MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA -- It is not often Marines assigned to the air wing are needed to pick up a rifle and fight toe-to-toe for survival, but every so often a select few Marines must exchange their screwdrivers for rifles.
These occurrences demonstrate the bravery and willingness of Marines of every occupation to pay the price to defend their compatriots.
Three Marines from Marine Attack Squadron 211 received Purple Hearts for the price they paid when the enemy was bearing down on them. The ceremony took place at the squadron hangar aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Aug. 1.
Surrounded by their fellow Marines and family, Lance Cpl. Cole Collums, an aviation electronics technician, Sgt. Jonathan Cudo, a powerline mechanic, and former Cpl. Matthew Eason, also a powerline mechanic and a native of Hattiesburg, Miss., were presented with Purple Hearts for the wounds they received while defending against an organized Taliban attack at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, on Sept. 14, 2012.
The attack was a coordinated night assault by 15 Taliban insurgents wearing U.S. Army uniforms, which resulted in the destruction of six AV-8B Harriers IIs, with two more severely damaged. This attack was the worst loss of U.S. airpower in a single incident since the Vietnam War.
When the attack began, there were no friendly forces between the Marines of VMA-211 and the insurgents, so it fell to these Marines to act as the first line of defense for Camp Bastion.
“At the time, all I could think of was the guys and girls in my shop and keeping them safe,” said Cudo, who hails from Phoenix. “I didn’t really care about my well-being. There were guys there with two kids - a family, and I didn’t want them going outside.”
The three Marines who received Purple Hearts all volunteered to join in a counterattack led by Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, the commanding officer of VMA-211 at the time.
Raible called on his Marines to take up arms and fight with limited ammunition, without body armor, automatic weapons, grenades, or support against an enemy force of unknown size, strength or location in the dead of night; his Marines volunteered immediately.
“That moment was the greatest display of leadership and courage I have seen in my life,” said Collums, a native of Mountainburg, Ark. “I knew us sitting in the building was ridiculous, and I knew somebody had to go out there and confront those guys. I knew exactly what I needed to do, and that was to go out with him. When Lt. Col. Raible came by, that was my cue, my opportunity.”
“Luckily, we had a lot of good leadership that night,” added Cudo. “A lot of Marines stepped up and were taking charge. Lt. Col. Raible busted open the door and gave us a quick 30 second speech.”
The Marines, most of who were merely wearing coveralls, only had 25 rounds each to fire at the enemy, positioned only 20-40 meters away. The volunteers pooled ammunition to give themselves a better fighting chance.
“We didn’t have the guns or the ammo,” said Collums. “There were Marines throwing the only ammo they had to us out there. That right there is trust. I don’t know where else you are going to find trust like that.”
“There were only 16 people out of 50 that went outside,” noted Staff Sgt. Jesse Colburn, an ejection seat mechanic with VMA-211 and one of the Marines who fought back at Bastion. “What [Cudo, Collums and Eason] did was amazing. We weren’t out there fighting for any other reason than the Marine to our left and right. They showed outstanding bravery, and I’m proud to be a part of their unit.”
The Marines had no idea what to expect when their counterattack began, but they continued forward, regardless of their reservations.
“I was the first one out the door on the right side,” said Collums. “I thought it was an entire militia attacking, so I didn’t expect to last five seconds out that door. I completely believed that I was going to die that night.”
When the counterattack began, the VMA-211 Marines took up positions outside their hangar before the insurgents could respond. Collums advanced to a forward position within throwing distance of the enemy. He began firing at one of the insurgents while taking fire from multiple locations.
“He kept popping his head out, and I kept shooting at him; I thought, ‘This guy is an idiot. He just keeps sticking his head out,’” said Collums. “Only later did I realize that I was doing the same thing.”
After neutralizing the insurgent, Collums heard the telltale sound of a grenade landing near his position.
“I knew exactly what it was when I heard it,” said Collums. “I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I knew because it was exactly the same as in Call of Duty. When I heard it, all I could think was R2.” [R2 is the button used in the video game, Call of Duty, to throw a grenade back]
The grenade went off before Collums had a chance to react. He was impacted by a concussive blast, hit with shrapnel and launched through the air. Despite the explosion and his injuries, Collums got back up and rejoined the rest of the VMA-211 Marines positioned roughly 10 meters to his rear. He remained in the fight after other Marines quickly treated his wounds.
After the grenade blast and a subsequent lull in the fighting, the insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Marines’ position. One of the Marines shot the insurgent firing the RPG, so it strayed high and detonated on the wall of the hangar behind the Marines. Shrapnel from the explosion wounded Cudo, Collums and Eason.
“I was thrown up against the wall and there was ringing and disorientation,” said Cudo. “I had no idea what was going on, and I just remember being dragged back into the hangar. It was just a small piece of shrapnel in my face but there was blood everywhere so they didn’t know how bad it was at first.”
The Marines who had been wounded were quickly taken back inside the hangar and treated. Though injured, none of the Marines were willing to be medically evacuated and leave their friends behind.
“I exchanged a lot of words with my staff [non-commissioned officer],” said Cudo. “I was really pissed off because I didn’t want to leave, but looking back he was right.”
“They didn’t just stop fighting; they didn’t quit,” added Colburn. “After getting hit by shrapnel, they still didn’t want to leave. We basically had to force them to leave and get medical treatment. They were pretty pissed off about it, but it shows the dedication that they have.”
While the Marines of VMA-211 had not tasted direct combat before, they showed uncommon valor as a common virtue and the competency under fire expected of combat-veteran Marines.
“They took three to four weeks’ worth of training from three years ago and put it in place without hesitation, without fear,” said Colburn. “They confronted the enemy and held back the attack with amazing use of strategy and tactics.”
“Coming in, I had no idea I was going to be in a combat situation,” added Cudo. “As small as the training is, it helped out. Everything they taught us in boot camp and Marine Combat Training we used that night.”
The attack was entirely unexpected. Not a Marine in VMA-211 anticipated a firefight outside their front doors.
“Lt. Col. Raible told us Camp Bastion was the safest base in Afghanistan – that it hadn’t been attacked in over 10 years,” said Cudo. “We just did the best we could; we stopped them at the frontlines.”
Though they have been recognized for their bravery and sacrifice that day, the Marines who received Purple Hearts remain humble.
“There’s nothing that really separates me from everybody else who was out there, because it could have been anyone,” said Collums. “The only difference is that we were unlucky, yet lucky to be alive. I’m just glad that I’m OK.”
After they made it home and recovered from their injuries, many of the Marines at Bastion have been changed by their experiences.
“Everything affected me in a positive way,” explained Cudo. “I know a lot of guys who have been going through some rough times about it, but I feel like talking about it has helped. It made me reassess my life goals and what I want to do with my life. It was an eye-opener. I want to get schooling done, and after going through an experience like that I want to get it done now.”
“If anything, I have post-traumatic growth,” added Collums. “My complete outlook on life and what I want to do, what I want to be, has changed. I’m definitely more enthusiastic and ambitious. I’d do it again today.”
Eason, Collums and Cudo are the second, third and fourth Marines from VMA-211 who acted at Camp Bastion to receive Purple Hearts. Maj. Greer Chambless, a former pilot with VMA-211, is also a Purple Heart recipient.
Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell gave their lives in defense of the camp. A total of eight coalition troops and one civilian contractor were injured.