When Staff Sgt. Ysidro Gonzalez Jr. was shot in the shoulder, he didn’t want any morphine. Just a cigarette.
“I wanted to stay alert,” Gonzalez said. “I still had a job to do.”
That devotion to duty didn’t go unrecognized. Gonzalez was awarded a Bronze Star with “V” in February for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010.
Gonzalez had already served four tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan when he deployed again in 2010. Technically, he had been with 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., since 2006. But prior to his deployment, he’d been temporarily stationed in Twentynine Palms, Calif., for about five months.
So he packed his bags, drove across the country to North Carolina and left for Afghanistan a week later — with a unit full of Marines he’d never met.
When he arrived in Afghanistan in September 2010, he was assigned to be the position commander in Kunjak, in the northern part of Helmand province. He had a reinforced rifle squad and a full mobile combined anti-armor team, and they were tasked with securing the area.
“I really don’t think anybody was anticipating it to be too kinetic, because it had been quiet for a while,” he said.
But within a week, the Marines were taking fire.
“I loved him as a brother, so it was very hard to hear. My heart sank.”
- Staff Sgt. Ysidro Gonzalez Jr.
Gonzalez thinks the Taliban were testing the new Marines’ abilities.
“I had the best group of Marines a Marine could ever be with,” he said. “My Marines’ will to fight ... was much greater [than the Taliban’s].”
As the Marines cleared that area, one of Gonzalez’s close friends, Staff Sgt. Glen Silva, was working in the southern part of the battalion’s area of operations, an area overrun with improvised explosive devices. Silva stepped on an IED and was gravely wounded.
The morning it happened, Gonzalez was preparing to go on an operation. He knew something had happened to Silva, but he wouldn’t let another Marine give him the details until the operation was over. When Gonzalez finally asked for the news, he learned that Silva had lost a leg and sustained other injuries to his torso and arms.
“I loved him as a brother, so it was very hard to hear,” he said. “My heart sank.”
With Silva in the hospital, 81mm Mortar Platoon needed a new platoon sergeant. The commander asked Gonzalez to move down to Sangin.
He went from a lot of firefights, “guns against guns, men against men,” to more IEDs than he’d ever seen. Within an hour at the new platoon, he had to evacuate two of his Marines who lost their legs in IED blasts.
About a month after Gonzalez arrived in Sangin, the platoon heard that the Taliban were using a nearby village for their incessant IED campaign.
Each time Gonzalez and his platoon commander, Lt. Robert Rain, heard about IED injuries, “it was a kick in the gut,” Gonzalez said. “We had to do something.”
On Dec. 20, Rain and about seven Marines set up in one compound in the village, with Gonzalez and another seven Marines in an adjoining compound. A group of Afghan police, dressed in plain clothes, stood outside, acting like members of the Taliban and bringing enemy fighters into the compounds to be arrested.
About an hour in, word got out about the operation and gunshots began. It was getting progressively more intense, and Gonzalez heard that one of the Afghans had been shot in the leg.
When he went outside to check on the man, he saw about 40 civilians hunkered down in the courtyard between the two compounds. Gonzalez started moving the civilians to safety as the gunfire intensified.
“It started getting pretty hectic,” he said.
One of the Afghan police officers was monitoring a Taliban radio and heard they were bringing in reinforcements. Gonzalez peeked around a corner to get a positive identification and saw Taliban fighters running about 20 feet from the compound. So he grabbed another Marine and went out to assess the situation.
“As soon as we came out of the compound, we came under heavy fire,” Gonzalez said. “It was just a big gunfight with the bad guys.”
Gonzalez and Cpl. Eddie Lobley were back to back, firing at enemies all around them.
“It was kind of like a movie scene,” Gonzalez said.
Someone called for an update.
“We’re currently surrounded, but we’re in a good position. We’re firm. The Marines are engaging the enemy, everything’s under control,” Gonzalez remembers saying.
Then Lobley moved to get in a better position, and Gonzalez was shot in the left shoulder.
It seemed like slow motion as he saw the men who shot him, lifted his rifle and got a few rounds off before collapsing to the ground. Lobley saw him go down.
“He ran toward me, rounds skipping all over the deck, dragged me to safety and started treating my wounds,” Gonzalez said.
The other Marines were concerned, but he turned down morphine and told them not worry.
“I said, ‘I’m fine, I just need a cigarette,’ ” he said.
After the cigarette and some bandages, he put his helmet on and walked back to his compound.
The gunfire was still intense 30 minutes later when a helicopter tried to land and evacuate Gonzalez. He waved them away so no one else would get hurt trying to cover the ground between Gonzalez and the helicopter. Gonzalez told the Marines he was fine.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said. “Plus, I didn’t want to leave my Marines in the heat of the battle.”
SEE GONZALEZ ON PAGE 13
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So Gonzalez stayed to fight. Roughly seven hours after he was wounded, Marines from a nearby patrol base arrived in a truck to take him out.
Gonzalez couldn’t get into the truck because it was so high, and one of the Afghan police he had developed a friendship with offered to help.
“One of the Afghan police got on his hands and knees and told me to use him as a step,” Gonzalez said. “I’ll never forget that.”
From the patrol base, Gonzalez was flown to a forward operating base in the helicopter that had tried to evacuate him that morning.
“They couldn’t stop apologizing that they couldn’t get me,” Gonzalez said, and the crew chief showed him the bullet holes on the side of the helicopter from their attempts.
Now, Gonzalez is back at Camp Lejeune, awaiting orders while the rest of his battalion is in Afghanistan again. He said he felt humbled, surprised and a little guilty when he heard early this year that he would receive the Bronze Star with “V” for his actions.
“There are so many Marines out there — right now, in the past, in the future — who do far greater things than I could have ever done, and they weren’t recognized,” he said. “On deployment, I see these kids doing the most heroic things you could ever imagine.”
He credits Lobley with saving his life, and praised all the Marines he worked with over the course of the deployment.
“I’m so proud of my Marines. They were just magnificent,” he said. “I’d never met them until a week and a half before we deployed. But we have a bond that was built in combat, in the most austere conditions: a bond of blood.”
After being flown out of Afghanistan, Gonzalez was moved to Bethesda Naval Hospital on Christmas Eve. Waking up alone and not knowing how his Marines were doing was terrible, he said.
“The greatest privilege in the world is to lead Marines,” he said. “I still think about them every day.”