SAN DIEGO, October 14, 2017 — There are those who take uncertain steps on IED-ridden battlefields, take to contested waterways, and fly unguarded skies as dangerous threats lurk below. Protecting freedom is how over a million active-duty military men and women support their families.
These Brothers in Arms fight and die, for each other, and for those who can’t fight for themselves.
Their contributions and sacrifices are inextricably woven into the fabric of the American flag.
Since the Global War on Terror began on September 11, 2001, America’s warriors have faced evil on a heightened scale and risked life and limb to quell a hate-filled enemy who does not respect human life.
Many return from combat with a broadened view, a changed life, to passions redirected.
“Life is good. Life is a gift.” Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Mount
It was the remarkable esprit de corps, the history and its intimacy as an organization that drew Lt. Col. Stephen Mount to the Marine Corps in 1996. Mount, severely wounded in Iraq, 2004, was given command June 30th, 2016, of Wounded Warrior Battalion-West (WWBn-W), located at Camp Pendleton Calif., now in its tenth year of operation.
There, he is committed to the successful recovery of each Marine assigned to his care.
“I try to be the kind of guy who absorbs the blows and then just figures it out,” said Mount. He chooses to not make drastic decisions right away and let things kind of simmer. “Let’s just figure this out together and go forward,” he tells his Marines.
Absorbing the blows of active-duty service prefaced Mount’s first historic experiences as a UH-1N (Huey) pilot with Helicopter Marine Light Attack Squadron (HMLA)-169. His first deployment in 2001, as part of the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), took him to Darwin, training with the Australians.
After the twin towers and the Pentagon were hit and hijacked Flight 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field, the 15th MEU was redirected to the Arabian Sea.
“It was a very anxious and excitable kind of feeling that we were out in the Arabian Sea and the country had been attacked and more than likely we were going to do something about it.”
He was on the flight deck of his ship, watching the first U.S. missile strikes launched in the first round of attacks.
Mount’s squadron was flown into the Afghanistan desert and had to scrape out a “pseudo desert airstrip”, that Mount said, “[had] some old abandoned buildings they probably used to run drugs out of.”
By end of November 2001, that pseudo desert airstrip had a name: Camp Rhino, the first U.S. Forward Operating Base (FOB) established in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. They went in there with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines under Colonel Brett Bourne.
“It wasn’t a Forward Operating Base in the traditional sense. They dug holes in the sand—that was our perimeter. Then we built ourselves fueling points.”
Mount called flying into the middle of the desert in a foreign country and doing good things “fun times.” The first night he slept by the skid of his aircraft.
“None of our aircraft have any gas. We don’t know what is going to happen. You’re a young man—that’s what you do … it was exciting.”
A sense of finality prevailed. “I can’t get back to the ship until someone lands and gives me more gas,” said Mount.
There was already fighting in the North which had fallen to the Taliban. Gas arrived on C-130’s and U.S. troops followed Hamid Karzai and his boys into Kandahar and then Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, establishing an airfield at Kandahar.
Mount explains, “The big offensive against the Taliban hadn’t started yet; not until we got there and Karzai could have some assurances that America is here to help you.”
A future home for wounded warriors would come into play as the Global War on Terrorism kicked off.
Operation Iraqi Freedom I, the initial invasion of Iraq, saw U.S. and Coalition Forces quickly defeat Suddam Hussein’s Army. Upheaval and more harrowing times ensued. During Operation Iraqi Freedom II, 2004, the U.S. sent troops in to support the newly-established Provisional Iraqi Government, trying to stabilize the country and protect Iraqi citizens, threatened by growing violence and complexity.
The unpreparedness for the number of casualties and pace of operations going forward took a toll on the military healthcare system. For Mount and others deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, there was no centralized operation to care for the numbers of wounded warriors too well to be kept in-patient, but not well enough to go back to their units or deploy.
A charismatic yet disenchanted Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al Sadr, spread insurrection around Iraq, in opposition to the new government. His die-hard followers formed heavily-armed militias or al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, who rained bullets and shrapnel on U.S. and Coalition forces.
Al-Sadr’s militia was battered. A conditional truce was made with him for An Najaf and al-Kufa (his home territory) that restricted Coalition forces entry. Al-Sadr used fear and oppression to reinforce control and conducted assassinations, kidnappings, and torture of police and government officials.
The militia would then hide where Coalition forces could not pursue them.
Mount and his flight crew deployed with Colonel Anthony M. Haslam’s 11th MEU and Lt. Col. John L. Mayer’s Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) in the summer of ‘04.
The MEU took over the battlespace in and around An Najaf by August, in soaring desert temperatures and volatile instability.
“There was an old holy cemetery [Wadi al-Salam],” said Mount, then a Captain. “They [al-Sadr’s militia] would use the crypts and catacombs to build smuggled weapons and launch attacks out to the Iraqi police forces.”
Mount and his crew couldn’t fly over or attack the holy burial grounds or the Imam Ali Mosque.
“There was a police station in Revolutionary Circle…they would lob mortars and shoot at us [every night]. By the time we’d get to our birds and fly over there, they’d [retreat] back to the cemetery,” said Mount.
The night of August 3rd, enough was enough for MEU commanders. A Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and Combined Anti-Armor-Team (CAAT) were summoned to reinforce the police station. American forces came under attack on the main highway that runs by the cemetery, from where al-Sadr’s militia was positioned. Mount’s aircraft section suppressed the threat, allowing our forces to run through.
Again, they were called out.
“We spun up one Huey and two Cobras,” said Mount, who piloted the lead Huey with Co-pilot Drew Turner, Crew Chief Pat Burgess, and Gunner Lance Corporal Teodro Naranjo. Mount’s section circled, seeking to take out a mortar pit that an ‘observer’ had seen by an old gas station near the cemetery.
