Leadership from the Rear

This account of an ambush won the USMC 2005 Leadership Essay Contest

Captain Brent Morel, USMC

Proof that combat leadership knows no traditional boundaries.

Brent Morel was a captain, but in the be-a-good-officer leadership case studies his role was always cast with a 2nd lieutenant. Morel had done well enough in his initial tours to land a reconnaissance platoon. But he had missed Iraqi Freedom I. Most of his men were combat veterans who had spent time walking the point for the entire 1st Marine Division during its bold dash into Baghdad. They had seen things he hadn’t.

The miss bothered Morel—a seasoned Marine who had enlisted in the reserves while in college—but his platoon didn’t really care. They valued guts as much as experience. And Morel had plenty. They’d seen him stand up to seniors on their behalf when others would have yielded. They sensed Morel was a hunter, just as they sensed a fight was looming. Fallujah had erupted only weeks into their deployment. Brent Morel was the kind of platoon leader you wanted in a collision.

The platoon was traveling in the first five Humvees of a convoy, each man watching a sector of landscape. It was ambush territory—the road was elevated and exposed, paralleled by a series of chest-high berms. The Marines noticed a canal that could act like a moat if the enemy had even a paintballer’s tactical sense.

It was escort duty but Morel wasn’t going to make it easy on the enemy. Approaching a particularly vulnerable stretch of road, he stopped the entire convoy and ordered a sweep of the area. Nothing. His hunter’s instincts were wrong.

A few kilometers later, a rocket-propelled grenade boomed over a berm like a supersonic football and slammed into Corporal Eddie Wright’s door-mounted SAW. All five men in the lead vehicle were wounded in the blast. Wright lost both hands. One platoon member would later say that it looked as if he’d stuck them into a whirring garbage disposal. His thigh was torn apart, exposing a broken femur. Shawn Talbert, standing behind the machine gun on the roof, was raked with metal below the knees. Something broke Eric Kocher’s arm. The other two men had blown ear drums, shrapnel wounds, and probable concussions.
Common sense invites you to remove the men in that smoking Humvee—especially Wright—from this firefight. History tells you that Marines are not common. Leadership in chaos knows no geometric or physical bounds.

Wright was not positioned to lead a counterattack. Nor would he ever again run his fingers through his girlfriend’s hair or pinch some chewing tobacco, for that matter. But he wasn’t out of the fight. Not by a long shot.
While another Marine seemed to be lapsing into a state of shock when he saw the extent of Wright’s injuries, Wright calmly walked him through the application of a hasty tourniquet, going so far as to point out enemy positions when he was satisfied he would not bleed to death. There’s no doubt Wright was a born leader; in a month he would become an inspiration to everyone at Walter Reed, the crazy jarhead who approached rehab like an extreme sport. In six months he would be seen on television in uniform saluting President Reagan’s coffin. But there on the battlefield, who was he really leading?

Now the enemy was pouring machinegun and rifle fire into the three lead vehicles. Kocher, Wright’s team leader, managed to wiggle into the driver’s seat and steer the wounded Humvee out of the worst of it. Wright could still see the enemy. There were at least twenty of them behind the biggest berm on the other side of the canal, perhaps 200 meters away. A civilian truck seemed to be ferrying more insurgents into the fight.

Marine infantry schools advocate attacker-to-defender ratios of at least 3:1; here the odds were reversed, only worse. The schools would have also labeled it a “far ambush” and prescribed the following: return fire and maneuver out of the kill zone. In wide open terrain, however, battlefield geometry stretches. It may have been a “close ambush.” And the only way to escape a close ambush is to attack it. The last part always elicits a few classroom chuckles: Who would be crazy enough to charge an entrenched machine gun?

Captain Morel was in the second vehicle. “Stop and dismount,” was all he said. Next thing Sergant Dan Lalota knew, the captain was running toward the enemy position. Those other Marines in the bullet-swept column that could follow him did so, racing into the deadly obstacle course before their brains caught up with their legs.

