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‘There was some magic there’

Marine Capt. Matthew Manoukian, seen here mugging with two Afghani children, was one of two Marines posthumously awarded the Navy Cross earlier this year after confronting a rogue Afghan uniformed policeman who started shooting unsuspecting Marines inside the wire in Helmand province on Aug. 10, 2012. He and Staff Sgt. Sky Mote were credited with giving other Marines time to flee and forcing the enemy to withdraw.

Marine Capt. Matthew Manoukian wasn’t afraid to take a few punches to protect his classmates from bullies.

It happened in the first grade and again in the eighth. During his junior year of high school he went looking for a group of kids from another town who had beaten some classmates. He made sure they never returned, getting a black eye that had to be airbrushed out of his yearbook picture.

Marine Staff Sgt. Sky Mote saved a fellow hunter while on a high attitude trip into the Sierras by hiking 10 miles in the dark to get help after the man disappeared. As a Marine he saved the life of his team leader who stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, making his way to him through uncertain terrain to apply life-saving tourniquets.

So it came as no surprise to the families of the two 1st Special Operations Battalion Marines from Northern California when they gave their lives confronting a rogue Afghan uniformed policeman after he started shooting unsuspecting Marines inside the wire Aug. 10, 2012. Mote and Manoukian were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross in January for their actions that day, the nation’s second highest award for valor in combat after the Medal of Honor.

“That was him. That’s the way he was,” said Manoukian’s father, Socrates “Peter” Manoukian. “If they ran, the guy would have ran after them and killed other people.”

Mote’s parents said they too were proud of their son.

“He was always there to help others,” said Mote’s father, Russell Mote.

Mote, an explosive ordnance disposal technician, and Manoukian, the team commander, had an affinity for the Afghan people, their families said. Manoukian was descended from an Armenian genocide survivor. His grandfather had lived in Syria and spoke Arabic; his father was born in Lebanon.

Mote, whom the Afghan police called “Engineer Sky,” phoned home with pride after forces he had trained went out on their own and conducted successful operations.

Saving Marines

Neither Marine was prepared for what happened that day, when the relative calm inside their Marine Tactical Operations Center in Helmand province was shattered by gunfire.

When the Afghan policeman opened fire, he mortally wounded Marine Gunnery Sgt. Ryan Jeschke, 31, of Herndon, Va., outside the center. Then he turned his AK-47 on the center itself. Bullets tore through the plywood walls and partitions. He burst through the door and fired on two Marines who had begun maneuvering out of the room.

Manoukian, 29, from Los Altos Hills, Calif., was in the far corner. He drew his pistol and “in the face of near certain death,” engaged the attacker while commanding his Marines to get to safety. With one of the two Marines critically wounded, he drew fire upon himself and continued to engage the enemy until he too was mortally wounded from the shooter’s “overwhelming” fire.

Manoukian assisted in disrupting the enemy’s pursuit of his comrades, giving them security to get to safety and saving their lives.

When the shooting started, Mote was in an adjacent room, unseen by the attacker. The 27-year-old from El Dorado, Calif., could have exited to safety. But that wasn’t his way, his parents said.

He grabbed his M-4 rifle and entered the operations room, exposing himself to a hail of gunfire, which further halted the gunman’s pursuit of others. With the attacker less than five meters in front of him, Mote engaged him in the open. He kept fighting despite being wounded, until he died.

The actions of both men forced the enemy to withdraw, the citations said.

As he presented the Navy Cross to both families on Jan. 18, Major Gen. Mark Clark said the men were participating in the command’s new strategy of building relationships with tribal leaders and Afghan security forces to stabilize the Puzeh area at the time of their deaths. This put them in considerable danger.

“Their efforts and their sacrifice were not in vain,” Clark said according to a Defense Department statement. “Puzeh is still stable today.”

Mote’s fellow Marines credited him with keeping them alive in one of the most heavily mined regions on the planet. He wasn’t above placing a fake IED around as a practical joke and also a training tool. Friends credited him with keeping them alive through training.

Manoukian’s deference to senior enlisted leadership was inspired by his reading of Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, one of the most decorated Marines, Peter Manoukian said. He also studied philosophy and tactics. Due to his heritage, he had an uncanny ability to negotiate with Afghan elders.

There was something about both men that led family and friends to believe they were destined for greatness. The scars of losing them are deep.

“Those guys were all tough as nails,” Peter Manoukian said. “They were incredibly brave, movie star handsome, great guys. They’re larger than life.”

“There was some magic there,” Russell Mote said.

burke.matt@stripes.com

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