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‘It was like second nature’

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jerome Salabye, left, and Cpl. Cecil D. Burkes, avionics mechanics with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 161, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) conducts maintenance on an MV-22 Osprey at Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Nov. 4, 2102. Salabye and Burkes installed a slip ring during routine maintenance.

It should have been a quiet deployment for Cpl. Cecil D. Burkes Jr., an Osprey mechanic whose work confined him to a large base in southern Afghanistan.

Yet when enemy fighters crept through the walls of Camp Bastion in Helmand province in 2012 and began a rampage that would claim two lives and destroy several fighter jets, the Marine mechanic quickly found himself on the front lines. His response would help repel the attack and earn him a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor. It also proved something about himself, Burkes said.

“I always said if something were to happen I wanted to believe I would be able to respond,” he wrote in a recent email. “And in a second all my training took over and my fight-or-flight mood said one way only. It was like second nature.”

A former avionics electronic technician from the postage-stamp-sized city of Mize, Miss., Burkes, 25, had deployed to Camp Bastion in the summer with Marine Medium Tilt-rotor Squadron (VMM) 161. He was running tests on the flight line on the night of Sept. 14 when he heard muzzle blasts, followed by the sound of bullets zipping in his direction.

Burkes ran inside, grabbed his weapon and returned outside to an odd sight: a group of men wearing Army fatigues and white tennis shoes. The Marine watched the group when one suddenly lifted an AK-47 and fired at a passing bus. The other fired a rocket-propelled grenade.

“That’s where my training kicked in,” Burkes wrote.

He shot and killed one of the men and maneuvered with other Marines in a fire team to take on the others. They would continue through small-arms fire and as grenades exploded nearby. Burkes killed two more fighters and wounded a fourth man, according to the account that accompanied his award.

Fifteen fighters had attacked the British-run base, killing two Marines, injuring 17 Americans and British and destroying six U.S. Harrier jets. Two Marine generals were forced to retire a year after the incident. A British parliamentary inquiry blamed lax security, finding half of the camp’s guard towers were unstaffed when the attacked occurred.

Burkes was awarded the Bronze Star in July 2013. He left the Marine Corps three months later, and he now works as a roustabout on an offshore oil rig. He still thinks about the attack and his response, he said, especially when coworkers ask about his service.

Talking about the attack with anyone outside of the military was difficult at first, he said. He struggled to make sense of the day inside his own head, and he had trouble sleeping amid the doubts that he had done enough.

Things have gradually gotten better, he said. Senior Marines came and talked with him, he wrote, telling him that “facts are fact.” Burkes now accepts that what happened was life-changing, and he thanks God and the Marines who had his back that day, he wrote.

“I felt a lot of guilt, like if I’d just shot faster or something,” Burkes wrote. “But the truth is there was nothing we could have changed or done better.”

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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