The Marines of 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, spent the first few weeks of their 2003 deployment living in two-man tents in the desert in Kuwait. They weren’t sure they’d even go into Iraq. When they did enter the country, they encountered only sporadic fighting as they secured the Rumaylah oil field and continued pushing north to Baghdad. Then-Cpl. Timothy Tardif said they hadn’t really seen the enemy.
But April 12, 2003, was different.
Tardif’s unit was doing recon on a bridge in the small town of Tarmiya, about 30 miles north of Baghdad. The Marines needed to make sure the tanks and amphibious assault vehicles could get across the bridge.
Tardif, now a gunnery sergeant, was in an amphibious assault vehicle on one side of the bridge, while two other vehicles went to the other side. The people in the town were very friendly, Tardif said. But the atmosphere changed suddenly as the streets emptied and the two vehicles across the bridge from Tardif were attacked.
Tardif and his squad got the go-ahead to cross the bridge and help, but as soon as they crossed the river, their vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, he said. Tardif didn’t have a good communication line with his platoon commander, so the Marines got out of the vehicle and Tardif said he “took initiative.”
The Marines were taking fire from their right flank, and Tardif figured the enemy would try to envelope them. He took his squad to the right and started clearing compounds, looking to confront the enemy.
Tardif’s award citation says he “charged across a road under intense small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire, inspiring his Marines to follow his example.” But telling the story now, Tardif, 32, says he did what “a good corporal should do” and described the Marines pushing forward together.
Tardif’s squad had a shoulder-fired rocket and an M240 machine gun, and they were the first Marines near the men who were shooting at them, he said. As he tried to get the weapons set to blow up the enemy position, a fighter hiding in the grass threw a grenade at the Marines.
Tardif took a significant amount of shrapnel from the blast, but as squad leader, he didn’t want to leave his fellow Marines.
“I did not want to let them down, no matter what,” he said. “I owed that to them.’’
As an infantry rifle squad, their job was “to find the enemy and kill him,” he said, so they kept pushing to attack the enemy bunker. The Marines kept creeping closer, but each time they’d throw a grenade, the enemy would return fire, he said.
During one exchange, one of Tardif’s Marines was shot — so Tardif and another Marine grabbed the wounded lance corporal while another man, Cpl. Marco Martinez, picked up an enemy RPG launcher and attacked the bunker, killing the four men inside.
The entire ordeal lasted about eight hours, and Tardif had been wounded halfway through. By the time Martinez blew up the enemy bunker, Tardif said, “I was pretty well spent.”
The Marines were ordered to pull back as higher headquarters called for air and artillery support, and Tardif collapsed as he led his squad out, fighting all the way.
“That was it,” he said, “My brain and my body sort of knew.”
Tardif was medically evacuated and needed a blood transfusion, but he managed to return to his unit for the rest of the deployment. In 2004, then-Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee said Tardif “convinced the doctors that he needed to be checked out of the hospital,” then borrowed a uniform, went to an Air Force base and talked his way onto an aircraft back to Iraq.
After the deployment was over and Tardif’s unit had returned to Camp Pendleton in California, he was awarded the Silver Star for his “bold leadership, wise judgment and complete dedication to duty.” Martinez received the Navy Cross and went on to write a book.
Tardif deployed to Iraq four more times and once to Afghanistan. He was the 2010 recipient of the Gen. Gerald C. Thomas Award for Inspirational Leadership and is now the staff noncommissioned officer of Scout Sniper School at the School of Infantry-Detachment Hawaii.
Junior Marines going through the corporals course at the school must navigate a training scenario based on Tardif’s experience in Tarmiya; the goal is to teach them how to react under pressure.
He also talks to the Marines about the importance of making quick decisions.
“You don’t have time to sit there, look around, ask for guidance,” he said. “You have to make a decision at that moment, and then own it.”
Tardif also hopes the corporals take away a bit about the Marine Corps spirit.
“Our job is to kill the enemy,” he said. “Talking to these kids, hopefully I can influence that a little bit,” to help them think for themselves, to build good bonds with their Marines, and to not lose control if and when they go into combat.
When then-Secretary of the Navy Gordon England awarded Tardif the Silver Star, he said that Tardif and the others “did good things without notice, and without the acclaim of crowds. But they got the acclaim of their fellow Marines.”
Tardif said he believes he was given the award because as the squad leader, he was the “figurehead.”
“My squad ... they saved me that day,” he said. “They’re the ones who pulled me through it.”