LOYA DARVISHAN, Helmand province, Afghanistan —
Dimly illuminated by a sliver of moonlight, eight shadowy figures quietly patrolled a gravel road set against a swiftly flowing canal.
At the front of the squad, Afghan National Army soldier Zaheed deliberately moved a metal detector from side to side, cautiously sweeping the road for improvised explosive devices. Fellow ANA soldiers and Marines from 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment followed closely behind.
As daylight fell into dusk here Dec. 2, they had departed Patrol Base Barcha to re-supply Marines at a nearby observation post. With their mission complete, the partnered patrol trekked through the chilly night back toward the PB. A vehicle approached, and its once-distant headlights rapidly became larger. Zaheed stopped sweeping and stepped into the middle of the road. He waved his arms and yelled for it to stop, but the driver seemed to be unaware.
The vehicle barreled toward the patrol and became uncomfortably close, so Zaheed stepped to the left and reached for his weapon. The speeding driver panicked, swerved the same way and smashed into him. Both plunged into the canal.
“When the vehicle hit Zaheed, I thought briefly, ‘What if this was one of my Marines?’” said Sgt. Matt Garst, a 23-year-old squad leader from Charlotte, N.C.
Garst shouted for his Marines to drop their gear. He instructed three ANA soldiers to provide security and jumped into the frigid, murky water as the vehicle rapidly submerged beneath it.
“I saw the problem, saw the security we needed and sent everyone else into the canal,” Garst said.
Lance Cpl. James Blomstran wanted to jump in, but he was accompanied by his IED detection dog, Sage, and decided to stay on the road to provide security. Lance Cpls. Ryan Gerrity and Nicholas Dumke jumped in behind Garst.
“It took a split second to realize what happened,” said Dumke, a 20-year-old rifleman from Huron, S.D. “We train for firefights, not for a vehicle going into a canal … we just snapped into reacting to a high-stress situation and did what we had to do.”
Gerrity grabbed the ANA soldier and swam to shore. To no avail, Dumke fought against the wild, sweeping current. He returned to the shore, grabbed a four-foot piece of cloth and began pulling a child in, and then a man.
Garst reached the vehicle as passengers struggled to exit the shattered windshield. He saw two women and an infant drowning. He dove beneath the surface to push them above water, wrapped them in his arms and kicked toward shore.
Gerrity and Blomstran used a sickle stick — a bamboo pole used to detect IED wires — to bring in another woman and child. Garst quickly returned to the vehicle, grabbed a man and dragged him to safety. He pulled himself onto the shore and then drew out Gerrity and Dumke.
Protected by Blomstran and the ANA security, Gerrity treated the injured Zaheed.