Friday, November 11, 2011

An interview with a hero in honor of Veteran's Day

Gunnery Sergeant (now Master Sergeant) Robert Blanton receiving Silver Star for heroics in combat in Iraq.

  Master Sergeant Blanton is a personal friend from over 10 years ago when we met working together as water survival instructors at the Force Recon training tank (pool).  His depth of knowledge, physical fitness, shooting skill, and generosity as a friend never fails to surprise me.

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Gunnery Sergeant Robert J. Blanton, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving as Platoon Sergeant, First Platoon, Company A, Third Reconnaissance Battalion, I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), on 10 August 2008, in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM FY-08. As an element of Gunnery Sergeant Blanton's platoon began clearing what appeared to be an abandoned house, it became heavily engaged with enemy small arms fire from a strong point located inside the building. Gunnery Sergeant Blanton immediately repositioned his element's vehicles to support the engaged element. Bravely exposing himself to enemy fire, he dismounted his vehicle and began engaging insurgents as they presented themselves. Using initiative and quick thinking, Gunnery Sergeant Blanton returned to his vehicle and directed it to ram the building's outer wall in order to expose additional insurgents within the building. He then led a small group of Marines to clear the building and recover a wounded Marine trapped inside. During the recovery, Gunnery Sergeant Blanton courageously transitioned from his rifle to his pistol and began engaging insurgents located in close proximity to his position. Once the recovery was complete, Gunnery Sergeant Blanton coordinated with supporting aircraft on station to deliver precision guided munitions directly on the insurgent stronghold, effectively ending the engagement. By his bold leadership, wise judgment, and complete dedication to duty, Gunnery Sergeant Blanton reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

