One wrong turn can be all it takes to turn a regular soldier into a hero. The US Army’s 507th Maintenance Company took that wrong move on March 23, 2003 and wound up in the city of Nasiriyah, Iraq. When the dust finally settled, 18 US Marines had perished, and the events that transpired landed Sgt. Maj. Justin LeHew the Navy Cross.
Justin LeHew’s entry into the US Marine Corps
Justin LeHew enlisted in the US Marine Corps on July 11, 1988. After competing recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, he was commissioned a private first class and sent to Camp Pendleton, California to undergo training as an Assault Amphibian Crewman.
After being assigned to Company A, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, he was deployed to a number of areas, including Okinawa, South America and Southwest Asia, the latter of which allowed him to participated in the Gulf War. This was followed by a number of operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, after which he served as an instructor at bases across the United States.
In October 2002, by then a gunnery sergeant, LeHew was transferred to Company A, 3rd Platoon with Regimental Combat Team 2 and Task Force Tarawa as a platoon sergeant. He was then deployed to Iraq.
Immense bravery in the face of danger
Six soldiers were captured, and 11 more killed when Iraqi forces bore down on the 507th during an ambush. Justin LeHew got the call to rescue the Army unit. “Under constant enemy fire, he led the rescue team to the soldiers. With total disregard for his own welfare, he assisted the evacuation effort of four soldiers, two of whom were critically wounded,” the Navy Cross citation reads.
With the rescue effort complete, LeHew led his company of Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAVs) deeper into Nasiriyah, to both capture and pacify the city, as well as secure a bridge across the Euphrates, all while under enemy fire. During the intense, three-hour firefight to claim the bridge, the Marine exposed himself to enemy fire multiple times. One of the AAVs was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), and LeHew had to move to recover the nine dead and wounded Marines.
Both Bravo and Charlie companies went deeper into the city, while Alpha stayed behind to secure the bridge. Charlie, however, was quickly pinned down in an urban gun battle as its members navigated a dangerous part of Nasiriyah nicknamed “Ambush Alley” by Army planners.
LeHew continued into the city streets, fighting through house-to-house, street-to-street close quarter combat, as he maintained and reinforced a defensive perimeter. He also repelled numerous waves of Saddam Fedayeen attackers, including directing tank and infantry fire.
Securing Nasiriyah cost the Marine Corps nearly 18 members and seven AAVs. Many of the casualties were the result of friendly-fire from a US Air Force Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II that misread the Marines’ tracked amphibious vehicles for Iraqi armor.
Justin LeHew’s retirement from the US Marine Corps
Sgt. Maj. Justin LeHew, now nicknamed the “Hero of Nasiriyah,” retired from the US Marine Corps on July 31, 2018, after three decades of dignified service. At the time, he was assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion – East at Walter Reed Bethesda, National Medical Military Centre, Maryland as a recovering service member.
His awards include the aforementioned Navy Cross and the Bronze Star with Combat “V” for valor, earned while serving as a first sergeant during the bloody Battle of Najaf. On August 5, 2004, LeHew and his fellow Marines endured an attack from snipers, mortars and machine gun fire by the Mahdi militia. The battle lasted 22 days and involved plenty of danger for LeHew, who, on multiple occasions, was forced to move about the battlefield under intense fire to motivate his comrades.
At Najaf, he offered his assistance in the treatment and evacuation of nine wounded Marines, while three were killed in action (KIA).
During his career, LeHew participated in combat missions in Operations Desert Storm, Provide Promise, Deny Flight and Iraqi Freedom. While deployed to Okinawa, he provided support for the Unit Deployment Program stationed there.
His final assignment was serving as a sergeant major at the Training and Education Command at Quantico, Virginia.