FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- Lance Cpl. James Gould says the 7.62mm round that punched through his right calf felt like a sledgehammer blow.
Several meters away, Gould's fire team leader, Cpl. Randy Wood, watched in horror as Gould fell to the ground as additional rounds impacted around the fallen Marine, pinging off rocks and kicking up small geysers of dirt. Unmindful of the enemy fire, Wood raced to his Marine's side and together, the two took cover behind a rock both described later as looking a lot bigger than it actually was.
"It didn't really hurt that much at first," said Gould, a 20-year-old native of Tampa, Florida. "I thought I'd been hit by a piece of rock or something and the next thing I knew Corporal Wood was right there with me."
As Wood began tearing at Gould's trousers to get at the wound, he felt warm liquid pouring down his face and at first discounted it as sweat until he saw drops of blood plunking to the ground.
"That's when I first felt it," said Wood, who until then was unaware a ricochet had sliced through his cheek below his left eye. "As soon as I saw the blood it started to burn."
The two Marines, riflemen in Charlie Co., Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines had just earned the dubious distinction of being their company's first wounded in action since the unit's arrival in Afghanistan as part of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).
Advancing along a steep, rocky hillside in pursuit of anti-coalition militia (ACM) fighters during the latest offensive against enemy fighters in south-central Afghanistan, the two had been shot by an enemy sniper hidden in a cave on the hillside opposite a small valley.
"All the other Marines started returning fire to cover us," said Wood, who hails from Cowpens, S.C., "and we started looking around for doc [Navy corpsman attached to their platoon]."
"I raised my head one time and the guy [ACM fighter] hit the rock right in front of us so we were pinned down pretty good."
Further up the hill, Hospitalman Brian Imber braved the incoming fire to reach the two Marines, but it was slow going.
"I knew I had to take care of my Marine," said Wood.
While Wood was digging bandages out of Gould's first aid kit, Imber reached the two wounded Marines.
"There wasn't enough room for all three of us behind the rock so we ordered Doc to stay where he was," said Gould.
With Imber shouting instructions, Wood hastily treated Gould's wounded leg as rounds continued to impact around them. Checking to ensure there was both an entrance and exit wound, thus verifying the round had passed through the leg, Wood wrapped a bandage around Gould's leg.
Meanwhile, other Marines from 2nd Platoon poured rifle fire at the ACM sniper's cave until the matter was finally settled with a hand grenade. A closer examination of the cave later revealed there were in fact three ACM fighters in the cave. A fourth ACM fighter was discovered killed by rifle fire approximately 50 meters up the valley and another was found badly wounded. A third Marine was also slightly wounded in the fight.
With the enemy dispatched, the full focus of the platoon turned to the wounded Marines. While the third injured Marine, Sgt. Anthony Viggiani of Strongsville, Ohio, was allowed to remain in the fight with his platoon, both Wood and Gould were ordered back to the operation's mobile command post for further treatment.
The subsequent evacuation of the pair became perhaps the most difficult part of the day.
In their pursuit of the enemy, Charlie Co. had pushed far up and into a rugged mountain pass and with Gould unable to bear weight on his wounded leg, the area inaccessible to helicopters, and the use of a stretcher down the steep and rocky slopes out of the question, the solution lay on the shoulders of Charlie Co.'s senior enlisted Marine.
Pukalani, Hawaii native First Sgt. Ernest Hoopii, without hesitation, dropped his flak jacket, handed off his rifle, and picked up the wounded Gould. With elements of Sgt. Ryan West's rifle squad providing security and escorting two battlefield detainees, Hoopii carried Gould down the mountain on his back, stopping only once or twice for small breaks.
"That was the hardest hump of my life," said the 42-year-old Hoopii.
For nearly two hours in the sweltering Afghanistan afternoon sun, Hoopii carried Gould down the mountain, until he passed the duty off to 2nd Lt. Michael Keller and a pair of Afghan Militia Force (AMF) soldiers. Eventually, Marines would hire a local farmer's donkey to carry Gould on the final leg of his journey.
"Hey, you do what you gotta do to take care your boys," Hoopii said humbly as he chugged water from a proffered canteen.
In time, Wood returned to 2nd Platoon while Gould was evacuated to Forward Operating Base Ripley and then Kandahar Air Field where he is well on his way to a full recovery.
In addition to BLT 1/6, the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, and MEU Service Support Group 22. The MEU is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.