Gunnery Sgt. Justin LeHew, foreground, and Sgt. Scott Dahn clean their weapons at Firebase Tomahawk, Iraq, in April 2003. (Courtesy of Justin LeHew)Gunnery Sgt. Justin LeHew
Unit:Company A, 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion
Medal: Navy Cross
Earned: March 23, 2003, Al-Nasiriyah, Iraq
The story of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and how the 507th Maintenance Company got lost, then ambushed near Al-Nasiriyah, Iraq, is one of the most widely known of the Iraq campaign.
But there is more than one war story to tell about Al-Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003, including how Marines captured and held the city’s three bridges.
By the end of that blisteringly hot day, Gunnery Sgt. Justin D. LeHew would prove himself a hero in the best tradition of the Corps.
For his valor, LeHew, now first sergeant for Company A, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, was awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest military honor after the Medal of Honor.
LeHew was platoon sergeant for Company A of the 3rd Platoon, 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion. The unit was attached to Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, or “Task Force Tarawa.”
LeHew and his platoon began the day by rescuing soldiers from the 507th who had neither been killed nor taken hostage. But that was simply a sidelight to the day’s main event.
Taking the southern bridge was easy. LeHew said his amtracks, as Marines call amphibious assault vehicles, just drove across.
Holding the bridge would be a different matter entirely.
“We were over the bridge about five minutes when it seemed like the whole city came down on our heads,” LeHew said. “Fire was coming from almost every single building, and we could see swarms of Iraqis coming down the alleys.”
“I remember thinking, this is how Custer must have felt at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.”
It would take more than four hours for LeHew’s 28-vehicle convoy and the 150 infantrymen they carried to emerge victorious through a 360-degree urban firefight, with limited water and ammunition.
With the Marines dressed in head-to-toe-chemical protective suits, the first thing to go was the water.
“They sucked their two canteens dry in the first hour, [as well as] the couple cases we carried in the vehicles,” LeHew said.
Meanwhile, Charlie Company, a unit charged with holding Nasiriyah’s northernmost bridge further up the road, was having its own problems.
The first indication LeHew’s Marines had that all was not well up north was when they saw a smoldering amtrack, careening back toward the southern bridge, where the vehicle smashed to a stop.
“I grabbed my corpsman,” 19-year-old Hospitalman Alex Velasquez, LeHew said.
Ripping off their amtrack helmets (which are tethered to the tracks with communications cords), the pair jumped off their own track, without putting on their Kevlar battle headgear.
LeHew and Velasquez (who was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for his actions that day) dodged a curtain of hellfire through the contested intersection.
When they reached the vehicle, LeHew said, “the first thing I saw when I went up the ramp was a leg, still in a MOPP (chem gear) suit.”
LeHew handed the leg to a wide-eyed Velasquez.
“I said, ‘put this in my vehicle. We’re going to find out who it belongs to.’”
The stunned corpsman obeyed.
“Doc [Velasquez] was a good little kid,” LeHew said.
Then LeHew entered the track.
“Everybody was dead.”
But as he moved forward to destroy the radios and check to see if the .50-caliber machine gun was salvageable, “I heard a Marine gasp for air. Doc and I started digging.”
They found Cpl. Matthew Juska, a 6-foot 7-inch, 240-pound bruiser who had been pulling security up at the northern bridge.
Juska was horribly wounded. LeHew could see the young Marine’s brain, “and we thought he had a broken back. We had to get him out of there.”
The corporal was trapped beneath the amtrack’s collapsed hatches — hundreds of pounds of mangled steel.
With the help of five Marines who had come to help, “we started yanking him out. It took 30 minutes,” LeHew said.
Juska was evacuated along with several other wounded members of Charlie Company. Once the chopper left the scene, the battle raged on.
Toward noon, with the help of Alpha Company’s tanks that were finally able to make their way from the rear refueling depot and across the southern bridge, the battle finally began to turn.
LeHew’s unit went on to help Marines at the northern bridge, and by day’s end, the battalion had completed its mission.
The three bridges they captured and held made it possible for the 1st Marine Division to make its historic “race to Baghdad,” a journey of more than 1,000 kilometers that stands as the longest combat advance by U.S. Marine forces in history.
But victory at Nasiriyah demanded a steep price: 40 Marines wounded and 18 killed.
Last year at Camp Lejeune, N.C., “someone said, Gunny, go to the orderly room, we have a surprise for you,” LeHew said.
It was Cpl. Juska, out-processing from the Marine Corps with “some neurological problems, but he was walking and talking,” LeHew said.
Asked how it felt to see the man whose life he’d saved, LeHew’s voice became thick.
“It felt good,” he said, and paused.
“It felt good to see the kid was alive.”