When Col. Chris Dixon recalls his unit's 2011 deployment to Afghanistan, he doesn't dwell on the grainy 40-second video that made international headlines. No, Dixon says, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines made tangible progress in what was a hotly contested part of Helmand province, a vast area that stretched from Musa Qala to Now Zad. During those seven months, he said, they bravely fought tough battles that had long-term effects.
“The squad leaders were the people that I focused on because we were going to be so dispersed,” Dixon told Marine Corps Times in his first interview since the unit became embroiled in controversy. “I charged all the squad leaders — regardless of rank — to be mature and responsible.”
On Friday, one of those squad leaders, Sgt. Matthew Parker, was presented with a Silver Star during a ceremony at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He's the second 3/2 Marine in recent weeks to be recognized for heroism during that combat tour.
It's been nearly five years since Parker, who has since left the Marine Corps, led his platoon out of an intense firefight in Musa Qala. His commander and another squad leader were injured during the battle, and Parker took charge, striking several of the enemy's positions until they were forced to retreat. Last month, Staff Sgt. Nathan Hervey, who was a scout sniper section leader with 3/2, received the Bronze Star with “V” for his actions during the same battle. Hervey, a sergeant at the time, is credited with taking out an enemy position to help save his fellow Marines.
Both men, Dixon said, displayed courage, thoughtfulness and leadership. “Exactly what you want in a Marine sergeant,” he said.
“It was one of those great stories you read about all the time, and here it was happening in our battalion,” said Dixon, now the chief of staff for Joint Task Force Civil Support, which oversees the military's first responders for chemical, biological and nuclear incidents, at Fort Eustis, Virginia. “It was an ugly day and [Parker’s] actions inspired everybody. He was running around coordinating fire, motivating people, keeping them pressing forward.”
It’s unfortunate, he added, that such stories of success were overshadowed by the controversy.
Parker’s Silver Star brings to a close a dark, frustrating period for many who served in the 1,000-man battalion. In January 2012, after the Marines had returned home to North Carolina, a video surfaced showing four of the unit's Marines, elite scout snipers, defiling the remains of insurgents they'd just shot and killed. The fallout that ensued reached the Marine Corps' most senior general, who was so incensed by the video that he, too, would become entangled in scandal as he sought to ferret out all wrongdoers and ensure they were held accountable.
The entire battalion was locked down for months. No one was promoted. No one was allowed to move into a new assignment. No one was allowed to receive the awards they had earned on the battlefield.
“Because of that incident, a lot of really good people and good things that took place were not recognized,” Parker told Marine Corps Times at his Silver Star ceremony. “It’s sad because there are a lot of people — not just me — who worked really, really hard.”
Dixon, who was a lieutenant colonel in 2011, was remanded to a staff job for two years, his promotion and follow-on assignment delayed until the commandant, then-Gen. James Amos, was satisfied that the battalion commander didn't bear greater responsibility for the incident.
Both Parker and Dixon said 3/2 accomplished too much on that deployment to allow one negative incident to define the Marines — or the battalion — forever.
“The battalion time and again, day after day, patrol after patrol, demonstrated professional performance at the most junior levels,” Dixon said. “My corporals, sergeants, those individual Marines and corpsmen did their job and did it well.”
Celebrated battlefield innovation
When 3/2 left Afghanistan in late 2011, the Marines who replaced them saw better security as a result of what Dixon's battalion accomplished. The Marines worked to build up the Afghan soldiers and police who would provide security for that part of Helmand province. Small teams of troops pushed the edges of the battle space to drive insurgents from the region. And while the Marines tried to keep things stable, things often got kinetic.
“The enemy did not like it,” Dixon said. “They fought us hard.”
The Marines responded with innovation. The same sniper team that came under scrutiny for the video was credited with incorporating M1 Abrams tanks into their missions, a move that enabled them to kill hundreds of insurgents. Top Marine leaders, including the commandant, visited the battalion in theater to congratulate them on their successes.
Life for the Afghans was also better with 3/2 in the region. Dixon’s Marines built a road that connected Musa Qala to Now Zad, opening opportunities for commerce and connecting the districts to Lashkar Gah, Helmand's capital and political and economic center.
“They did a fantastic job, and that’s what I want that battalion to be known for,” Dixon said. “What they did was phenomenal, and you could see it.”
Once that road was opened, day-to-day life improved in Now Zad and Musa Qala, Dixon said. Markets thrived and the locals appreciated the security Marines provided. And that wasn't all.
“We had the Afghan people actually telling the Taliban, ‘Hey if you want to attack the Marines, don’t do it here on our road,’” he said. “They liked their road — you’d see kids playing near it, families walking on it and enjoying it — a simple road."
As he prepared to speak at Parker's Silver Star ceremony, Dixon said the moment would have even deeper meaning for battalion.
“We’re honoring Parker," he said, "but at the same time, we need to honor all of them. The six Marines and the sailor that were killed, we need to talk about our wounded, we need to talk about the daily performance of the individual Marines and sailors.”
Still fighting for recognition
Dixon said that Parker's award is the last of the unit's administrative delays. But at least one other family remains hopeful that the Marine Corps will recognize their hero.
Rob Richards, one of the scout snipers involved in the video, was nominated for a Bronze Star with “V” for braving enemy fire to retrieve a dead insurgent's weapon before it fell back into enemy hands. Dixon endorsed the award before the scandal erupted, but today it remains in limbo.
Richards, a sergeant who was busted down in rank to corporal as a result of the video, died unexpectedly in August 2014 after receiving an honorable discharge. He was 28 years old. His wife, Raechel, said that Parker's Silver Star gives her hope that other deserving Marines from 3/2 will be recognized, too.
“It should never have taken this long for the deserving Marines of 3/2, or any Marine, to be awarded an honor that they earned with their blood, sweat and tears,” Raechel Richards told Marine Corps Times. “... I truly hope that the Marine Corps will do the right thing, and that my husband will be included in that group of deserving Marines.”
Richards' supporters continue to advocate for his Bronze Star to be issued. Quoting the Marines' motto “always faithful,” his widow said all she can do is hope.
“He is not here anymore to fight for his Bronze Star — and honestly he was much too humble of a person to have ever pursued it,” she said. “But I'm still here, and I have amazing people standing by my side to make sure that his honorable and exceptional service is recognized by this country.”
Today, March 19, marks exactly six years since Rob Richards was nearly killed after stepping on an improvised explosive during his second deployment to Afghanistan. Raechel Richards said they used to call it his "Alive Day."
But the date holds other meaning, she said. On March 19, 2013, Rob Richards was sent to a legal hearing to learn if he would be court-martialed for making the video. "It's a bitter-sweet day now because there are no more 'Alive Days' to celebrate," she added. "Now I guess I'll need to refer to it as the date Rob got a second chance. Maybe it'll be good luck in getting this award pushed through."
Gina Harkins is the editor of Marine Corps Times. She oversees reporting on Marine Corps leadership, personnel and operations. She can be reached at email@example.com.