Running into Bullets: Willie L. Copeland

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Running into Bullets: A Marine NCO’s Valor

By Matthew Dodd

"Nothing's natural about running into bullets. It's more important for me to make sure my men are OK."

Those words were spoken by a Marine Corps Navy Cross hero, according to an article in the Marine Corps Times on May 2, 2005. In less than twenty words, Sgt. Willie L. Copeland III spoke volumes about combat leadership. Here is his Navy Cross citation and his heroic story:

"For extraordinary heroism as Team leader, 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central Command in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM on 7 April 2004. Tasked as the Main Effort to lead a convoy to a Forward Operating Base, Sergeant Copeland's platoon was ambushed by 40-60 insurgents in well-fortified and concealed positions near the province of Al Anbar."

Reconnaissance (recon) Marines are special. If Marines are considered an elite force, then recon Marines are an elite force within that elite force. Often, recon Marines are volunteers from infantry battalions who undergo a rigorous screening and indoctrination program before being accepted into a recon unit. They receive intense, specialized individual and small-unit tactical training; attend many formal schools and courses (i.e. jump and scuba); and they are normally deployed in small units, given critical independent missions in support of larger forces, and expected to think on their feet to accomplish their mission.

One moment Sgt. Copeland's platoon was leading a convoy, and the next moment its members found themselves in a deliberate ambush. The citation states, "was ambushed,"which is a nice way of saying that they suddenly found themselves in a kill zone. When an enemy has time to create and occupy well-fortified and concealed ambush positions, every second in its kill zone could easily be your last. The ambusher has decided that he wants to kill as many enemy forces as he can in the shortest amount of time possible. To accomplish his goal, the ambusher often employs as many weapons and weapons systems as he possibly can into the kill zone. Copeland's citation states:

"After observing a rocket-propelled grenade instantly crippling the lead vehicle and having mortar and machine gun fire disable his own, Sergeant Copeland led five Marines out of the heaviest zone under attack and made an assault across an open field. They continued the assault across a deep and muddy canal, working their way up to firing positions on the far side within hand grenade range of the enemy. The vigor of this first assault eliminated ten insurgents at close range while forcing other enemy positions to flee."

Marines are taught that when you find yourself in a kill zone, the best defense is a great offense. Despite normal instincts to seek cover, Marines are supposed to turn into the ambush and assault through the ambush positions. As Sgt. Copeland stated, it is not natural to run into bullets in a kill zone. Combat leaders know that in order to ensure the well being of your troops, you sometimes have to do, and inspire them to do, the unnatural. While that counter-ambush technique is taught, I am not sure it is ever truly learned until faced with the unthinkable of suddenly fighting for your life and the lives of your men in a kill zone, and making the split-second decision to do the unnatural. His citation continues:
"During this valiant effort, his commanding officer fell wounded at his side. Unwilling to subject any more Marines to danger, [Copeland] signaled others to remain in covered positions. While placing himself in a position to shield his wounded officer, he applied first aid. Without regard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Copeland stabilized, then evacuated his Captain to a safe area. He then conducted the withdrawal of his team from their covered positions through the use of hand grenades."

As a career Marine officer, these last five sentences were one of the most powerful passages I have ever read. The word-picture of a non-commissioned Officer (NCO), demonstrating unspoken loyalty to his men and to his commanding officer by his own selfless actions in combat, is awe-inspiring.

"The Marine Corps is a tradition-rich warrior culture. The Marine Corps proudly calls itself a "Band of Brothers." As a career Marine officer, I can tell you firsthand that that spirit is alive and well. We Marines also believe that Marines do not abandon their fellow Marines. As a Marine, you instinctively know that you are never alone – you will not be left behind, and you do not leave others behind. Marines are also acutely aware of their duty to preserve the warrior legacy handed down to them."

At his time of greatest need, the captain was not alone. He had with him one of the most lethal, yet compassionate, battlefield forces ever known to man – a warrior NCO of Marines. The citation went on:
"By his bold leadership, wise judgment, and complete dedication to duty, Sergeant Copeland reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service."

According to Webster's dictionary, "bold" is defined as "fearless before danger: intrepid;" "wise" means "characterized by wisdom: marked by deep understanding, keen discernment, and a capacity for sound judgment;" and "complete" is "having all necessary parts, elements, or steps." Those carefully selected adjectives are a deliberate tribute to Sgt. Copeland and his actions on an Iraqi battlefield in April 2004.

One word was omitted from the citation, because it is purely subjective vice objective. Webster's dictionary defines that word as:

"A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; an illustrious warrior; a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities; one that shows great courage."

By receiving the nation's second highest award for valor, Sgt. Willie L. Copeland III has earned the right in my book to be recognized by the above definition: hero.

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