On March 23, 2003, the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company took a wrong turn into the city of Nasiriyah, Iraq, setting a course of history that would cost the Corps 18 Marines, and eventually earn Sgt. Maj. Justin LeHew the Navy Cross.
Six soldiers, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, were captured and 11 were killed when Iraqi forces ambushed the 507th. LeHew, then a platoon sergeant with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Task Force Tarawa, was directed to rescue the ambushed Army unit.
“Under constant enemy fire, he led the rescue team to the soldiers. With total disregard for his own welfare, he assisted the evacuation effort of four soldiers, two of whom were critically wounded,” LeHew’s Navy Cross citation reads.
Nearly 15 years after the bloody battle that earned LeHew the nickname “Hero of Nasiriyah,” the now sergeant major is set to retire from the Marine Corps after thirty years of service.
After the rescue effort, LeHew and his company of Assault Amphibious Vehicles, or AAVs, set its sights on capturing the city of Nasiriyah and secured a bridge across the Euphrates river while under constant enemy fire.
LeHew exposed himself on multiple occasions during a three-hour intense firefight to capture the bridge. One AAV was hit by rocket propelled grenades and LeHew moved to recover the nine dead or wounded Marines while under a barrage of enemy fire.
Bravo and Charlie companies pushed into the city while Alpha secured the bridge. But Charlie company was soon bogged down in an intense urban gunfight as it spearheaded down a dangerous trek of the city dubbed “Ambush Alley” by Army planners.
The Corps would lose nearly 18 Marines and seven AAVs in the fight to secure Nasiriya. Many casualties resulted from a friendly fire incident involving an Air Force A-10 that mistook the Marines’ tracked amphib vehicles for Iraqi armor.
LeHew was awarded the nation’s second highest award for combat bravery, the Navy Cross, in 2004.
His heroic exploits continued to Iraq in 2004 when he was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V” for valor while serving as the first sergeant for Company C, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit during a bloody battle in Najaf, Iraq.
On August 5, 2004, LeHew and his Marines came under an intense attack from mortars, snipers and machine gun fire by the Mahdi militia, supporters of Shia cleric and recent winner in Iraq’s parliamentary elections held in May, Muqtada al-Sadr.
The battle raged until August 27, 2004. On multiple occasions LeHew moved about the battlefield under intense fire motivating his Marines to press the attack. At the Najaf cemetery, he assisted in treating and evacuating nine wounded Marines and three killed in action.
The Marine tracker is currently assigned to Wounded Warrior Battalion—East at Walter Reed Bethesda, National Medical Military Center in Maryland as a recovering service member, according to Corps officials.
His retirement ceremony is being held Friday at the Assault Amphibian School aboard Camp Pendleton, California, according to Maj Eric P. Gentrup, the executive officer for the Wounded Warrior Regiment. LeHew officially retires on July 31.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.