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CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A former squad leader who stepped up to lead his fellow Marines through a vicious firefight in Afghanistan was awarded the nation’s third-highest valor award Friday, nearly five years after the intense battle.

Standing at attention in a sharp civilian suit, former Sgt. Matthew Parker was awarded the Silver Star by Maj. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, commander of 2nd Marine Division, at a ceremony here in front of members of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines.

Parker, who medically retired from the Corps in February 2015, served as a squad leader with 3/2 during the unit’s 2011 deployment to Helmand province.

While on a reconnaissance patrol on May 21, 2011, his platoon was crossing a small riverbed when they were suddenly hit with enemy fire. The insurgents were armed with grenade launchers, recoilless rifles, machine guns and small arms.

“The only reason we were really going over there is because we had reports of a recoilless rifle,” Parker told Marine Corps Times. “We were just trying to see if we could get eyes on it so we could call in an airstrike.”

With his platoon commander and sergeant knocked out of the fight and his fellow Marines pinned down, Parker took charge. He began issuing orders to coordinate the Marines' fire and movement while the enemy's attack intensified.

“Parker is the exact example of what you’re expected to do,” Col. Chris Dixon, Parker’s battalion commander at the time, told the squad leaders in formation at the ceremony. “You have to take charge no matter the situation and get the mission done, regardless of what it takes to do it.”

Parker called for close-air support and rocket attacks. The firefight went on for nearly eight hours before the Marines forced the enemy to withdraw. Parker then arranged for the injured Marines to be evacuated.

His actions on the battlefield that day serve as an example of everything the Marine Corps wants to teach its young noncommissioned officers, Beaudreault said.

"Your leadership is down, your sole squad leader is down, you’re thrust in a situation that, if given a choice, you probably didn’t want to have to get yourself into,” he said. “But your training kicked in, your character kicked in, your concern for your fellow Marines kicked in — and most importantly, you won.”

Although the Marines’ victory under Parker’s impromptu leadership epitomized the unit’s highly successful deployment, much of it was overshadowed when a video emerged in 2012 showing 3/2 Marines urinating on Taliban corpses.

Parker was not involved, but his award nomination was put on hold while the incident was investigated.

With his and other’s awards finally being presented, Parker said the incident should not define the unit’s legacy. It’s good to know the unit's successes weren't forgotten, he said.

“Because of that incident, a lot of really good people and good things that took place were not recognized,” he said. “It’s sad because there are a lot of people — not just me — who worked really, really hard.”

Parker is the second 3/2 Marine in weeks to be awarded for combat heroism during the May 2011 battle. Staff Sgt. Nathan Hervey received the Bronze Star with combat "V” in February.

For his part, Parker said he didn't do anything special that day.

“I just did what I was supposed to do and luckily I had good Marines who were backing me up,” he said.

Two of those Marines — Lance Cpl. Jabari Thompson and Sgt. Mark Bradley  — were not able to attend the ceremony:

Thompson, Parker’s automatic rifleman and machine gunner, was killed in action about two months later while on patrol. About a month after Thompson's death, Bradley, a sniper, was killed in action while providing over-watch for the unit.

“They were two great Marines and I just want to let everyone know they were also there and not forgotten,” Parker said.

Matthew L. Schehl covers training and education, recruiting, West Coast Marines, MARSOC, and operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Marine Corps Times. He can be reached at mschehl@marinecorpstimes.com.

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