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Monday, July 03, 2006

From an Iowa Town to Marine Corps Legend


Still holding his 9mm Beretta, a seriously injured First Sgt. Brad Kasal is helped
from a Fallujah house on Nov. 13, 2004, after killing several Iraqi insurgents and
with his own body shielding a fellow Marine from a grenade blast (Photo by Lucian Read/WorldPictureNews).



By Nathaniel R. Helms



U.S. Marine Corps First Sergeant Brad Kasal is an American hero. His story is a remarkable tale of bravery, sacrifice and savagery that adds another page to the great book of American military lore.

Kasal may never join the pantheon of Marine Corps legends with colorful names like “Manila John” Basilone, or “Ol’ Gimlet Eye” Smedley Darlington Butler, who won two Medals of Honor, or Master Gunnery Sergeant Leland “Lou” Diamond, who sported a non-regulation goatee and once raised chickens behind his barracks. But he is every bit in their league.



During his three tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, Kasal has been wounded multiple times, including being shot seven times, peppered with grenade fragments on several occasions, and wounded by shrapnel during the Iraqi invasion in 2003 and again last August during the Marines’ deadly street fights against Iraqi insurgents in the Sunni Triangle.



According to highly placed Marine Corps sources, Kasal and another Marine who was killed in action at Fallujah, may become the first Marine Corps recipients of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. Kasal declined any comment on the report and Capt. Daniel J. McSweeney, a spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., said the Corps’ policy is to not comment on such matters before they happen. The other potential recipient is the late Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was killed after using his wounded body to shield his comrades from an exploding hand grenade thrown by an insurgent.



“I appreciate your interest in this issue and that the story and photo speak volumes about the courage and commitment of our deployed Marines,” McSweeney said Thursday. “I'm sorry to reinforce that CMC (Commandant, Marine Corps) and other members of HQMC do not offer comments of any kind on awards that are working their way through the system.”



Kasal joined the Marine Corps in 1984 from rural Afton, Iowa - population 941 - when he was fresh out of East Union High School and fresh off the family farm. Nineteen years later, he was a Marine first sergeant leading a hard-pressed company of infantrymen in a desperate fight for an Iraqi city named Fallujah, a place as foreign to most Americans as Iwo Jima was sixty years ago.



“I always wanted to be a Marine, to see the world and make a difference,” Kasal said in an interview this week.



Linda Haner, the deputy city clerk of Afton and someone who watched Kasal and his family grow up, remembers him as a nice boy who did well on the high school wrestling team. “He was quite athletic,” she said.



Haner said the whole town is proud of Kasal and all his brothers who served in the armed forces. Brother Jeff is a retired Army paratrooper who fought in Desert Storm with the 82nd Airborne and now works in Iraq for Halliburton; Kelly, who was in the Army four years and Kevin, who served four years as a Marine, are all known and respected around the Iowa town.



“If you could see all the yellow ribbons and all the red, white and blue ribbons you would understand about this place. People around here are proud of the boys in the service and what they are doing,” Haner added.


Currently Kasal isn’t doing too much except recovering. The 38-year-old bachelor is confined to a wheelchair while he endures a painful medical procedure to put his right leg back together. His lower leg is connected to a metal device called a halo brace that is full of pins and screws that doctors manipulate each day to stretch his battered lower leg a millimeter at a time, trying to extend it to the length it used to be before an insurgent blew it in half with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.



“They turn the screws so many notches a day,” he explained matter-of-factly from his home in Oceanside, Calif. “It would be easier if I had someone to take care of me, but I have lots of friends and they help.”



Despite his terrible wounds, Kasal has no regrets. He has seen plenty of the world and made a world of difference to a lot of young Marines placed in his charge during three combat tours in the Middle East as First Sergeant of Kilo Company, and then Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. If he has his way he will be doing it again as soon as he heals.



“I believe in leading from the front,” Kasal explained. “It eases their [young Marines] minds and concerns to see me up their with them. That is where I belong.”



His father Gerald, a retired farmer and six-year veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard in the 1950s and early 1960s, said Brad was a great kid who never posed any problems except his propensity for fighting the boys from an adjacent town who seemed to take a pleasure in beating up the boys from Afton – a practice that came to an abrupt end when Brad and his brothers beat the hell out of some of them.



“After Brad and his brothers showed up a few times, they quit thinking they could beat up the boys from Afton,” Gerald Kasal remembered. “Brad’s oldest brother used to be a bully and pick on his younger brothers and I guess Brad just decided nobody was going to pick on him anymore.”



Whatever the reason for his bravery and resolve, Kasal displayed it in the proudest tradition of the Marine Corps on Nov. 13, 2004 during Operation Phantom Fury, the American attack on Fallujah that began five days earlier with the mission of destroying the insurgents’ stronghold in what was considered the center of their territory in Iraq.



