When 2 leaders were killed in Afghanistan before their men arrived, sergeant put his life on hold
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 15, 2010
MARJAH, Afghanistan — The two bombs went off seconds apart at corners of the building. By chance, Sgt. Zachary Walters was standing in one corner, Sgt. Derek Shanfield in the other.
In one devastating moment on June 8, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment lost two leaders before the young men they were to take into battle had even arrived in Afghanistan.
Walters, 26, from Irving, Texas, and Shanfield, 22, from Hastings, Pa., were part of the advance team, sent to learn the lay of the land from 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, who were preparing to hand off in this embattled southern district. Both sergeants had been in combat; they were going to guide their inexperienced squads in a tough fight.
Back at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the young men of the 2-6 had been preparing for nearly a year with their squad leaders. They trained, they studied, they drilled. They might have been nervous, but they were ready.
Suddenly, with just weeks until their deployment, their guides were gone.
“That afternoon and evening were a tough time,” said Sgt. Stephen Lutze. “The Marines were really shaken up.”
Lutze had joined the Marine Corps immediately after high school in 2002 and had been through six deployments in eight years with the 2-6, five of them in Iraq. He’d developed a bit of a reputation as a warrior, but he’d done his time and had submitted his paperwork to leave the military.
He had plans to study religious education so he could have an impact on the world. And after a decade of nearly constant deployments, he wanted to finally meet a girl and get married. He’d hoped to have kids by now.
But when the battalion first sergeant knocked on Lutze’s door the morning after Walters and Shanfield were killed, the 26-year-old immediately set all those hopes and dreams aside.
“I knew what it was about,” he said. “I had a pretty good idea what they were going to propose. First sergeant pulled me into his office, said they were short squad leaders, would I be willing to re-enlist. And I said yes.”
A deadly fight
From the start, the Marines of the 2-6 knew they were getting into the heart of battle in the southern Helmand province.
Their predecessors had entered Marjah in a highly publicized campaign in February to clear the Taliban redoubt and bring peace and security in what was to be a model of victory.
The 1st Battalion, along with their 3rd Battalion comrades, pushed in, built up bases and outposts and began the arduous task of persuading an oppressed population to trust that the Afghan government could really offer them long-term security and stability, something they’ve never known.
While the population was increasingly cooperating with the Americans, the insurgents kept up the fight. They hid bombs along roads, placed them outside compounds in the ground or in trees and then tried to draw the Marines to the buildings with taunting gunfire. It was a crafty, deadly fight.
Leaders of the 2nd Battalion leaders came out a month early to train with the 1-6. They joined patrols and took battlefield tours.
Early on June 8, 3rd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion took Shanfield and Walters to an abandoned neighborhood southeast of their outpost. Marines would take fire every time they went down there and 14 Marines had been wounded on that one block, said 1st Lt. Thomas Malone, 25, the 3rd Platoon leader.
“When we had enough people, we’d take two squads down there,” Malone said. “We’d take the fight to them.”
Seven men from 1-6, along with Walters and Shanfield and a group of Afghan National Army soldiers, went into an abandoned building. They swept the compound for bombs but didn’t detect any, said Lance Cpl. Keegan Weckman, 19, of Lexington, Ky.
Then, everything was chaos and dust.
“Everyone else besides myself and Doc Gray were injured,” Weckman said. Walters and Shanfield were dead.
Putting his future on hold
Lutze knew about the perils of combat. He’d been on five missions to Iraq, two to Fallujah with just weeks between them.
He knew the effects of loss and knew how critical it was for these young men to see hope.
“I know what it’s like to lose your friends in a war of uncertainty,” Lutze said. “When Marines lose their friends, they always ask themselves is it worth being over here. In six or seven months, we don’t see a big change. But in my back-to-back deployments in Iraq, I saw it.”
Lutze was three-quarters of the way through his paperwork to get out of the military when the first sergeant asked him to stay. To go with the men to Afghanistan, he had to re-enlist. That meant another four years until he could go to school, meet a girl, start a family.
“I just wanted kids by now,” said Lutze, sitting in a tent in Marjah district on a late June afternoon. “I want to get an education. I want to impact our society, our politics, our arena. I need a degree for that.”
But Lutze knew he didn’t really have a choice. He wasn’t here to fight a war in Afghanistan, one he won’t talk about but also won’t hide his disdain for. He was here for only one reason.
“I’m here for the Marines,” he said. “I’m here because these guys are here.”
A memorial service for Walters and Shanfield was held once the 2nd Battalion arrived at Camp Dwyer, a dusty base for Marines in southern Helmand province.
Grief pervaded, but Lt. Col. Kyle Ellison saw something else prevail in these young, scared men about to take to the battlefield. Several lance corporals gave eulogies talking about what they’d learned. As the service concluded, instead of walking up one by one to pay their respects, Ellison said the men knelt down as a group.
An entire squad, arms on each other’s shoulders.
“You know they will be OK,” Ellison said. “These two sergeants who were supposed to be leading these squads, indirectly they are going to be leading these two squads into combat. That’s a tremendous legacy.”