MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
Saint Mary’s, Ga., native Cpl. Ronald Smith received one of the nation’s most prestigious combat awards, the Bronze Star medal with combat distinguishing device, during a ceremony May 4 in front of fellow Marines of 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, after an 11-mile battalion hike.
Smith, a mortarman with Bravo Company, received the prestigious award for his heroic acts displayed July 26, 2011, when he saved an Afghan National Army soldier’s life.
The then-lance corporal left from his patrol base on the summer day, loaded with mortar rounds and his service rifle, prepared for whatever his unit might encounter on patrol. He was the assistant mortar gunner charged with being the farthest rear security Marine alongside “Mario,” an Afghan National Army soldier who Smith had come to call a friend.
“He was one of the few Afghans who really interacted with us,” said Smith. “He helped us cook dinner, played music for us, taught us Pashto and tried to learn English from us. Nobody could say his name, so we all just called him Mario.”
A detachment of Afghan National Army soldiers had been working alongside the Marines of B Co. to eradicate the insurgency in an area called Trek Nawa when a firefight broke out, putting two rounds in Mario’s leg.
Toting his rifle and a pack filled with Composition B, a heat and pressure sensitive military grade explosive, Smith low-crawled under enemy fire through 50 meters of foot-high poppy to assess Mario’s injuries.
“Once he got hit, he was hobbling a little, but he was still up,” said Smith, as he recalled the Afghan soldier who he risked his life for. “When I realized he fell down, I went back and helped him over to a berm behind a pile of (harvested) poppy and started to treat him. I just remember thinking, ‘I hope to God we don’t start to take fire from the opposite direction.’”
Smith, who had been a mortarman for almost two years, responded to the casualty instinctively, as infantry Marines are trained to do.
“Once I crawled back to him after he got hit, everything was such a blur,” said Smith. “I just went into autopilot; my training kicked in, and I treated him with what I had and kept security until the (helicopter) got there.”
For his actions that day almost 10 months ago, Smith now stood opposite Lt. Col. Tyler Zagurski, a Mercer Island, Wash., native and commanding officer of 1st Bn., 9th Marines, to receive the prestigious award. Zagurski secured the medal below Smith’s ”U.S. MARINES” nametape and spoke on Smith’s behalf to the rest of the “Walking Dead,” as the unit is called.
“This award should show our junior Marines that their actions don’t go unnoticed,” he said. “(Then) Lance Corporal Smith faced a challenge that set a precedent for us as an institution that suggests that even a Marine as junior as a lance corporal can take bold, decisive action.”
The sweat-drenched Marines of the battalion took turns congratulating the newly awarded Marine. Afterward, the battalion was dismissed, leaving Smith to look back on his time in Afghanistan before enjoying the weekend with his friends.
“Ya know, I really believe that (1st Bn., 9th Marines,) has an angel,” said Smith. “Nobody in the battalion died on that tour, and that is because someone watched over us all.”