Amid the expanses of sand and extreme temperatures of Afghanistan, it’s a common misconception that the U.S. Navy is not heavily involved in the war on terror.
But Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said the service plays a bigger part in the war than most people think. He said there are 20,000 U.S. Marines and 4,000 Navy sailors in Afghanistan right now doing a “lot of non-traditional Navy things” and proving their worth.
A shining example is Manchester-native Michael Ouellette, a Marine who died fighting in Afghanistan in March 2009 and received the Navy Cross on Wednesday for his heroism. The Navy Cross is the highest honor that can be awarded by the Navy and the second highest award given for valor, behind the Medal of Honor.
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Cpl. Ouellette’s mother, Donna Ouellette, accepted the medal on her son’s behalf and said the feeling was “bittersweet.”
“I’m so proud,” she said. “I just wish he was here to accept the award in person.”
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She said she would put the blue case bearing his Navy Cross inside his flag box, along with his purple heart. She sat next to her other children, Stephanie and Allen Ouellette, and received support and condolences from other family, friends and other Marines throughout the crowded ceremony at the Marine Corps Reserve Center in Londonderry.
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Mabus said Ouellette’s leadership in Afghanistan defined the spirit of selfless miltary service.
“There are a lot of Marines alive today because of what Michael Ouellette did,” he said. “It shows the strength in his character.”
On March 22, 2009, Ouellette helped his 3rd Battalion 8th Marines get out of a dangerous part of Afghanistan. His squad was ambushed and an improvised explosive device blew up next to him. Ouellette suffered a severed leg and was sprayed with shrapnel, but rather than worry about his critical wounds, he organized defenses and arranged for reinforcements. Enemy soldiers fired assault rifles and machine guns from point-blank range at the squad, but Ouellette remained calm and led helicopters to his battalion’s position though radio communication so his Marines could get out.
Mabus said Ouellette refused to be evacuated before every Marine in his squad was out first. Ouellette died of his wounds during the evacuation. He was 28.
Mabus said Ouellette’s actions took “unrelenting courage” and showed “extraordinary heroism.”
Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Nolen, 28, of Tennessee, was on scene treating Ouellette’s wounds following the IED blast and said Ouellette’s demeanor showed amazing strength of character.
“You couldn’t even tell he was hurting,” Nolen said. “He wouldn’t show pain to his junior Marines. He was more worried about us getting out than himself.”
Sgt. Randy Moffett, 27, of North Carolina, was one of the men on the radio talking to Ouellette during the events that led to his death, and Moffett said you “couldn’t tell anything had happened” because he sounded so calm and collected.
“He didn’t want to show weakness,” Moffett said.
Many other Marines who knew or served with Ouellette showed up at the ceremony to honor his award as well.
Cpl. Anthony Zanni, 22, of Rhode Island, said he thought of Ouellette as a type of father figure since he was so much younger than Ouellette.
“He always said to leave the Marine Corps better than when you came in,” Zanni said.
Sgt. Stephen Porter, 25, of Pennsylvania, said he went through boot camp with Ouellette and respected him unlike anyone else in the service.
“He was the Marine everyone else looked up to,” Porter said. “He’d hate for me to say that because he just wanted to be like everyone else, but there was something different about him.”
Ouellette graduated from Manchester Memorial High School in 1999 and joined the Marine Corps in 2005. He served as a squad automatic rifleman in Ramadi, Iraq and as a squad leader in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
He was the 26th person to receive a Navy Cross for actions in the war on terror.
“In the midst of chaos and confusion, Michael Ouellette did what he had to do to keep his Marines safe,” Mabus said. “His name now shares that high place of honor with every other hero of the Marine Corps.”
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