View Full Version : Sailor honored for saving life

03-06-06, 08:14 AM
Sailor honored for saving life
Man from Olympia gets Bronze Star
By Christian Hill
The Olympian

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan McDonell doesn’t remember the shrapnel and bullets whizzing around him that November day in Iraq.

His attention was riveted on the Marine who was in jeopardy of bleeding to death from combat injuries suffered minutes earlier.

As the senior corpsman in his Marine company, McDonell, now 28 and living in California, had treated Marines wounded by the insurgency during his time in Iraq. Some had lived, and some had died.

But he had never treated such grievous wounds while being jostled about in the back of a Humvee that was a target of enemy fire.

“I don’t remember thinking about it, not even a little bit,” he said during a recent phone interview. “My entire focus was on Cpl. (Mark) O’Brien and making sure he stayed alive.”

He was awarded a Bronze Star for his courage under fire last month.

McDonell, who was born in Olympia and lived throughout Western Washington during his childhood, had been nominated for a Silver Star, the third-highest military award for valor in combat.

McDonell said he’d exchange his medal for the arm and leg that O’Brien lost that day.

The incident occurred Nov. 8, 2004, in Ar Ramadi, about 100 miles west of Baghdad.

The U.S. military was engaged in its military offensive in nearby Fallujah, and many of the insurgents had been driven into the capital city of the Al Anbar province. The Marines were tasked with rooting them out.

Marines rely on Navy corpsmen to provide medical aid to their wounded. In all other situations, the corpsmen, like McDonell, fight alongside the Marines.

McDonell’s unit, G Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment, had been dispatched to relieve another company in a fierce firefight against enemy forces dug into their positions.

McDonell was using a Humvee as cover along with other Marines;

O’Brien was firing his assault rifle from the back seat of the Humvee.
The corpsman located enemy fighters, and the Marines trained their fire on the position. Suddenly, four rocket-propelled grenades targeted their position. One of the RPGs exploded inside the vehicle.

“He absorbed the explosion,” McDonell said of O’Brien.

The impact threw McDonell and the Marines from the side of the vehicle. Dazed, the corpsman heard that O’Brien had been hit and saw the silhouette of the wounded Marine in the smoke.

O’Brien had served in Iraq when the Marine company had helped secure Baghdad. He met McDonell when the corpsman joined the company, and they became good friends.

McDonell ran to the side of the vehicle, exposed in the line of fire, grabbed O’Brien and dragged him to safety. O’Brien’s right leg and arm nearly were amputated in the explosion.

“If it weren’t for (the body armor), we’d be talking about something different,” he said.

He tried to stop the blood loss from the leg. A gunnery sergeant applied a tourniquet to O’Brien’s mangled arm.

O’Brien was loaded into another Humvee to be taken to a nearby Army field hospital. The area was too “hot” with enemy fire for a helicopter to land.

McDonell jumped into the Humvee and began treating his patient.

“He’d lost so much blood at this point, there’s the threat of him dying right there from extensive blood loss,” he explained.

A tourniquet wouldn’t stop the blood loss from O’Brien’s leg, so McDonell reached inside the leg with his hand to pinch off the severed artery. O’Brien remained conscious; the corpsman worried that morphine would further lower his respiratory rate and possibly kill him.
“I’ve never seen someone endure so much pain,” McDonell said.

Enemy forces targeted the retreating Humvee through the streets as it sped its way to the hospital 6 miles away. McDonell estimated the trip took 15 minutes, but to him it felt like “12 hours.”

Arriving at the hospital, he turned O’Brien over to medics, many of them wide-eyed by the extent of his injuries.

McDonell grabbed some supplies and headed back to rejoin his company. In transit, he heard over a vehicle radio that another Marine in his company, another close friend, had been wounded, although the injuries turned out to be minor.

Far from the battlefield, and not knowing the extent of the injuries, McDonell felt helpless.

“That was one of the loneliest times of my life,” he said.

Nine days after the incident, McDonell was wounded by small-arms fire and later received a Purple Heart.

On April 1, 2005, families and friends greeted McDonell’s company during a homecoming ceremony at Camp Pendleton, located near San Diego.

The Marines were checking their weapons before the ceremony when O’Brien greeted McDonell. He was wearing his prosthetics and had lost weight, but he was alive. The two men hugged.

“What do you say?” McDonell said. “ ‘God, it’s good to see you.’ ”

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or chill@theolympian.com.