In late 2004 Marines and soldiers fought side-by-side to retake the ancient city of Fallujah, Iraq, in what would become the bloodiest battle in the Iraq War.
Operation Phantom Fury has taken a place in Marine Corps lore alongside the battle of Belleau Wood in France, Hue City in Vietnam and the Guadalcanal campaign in the Solomon Islands, representing the heroism, commitment and valor of the Marine Corps.
But Capt. Kevin Leishman wasn’t awarded his Purple Heart for the bullet he suffered until Wednesday ― nearly 16 years earlier while fighting against insurgents to retake the city, according to the Marine Corps.
The reason for the delay? Paperwork.
It was Thanksgiving Day. And Marine Cpl. Stephen Berge was sitting down to his first hot meal since the Corps had invaded the city on Nov. 7, 2004.
On Nov. 10, 2004, the Marine Corps’ birthday, Leishman was a staff sergeant working as an amphibious assault vehicle mechanic for the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, attached to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fighting inside Fallujah, Iraq, according to a press release.
The Marine was manning his M240 machine gun on top of his AAV when his right forearm was hit with an enemy bullet, the release said.
“I didn’t know what it was right away,” Leishman said in the press release. “When you’re shooting a machine gun, you have hot brass going everywhere, and sometimes you get hot brass down your blouse.”
Ignoring his burning forearm, the Marine continued the fight for several hours before realizing he was shot.
After returning to his unit’s camp, he applied a dressing to stop the bleeding before reporting to medical.
Unfortunately, because he had been so hastily assigned to the 11th MEU for the battle, the unit had never received his medical records.
When he returned to his unit post-deployment the matter was not addressed and Leishman went more than 16 years without his Purple Heart.
Leishman is now a commissioned officer stationed at Camp Courtney, Okinawa, Japan, with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
At some point during his tour in Japan, Brig. Gen. Kyle Ellison, Leishman’s commanding general, learned that the Marine was missing his Purple Heart.
The two immediately started work on getting the Marine his medal, but needed an eyewitness in order to complete the proper forms, the release said.
By chance, Leishman’s old platoon commander also was stationed on Camp Courtney, assigned to III Marine Expeditionary Force, allowing the paperwork to be submitted and the Purple Heart to be awarded at long last.
“It takes special men and women to do the kinds of things Marines do,” Ellison said in the press release. “As you wear that award, wear it with pride. Not for yourself, but for everybody else, for the countless men and women who have sacrificed their lives for our nation and for the ones who will do so in the future.”
Leishman said it was an honor.
“This is something that is shared by many and made possible by everybody that was there. So, to get singled out and shown this honor, it’s great, but it’s not something I earned alone. Many that receive this (Purple Heart) aren’t alive or have significant wounds and have had to leave the Marine Corps.”