CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Most of the 2,300 young Americans of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit missed all three of this year’s presidential debates. They were too busy fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan to watch the first two and en route home to this sprawling coastal Carolina base during this week’s give and take. Few of them have had the opportunity to see the man who will be their next commander in chief — even on television. Though they don’t talk much about politics or politicians, there is one thing that they all seem to want — no matter their age, rank or color of their skin. There’s no debate; they want victory.
This isn’t the first time we’ve met these Marines. The 24 MEU is built around the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. In August, our Fox News Channel’s “War Stories” documentary team was embedded with 1/6 in Afghanistan. Back in 2006, we lived with them in Ramadi, Iraq, when Anbar province was the bloodiest place on the planet. According to Col. Peter Petronzio, the MEU commander, and Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, the commanding officer of 1/6, more than half these Marines have made multiple deployments in this long war against radical Islam. And while there is no such thing as a “typical Marine,” what they say about what they have accomplished is nearly universal.
One of them is a 22-year-old sergeant, named Courtney Rauch. He and his wife, Vanessa, were part of our 2007 documentary “The Homefront to the Frontlines,” which we shot in Iraq and here at Camp Lejeune. He returned from his first combat tour unscathed. But this time, he was not so fortunate.
On Aug. 3, a massive improvised explosive device detonated directly beneath his lead vehicle in our four-Humvee patrol through one of the most heavily contested parts of Helmand province, Afghanistan. The blast blew Chris Jackson, our cameraman, out the right rear door, and the heavily armored Humvee was engulfed in flames immediately.
The driver, Cpl. Arnaldo Figueroa, and Sgt. Rauch, both wounded, were trapped in the front of the burning vehicle. Despite his own wounds from shrapnel and the blast, Jackson immediately jumped up and scrambled back to the burning vehicle. As ammunition “cooked off” inside the Humvee, Jackson somehow jerked the buckled armored door open and dragged Sgt. Rauch to safety. On the left side of the vehicle, Cpls. Wright and Donald did the same for Cpl. Figueroa. Both badly wounded men were dragged to safety behind the next vehicle in the column and treated by the unit’s two U.S. Navy medical corpsmen, Jose Pena and Gregory Cox, while Lt. John Branson, the platoon commander, deployed his Marines to secure a helicopter landing zone.
Within minutes of the explosion, a Humvee-mounted quick-reaction force, an armed UH-1N “Huey” and an AH-1J “Cobra” gunship were headed our way. They arrived just as a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter swooped in to evacuate the casualties. Less than 20 minutes after the blast that almost killed them, the two wounded Marines were in the air headed for the big British hospital at Camp Bastion.
Within hours, both men, suffering from shattered limbs and shrapnel wounds, were flown first to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and then to the National Naval Regional Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. By then, Sgt. Rauch was missing his left leg below the knee. His wife, Vanessa, met him there when he arrived.
Jackson’s cameras and equipment in the Humvee were blasted to pieces and burned beyond recognition. He had a shrapnel wound in his right leg and undoubtedly a concussion from the explosion. Yet he refused to be evacuated, claiming that he stayed in the field because: “In every hour of videotape that Oliver North shoots, there are five or six really good seconds. I knew I could do better.” That might have been true before the IED went off, but for several days while we waited for new gear to arrive, I had the only camera.
This week, Sgt. Rauch took leave from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he will be fitted soon for a prosthetic leg. He and Vanessa returned here to welcome his comrades in arms back from Afghanistan and for a reunion with Chris Jackson, who told them, “I only did what anyone else would have done in similar circumstances.” With his lovely wife beside him, Sgt. Rauch said into our camera: “I would rather not have lost my leg, but I would do it all over again. I know we are making a difference.”
It has been my great blessing to have spent most of my life in the company of heroes — selfless people who put themselves at risk for the benefit of others. There is certainly no debate that the word defines Chris Jackson, Courtney Rauch and the young American volunteers here at Camp Lejeune. They deserve to have a commander in chief who knows that “victory” is not a four-letter word.