Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Oct. 4, 2007, Sgt. John A. Marra Jr. and the soldiers of the 303rd Military Police Company, 785th Military Police Battalion, 300th MP Brigade were on a patrol mission north of Tikrit, Iraq. Sgt. Marra and his police transition team were working closely with the Iraqi police - coaching, mentoring and building bonds of trust. The goal was to make the Iraqi police efficient enough to stand up to local terrorists and thugs.

This particular day, the transition team was checking on police stations in their area of operations when the team members came under attack from insurgent forces. During the ambush, they lost their medic, Cpl. Rachael L. Hugo - a loss that had a profound impact on them. Cpl. Hugo had been well-liked and had made it a point to keep the entire team up-to-date on medical techniques so they would be prepared if they ever needed to apply first aid.

Despite their loss, the team members continued on their mission. Twenty days later, they returned to the same location and once again came under attack. An improvised explosive device (IED) struck the third vehicle in their four-vehicle patrol, flipping it on its side and trapping three soldiers. This prompted Sgt. Marra, who has since been promoted to staff sergeant, to take immediate action.

“The enemy began attacking us from close proximity with small-arms fire,” he recalls. “We knew we were going to take casualties. This was something we were familiar with by this point, and my task was to fulfill the role of a medic since we had lost our medic a few weeks earlier.”

Leaving the safety of his M1117 Armored Security Vehicle (ASV), Sgt. Marra ran across the battle space through enemy fire to reach the trapped soldiers. He recalls looking over at an alley at one point - the exact spot where Cpl. Hugo had been killed nearly three weeks earlier. Amid the violence and chaos, the memory of Cpl. Hugo’s sacrifice “gave me strength to persevere and will forever be etched in my mind,” Sgt. Marra said.

The soldiers from the damaged vehicle were not in good shape. Though the driver was unharmed, the gunner had been ejected and had sustained shrapnel injuries. Another soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Robin L. Towns Sr. of the D.C. Army National Guard, had been killed. Also, the squad leader, Sgt. First Class Christopher Blaxton, was badly wounded.

Working quickly, Sgt. Marra and his fellow soldiers pulled Sgt. Blaxton out of the truck and took him behind cover. He was unresponsive, barely breathing and had a very weak pulse. Time was of the essence. Recalling what he had been taught by Cpl. Hugo, Sgt. Marra inserted a pharyngeal airway into Sgt. Blaxton’s nose, opening an airway and saving him from choking to death.

The officer in charge ordered that Sgt. Blaxton be evacuated immediately to a more advanced treatment facility. Sgt. Marra refused to let the burden of caring for his fellow soldier fall on someone else’s shoulders. The squad leader was loaded into an Iraqi police truck, and Sgt. Marra and another soldier jumped in the back and sped through the streets to a police station where medical personnel were standing by. En route to the station, Sgt. Marra provided aid to the badly wounded soldier, ensuring that he would survive the trip.

Thanks to Sgt. Marra’s quick actions and courage under fire, Sgt. Blaxton survived. For these actions, Sgt. Marra was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor.

According to Sgt. Marra, however, the entire team, including their Iraqi compatriots, deserve credit. “We could not have done it alone that day because of the tactical situation,” he said. “We were too engaged in the fight, and there were still casualties in the truck. But [Sgt.] Blaxton needed immediate attention or he wouldn’t have made it. It was the Iraqis who stepped up and helped us get him out of there so he could receive more advanced treatment. We gained a lot of respect for them at that point.”

Ultimate victory in Iraq will require the forging of more mutual trust and respect between the coalition forces and the Iraqi people. Individuals like Sgt. Marra are an indispensable part of that mission.

• Tim Holbert is program director of the American Veterans Center in Arlington.

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