All that stood between a Marine School of Infantry student and a live grenade was Sgt. Joseph Liefer.
Liefer, a combat instructor at School of Infantry East at Camp Geiger, North Carolina, was honored Nov. 7 with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal — the services' highest non-combat award for heroism — for acting fast to save his student.
June 13, 2013 was an ordinary training day of training at SOI-East until something went badly wrong. Liefer was working at the grenade pit position safety officer for Range K510, Pit No. Number 3. When he gave a command to one of his students, who was not named, to grab a grenade, remove the clip, pull the safety pin, and throw it, the student threw shallow.
The live grenade deflected off the wall of the training pit, bouncing back to rest at the feet of the terrified student.
"With only a few seconds before detonation, Sergeant Liefer took immediate action to prevent fatal injuries," his award citation reads. "Employing well-rehearsed safeguarding procedures and with an unselfish focus on the student, despite the immediate peril, Sergeant Liefer grabbed the student, threw him out of the pit and then threw himself on top of the student; shielding the student with his body."
Both Liefer and the other Marine were unharmed.
More than a year after his brave act, Liefer was recognized by SOI-East commanding officer Col. Jeffrey Conner and the whole unit following a command-wide motivational run in celebration of the upcoming Marine Corps Birthday and Veterans Day.
At his award ceremony, Liefer told reporters that training kicked in after the grenade was thrown.
"The student said a few choice words. And me, I didn't really say anything," he remembered, in a recording provided to Marine Corps Times. "It's a split second moment, just counting in my head, One Mississippi, just trying to see when the grenade would go off."
He said his own life had been saved in the past on multiple occasions by his fellow Marines and his mother, and that gave him perspective on the event.
"Not many people get second chances, and I, for one, have been given second chances before," Liefer said. "It feels good to give that back."
After the grenade detonated in the pit, he said, he and the Marine eventually got back in and finished the day's training.
A spokesman for Marine Corps Training Command, 1st Lt. Matthew Rojo, said no protocols were changed or reevaluated in the wake of the incident, because Liefer's quick and correct actions had validated the safeguards in place. While Liefer followed proper protocols, he said the student had failed to adhere to briefed procedures, which dictated that he should have thrown the grenade out of the pit when it bounced back.
Liefer was nonjudgmental about the incident.
"Mistakes happen and this is the first time Marines are learning this," he said.
These kind of incidents have been known to happen at SOI-East and SOI-West, where Marines fresh from boot camp continue on to training in the combat arms fields.
In 2008, two different instructors attached to SOI-West heroically reacted to the same scenario that Liefer faced in separate incidents that occurred weeks apart. Staff Sgts. Shawn Martin and Jason Kuehnl were each honored with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in June 2009 for throwing students out of a grenade pit and covering them when their thrown M67 grenades failed to clear a wall.
And in September 2009 at range K510 at Camp Geiger -- the same range where Liefer saved his student -- another SOI-East combat instructor, Sgt. William Holls, received shrapnel wounds when he covered a Marine who froze after pulling a grenade pin. Holls was able to throw his student out of the pit before the grenade detonated, and both survived the incident with non-life threatening injuries.
Holls also received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.