'I started patching them up real quick'
Navy Secretary Gordon England presents the Navy Cross to Hospitalman 3rd Class Luis Fonseca Jr. on August 11, 2004, at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.(Wayne Nelmes, U.S. Navy)Hospitalman 3rd Class Luis Fonseca Jr.
Unit: 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade
Medal: Navy Cross
Earned: March 23, 2003, in Al-Nasiriyah, Iraq
When 24-year-old Hospitalman 3rd Class Luis Fonseca Jr. celebrates his sixth year of Navy service in July, topping his decorations will be something most servicemembers have never seen: the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor.
Fonseca is one of two servicemembers from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade’s Task Force Tarawa awarded the Navy Cross for bravery during the battle of Al-Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 23, 2003.
On that day, Fonseca was a hospitalman apprentice on his first combat deployment with the U.S. Marines.
His unit, Company A, 1st Platoon, was attached to the 2nd MEB’s 1st Battalion, Company C, 1st Platoon, which was tasked with capturing and holding the northernmost of Al-Nasiriyah’s three main bridges.
As the unit’s corpsman, Fonseca was aboard an amphibious assault vehicle, or amtrack, reserved for evacuating battle casualties quickly to the rear.
“I was supposed to stay back,” away from the fighting, Fonseca said in a telephone interview from Al Asad, Iraq, where he is on his third deployment (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq) in three years.
The Marines took the northern bridge at about 11:30 a.m., and almost immediately started taking rocket-propelled grenade and mortar fire, Fonseca said.
Within moments, a call came over the radio reporting that an amtrack had received a direct hit with an RPG, wounding five Marines.
Grabbing his bag of medical supplies, Fonseca jumped from his track and raced to assess the condition of wounded Marines who had been pulled from the smoking vehicle and laid out on the ground by their comrades.
Under fire, “I started patching them up real quick.”
That’s when Fonseca, kneeling over a patient, heard noise from above, and looked up.
“I saw … you know how bottle rockets sparkle? It was like that.”
What Fonseca saw were not bottle rockets; they were cluster bombs from a U.S. Air Force A-10 “Warthog” aircraft.
According to a U.S. Central Command release, a total of 18 Marines were killed in the battle at the northern bridge, with eight deaths attributed to enemy fire, and the rest undetermined because “the Marines were also engaged in heavy fighting with the enemy at the time of the incident.”
According to the release, the official investigation into the possible fratricide showed that the A-10s mistakenly attacked the Marines “for a combination of reasons, including problematic communications links between U.S. forces and a battle plan that, due to unforeseen circumstances, changed as the situation unfolded.”
The pilots were not blamed for the incident, the release said.
After the Warthogs departed, Fonseca and other Marines brought the five casualties to the evacuation amtrack, but that vehicle was soon pounded by at least three RPGs.
“That’s when I decided to evacuate my patients,” Fonseca said.
Fortunately, Marine reinforcements were arriving, and Fonseca was able to oversee the evacuation of his patients by amtrack and by helicopter.
All five Marines survived.
Fonseca was awarded the Navy Cross last August at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he is stationed with his wife, Maria (also a Navy corpsman) and their two children.
The medal is an honored memento, Fonseca said.
But far more important, Fonseca said, are the friendships he has forged in the crucible of combat.
“Marines are some of the best people I’ve ever met,” Fonseca said.
“To be perfectly honest, being accepted by this tight-knit community … makes me more proud of who I am and what I do than [receiving] the Navy Cross.”