Cpl. NicholasCox

Unit: Combat Assault Battalion, 3rd Marine Division

Medal: Bronze Star with “V”

Earned: June 21, 2008, Tut Naw, Afghanistan

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Fragments embedded in his back and arm, medals pinned to his chest — and doubts weighing on his heart.

These are the mementos Cpl. Nicholas Cox, 22, carries with him from his deployment to Afghanistan from February to November 2008. There, he and other Combat Assault Battalion troops were part of an embedded training team mentoring Afghan National Army soldiers.

June 21 is the day that weighs heaviest on Cox.

He, two other Marines, their Navy corpsman and the Afghan platoon they were advising were working with U.S. soldiers of the Italy-based 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, to search Tut Naw, about three miles from the Pakistan border.

They left their forward operating base in the predawn hours that Saturday. The sun was up by the time they arrived at the village, a small collection of mud huts at the opening of a valley extending across the border.

“The village was empty, which is usually a bad sign,” Cox, a combat engineer, remembered. “We knew something was up.”

U.S. soldiers in higher terrain then saw about seven insurgents in a nearby ravine. They pinned down the enemy and called in artillery support.

Artillery rounds rained into the ravine for an hour as the Marines helped the Afghan platoon search the village. Once the artillery stopped, the Afghan soldiers and their Marine advisers entered the draw for a battle assessment.

“We thought they were dead before we actually went in there,” Cox said.

Cox, Petty Officer 1st Class Jesse Mitsch and the Afghan platoon commander followed a donkey trail high up one side of the draw as Capt. Freddie Martinez and Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Kreger entered the ravine from the other side.

“It was pretty nasty terrain,” Cox recalled, especially for troops loaded down with combat gear.

Climbing over and squeezing around large boulders, the Afghan platoon stumbled upon a weapons cache, Mitsch recalled.

Looking down at the scene from about 90 feet up the wall of the ravine, Cox instantly became worried, he said.

Despite the shelling, he said, “There were no bodies, no blood.”

Then Cox glanced up and saw an insurgent 30 feet away, hiding behind a rock.

“It was like he was waiting for the platoon to get closer,” Cox said. “I yelled out something like: ‘Hey, there he is.’  ”

The insurgent fired, hitting the Afghan commander in the head, killing him instantly just five feet in front of Cox. More enemy fire killed two other Afghan soldiers.

“I knew I had to kill this guy. Everyone was exposed and this guy needed to be taken out,” Cox recounted.

Cox popped up from his position and shot the enemy gunman.

Then the scene erupted with small-arms fire.

“I mean, a lot of firing,” Mitsch, the medical corpsman, said. “I remember firing and then it would stop and everybody asking where it was coming from.”

Cox was hit in the upper arm. The bullet fragmented throughout his arm and upper back.

“I didn’t even realize I had been shot,” Cox recalled. “I was very lucky it was a very small round.”

Another chance glance behind him saved Cox’s life, as he spotted another insurgent.

“It was really scary when I realized he was behind us with a weapon in his hand,” Cox said.

Cox fired three shots and put down the insurgent.

Eventually, the U.S. Army command ordered everyone out of the ravine in order to call in more air support and additional troops, ending the fight with an estimated seven insurgents killed.

Today, Cox still receives treatment for possible nerve damage caused by the metal fragments.

His actions that June day earned him the Bronze Star with “V” device, adding to a Navy Commendation with “V” for his efforts during a firefight earlier in that month.

But he’s also burdened with doubts. The deaths of the Afghan soldiers weigh on him.

He said he worries about the what-ifs.

“What if I hadn’t looked back? What if I had frozen up? It could have been a lot worse,” Cox said.

And though no one has said anything to him, he questions whether his fellow Marines think him worthy of the medals he’s received. He asks himself why they didn’t get Bronze Stars.

“Every time I think about it, I’m always wondering how the other Marines are feeling about it,” Cox said.

He also remembers all the tough times that he, Martinez and Kreger went through together in Afghanistan.

“Sometimes I just wish I could talk to those guys,” Cox said of the higher-ranking Martinez and Kreger.

“But it’s not easy,” he said, feeling the gulf between the ranks separates them too much.

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