By Cindy Fisher
Stars and Stripes
Published: June 14, 2009
The chaos for Gunnery Sgt. Robert J. Blanton continued long after the firefight. 
"That night, I couldn’t sleep. I was trying to remember everything that happened," the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion Marine said. He also tried to come to grips with losing Sgt. Michael H. Ferschke, 22. He was restless, reliving the battle with insurgents in the Al Jazeera Desert outside Baghdad.
"For a few of us, it’s like flipping through a photo album. OK, I remember that one, then I see another picture and try to place it and I remember now," Blanton said months after the Aug. 10, 2008, battle.
Some photos are out of focus and he struggles to put them in order. He recalls the battle lasting an hour and a half; others remember it as only 45 minutes. 
But, Blanton knows this: Had Ferschke not been on point, going into the house first, drawing the fire of about 10 insurgents and allowing the rest of his team to enter the room and return fire, the day would have been a lot deadlier for the Marines. 
"If Sgt. Ferschke hadn’t done what he did," Blanton said. "I’m pretty sure others would have lost their lives."
No sign of trouble 
The first days of August were hectic. First Platoon lived out of trucks while conducting counterinsurgency operations, said Capt. Luke Lazzo, 27, commander of Company A. 
Aug. 10, a Friday, was another blistering day in "a desolate, what looks to be forgotten, part of Iraq," said Sgt. Chris Bova, 21. Temperatures hovered in the 120s. 
By late afternoon, the team was looking for a place to bed down for the night, Sgt. Alexander Tice remembered 
"We were tired and pissed off," said Tice, 21. "It was so hot."
The team came upon an abandoned adobe out in the middle of nowhere — or something that could easily pass for it. As team leader, Ferschke decided it would be the last house they cleared before calling it a day. 
"We had been sweeping every house we passed," Bova said. "This was just as deserted as the rest of them." 
He remembers people were fishing on the lake a mile beyond the L-shaped house. Nothing unusual; no sign of trouble.
Tice, as point man, was usually first to enter buildings. 
"Every house before that, I was the first one in. But that day,[Ferschke] was just happy to be there and just went to the front," Tice said. 
The last moment Tice spoke with Ferschke is a crystal-clear shot in his "photo album" of the day — a moment he recounted with reddened eyes and a halting voice at Ferschke’s memorial on Camp Schwab in February. "He turned to me and smiled and said, ‘Let’s do this, boys." 
He went in. 
Ferschke was met with a hail of AK-47 fire, but plowed on to a corner of the room, drawing everything to him. 
"I don’t know how he didn’t fall," Tice said. 
"It was all that Monster (energy drink) he drank," Bova said, looking at Tice and chuckling. 
With the insurgents focused on Ferschke, the rest of the team made it to an opposing corner where they returned fire. The Marines were exposed while the enemy was firing AKs and throwing grenades from protected positions. 
Through the smoke and dust, Tice saw Ferschke go down. 
No time to be scared 
"We were outnumbered and outgunned," Tice said. 
He knew he had to get his guys out of there. Tice had the team fall back to their vehicles, returning fire on their way out. 
Soon, the rest of the platoon converged from the surrounding area. 
The radios came alive. 
They nailed down where Ferschke was "so they could direct their fire away from his position as no one knew if he was dead or not," Tice said. 
Though Tice didn’t talk about it, he was wounded as he returned fire to the enemy. 
"An enemy inside tossed a grenade out the door and he took fragments in his heel," Blanton remembered adding that Tice didn’t let that slow him down as he stayed in the fight till it was done.
It was the first firefight for all but four or five in the platoon. Everyone kept their cool, Tice recalled. 
"There wasn’t time to be scared." 
Sgt. George Callum dismounted, firing at insurgents and identifying targets for his Humvee’s main weapon. (Marines would not talk about the specific weapons they were using.) 
Blanton recalled Callum darting from one end of his vehicle to the other shooting the whole time. After the battle, Marines counted about 20 hits on the Humvee but Callum never took a hit, Blanton recounted with admiration. 
But the house, with its thick walls and small windows, proved to be an effective barricade for the insurgents. 
Blanton was in a 7-ton truck carrying the platoon’s supplies. He told the driver to ram the building. 
"That really opened it up," Bova recalled, leaning forward as he talked. 
As the driver of the 7-ton backed the truck out of the building about 40 feet, a suicide bomber boiled out of the house, headed for the 7-ton. 
Blanton thanked God for his truck’s design, which included door handles that were difficult to operate. The bomber couldn’t figure out how to open the door, he said. 
Cpl. James Bunney was in a vehicle to the left and rear of Blanton’s 7-ton. 
"He had a vantage point when the individual came out to try and gain access to our (truck)," Blanton recalled. 
Bunney took aim with his weapon and mowed the bomber down.
As the bomber slumped off the truck he detonated himself, an explosion that rocked the truck but did no damage to its interior.
"At that point, the adrenaline was up and we didn’t know what happened," Blanton said. The truck out of commission, it was time to slug it out at close range. 
Then, Blanton’s driver saw an insurgent in the building who was surrendering. 
"We took charge of that guy," Blanton recalled matter-of-factly. He helped secure the prisoner before getting back to the fight.
Callum moved from a covered position and a grenade went off several yards from him, knocking him down but leaving him unharmed.
Enemy fire let up a bit. Their thoughts turned to getting Ferschke out of there. 
Lazzo and Blanton led separate teams back into the building.
"All my thoughts were on getting him out as fast as we could," Lazzo said. 
Someone saw an insurgent priming a grenade amidst the rubble and yelled "Grenade." One Marine jumped from the building to avoid the blast, but Callum used his body to shield a fellow Marine. 
When they got to Ferschke, he was gone. 
After they got his body out of the building, Blanton called in close air support. Game over. 
As one Marine put it, it was a "trial by fire." 
‘You just do it’ 
"Everybody out there was exposed to enemy fire just trying to get the job done and defeat the enemy," Callum said with a shrug of his shoulders as he downplayed his actions. "We just focused on the job."
Several attributed their success — their survival — to training and muscle memory. 
"In extreme stress, you just go off. Your body just reacts from what it knows. It’s muscle memory," Bova said. 
"You work as a team. You don’t even think; you just do it," Tice added. 
Bova and Tice say there have been tougher battles in Iraq in the last few years, and tougher battles being fought in Afghanistan now.
If this had happened in 2006, it might not have attracted as much notice, Bova said. 
But their battle happened in 2008, a relatively quiet year in Iraq. And in the first four months of their seven-month deployment they had little interaction with the enemy, the two said. Stumbling on to an enemy cell like they did — and losing Ferschke — are what make this battle stand out, Tice and Bova said. 
But every servicemember knows that no matter how quiet it seems, it’s still a war zone, Bova said. 
"At every building, the adrenaline still goes up. You go from yellow to red. If you’re ever at green, you’re wrong," he asserted, leaning forward to make his point. 
Nine Marines were awarded Navy Commendations or Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medals with "V" devices, one without the "V." Blanton received a Silver Star, and Lazzo and Callum were each awarded a Bronze Star with a "V" device for valor. Ferschke was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star with "V." 
Looking back, the memories are foggy, perhaps intentionally, Bova said shaking his head. It’s his way of coping. 
Tice and Blanton don’t have that luxury. For them, it’s still a photo album. 
"Some things, I don’t remember at all," Tice said looking away. "A lot of things are clear as day. Even now."

