CAMP HANSEN, OKINAWA, Japan (May 17, 2007) -- “Now you tell me - do I deserve it?"
May 17, 2007; Submitted on: 05/17/2007 03:51:56 AM ; Story ID#: 200751735156
By Lance Cpl. Eric D. Arndt, 31st MEU
This is a serious question following a sincere conversation, but to understand its weight you have to understand the context.
It's May 15, 2007, and I'm sitting on a metal picnic bench across from Staff Sgt. Logan Cortes.
Let’s just say his doubt has begun to set in.
Two hours prior, he was presented with the Bronze Star with combat distinguishing device for actions during Operation Iraqi Freedom in Anbar province with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (then under the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit) on Nov. 16, 2005.
At this point the interview is almost over and the story has been laid bare; I have most of the general facts of what happened in New Ubaydi on that day during Operation Steel Curtain.
I'm going over the story again in my mind when Cortes repeats his question.
"Do I deserve it?"
He's talking about the medal. His Bronze Star.
This is a fairly heavy question to pose to a lance corporal who's never seen actual combat.
I think about it, and the evidence, and my reply takes less than two seconds to surface.
Yes. You do, staff sergeant.
And after a short pause, I explain why.
The First Impression
I first meet Staff Sgt. Cortes on the day of his award ceremony, inside the House of Pain South gym’s basketball court area, which has been cleared out completely to allow the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit's Battalion Landing Team 2/1 to attend. Amid the sea of Marines and Sailors pouring in to witness the presentation, I see his nametape and approach him.
While introducing myself, I'm caught off guard by his presence, which fills the air with benevolence, with an aura I have sometimes detected from experienced Marines, as well as other people of a particular high quality.
As far as a physical description, he stands about 5 feet 7 inches - slightly shorter than me - but completely solid; I have no reservations he could topple me at will. He has jet black hair and you can see the bottom half of a tattoo on his right bicep. In spite of an intimidating visage, he is particularly quiet; he possesses a gentle demeanor not expected of a Marine about to receive an award for honorable actions under fire.
After Cortes receives his award from Lt. Col. Francis Donovan, the BLT’s commanding officer, my initial impressions of his character are validated: Cortes opts not to give a dramatic speech to the battalion, instead taking a more humble approach. Donovan speaks on Cortes’ behalf, noting his leadership abilities and qualities. Cortes stands there - proudly - but looking as if he would rather be somewhere else.
After the event, Cortes receives attention from just about everyone. Marines and Sailors from the battalion shake his hand and congratulate him. The attention seems to make him slightly uncomfortable, but he handles it the way he would any circumstance – as a professional.
Once everything has calmed down, we make plans to meet during lunch for an interview, and then I leave.
Cortes gives me the name of someone I can use as a second source, the name of a corporal he describes simply as "wise," and tells me he often exchanges ideas with this individual to benefit himself and his Marines, even though he himself is older and of higher rank.
So I seek out Cpl. Thomas M. Latemer, a squad leader with 1st Platoon, Company F, to get an inside word on Cortes’ character.
Latemer gives me a puzzling look when he answers the door, but invites me into his barracks room the second I mention Staff Sgt. Cortes. As I enter, he has a smile that seems to indicate I’m part of a long-running inside joke only the two of them will ever understand.
Latemer stands out to me immediately as a Marine who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and he doesn’t hold back much when I ask him about Cortes.
“My initial impression of him was: he’s a hard case. Big guy, stares a lot, watches his people. He’s got that hawk-eye on him. He always keeps close tabs on his people,” Latemer says. “The real first impression of him that I got before I even really got to talk to him was from talking to his machine gunners. He looked out for them.”
Latemer got to know Cortes when exchanging their squad and section Marines for cross-training.
Having not known Cortes on a personal level until after the three-month deployment to Iraq didn’t stop Latemer from commenting on his award.
“If there’s one thing he believes in, he believes he is there for his Marines and his Marines alone,” Latemer says. “He’s a real selfless individual. You’re not going to tell him to not take care of his people.”
“Absolutely he deserves (the Bronze Star),” Latemer continued. “Did he have to leave a covered position and go help out people when other people would have come?
“There are people, brave men who would have made that decision – to stay right there. But it does take something to say, (forget) this, I’m charging across… we’re talking at least a hundred meters of open ground.
“When we first got there, we were three-to-four-hundred meters back and rounds were skipping off the deck in front of us, before we even started our push. He went out there. He led from the front. Not only did he lead from the front, he pushed right to the very edge. How far can you go?”
I ask Latemer for the most important thing he learned from Staff Sgt. Cortes.
"Do what you think is right," Latemer responds, instantly.
A moment passes.
"Understand the consequences, sure, but do what you think is right."
Nowhere Else to Go
Cortes joined the Marine Corps in what he believes was more luck than willful act.
"I got in a fight with my elder sister and she threw me out of the house," the Stockton, Calif. native says. He recalls this memory with a grin that seems to say he remembers the event with some form of fondness, even if it was a difficult time as it occurred.
"So I went to the recruiter and said, 'you have three days to get me in.'"
"So here I am."