There were five of them in all. Sergeant Michael Mendoza was one. He hadn’t seen combat in the first war either. Now bullets were cracking overhead like whips as they snapped through the sound barrier. When he reached the first berm (alive!) he took cover, pumping some rifle grenades into the enemy position. On his third, fourth, or fifth shot—time seemed to have compacted—he watched a spinning grenade cannister barely clear the big berm just as an insurgent tried a prairie dog peek. He turned to shout at someone but there was no one. The guys were moving again. Hell, he thought, I’d better go too.

Morel had practically hurdled the first berm and was now scrambling across the second. Sergeants Dan Lalota and Willie Copeland were on his heels. The soft-spoken Copeland was a team leader and looked up to Morel. Most of his team was still back on the road in a supporting position, but the table of organization had been trumped the moment he saw Morel leave the vehicle. He and Lalota were providing accurate cover fire, then sprinting to catch up. Copeland even managed to take the lead at one point, but it was tough to stay ahead of Morel. Copeland wondered if he was ever going to stop.

Gunnery Sergeant Dan Griego was wondering the same thing. The platoon sergeant had driected the last two Humvees up a dirt trail where they had gained some high ground and a precious flank. The SOP told him that Morel’s element would establish a base of fire so his element could roll the flank; he’d dispatched the irrepressible Sergeant Leandro Baptista and a small team to do just that.

Now Morel’s actions a quarter mile ahead told him something different. Seeing that Baptista’s attack was drifting toward Morel’s, Griego made a snap decision. He recalled Baptista to prevent fratricide and instead ordered his element to establish the base of fire, pouring accurate shots into the insurgent position, killing some enemy immediately and drawing the attention of others.

Unfortunately there were plenty of insurgents to go around. The incoming fire was thick. You couldn’t run upright. All five attacking Marines splashed into a chest-deep canal and started to wade across. It had a sinkhole bottom. The muck enveloped their combat boots to the shin. Each step was more leg-lift than bounce.

The tiny group of Marines paused to catch its breath behind the next-to-last berm. “Cover me. We’re assaulting through,” was all Morel said.

Lalota, a tough, aggressive Marine, allowed himself a millisecond to consider the order. “Assaulting through the objective” was something Marines practiced ad nausea from the second week of boot camp, an infantry tactic that won praise because it instilled an innate aggression but was derided because it seemed too dangerous. In training these face-to-face attacks were labeled “squad on a golf course” drills because to practice on anything but open ground was to invite friendly casualties. Now Morel wanted to finish the crumbling insurgent force by bursting through the scrub right into their lair. It’s a ballsy call, thought Lalota.

“You want to assault through?” asked Lalota.
“Yes.”
“Roger that.”
And that was it. If Morel wanted to go, the others would follow.

Brent Morel sprinted forward. When he turned to yell, he was struck by a bullet that penetrated his arm and disappeared under his armpit. There’s a statue that greets all lieutenants at the basic school that strikes the same pose: a young platoon commander under fire turning to encourage his men. The statue does not bear Brent’s name, but like the hundreds of other Marines who died in front, that statue is him.

Lance Corporal Maurice Scott was the first to reach Morel. The youngest man in the small band of attackers, Scott wasn’t a member of any Recon Team. The guys used to joke that his only job was to take care of the captain. He dragged Morel across the open ground into a small culvert, 18 inches deep.

Michael Mendoza was shocked and angry. He crested the berm and an RPG exploded at his feet, sending him spinning toward the others. He piled into the gully with Scott. Together they gently stripped their captain’s gear and applied dressings. Lalota and Copeland moved to protect the others in the open ground, firing until the rest of the unit shot down the surviving insurgents.

Before April 7, 2004, Route Boston, as the ambush road was known, had been plagued by a series of small arms ambushes. After the five Marines charged, there were IED attacks and the occasional shoot-and-scoot, but never again did the enemy attempt a sustained ambush. Not when some tiny group of enraged Marines might sprint a quarter mile just to look you in the eye.

Most leadership is self-evident. Morel and Griego were out front issuing orders and leading by example. Less discernable leadership is just as powerful. The rest of the platoon proved that good followers are good leaders. On the battlefield, followership has an exponential effect. But whom did Eddie Wright most impact? What of the four Marines who joined the charge? They weren’t leading Morel. He was up front.

Those men were leading the rest of us.