CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
At 6:50 p.m., May 25, a Marion, Iowa, Marine struck an improvised explosive device while patrolling in southern Garmser district. The infantry point man with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, was wounded and needed care, but just as the communication lines began to light up to coordinate transportation for him, a sandstorm brought it all to a halt, putting the Marine in grave danger of bleeding to death before he reached medical assistance.
As Americans gather this weekend for outdoor cookouts and deep store discounts, there is one family of Americans on the other side of the world fighting every day to protect each other, saving their lives when necessary. Marines and sailors at every level immediately began working Wednesday when a call came over the radio to request a medical evacuation to transport their brother in arms, Lance Cpl. Ryan McSweeny, to a treatment facility.
“We were moving through a goat path, crossing a small footbridge, and the point man tripped what we believe to be a pressure plate,” explained Bethesda, Md., native Lance Cpl. Peter Uncapher, an infantryman with Charlie Company who suffered minor injuries and was knocked unconscious by the blast. “I came to and realized an IED went off. At that time a buddy of mine was running from the back of the formation, and he helped me pull [McSweeny], who had been blown aside by the IED, out of the initial kill zone. We got him to and started working on him with ‘Doc’ White.”
Key personnel at all levels immediately began monitoring the event, with communication focused on tracking the progress of the unit on the ground to ensure the Marine reached the care he needed.
“The main concern was that we had to do something for this Marine,” said Terrytown, La., native Capt. Carl Havens, Task Force Leatherneck’s nightshift senior watch officer. “Everyone was working to do the right thing … because he is a Marine and that’s what we do for each other. We do our best, no matter what.”
While Havens and his staff began coordinating communication throughout the task force, Petty Officer 3rd Class Antoine White, a corpsman from Detroit, went to work on McSweeny. ‘Doc White,’ as he is affectionately known, was with McSweeny’s group that night and began dressing the Marine’s wounds to prepare him for transport to a medical facility for further evaluation.
The unit requested an aircraft at approximately 7:15 p.m. to transport McSweeny to Combat Outpost Payne’s medical treatment facility, but high winds and a sand storm coupled with a lack of moonlight after sunset had reduced aircraft visibility to a mere 1/4 mile, according to Minneapolis, Minn., native Army Maj. Patrick Zenk, the company commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment, which flies medical evacuations in Helmand. Despite the dangers of flying in these conditions, the unit’s UH-60 Black Hawk attempted to lift off, but lost visibility of the ground quickly and had to land.
Zenk said aircraft are incredibly important for medical evacuations, given the enemy threat in the area. When units hit an IED, they risk hitting another when they must transport injured personnel by ground. Pilots with the unit understand the critical capability they bring to the fight and attempted to lift off two more times, risking their lives and the aircraft. The Black Hawk was forced to land each time.
Desperate to get one of his Marines the medical care he needed, Maj. Tom Grace, 1st Battalion’s operations officer from Cherry Hill, N.J., called a friend, Gastonia, N.C., native Maj. Chris Conner.
Grace called the operations officer with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion to request ground transportation for evacuation via the Light Armored Vehicles the unit has.
“[This battalion] with LAVs is a very flexible and maneuverable force over most any terrain out here,” Conner explained. “This terrain is built for LAVs and we can move fast. Also, my guys know the terrain very well here, so we could get the Marines back to Payne as quickly as possible.”
Conner called out to Company B, 2nd LAR Battalion, which had Marines already out in the area, to redirect them to support 1st Battalion. The Marines turned around to head back north through the black night and blowing sand, feeling their way through the desert with night vision equipment to prevent insurgents from observing their movement.
“It was very hard to see that night,” said Staff Sgt. John Hall, the Tecumseh, Okla., native leading the LAVs during their movement. “But just like any Marine, you want to help your fellow brother. The one thing we were worried about was the Marines.”
Meanwhile, by pure coincidence, Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 7 were also working in the area near McSweeny’s squad that night and heard the blast. They responded immediately and arranged to provide transportation to get the Marines to a meeting point to link up with 2nd LAR. It was nearly midnight by the time the LAVs were able to rendezvous to pick up Uncapher and McSweeny for transport. At the same time, the weather had started to break just a bit and the medical evacuation crew jumped at the chance to try their luck a fourth time to get their Blackhawk out.
The crew took off just after midnight, according to Zenk, and had to fly low and slow, following the contours of the river nearby to provide enough contrast on the desert floor to guide them through the blowing sand and darkness. The Marines on the ground secured their site and provided cover to allow the helicopter to pick up the valuable cargo waiting for transport.
The Blackhawk and its crew delivered the Marines to Payne at about 12:30 a.m., more than five hours after McSweeny hit the IED. The Shock Trauma Platoon there immediately went to work evaluating the two Marines and stabilizing McSweeny, who had lost a great deal of blood through the night. Conner, who visited the treatment facility when the Marines came in, said the trauma platoon staff went through miraculous efforts to care for McSweeny’s injuries.
“In the end,” said Conner, “when I was standing in the hospital watching these doctors and looking at the air crew, thinking of the Marines on the deck and the Marines making all this happen, it just hit me there was a lot of effort to get [Uncapher and McSweeny] here.”
The two Marines were transported to Camp Dwyer a short time later for further evaluation and treatment, bringing their travels to a close.
The effort at every level in the chain of command throughout this episode, to include Charlie Company and 1st Battalion; their higher headquarters, Regimental Combat Team-1; 2nd LAR Battalion; Task Force Leatherneck, headed by 2nd Marine Division (Forward); all the medical staff and the Blackhawk crew; and CLB-7, was focused solely on one thing: ensuring these Marines got the treatment they needed as quickly as possible. Every Marine, sailor and soldier involved worked together to do whatever was necessary to save them. For the Marines of Charlie Company, it is just another example of the love they share and the sacrifices they are willing to make for their brothers serving with them.
“I’m really close to [Chicago native] Lance Cpl. Leonardo Langin, who helped me pull McSweeny out; Doc White, who was really working on him; and my squad leader, who was on the radio trying to get someone out there to help,” Uncapher explained. “It was a lot of work, and we didn’t have a lot of people. It says a lot, especially when Langin was basically running ahead of everyone else to the blast site to make sure everyone was alright. It says a lot about their courage and character.”
Editor’s note: All the Marine Corps units referenced in this story are currently assigned to Task Force Leatherneck, the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) working in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.