Cortes held the military occupational specialty of rifleman upon his entrance into the Corps, and has been employed in several infantry billets since then. Currently, he serves as the Interim Fast Attack Vehicle section leader for Co. G.
He has decided so far to not leave the Marine Corps behind, choosing to remain instead because the organization seems to fit well.
"The brotherhood is awesome," he said. "I felt it was a very good decision I made - joining the Marines. I saw other branches through the years, and I think it's lucky that (the Marine Corps recruiter) was the first office I went to.”
“I guess I’m just lucky.”
"The house looked like a regular house," Cortes says.
To illustrate the layout of the attack, of the ambush, of the enemies and the Marines he watched fall, Cortes reaches over and draws something on my copy of his award citation.
This is a skill taught to all Marines, but it is essential to infantry especially - the ability to communicate terrain layouts through simple drawings. Throughout the day, I'll interview Marines who were present during the fight, and they will do the same. Every time it will become necessary to express distance or shape or troop movements, the pens will come out and I’ll get some form of diagram.
"It was a regular house on the outside," Cortes continues, "but on the inside, it was well protected. There had to be around seven (insurgents) in the house."
He tells me the final count of confirmed kills in the area was more than 30, but this included the surrounding neighborhood as well, which at the time contained New Ubaydi’s remaining insurgents, who were forced into a pocket at the town’s edge by Operation Steel Curtain's push into and through the terrorist haven.
When Marines from another platoon stacked up to enter the house, they were ambushed, and the house opened up like a bee hive.
"There was enemy all over the place," he says.
As the Marines of 2/1 started to assault toward the enemy, Cortes and his machine gunners, Deeds and Leary, began to set up a position behind a stone wall adjacent to the house. Mere instants later, they would hear of the Marine who went down inside – the front man on the stack attempting to clear the house – suffering wounds to both of his legs from an insurgent's grenade.
"The first one to run over there was my lance corporal, Deeds," Cortes recalls. "I was going to go there by myself, but Deeds went. He didn't ask for permission or anything – he took off."
Meanwhile, Leary set up a firing position, providing cover fire for both the primary target house and firing on several other houses to his right, where more insurgents began sending their small-arms fire at him.
Cortes pulled the injured Marine out of the house, only to realize he couldn’t locate his machine gunner.
Leary had dropped behind the wall to protect himself from insurgent fire. He called out to Cortes that he was running low on ammunition. Cortes ran back to where the men had dropped their packs when the battle began, and rummaged for the rounds his machine gunner would need to stay in the fight.
As Cortes scrambled back with the ammunition to supply Leary, an insurgent made the last mistake of his life by choosing to fire at Cortes.
“I came back over here to give Leary the ammo, and then (the insurgent) started firing over here,” Cortes says, making a couple of points on the map with his pen. “I guess I was a better shooter than he was.”
The award citation states the man was ‘at close range,’ so I ask Cortes how close and he points to a Marine walking toward us.
The Marine is close enough for me to accurately see his rank.
Cortes says it felt like nothing. He says it felt like he feels right now, just talking to me at this table.
“Afterwards, the only things you think about are the (Marines) going to the hospital,” Cortes says. “You don’t really think about what happened or who was shooting at you or anything.”
Leary, who covered Cortes that day, is now a corporal and the 2nd squad leader of Weapons Plt., Co. F.
For the most part, he just takes me through his account of how things happened, which isn’t far off from how I’ve already heard it. He tells me how he set up his firing position. How he saw all of the violence erupting around the house in the form of the usual accompaniments – grenades and explosions, gunfire, screaming… bleeding.
He speaks about Cortes and Deeds running into the building, and Cortes bringing him ammunition when he was running out, and how he thinks the Bronze Star is great because Cortes is someone who really deserves what he received.
“He sacrifices so much,” Leary says. “When he was with (our section), we had our group of machine gunners. I hate to be cliché, but it was a big, old, happy family.”
“A big, old – dysfunctional – happy family of brothers,” he corrects himself.
“Anybody in that section would do anything for anyone else,” Leary continued. “It’s rare to see a Staff (Non-commissioned Officer) sacrifice as much as he does for the lower level Marines.”
When I mention Deeds, Leary points out his picture to me. It sits, framed, on top of his wall locker.
Deeds was killed in action along with four other 2/1 Marines the day Cortes rushed into hell to save a fallen brother.
Afterwards, right as I walk out the door, Leary says to make sure it’s a good story. That Cortes deserves it.
Cortes doesn’t think so, and he explains his views.
“Just like I told everyone else,” he says, “my feelings are that I don’t deserve it, because I didn’t do anything (more) than anyone over there did.”
But he’s wrong.
Beyond bureaucracies, beyond the frustration with who receives awards and who does not and why, beyond the reasons we fight and some die, there is this: one man falls in a building, others fall around it, and amidst chaos those who are still able decide they will rescue their brethren or die trying.
The Bronze Star is made of metal and fabric.
Only when men such as Staff Sgt. Cortes wear it does it achieve value.
Staff Sgt. Cortes deserves this, because of those who have worn it before, those who have yet to wear it, and because when it is upon his chest…
…he wears it for his big, old, dysfunctional, happy family of brothers.