My Interview with Master Sergeant Blanton 

Q: Quick history of your career and schools attended?

A: 17 years in the Marines. 15 as a Recon operator.  2 years teaching CQB at Special Operations Training Group (SOTG), Okinawa, Japan.  The only school I haven’t been to is Ranger.

Q: Give us a rundown of the event in which you earned the Silver Star?

A: Clearing houses, got ambushed, rammed my vehicle through the house to
get one of my team leaders out, got attacked by a suicide bomber,
captured a guy and we killed 12.

Q: Please mention the troops that have made ultimate sacrifice that you'd
care to inform others about and also mention your mentors.

A: Any troop that has gone over there and died is worth mentioning, but
we were lucky to get a little retribution for our loss. I always felt
bad for the guys who lost a brother to an IED or sniper and not having
that satisfaction of an eye for an eye.  I was fortunate enough to start my reconnaissance career when there were still a lot of “old school” guys around. The guys who had the mentality of, “my reputation is on the line here, so I’m going to do whatever it takes to accomplish this mission” and they didn’t hesitate to “tune you up” if you needed it.

Q: Would you change any of your career choices if you could?

A: If I was smart enough to go to college, I would've tried the officer
route and been a pilot.  There was always something about waiting for
extract in the freezing rain, then getting the call that extract was
canceled because the pilots couldn't fly.

Q: Combat deployments and lessons learned from them?

A: Somalia – 94/95
OIF – 03
OIF – 05
OIF – 08
Lessons learned:
Nothing is more important than Combat Mindset, when firing into a house through the walls, aim low, because your enemy is hugging the ground, and guys really want to train and train hard. So if you sacrifice training, because you’re a libo (time off or liberty) hound, your guys will hate you.

Q: What schools shooting or otherwise helped the most in combat?

A: SOTG (Special Operations Training Group) shooting packages.  I did 4 of them while at 1st Force Recon.

Q: What are your lessons learned from combat operations both for the individual and unit?

A: As a unit, sometimes higher tries to drive you into doing it their way
when they have no idea what it looks like outside of the soda mess.  I
used to argue, now I say “roger that” then do it the right way when I
hit the ground.

Q: What is the biggest falsehood that you were taught in training that proved itself false in combat?

A: When I first started doing CQB, we were taught to fight from the
hallways, which are the tactics that LA Sheriffs and SWAT used.  In
combat, we figured out that standing in a hallway doesn't protect you
from the guy who sticks his AK around the corner and sprays.  So we
changed our tactics to fighting from rooms.

Q: 9mm and 5.56mm. Adequate?

A: 5.56 is sufficient, but I would prefer the 6.8 or a 7.62.  I will say
that the 5.56 has always done for me what I asked it too, it would
just be nice to have that little “extra” when the round makes contact.
9mm to me is a joke.  I'm a .45 guy all the way.

Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of shooting training in the military both in the units you've served in and what you've seen from other units?

A: Reconnaissance units get some of the best training the Marine Corps
has. Unfortunately, a lot of other units are restricted in their
training by a lack of experience for those instructing and safety
concerns by those in charge.  The rifle and pistol range as a means
of teaching shooting skills is a joke. I know it’s for marksmanship training,
but now they’ve started to implement combat shooting drills at the end and it's still pretty bad.

Q: What are your thoughts on the various weapons you've been issued
throughout your career?

A: I miss the MP-5 for its cool factor and ease of shooting, but I'm gladwe started using the M-4 for CQB.  I've never carried a side arm that was better than our modified MEU/SOC (1911) 45s.  
I'm very happy that the Marine Corps is getting away from bolt action sniper rifles and is starting to use gas operated ones.

