The decision to award the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation to 28,000 personnel who served under Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 has led to a basic question from other Marines:
Why not us?
Marines, veterans and their family members are questioning online why troops who served in heavy combat in Iraq and Afghanistan outside the MEB’s deployment haven’t received a PUC, which is considered the unit-level equivalent to the Navy Cross. The only other PUC awarded to a Marine unit since 9/11 went to I Marine Expeditionary Force (Reinforced), for actions during and immediately after the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
That leaves more than a decade worth of other deployments and battles at play, Marine Corps Times readers note. Fallujah 2004? Ramadi 2006? Afghanistan operations prior to spring 2009? They all fall outside the two PUCs now authorized.
I’ve asked the Marine Corps to provide details on how a PUC nomination is drawn up, studied and awarded. In the meantime, it’s worth looking at the basics, outlined in the Navy and Marine Corps Awards Manual:
— The PUC is awarded in the name of the U.S.president to units of the U.S.military and friendly foreign nations for “extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy,” the manual states. “The unit must have displayed such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission, under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, to have set it apart from and above other units participating in the same campaign. The degree of heroism requires is the same as that which would be required for award of a Navy Cross to an individual.”
— Recommendations must be submitted within three years of the date of the actions recognized, and the award must be made within five years.
— Unit awards, according to the awards manual, are “restricted to the recognition of acts or services that clearly and distinctly, by nature and magnitude, place the unit’s performance significantly above that of other units performing similar missions. They are not intended to recognize individual actions, but rather to acknowledge the combined efforts of the organization.”
With that out of the way, let’s dive into the two PUCs awarded to Marine units since 9/11.
The first was issued to I MEF (Rein.), out of Camp Pendleton. It recognized actions from March 21 to April 24, 2003 — the early days after the invasion of Iraq through the fall of Baghdad.
As outlined in Marine administrative message 507/03, units authorized for that PUC include a variety of infantry units, engineer battalions and aviation squadrons that played a role in Nasiriyah, Al-Kut and other sites to early battles. Several Navy Crosses were subsequently awarded for heroics during that timeframe, including to Gunnery Sgt. Justin LeHew, Hospital Corpsman Luis Fonseca and 1st Lt. Brian Chontosh.
The more recent PUC, first reported on by Marine Corps Times last week, will recognize troops who served under MEB-Afghanistan from May 29, 2009, to April 12, 2010. A list of units authorized for it will be released in a forthcoming MARADMIN, but that timeframe corresponds directly with the time MEB-Afghanistan oversaw operations in Helmand.
Here are a few deployments and battles of note in Iraq and Afghanistan that don’t appear to fall under either PUC:
The battles of Fallujah
U.S. forces first attempted to capture the city of Fallujah in April 2004, more than a year after the timeframe for the first PUC expired. Operation Vigilant Resolve, as the mission was known, did not capture the city, but it did result in heavy sustained combat.
The second battle of Fallujah, Operation Phantom Fury, began Nov. 8, 2004. It extended through December, and became known as the bloodiest battle in the Iraq War.
There’s no shortage of individual Marine heroes in either battle. Examples in the first battle include Sgt. Willie Copeland and Capt. Brent Morel, who both were awarded the Navy Cross for actions April 7, 2004.
The second battle yielded Navy Crosses for 1st Sgt. Bradley Kasal, Cpl. Robert Mitchell, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, Sgt. Jarrett Kraft, Cpl. Jeremiah Workman and others. Peralta’s actions may still yet result in a Medal of Honor.
2/7 and the 24th MEU in Helmand
Before Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan deployed, it was the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms,Calif., that kicked in the door for Marine operations in Helmand province.
Combat was heavy at times for both units. In fact, 2/7 already has three Navy Crosses for individual heroism during that deployment: Pfc. Richard Weinmaster, Gunnery Sgt. Brian Blonder and Lance Cpl. Brady Gustafson. The battalion as a whole was responsible for territory spanning parts ofHelmand, Farah and Nimroz provinces, and demonstrated historic heroism during the Battle of Shewan.
The 24th MEU and 2/7 both returned to the U.S. before MEB-Afghanistan took over, however. In between those deployments, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, served as the main element of a special-purpose Marine air ground task force in Helmand. Marines with 3/8 were eventually absorbed into MEB-Afghanistan, meaning they’ll likely be authorized to wear the PUC.
Without dispute, the area of Helmand that has received the most notoriety is Sangin. Third Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms; and Third Battalion, 5th Marines, and 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, both out of Pendleton, sustained significant casualties and demonstrated great heroism there in 2010 and 2011.
Only 3/7 appears to have a shot at the PUC that has now been authorized, however. The unit deployed to Afghanistan in March 2010, meaning it overlaps with the tail end of the MEB’s time in command. Marines with 3/5 replaced 3/7 in Sangin later that year, and 1/5 swapped in for 3/5 in 2011.
To date, Sgt. Matthew Abbate from 3/5 has been posthumously authorized to receive the Navy Cross for heroism in Sangin. It wouldn’t be surprising to see others, especially in light of the everyday madness that 3/5 faced in fall 2010.