“We were moving down the street, clearing buildings,” Kasal recounted. “A Marine came out wounded from a building and said there were three more wounded Marines trapped in there with a bunch of bad guys (insurgents). As we entered, we noticed several dead Iraqis on the floor and one of our wounded.”

Kasal said there was no question of what to do. “If I was a general I would still think my job was to get the wounded Marines out of there,” he said. “So we went in to get them.”



As soon as he entered the two-story stucco and brick building, Kasal found himself in mortal combat. It was fighting to the death, and there was no quarter expected or given, Kasal said.



“An Iraqi pointed an AK-47 at me and I moved back. He fired and missed. I shot and killed him. I put my barrel up against his chest and pulled the trigger over and over until he went down. Then I looked around the wall and put two into his forehead to make sure he was dead.”



While Kasal and a young Pfc. Alexander Nicoll were taking out the insurgent behind the wall, another one with an AK hiding on the stairs to the second floor began firing at the Marines on full automatic. “That’s when I went down, along with one of my Marines (Nicoll). Then I noticed the hand grenade.”



It was a green pineapple grenade, Kasal said. It flew into the room out of nowhere and landed near the two downed men. Kasal now believes that other Marines who were watching their back left the room for reasons he still doesn’t know and an insurgent was able to somehow get behind him.



Kasal said his first instinct was to protect the young Marine lying bloody beside him. He covered the young man with his body and took the full brunt of shrapnel to his back when the grenade exploded. Kasal’s body armor and helmet protected his vital organs but the shrapnel penetrated the exposed portions of his shoulders, back, and legs, causing him to bleed profusely.



“I took my pressure bandage and put it on his leg,” Kasal remembered. “Then I tried to put Nicoll’s pressure bandage on a wound on his chest but it is very hard to get a flak jacket off a wounded man and I was bleeding and fading in and out.”



Nicoll survived the grenade blast and his previous bullet wounds but lost his right leg. “An artery was cut and they had to amputate his leg,” Kasal said. “I have seen him and talked to him several times since we got back to the States. He is doing OK.”



The grenade blast stunned Kasal. He floated in and out of consciousness. But in the back of his mind a voice kept telling him he had to stay alert or the Iraqis were going to come back and finish him and Nicoll off. “They weren’t going to let us live if they knew we were alive. It was kill or be killed,” he said.



Kasal wrestled his 9mm automatic out of its holster and lay on the floor waiting for help. It was thirty or forty minutes before other Marines arrived.



“That’s when I got shot in the butt,” Kasal recalled. “It was the shootout at the OK Corral – point-blank range. I was lying there shooting and somebody shot me through both cheeks. It smarted a bit.”


Kasal did not know the exact extent of his wounds until much later; all he knew was that he was badly hurt. He was floating in and out of consciousness, ultimately losing 60 percent of his blood before he was rescued. After first aid, Kasal and Nicoll were transported to a field hospital in Iraq, then flown to Landstuhl, Germany, where Kasal was hospitalized for a week before arriving at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“I took seven rounds; five in my right leg, one in my foot and one to the buttocks area. When the grenade went off I got 30 to 40 pieces of shrapnel in my back,” Kasal said he later discovered.

Doctors are still fighting to save his leg, Kasal said. By the time this story appears, he will be back at Bethesda for more treatment, but the doctors won’t know for six months whether the Marine will every be 100 percent again. “I know I will walk again, but I don’t know if I will fully recover.”



Meanwhile Kasal experiences almost constant pain.



“I'm missing four and a half inches of the fibula and tibia bones,” he said. “They put that halo brace on my leg to try and make the bone grow together. But there’s no guarantee that will work.”



Despite everything that has happened to him, Kasal still believes America’s mission is Iraq is both important and terribly misconstrued. He harbors special venom for the so-called “mainstream” media reporters who portray the war as a failure and American policy as a gross mistake. He says he has heard reporters say their job is to make President George W. Bush and his policies seem a failure.



“The insurgents are oppressing normal people,” Kasal said. “The press never reports the good things. When we open a school or fix a sewer, the things that make normal Iraqis happy, they never report it. There are plenty of Iraqis, thousands of them, who want to live normal lives. If we can help them it will be all right. The people just want peace and freedom.”



Contributing Editor Nathaniel R. “Nat” Helms is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, long-time journalist and war correspondent living in Missouri. He is the author of two books, Numba One – Numba Ten and Journey Into Madness: A Hitchhiker’s Account of the Bosnian Civil War, both available at www.ebooks-online.com. He can be reached at natshouse1@charter.net Send Feedback responses to­ dwfeedback@yahoo.com.

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