Sergeant Major Justin LeHew was in the news recently for standing up to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus after Mabus dissed the Marines who took part in a study that concluded all-male infantry units were more efficient.
Media coverage noted that LeHew had received the Navy Cross.
The Navy Cross is the second-highest award for valor that a sailor or Marine can earn. It has also been rare. Since 1980, only 28 have been awarded, one in Grenada, two during Operation Just Cause, two in Operation Desert Storm, and 23 during the War on Terror. LeHew is of those 28, and the story of his heroism is amazing. It also was overshadowed.
Many people are familiar with the story of PFC Jessica Lynch, who was captured when the 507th Maintenance Company wandered into an ambush on March 23, 2003. What many people don’t know about is what LeHew did in the aftermath of Lynch’s capture.
According to a Marine Corps media release, then-Gunnery Sergeant LeHew was with A Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment when they came onto the ambush scene after hearing the distress calls over the radio. The Marines had made a 2.5-kilometer run until they found wrecked vehicles that had been used by the 507th. Then they found the soldiers from that unit.
“I saw one pop up in the field we were in, then another popped up on the other side waving his arms. Then we saw soldiers popping up all over the field waving their arms,” LeHew said in a 2004 article by the Marine Corps. LeHew lead his Marines as they evacuated the soldiers, two of whom were critically wounded, while under heavy fire.
The Marines were not finished after that incident. LeHew and his Marines were sent to An Nasiriyah. They pushed towards a bridge over the Euphrates River in AAVP-7A1s. These 29-ton vehicles were designed to help Marines storm beaches, and carry 21 Marines and have a crew of three. The AAVP-7s are armed with a Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher and a M2 .50-caliber machine gun.
Once the AAVP-7s reached the bridge, an Iraqi ambulance careened towards the Marines. After firing a warning shot, the Marines opened fire on the ambulance when it would not stop. The Marines found six black-clad people in the ambulance after they fired. Then, “swarms of Iraqis” came at the Marines, firing RPGs from various locations.
“They were using women holding babies as spotters,” LeHew explained.
Help in the form of Marine Corps M1A1 tanks arrived. LeHew jumped on the turret of one tank, peeled off the earpiece of a crewman, and directed the tank to use its 120mm main gun on a building where the RPGs were being fired out of windows and doorways. Once the directions had been given, LeHew jumped off the turret, telling Marine Corporal Matthew S. Richards, “no sooner than my feet touched the ground the building was leveled.”
Then, LeHew saw an AAVP-7 that had been damaged by an RPG. Without any hesitation, LeHew and a corpsman raced over to the vehicle and began to retrieve the casualties, and called for a medevac chopper. After evacuating the casualties, they proceeded to aid another Marine unit.
Later, LeHew’s unit was told they had been engaging over 2,000 members of the Saddam Fedayeen. In that engagement, he had helped evacuate 77 casualties.
LeHew was presented the Navy Cross during a second deployment to Iraq. But LeHew was not finished with heroism. During that deployment, while serving as First Sergeant with C Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, he earned the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Device for heroism during the Battle of Najaf – including one incident where he helped evacuate nine wounded Marines while under fire from the Mahdi Militia.
The physical courage Sergeant Major LeHew has shown during Operation Iraqi Freedom is undeniable, but it pales in comparison to the moral courage he displayed in standing up to the Secretary of the Navy on behalf of his fellow Marines. He is truly a Marine Corps legend.