001.
Small and his unit had again found themselves on the wrong side of the crosshairs, swallowed by the mountains in a valley near Musa Qala.
The air spit bullets at them. Patches of earth exploded in fire as rocket-propelled grenades landed all around them.
Small got eyes on one of the enemy positions. He ran from cover quickly enough to escape attack but deliberately enough to draw attention. He killed two fighters, breaking up a machine-gun nest that had targeted part of his team nearby.
Small’s exploits gave each side time to gather back into their respective teams and think through the next tangle.
The chase was on, but neither side could be sure who had the advantage.
Shadow 1 and Shadow 2, the scout sniper teams, found a dusty three-story compound to hole up in. The weapons unit they were with had posted up in another sun-baked mud house nearby.
The intel coming from regional headquarters was scant, and the little information they had was bleak.
The village over the ridge nearest their location was likely hostile. And the wadi surrounding their position was freshly planted with homemade mines.
The sniper scouts had been on the move several days in row. They were short on food, ammunition and energy.
Small, who had grown up in the green-gray woods of northeastern Washington state, was an outdoorsman. Eating required a kind of killing the other Marines weren’t familiar with until Small taught them.
They butchered several goats left on the roof of the compound they had secured, where they also found pots to cook their makeshift meal. Small ripped root vegetables and watermelons out of the dirt, not far from the land mine garden. He picked pomegranates, grapes and berries from the seasonably lush trees.
“It came to me naturally,” Small said.
“Glad you’re with us, Natty,” he remembers his buddies saying at the time.
They ate the homemade meal and rejoined the weapons team just in time to spy two enemy fighters surreptitiously setting up on the hill.
Small and three other snipers volunteered to go after them. The game was back on.
“We were going to go up there and take care of them,” Small said. “The plan was for the four of us to come back.”
But it didn’t work out like that.
Small and the other three men tiptoed through the wadi and planned their ascent in the green cover of the low-hanging fruit trees and bushes.
By the time they crested the ridge, their attack no longer was a secret. The gunfire was immediate.
Patino pushed himself into the line of fire so Small and the other two would know where to shoot.
The first bullet grazed Patino’s arm, but the second ripped a path through his upper torso, said Small, who returned the fatal shots to the two enemy fighters at the top of the ridge.
“He did it on purpose,” Small said. “He basically fatally exposed himself before the rest of us could. He definitely laid down his life for the team.”
Small’s shots attracted a rocket-propelled grenade, which exploded next to him. Tiny, hot, sharp bits of metal pierced his legs before they collapsed beneath him.
He woke up in a cloud of dust and bounced back on his feet.
“I didn’t realize I had taken any shrapnel. I didn’t feel any physical pain on the hill,” Small said. “I was just running on adrenaline.”
He retrieved the weapons from the two dead fighters and rushed over to Patino.
Small and one teammate rendered aid to Patino while the other sniper provided cover with a blanket of bullets until their backup from the bottom of the hill reached them.
“He was coughing up a lot of blood,” Small said.
Soon he was gone.
When the medevac chopper arrived, Small’s injuries finally hit him.
“I couldn’t hear and I wasn’t able to keep my balance,” he said.
His vision blurred everything into two identical versions of itself. He couldn’t stand up without falling. He didn’t want to leave on the bird, but the choice wasn’t his.
Small’s trip from the battlefield to a combat hospital at Kandahar Air Field was just as hazy as the one from Afghanistan to Germany, where American casualties are taken.
“I didn’t think I needed to go. I didn’t want to go,” Small said. “Once you leave Afghanistan and go to Germany, that’s the end of the road for going back.”
But it didn’t feel right.
“That was the hardest,” he said. “I wanted to be with my team.”
Small suffered traumatic brain injury, the hallmark injury for U.S. troops in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He knew where he was most of the time. He knew who he was all of the time. He remembered every second of the fight that had gotten him there. He remembered Patino hadn’t made it, that his friend had died in his arms.
By the time Small reached the Naval hospital in San Diego a few weeks later, his motor functions had improved and the shrapnel wounds in his legs had begun to grow fresh skin.
But the pain from Patino’s death follows him like a shadow.
Small considers his fallen combat buddy a brother. He and his wife have befriended Patino’s family in California, who returned a visit to the couple in Washington when Small was awarded the Bronze Star this fall.
Small said his medal is dear to him only for the opportunity to talk about Patino.
“I talk about Patino every chance I get,” he said. “I tell people what he did for me and what he did for us. I want people to know.”