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Meet a Marine defending our country

>> Monday, September 20, 2004

Via The Mudville Gazette

Norfolk Marine tells story of rooftop fight in Iraq

By KATE WILTROUT, The Virginian-Pilot
© September 18, 2004

NORFOLK — Outnumbered, low on ammo, perched on a rooftop for hours in a battle against Iraqi insurgents, Lonnie Young figured his number was up.

It was April 4, 2004, and the war had entered its deadliest month for Americans. Days earlier, four contractors passing through Fallujah had been ambushed, killed, and strung from a bridge.

At least half a dozen other men from their firm – Blackwater USA , based in Moyock – handled security at the Coalition Provisional Authority’s base in Najaf, where Young, a 25-year-old Norfolk-based Marine Corps corporal, was working that day.

After installing an antenna on the roof to upgrade communications, Young stretched out in the back of a truck for a pre-lunch catnap. Gunfire – and the more atypical sound of guards returning fire – woke him.

The battle that followed became front-page news, an early indication of the growing insurgency across Iraq. Within days, a picture of Young and the Blackwater commandos atop the roof appeared in newspapers across the country. But until Young sat down recently to share his story, his role in the outcome of the battle has gone untold.

According to one senior Marine officer on the ground in Najaf that day, Young’s actions helped turn the tide of the battle against a well-coordinated militia attacking from various directions.

“All of the Blackwater guys told me that if it hadn’t been for him, they may indeed have been overrun,” said the officer, who asked that his name not be used.

Moments after the attack began, Young donned his body armor, grabbed his M249 light machine gun, and raced upstairs with a handful of Blackwater commandos. The gun battle against hundreds of members of the al-Mahdi militia, loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, grew so intense that Young had to stop shooting every 15 minutes to let the barrel of his gun cool. He’d tear through 700 to 800 rounds, then spend five minutes filling magazines with bullets until the metal was cool enough to use.

The first break in action for the Kentucky native came when an Army captain near him was shot in the arm and back. Young dug into his medical kit and bandaged the man up, then eased him down four stories to nurses below. Next, Young dashed across the camp to Blackwater’s ammunition supply room, strapped about 150 pounds of bullets to his body, and sprinted back to the roof.

The noontime battle stretched into the afternoon. Young figured he’d die.

“I thought, 'This is my last day. I’m going out with a bang.’ If I had to die it would be defending my country,” Young said Friday.

“I just felt like we were losing ground, and I thought, 'If I’m going to die, I’m not going down without a fight.’ I knew we were seriously outnumbered. They were coming at us with pretty much everything they had. We were seriously struggling to keep our ground.”

The insurgents had machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and a sniper shooting out the window of a local hospital.

Young saw a red flash, then blood spurting 5 or 6 feet out of the jaw and neck of a contractor. He reached into the quarter-sized bullet hole in the man’s jaw and pinched his carotid artery closed, then dragged the man across the roof to where his medical kit lay sprawled open.

Midway across the roof, Young heard a loud smack. Pain danced across his face, chased by adrenaline, and he forgot about it. After a medic packed the man’s wounds with a substance that clots blood, Young strapped the man to his back and carried him downstairs. In all, the Marine left the roof five times: twice to transport wounded comrades, three times for ammunition.

When a group of U.S. Army military police officers joined the fight, Young used his experience as a weapons instructor to talk them through it. Conserve your ammo. Slow and steady before you squeeze. Adjust your sites for range and distance. Take breaks so your gun barrel doesn’t melt.

At some point, Young felt dizzy. He realized he couldn’t see out of his left eye. The doctor found a gunshot wound high on his left shoulder. Young didn’t want to leave the fight, but an Army captain told him otherwise.

“Basically, I refused to get down off the rooftop at first,” said Young, the father of a 7-year-old son back in Dry Ridge, Ky.

Soon afterward, a Blackwater helicopter flew Young to a combat support hospital in Baghdad. Chris Taylor, a director at Blackwater USA, praised Young after hearing how the Marine replenished the contractors’ ammunition to keep the bullets flying.

“When there are rounds firing, coming at you from down range, everybody pulls together to do what needs to be done,” said Taylor, a former Marine. “He should be proud of the way he acted.”

After surgery to remove the bullet from his shoulder – it lodged an inch from his spine – and shrapnel from his eye, Young recuperated for two weeks in Baghdad, then spent a month at home in Kentucky.

Young said he dreams about combat every night, and his wounds remind him of what happened – especially on long runs or while doing pull-ups. The pain makes him wonder whether he should stay in the Marines when his hitch ends in December.

If he does leave, Young has a Purple Heart and a chunk of bullet cut out of his back for souvenirs. He has also been nominated for another award based on his actions that day, according to a Marine Corps spokesman.

Even if he gets out, and puts his degree in design engineering from Eastern Kentucky University to use, Young will never forget how he got to be a sniper, medic, ammunition supplier, weapons coach, and communications specialist – all on the same day.

Said Young: “I’d always wanted to be a Marine.”


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