By Chris Roberts
El Paso Times
Saturday, March 25, 2006

When Lance Cpl. Ben Gonzalez saw a hand grenade flying toward the observation post where he and three others were protecting a bridge in Iraq critical to coalition supply lines, he instinctively threw himself on a fellow Marine and absorbed the blast.
The Marine he covered on that June day in 2004 wasn’t injured, but Gonzalez is still recovering from reconstructive surgery on his feet and ankles. For his actions, the Riverside High School graduate is scheduled to receive the Silver Star today at a ceremony at the Marine Training Center in Northeast El Paso.
The Silver Star, awarded for gallantry during a military operation against a U.S. enemy, is the highest-ranking medal presented to a Marine from El Paso for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For a Marine, the only higher awards are the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, who was born in El Paso but called Florida home, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for fighting off an enemy attack at the Baghdad International Airport in April 2003.
Smith is the only El Paso native to receive a higher award for service in Iraq.
At the time Gonzalez was injured, insurgent activity in Fallujah was considered the gravest threat to Iraq’s stability and security.
“Unhesitatingly and with total disregard for his own personal safety, Lance Cpl. Gonzalez absorbed the blast and sustained serious injuries to his lower body,” the medal citation states. “Due to Lance Cpl. Gonzalez’s heroic and selfless actions, he may have saved the life of his fellow Marine and at the very least protected him from life threatening injuries.”
When the Marines went into the city to drive out the insurgents in November 2004, they found 210 defensive positions in neighborhoods, mosques and schools, many of which were booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices, according to military press reports.
The Marines also cleaned out more than 500 weapons caches and found 29 buildings used to make car and roadside bombs.
Gonzalez said the Marines in his unit — Company F, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force — had taken fire from all directions and had been ambushed during night patrols in the streets of Fallujah.
During that tour of duty, seven Marines in the platoon of 30 were killed, he said.
But Gonzalez doesn’t see himself as a hero.
“It’s part of what we do. I know he would have done the same for me,” he said of the Marine he protected, who didn’t see the grenade coming. “We watch each others’ backs 24/7 while we’re out there.”
And Gonzalez credits the group’s team leader for cleaning his wounds, keeping the Marines calm, setting up a lookout and calling in the Medevac helicopter.
Three of the four Marines manning the post were wounded in the attack and received Purple Hearts, he said.
Although the first doctors who saw him said he wouldn’t walk again, Gonzalez has worked hard to regain some flexibility in his ankles and can walk short distances.
“The pain’s still there, but I’ve improved a lot,” he said, adding that he finished therapy at Beaumont Army Medical Center in December.
“I’m doing it myself, a lot of stretching and strengthening of my legs. My wife and I go to the gym every day to do the (stationary) bike because I can’t run.”
Gonzalez, who is on medical leave, said the exercise is toning muscles that atrophied during months of bed rest waiting for his feet and ankles to recover from multiple surgeries.
“Before, just getting my clothes on was a chore. I’d lose my breath,” he said. “Getting my shoes on, I used to break a sweat.”
However, he still can’t run, jump or walk for long periods. In the winter, the cold stiffens his tortured joints.
“I can’t really flex my ankles,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll need assistance with my cane. ... It’s something I will have to live with.”
Gonzalez said all of the doctors have told him he eventually will be on permanent disability, but, despite the odds, he still hopes for a different outcome.
“If things go good, (they’ll) put me back in the Marine Corps, but I doubt that,” he said.
Nena Samaniego, Gonzalez’s mother-in-law, said she wasn’t surprised by his actions because she already knew of his good character.
“He wants to go back to work, but his legs hurt sometimes,” she said. “I told him to get a handicapped permit, but he said, ‘I’m not handicapped.’ ... I like his attitude.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.