Q: What changes has the Global War on Terror brought about with regards
to the training being given to new troops nowadays?

A: Training has become very Iraq/Afghanistan oriented. A lot of emphasis
is put on vehicle patrols and counter insurgency operations, which has
more to do with scaring them away, than engaging and eliminating them.
In reconnaissance, the “Green Side patrolling mission” was being lost
to everyone being a CQB god.  Towards the end of Iraq, most of the
missions were getting back to traditional reconnaissance, which was
screwing some guys up, because they had never done it.

Q: How much has physical fitness mattered in combat to you?

A: Physical fitness has always mattered to me, mostly in the sense that
when a team mate looks at me, I want him to have no doubts that I
would be able to drag/carry his ass out of any situation, or if he
needed me, I’d be there ready to fight, not trying to catch my breath.

Q: If you could teach a mindset to ready troops for combat, how would you
describe it and how would you teach it? Is there a school you've
attended that came close to this already?

A: While at SOTG (Marine Special Operations Training Group) I started teaching a Combat Mindset class.  Again, I don’t think anything is more important than your mindset.  I taught guys to constantly look at their surroundings and anticipate what could happen. When something does go down, even if it wasn’t exactly how you envisioned it, at least you already have your mind in the game and you can react faster than someone who was spacing out.

Q: Did fighting overseas bring home any revelations to you about America and its civilian population?

A: I enjoy talking to highly educated people, who are ignorant as can be.
No amount of education can teach you experience. I had a high school
friend on Facebook announce that people who don't believe Michael
Moore are scared of the truth.  I simply replied back that my opinions
are based from defending people in Somalia, delivering aid to those in
East Timor.  Helping the people in Indonesia two days after the tsunami
and the hundreds of smiles and hand shakes I've received in Iraq.  Then
I asked her how she got her opinions again? She de-friended me.

Q: What is paramount for a combat unit's weapons. Accuracy or
reliability? Define both according to your own standards.

A: You will never hit your target if your gun doesn’t shoot and with the
proper training you can learn and overcome a weapons inaccuracy, so I
would rather have a reliable weapon.

Q: Are today's troops overextended and overworked with the war on two
fronts? What does American need to do support its warfighters?

A: Yes, as a whole, troops are overworked. But I feel more for thefamilies back home who are dealing with day to day life AND wondering how their loved one is. To me that is way more stressful than being
outside the wire operating.America is behind us and I would really like to thank all the Viet Nam vets for leading the way on that. Every opportunity I get to thank a Viet Nam vet and share a drink with them, I’m on it.

Q: Would you rather see new and different rifles issued to our troops or more shooting training?

A: I would rather see better training. Training that focused more on weapon manipulation and malfunctions than accuracy.

Q: Based upon your experience with a Type 3 malfunction in an M4 and having to transition to secondary, do you think our regular infantry should all be carrying sidearms and be proficient in their use?

A: I don’t think the regular infantry has the time to train to the standard that makes a sidearm helpful, so only issuing them out to snipers and machine gunners is probably the best way to do it.

Q: What needs to change immediately regarding standard gear issue to infantry and Recon Marines?

A: We need to figure out a way to make light weight armor that moves with
the body and provides adequate coverage. It can get pretty ridiculous
with the amount of stuff we are required to wear. Almost to the point
where we’re not going to get hurt bad if we get hit, but we will get
hit because we can’t move fast enough to get out of the way. I am
thankful though that is has gotten a lot better over the years.
I would also like to see more in the way of Recon units using Sat
Phones for Comms versus all the computers and stuff we use now, and
every Marine should have a night vision device that can also see


  1. Thank you for your service, both of you.

  2. More coming, folks, Watch this space.

  3. I learned only a few precious bits from my father in law about his experiences over the years. He was in the 21st Reg of the 3rd Marine Division, and he strung phone wire. On Iwo, it was moving from hole to hole, and fighting up close with Japs that happened to be in the hole he went into. He always had a .45 or his Kabar in his hand when he was moving, and he said that he stuck that Kabar into a lot of Japs on that island. God Bless the Marines!

  4. Have you watched The Pacific yet, TBS? Sends chills down your spine.