He missed seeing it on the first “poke your head out, shoot, and get back,” attempt, but on a second circle, further out, the Huey’s number one engine and Mount got a fiery hit.
“I clenched and reflexed, bringing our nose way up and lost all our air speed,” remembered Mount, crediting Turner for landing the battered helicopter right-side up instead of upside down, which would have killed them.
A rifle round entered Mount’s left temple and went behind the bridge of his nose, in front of an eye through the socket and exited the right temple.
“I remember Pat Burgess…dragging me off the skid behind some bricks – waiting there for the guys – a Corpsman ran up and jabbed with morphine.”
“Captain Andrew Turner, ran into the [nearby medical] clinic and came out with an Iraqi physician. Mount had been holding a compress to his wound while trying to chamber a round in his pistol with his teeth. His crew chief, Staff Sergeant Patrick O. Burgess, finally gave him a needed hand in loading.”
As thoughts of the 1993 Mogadishu “Blackhawk Down” incident haunted the Marines, it became a footrace between the Marines and al-Sadr’s fighters – each attempting to get to the crash site first.
“The Marines arriving at the crash site found the aircraft empty. Some put out the fire in the burning engine while others shouted for the Huey crew. Mount and his men returned the calls from their position in a courtyard adjacent to the medical clinic. Borneo’s [Weapons Team A] and MacDonald’s [Light Armored Vehicle-25s] teams, with the help of the recently arrived reaction force, soon suppressed militia fire.” (U.S. Marine Corps History Division)
As this was happening, the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty reopened after being closed since the September 11th, 2001 attacks and our Stars and Stripes a beacon for those fighting against terror.
“It’s just another step in life and things are going to get better.” Lt. Col. Stephen Mount
Mount’s surgeries took place at Combat Surgical Hospital in Baghdad, then, eventually, he returned back to the States. His still-open wounds were checked and treated by specialists at Naval Medical Center San Diego. The answers to all required Psychiatrist questions were ‘no’ and ‘no’. Mount wanted nothing getting in the way of going home.
Losing an eye meant giving up the flying he trained for and loved, yet Mount set the example for those he now commands at WWBn-W. He continued his post-graduate education, rose up in the Marine Corps and served in Executive Officer and teaching roles – even deployed as the 15th MEU’s Air Officer in 2013, teaching guys how to talk to airplanes and do close air support.
For Mount, ‘The sun’s out and he goes out and surfs in the morning’.
“There’s a sense of realization when you’re a pilot – those big orange ‘BBs’ coming by aircraft – you know what those are. You know they are shooting at you and you are shooting at them,” confirms Mount. No one wants the end game to be injury or death, yet Mount conveys, “You’re in there with eyes wide open.”
Gas Station for New Beginnings
Mount and the services he and the Wounded Warrior Regiment provide are the gas station for Marines who come there due to combat or non-combat wound, illness, or injury. Help, including career and education support for Marines facing the unexpected transition to civilian life, await them.
Medical case management, adaptive athletic reconditioning through competitive sporting events, benefits and entitlements, a disability evaluation system to determine if recovering service members are fit for duty as well as their VA benefits, and recovery care coordination are also offered.
“I’m responsible for everything that happens or does not happen in the battalion,” reports Mount. This encompasses a Marine’s well-being, progress, all administrative tasks, and discipline.
“This is their off-ramp. The Marines that are here right now – less than 5% are going back to the fleet,” he added.
Mount was one of the less than 5 % to return to active-duty when his career path took a vicious blow.
A very small number of Marines in WWBn-W are combat-wounded now. They’ve had training accidents, they suffer from a variety of different physical and mental illnesses, old traumatic brain injuries – they all come with a different set of challenges.
Watching Marines tackle their difficulties brings Mount pride and joy.
“Guys that find ways to overcome these challenges – emerge out of here without a sense of bitterness, a sense of ‘hey, my Marine Corps chapter is closing, but I have this new chapter, now. And use that to benefit themselves or others.”
Mount advises Marines to avoid getting worked up and anxious about things they can’t control and find out what they can control in their sphere of influence, and do the best they can with that. Mount is sure,
“People don’t fail when they come through our regiment for lack of resources. They don’t fail for lack of caring people trying to do the right thing for these guys. It’s for other reasons.”
“We are there to prepare them best we can so they don’t get kicked off the bridge.”
“Embrace veterans,” admonishes Mount, “Veterans who are looking for employment, who are looking for a sense of being or purpose, now they have left this [military] sense of purpose. Continue to give support when they come home from overseas – all the things people have been doing for the past 15 years.”
Mount and his fighting brothers and sisters need to know that it all matters somehow.
The face of terror continues, and what our active-duty service members do has made a difference time and time again. A September 2017 Department of Defense report stated, “More than 42,000 square kilometers in Iraq have been cleared and more than 4 million people are now free from ISIS control.”
We cannot know what our troops experience in the heat of these battles to secure stability and security across the globe, which undeterred, threatens the entire planet. We can start by thanking and honoring the things that unite us as a nation, including the flag and national anthem that our warriors and heroes carry in their hearts and into new chapters of life.
Company Alpha, Company Delta, Headquarters Company, and the Warrior Hope and Care Center are located at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Company Bravo is aboard Naval Medical Center, San Diego, and Company Charlie aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
There are other liaison help centers across the nation – as well as a call center that is available 24/7, so every Marine can pick up a phone and talk to a real person.
District Injured Support Coordinators and Field Support Representatives are there to help navigate VA processes, no matter where you move. Call 877-487-6299, or go to the Wounded Warrior website.
GIVE A SALUTE all across America. Because when you work to be as awesome as you can be at whatever it is you do, someone in a military uniform has provided you the freedom to do it.