MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- A friend will share the good times with you, but a great friend will share the good times and the bad.
Lance Cpl. Juan A. Valdez, a Boston native and mortarman with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, had what may be the greatest friend of his life at his side during one of his greatest times of need.
A Purple Heart Medal ceremony was held here June 8, to decorate Valdez for wounds he suffered during actions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
While on a security patrol through the streets of Al Karmah, Iraq, in 2006, Valdez was struck by a sniper round.
The incident took place close to the halfway point of the patrol 2,000 meters from an Iraqi police station the unit was based out of that day.
Sgt. Jesse E. Leach, the section leader for Mobile Assault Platoon 4, Weapons Co., was positioned near the rear of the patrol 10-15 meters from Valdez when the sniper shot rang out into the street. It came from a canal located across the street and hit his close friend, Lance Cpl. Valdez.
As soon as the shot was fired, the Marines reacted by securing the area while searching for lower ground to reduce the risk of being hit by any potential threats.
At first, Valdez didn’t realize what happened. He thought someone else had been shot.
“I didn’t even know I got hit,” Valdez said. “I thought that somebody else just got messed up, and then I realize I’m on the ground and my arm is (debilitated).”
Valdez rolled over to let others know he was hit, then tried to move before he was shot again.
Leach looked at Valdez and rushed over to his side. He pulled him across the street to cover. The unit did not have a corpsman readily available, so Leach started tending to his wounds.
“I was probably the closest thing he had to a corpsman or medical personnel,” Leach said.
Leach began ripping the gear and uniform off Valdez in search of an entry and exit wound. Valdez had been struck in the arm. The bullet passed all the way through the top of his shoulder into his ribcage. It punctured a lung and exited through his back.
It was getting hard for Valdez to breathe, and he couldn’t feel his hand.
Valdez felt it was always important to set an example for the younger Marines of the unit. He didn’t want to be seen as the guy crying on the side of the street. He wanted to be seen as the one who sucked it all up and kept going as long as he could.
“It’s what we do in life that tells everybody who we are,” Valdez said.
“The thought that I was going to die started creeping in,” he continued. “After a few minutes, I thought if I’m going to die, I have to see somebody smile because of me. I always like making people smile.”
Valdez then looked up at Leach with a joking smile and said, “this sucks”. Leach agreed and started to laugh at his friend’s humor.
“I tried to laugh, but the pressure he was putting on my back made me wince in pain,” Valdez remembered. “I couldn’t say anything else. I was barely breathing through my nose.”
“I don’t even know what kept me alive that day,” Valdez said. “I just kept on fighting it. I gave my thanks to God and made peace with everything I had done and told myself I have to stay awake.”
“He doesn’t quit,” Leach said. “I’ll never forget the bravery he was showing while he was laying there on the ground. He wasn’t afraid at all.”
“He was actually more worried about being able to dance than he was about getting shot,” he recalled with a smile.
Leach patched Valdez up with the provisions he had. They waited for the arrival of humvees that were called in. Once the humvees arrived, he placed Valdez into one to have him extracted from the scene to get him medically evacuated.
The unit continued patrolling to return to the Iraqi police station. The assailant was never found.
“I’m just so glad I was able to be there and bring him home,” Leach said.
Their bond through combat hardship leads Leach to believe that nothing has made their friendship quite as strong.
“He and I are more like blood brothers now,” Leach said. “We’re probably going to keep in touch way longer than any other guys I’ve known while in the Marine Corps.”
Valdez felt fortunate to have the ceremony with his unit and have the Purple Heart Medal pinned on him by Leach.
“These guys shed tears for me when I got hurt,” Valdez said. “It meant a lot to me to receive it in front of them and Sergeant Leach. He saved my life. Someone was trying to take something away from me and (Leach) definitely gave it back that day. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Valdez is still recovering from fractures he suffered to his back, ribs and a lung that is still out of shape. He is working to get back to the condition he used to be in.
“It’s like being in the Super Bowl and you get taken out (injured) halfway through the game. Then you come back next season and you’re only half as good as you used to be,” Valdez said.
“The Purple Heart is one of those things you try not to get,” Valdez expressed. “I aimed not to get it, but it happened.”