Six seconds

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Matt Morand
  • 21st Operations Group deputy commander
In May of 1995, then Secretary of the Air Force, Sheila Widnall, and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Ronald Fogleman, formalized the Air Force core values in a joint policy letter.

Today everyone in the Air Force knows Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do are the common ties to which we are all bound. While May of 1995 was not the first time core values were mentioned in our Air Force, it was a significant point in our service's history. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Airmen in this all-volunteer force have raised their hand and said an oath out loud, swearing to protect the values on which this country was built. At that point, the core values are no longer a suggestion or something to think about eight hours a day/five days a week; they are a way of life and should be a part of your everyday decisions.

After formalizing the core values, Widnall said "Each member must realize his or her needs are secondary to the needs of our great country. This is a 24-hour-a-day commitment and one that requires many personal sacrifices." She went on to say, "They are the values that anchor resolve in the most difficult situations. They are the values that buttress mental and physical courage when we enter combat. In essence, they are the three pillars of professionalism that provide the foundation for military leadership at every level."

While the story below is about Marines, it could have been Airmen standing their post in the same situation, and "Service Before Self" does not care what uniform you wear.

I met Lt. Gen. John Kelly, U.S. Marine Corps, while stationed at the Pentagon. At the time, he was the military assistant to the secretary of defense. He is an impressive man, very intelligent, but humble and a leader in every sense of the word. He had been asked some months earlier to speak at a function in Missouri and graciously agreed. Tragically, four days before the speech his son, Marine Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Instead of cancelling, like a Marine, he kept his word. This is an excerpt from his speech:

"I have a story I wish to relate about the kind of people they are, about the steel in their backs, and the kind of dedication they bring to our country. When I was the commander of all U.S. and Iraqi forces, on April 22, 2008, two Marine infantry battalions... were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion was in the closing days of its deployment, the other just starting its seven-month combat tour. Two Marines, Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines. The same ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, our allies in the fight against terrorists in Ramadi - known at the time as the most dangerous city on earth and owned by al-Qaeda. Yale was a dirt-poor mixed-race kid from Virginia, with a wife, a mother, and a sister, who all lived with him and he supported. He did this on a yearly salary of less than $23,000.

"Haerter, on the other hand, was a middle-class white kid from Long Island. They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines, they would never have met each other or understood that multiple Americas exist simultaneously, depending on one's race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, education level, economic status, or where you might have been born.

"But they were Marines; combat Marines, forged in the same crucible, and because of this bond they were brothers as close - or closer - than if they were born of the same woman.

"The mission orders they received from their sergeant squad leader, I'm sure, went something like this: 'OK, you two clowns, take charge of this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass. You clear?' I'm also sure Yale and Haerter rolled their eyes and said, in unison, something like, 'Yes, sergeant,' with just enough attitude that made the point, without saying the words, 'No kidding, sweetheart. We know what we're doing.' They then relieved two other Marines on watch and took up their post at the entry-control point of Joint Security Station Nasser, in the Sophia section of Ramadi, al Anbar, Iraq. A few minutes later, a large blue truck turned down the alleyway - perhaps 60 to 70 yards in length - and sped its way through the serpentine concrete Jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both. Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck's engine came to rest 200 yards away, knocking down most of a house down before it stopped. Our explosive experts reckoned the blast was caused by 2,000 pounds of explosive. Because these two young infantrymen didn't have it in their DNA to run from danger, they saved 150 of their Iraqi and American brothers in arms. When I read the situation report a few hours after it happened, I called the regimental commander for details. Something about this struck me as different. We expect Marines, regardless of rank or MOS, to stand their ground and do their duty, and even die in the process, if that is what the mission takes. But this just seemed different. The regimental commander had just returned from the site, and he agreed, but reported that there were no American witnesses to the event - just Iraqi police. If there was any chance of finding out what actually happened, and then to decorate the two Marines to acknowledge their bravery, I'd have to do it, because a combat award requires two eyewitnesses, and we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements. If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer.

"I traveled to Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to a half-dozen Iraqi police, all of whom told the same story. They all said, 'We knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing.' The Iraqi police related that some of them also fired, and then, to a man, ran for safety just prior to the explosion. All survived. Many were injured, some seriously. One of the Iraqis elaborated, and with tears welling up, said, 'They'd run like any normal man would to save his life.' What he didn't know until then, and what he learned that very instant, was that Marines are not normal. Choking past the emotion, he said, 'Sir, in the name of God, no sane man would have stood there and done what they did. They saved us all.'

"What we didn't know at the time, and only learned after I submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras recorded some of the attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis described it. It took exactly six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it detonated.

"You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. I suppose it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. No time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: 'Let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.' The two Marines had about five seconds left to live.

"It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time, the truck was halfway through the barriers and gaining speed. Here the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were, some running right past the Marines, who had three seconds left to live.

"For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines firing their weapons nonstop. The truck's windshield explodes into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tear into the body of the son of a bitch trying to get past them to kill their brothers - American and Iraqi - bedded down in the barracks, totally unaware that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder-width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could. They had only one second left to live.

"The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty into eternity."

I cannot begin to try to follow his story with any appropriate words, but the words Fogleman said after formalizing our core values mean even more to me after the story of six seconds, "We're entrusted with the security of our nation. The tools of our trade are lethal and we engage in operations that involve risk to human life and untold national treasures. Because of what we do our standards must be higher than those of society at large. The American public expects it of us and properly so."

Your service is what keeps our nation safe. While I hope none of you have to make the same type of decisions these two Marines made in six seconds, I am confident you would put the needs of others above your own.

(Some excerpts from a 2010 speech by Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly)