By Michael Golembesky
It all started with a promise—a promise that I kept to the members of my Marine Special Operations Team—that If we survived our tour in Afghanistan, I would tell our story. But it’s not just the story of one small team. It is the story of everyone who fought and died in the Bala Murghab River Valley—American paratroopers, Italian infantry and loyal Afghan units. At night I would scribble down notes in my journal or type them out on my laptop, not knowing if anything would ever become of them. At the moment I didn’t know, but those notes would become the foundation of the book known as Level Zero Heroes.
I wrote this piece here because I wanted to share what I personally learned from my time in Afghanistan and how the men of Marine Special Operations Team 8222 changed my perspective on what it means to be a “hero”.
Keeping calm under fire is one of the hardest things to do; you really can’t train for how you are going to act when the real thing happens. That control is something that is deep down inside of you—you either have it or you don’t. It’s not something that can be given to you. Training is merely a routine of muscle memories that you can fall back on during times of high stress. Many team guys refer to this as “going through the motions”.
I was very fortunate to have a calm demeanor under fire; I think a lot of it had to do with my role on the team and understanding that I needed to be the best I could because I was the only one trained and authorized to drop aircraft ordnance. Many other guys on the team had the same ability as me—to remain in control and focused as everything else around you went to shit.
This demonstrates the type of individuals that are drawn to the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC)—they are the best of the best. Now that’s not to say that men like this are not to be found elsewhere in the Marine Corps, because they can—all throughout Marine Infantry, field artillery, Recon, supply, motor T and specialized units like ANGLICO. The Corps is teeming with these warriors. It is a healthy balance that encourages and helps those that sometimes shutter when faced with stressful events like a full-on firefight in the mountains of Afghanistan or on a blazing hot road in Iraq after being struck by a massive IED.
When I think about someone being a hero, I always think about the people that were my heroes—they are the measuring stick I compare all others to. I have a hero. His name is Robert Gilbert, a 28-year old Marine from Richfield, Ohio. Rob showed me firsthand what a hero is, not through his words but through his actions on the battlefield.
Rob was one of the senior operators on my Marine Special Operations Team in Afghanistan—just a solid Marine and someone you could always rely on to be there when things got dire.
Dire like during the morning hours on our last mission together. It was in the small village of Burida, on the northern end of the Bala Murghab valley. It was to be a simple, cut and dry mission to infiltrate the village at night and disrupt the Taliban element operating out of it. That was until just before dawn. The team had breached through and cleared an objective compound we knew the Taliban was operating out of, but it was a dry hole—no one there.
With the sun coming, we decided to hard-point inside the compound and push some guys up onto an adjacent hill to provide over-watch for the firefight that was sure to come. I was one of those four men who went up the hill and like clockwork the Taliban began firing at us just as the sun began to rise.
We were pretty much pinned down on the hill while the rest of the team hammered back using makeshift holes in the walls of the compound that they had blown with quarter sticks of C4. I needed to get to a location where I could setup my laptop to be able to use the camera feed of the incoming B-1 bomber to try and locate the enemy’s position.
I made the suggestion over the team radio for someone who had an M203 grenade launch to switch out with me; it was the best weapon for the situation, because it had the ability to fire out of defilade and drop explosive rounds into the engagement area.
“Roger, I’m coming,” I heard someone say over the radio, not knowing who it was.
I grabbed my pack and pulled out of the small depression I was using for cover and made my way down the backside of the hill as a shadowy figure was coming up. It was Rob. We didn’t say anything as we passed, just a quick nod and a smile. I had no idea that would be the last time I would look Rob in the eyes and think to myself, this guy is fucking awesome. As I got into the compound with the rest of the team and began to pull some of my gear out of my pack, I heard distinct bursts of AK-47 rounds overhead. Then all was quiet, an eerie quiet. I don’t like where this is going.
The next thing I heard was someone yelling over the radio to me to call in for a medevac—Rob had been hit and was in critical condition. Emptiness filled my stomach. Rob had been struck in the head by a single bullet, piercing his helmet and knocking him unconscious. Rob was airlifted off the battlefield under a hail of gunfire. He died eight days later back in the U.S. with his father by his side.
Rob took my place on that hill that day, so that I may live. He will forever be my hero.
My story tells the story of the many brave men just like Rob. Their character and actions is the stuff legends are made of. It was an absolute honor to have served alongside so many of them.
Always Faithful, Always Forward —Ski
STAFF SERGEANT MICHAEL GOLEMBESKY served 8 years with the United States Marine Corps and is a combat veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Golembesky served as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller with Marine Special Operation Team 8222 (MARSOC). His latest book is Level Zero Heroes: The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan.