'You wonder if you could have done anything else'

A couple of days into a clearing operation in the Sangin district of Afghanistan, then-Staff Sgt. Verice Bennett heard “red air” was coming the next morning.

Red air means bad weather — and no air support.

“You know you get the feeling something’s going to go down? Anytime there’s red air, I get a little more tense, because if anybody gets wounded, we can’t get them out,” said Bennett, now a gunnery sergeant.

That night, the platoon ran patrols as Bennett fought that uneasy feeling.

The next morning — Sept. 13, 2010 — 3rd Platoon, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment started taking heavy fire.

"What else is there to do? Cry?"
- Gunnery Sgt. Verice Bennett

Bennett, who had been the acting platoon commander for only a few days, briefly forgot he was in charge. Another Marine had to get his attention as the commanders called for a situation report. Bennett outlined the situation — mortars, rockets, machine guns and snipers in different positions all around them. As part of a larger clearing operating, the platoon had split a large group of enemy fighters in half. They were surrounded by more than 100 Taliban.

It wasn’t long before the platoon was running out of ammunition. Still, Bennett was calm. He called in three M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System strikes: one for the east-west line, one on the north-south tree line and another for a building just 30 meters in front of the Marines’ position.

As the fight progressed, the Marines had to resupply several times. Bennett called in so many rocket strikes that the battery at the launching site, Camp Leatherneck, ran out. But after several hours, the main fight had gotten within 10 meters of the Marines.

“I grabbed a grenade from a kid and I chucked it out of the building,” Bennett said. “And the machine gunners, we all started throwing grenades.”

The Marines were surrounded and at one point considered fixing bayonets because they were so low on ammunition. Through it all — the gunshots, the explosions — Bennett smiled. After the battle was over, one of his Marines asked him what was so funny.

“What else is there to do?” Bennett told him. “Cry?’”

An officer who had talked to Bennett on the radio said he was unusually serene throughout the 10-hour ordeal.

“I never heard anybody so calm before,” the officer told Bennett. “You sounded like you were sitting in Starbucks.”

Bennett saw no point in getting upset.

“What’s there to get uppity about?” he said. “If you get all nervous and stuff, then you can’t think right. I was like, (in a calm voice) ‘Yeah, they’re pretty much all around us.’ I mean, what are you going to do?”

Bennett doesn’t remember exactly how the battle ended. He called in some rockets, and there was the grenade fight, but he’s not sure which happened first. When it did end, Bennett’s platoon had killed 18 Taliban fighters and wounded at least a dozen others, according to his award citation.

No one from Bennett’s platoon was injured.

The Marines wondered what was in that nearby building the Taliban seemed so eager to protect. They blew a hole in the back wall to get inside, and found thousands of pounds of homemade explosives, improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions.

Back in the U.S., Bennett was awarded the Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone Award for Courage and Commitment. Then, in December, he was awarded the Silver Star for his “bold leadership, wise judgment and complete dedication to duty.”

The medal was “pretty cool,” Bennett said, but he was torn about it.

“It’s been a battle since I’ve been back. You wonder, as a leader, did I do what it takes? Do I deserve it?” he said. “You wonder if you could have done anything else.”

Bennett also said the series of incidents cited in his award citation was not the most significant contact the platoon faced during that “most intense deployment” of his career.
Shortly before the operation for which Bennett earned the Silver Star, one Marine lost both of his legs and another was killed. Lance Cpl. Robert John Newton died two days after his 21st birthday.

“He was an outstanding young kid, always smiling, always had a positive attitude,” Bennett said, fiddling with his metal bracelet engraved with Newton’s name. “Just a great young man.”

The platoon also spent several days living off the land — asking villagers for food — after their convoy got stuck and the seven-ton truck carrying their backpacks was blown up.

“That was our toothbrushes, extra ammo,” he said. “We had nothing. No poncho liners, nothing.”

The Marines slept with sandbags over their heads to keep the mosquitos out, but the bugs still bit them through their flame-resistant suits and camouflage utilities.

“The Marine endured, even though it was miserable,” Bennett said.

When the platoon moved north from that village, they started taking fire from across a river. Bennett and the others were pinned down in a corn field.

“I received so much fire in the bushes that I don’t even know how we avoided getting shot,” he said. “I know one piece of hot brass hit a branch and shot down my shirt, my flak. It went down my flak jacket and burned my chest. I was like, ‘That’s not a good sign.’ ”

Through all the events Bennett called “hectic,” he said he tried to keep a positive attitude. And though he was awarded for his valor, Bennett was quick to point out the “tremendous acts of bravery” from all his Marines.

“I was a conductor of a symphony,” he said. “I would call rockets, and they play beautiful music. All my young Marines ... I’m just waving a little stick. I call some rockets if they need it, I call supporting arms if they need it, but they’re doing the magic on the ground.”

Twitter: @jhlad

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