April 10, 2006
Marine caught in grenade blast gets Silver Star
By John Hoellwarth
Times staff writer

Lance Cpl. Benjamin Gonzalez said he wants to start wearing shorts in public this summer, something he won’t do until he’s tattooed.

So what does he want to write on his leg?

“Freedom isn’t free.” Perhaps even a picture of the Silver Star he was awarded March 25 during a ceremony in his hometown of El Paso, Texas.

“I don’t like to show off so much, but that’s something I would like people to see,” Gonzalez said.

This way, he said, he won’t have to explain his disfigured, scarred legs to anyone or worry about being mistaken for the victim of a simple motorcycle wreck when the truth is so much more extraordinary.

Gonzalez and the rest of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, had been moving through Fallujah, Iraq, the night before taking up a position on a bridge at the northern edge of the city the morning of June 18, 2004.

From the position he shared with three other Marines along the road, Gonzalez kept watch over pedestrians until around 9:30 a.m.

“I got off post and I was actually going to go to rest and check on all my gear, and that’s pretty much when it happened,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez remembers the sound of the insurgent releasing the spoon of the old, pineapple-style grenade and the “clink” the grenade made when it hit the ground in his fighting hole.

“Unhesitatingly and with total disregard for his own personal safety, Lance Corporal Gonzalez threw himself on his fellow Marine, shielding him from the blast,” according to his award citation. But that’s not exactly how Gonzalez describes it.

Gonzalez said he was actually about to jump away from the grenade when he saw his fire team leader “sitting there without a clue.” He said he didn’t exactly “throw himself” on his team leader.

“I can’t really remember much of those details, but I guess I hugged him,” Gonzalez said.

When the grenade detonated, the team leader was unharmed, but Gonzalez, who absorbed the blast, was riddled with shrapnel.

“I got burned. It broke both of my legs and broke and fractured other parts. It messed up my nerves really bad. I have permanent trauma. I can’t feel my feet or move my ankles. I have shrapnel in my stomach, too,” Gonzalez said.

“This must have been the crappiest grenade ever made because we were all really close. The detonation was one to two feet away from my legs. If it was one of ours, it would have taken us all out.”

Gonzalez was still conscious after the blast. A corpsman gave him general anesthetic, and he was medically evacuated.

“I was told I had gone through Germany for a day and a half, but I woke up in Bethesda and thought I was still in Iraq,” said Gonzalez, referring to the National Naval Medical Center north of Washington, D.C.

Gonzalez, who is on temporary retirement and can rejoin the Corps after he heals, has not regained full mobility or feeling in his feet and legs.

But he was able to stand in formation as his Silver Star was pinned to his suit jacket by Capt. William Zirkle, who, as a first lieutenant, was Gonzalez’s commanding officer at the time of the attack.