Shortly after sunrise, Marine Cpl. Luis C. Garcia and the sniper team were already on edge, having spotted some unusual activity from their hilltop perch in southern Afghanistan's notorious Helmand province.
The 10-member team had split in half, taking different positions to conduct surveillance on a village below. After two members on Garcia's team left to check out a passing vehicle, shots were fired -- and they weren't coming from the enemy.
"All you hear are sniper rounds going off, and then you see people drop," said Garcia, 22, a combat engineer later promoted to sergeant, recalling the events on May 7, 2012.
The second half of the sniper team had misidentified the two as the enemy, according to Garcia and military accounts of the incident. They were shooting at their own troops until they recognized their mistake and stopped.
Nobody died during the "friendly fire" incident, largely because of Garcia's quick response, according to his superiors.
On Tuesday, Garcia, a Zion resident, was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal at Naval Station Great Lakes. The award is the highest a Marine can receive for heroism in incidents not involving action against enemy forces, Sgt. Maj. James Walsh said.
During the ordeal in Afghanistan, the first Marine team member was critically wounded after being shot in the chest. The second, a Navy medic, was shot in the head but was able to help Garcia drag the Marine to safety. Together, the medic and Garcia punctured the Marine's chest to help deliver air to his damaged lungs.
"Once you see your guy on the ground, there's no second-guessing it," said Garcia, who discovered hours later that the body armor covering his chest had been struck twice by gunfire. "You do what you can."
Garcia, who served four years in the Marine Corps, including two combat tours, said he had experienced friendly fire before. He carries a bit of shrapnel in his leg from a grenade thrown into a compound during his first deployment to Afghanistan.
Military officials say that, while it is regrettable, such incidents are bound to occur during the messy business of battle. The Defense Department reports the numbers of deaths, but not injuries, caused by friendly fire -- or fratricide, said Bill Speaks, a department spokesman.
The department blamed friendly fire for 16 deaths during the conflict in Afghanistan, 37 deaths during Operation Iraqi Freedom and 35 during Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91, he said.
The topic is a touchy one for the military. Officials investigate each incident, and sometimes hold troops accountable for mistakes, Walsh said. He said he did not know what happened to the snipers in Garcia's case.
In 2004, the Army drew criticism for its handling of the death of Army Spc. Pat Tillman, who put his NFL career on hold to join the military after 9/11 and was accidentally killed by fellow Rangers in Afghanistan. The Army initially portrayed Tillman as the victim of enemy fire but later, amid conflicting reports, acknowledged he died from friendly fire.
"In every conflict throughout our history, there have always been incidents of friendly fire because of the fog of war, the uncertainty, the confusion going on," Walsh said. "Unfortunately, it happens. It is always a tragic thing when it does."
Garcia would likely have been eligible for a Bronze Star or higher award for his actions during the sniper attack if it had been perpetrated by the enemy, military officials said. The medic also was honored with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, officials said.
"I wish there was a higher award," said Marine Cpl. Christopher Kase, who was in charge of the sniper team that day.
"Garcia didn't even know he got shot," recalled Kase, who is now based at Camp Pendleton near San Diego. "He was very calm and collected. He just knew what he had to do and got it done. There weren't any complaints from him."
The night before the mission, Garcia said he prayed and lit a candle for St. Michael, the archangel who, according to the Bible, fought the devil and his followers. He said he dreamed about the angel during the first of two deployments in Afghanistan:
"The gates were open and then they closed right before I got there, and St. Michael said, 'Not yet,'" Garcia recalled.
He shared his dream with another Marine, who that same night told Garcia that he had a similar dream. The next day, he later told Garcia, he escaped serious injury after an improvised explosive device that could have killed him malfunctioned. The men concluded that St. Michael and "the angels were watching out for us," Garcia said.
The same day of the friendly fire attack, after his wounded colleagues were evacuated, Garcia was back to his mission atop the hill.
By that time, the sniper team members had reunited, so he spent the next several days working alongside the same men who shot at him.
"It was a little awkward at first," he acknowledged. "You don't really know what to do. There was a lot of mayhem going on but we said, we need to deal with this later at the base."
The shooters were in tears, devastated by what had happened, he said.
"We feel like it was an accident, but it should never have happened," said Garcia, who did not re-enlist after learning his wife was pregnant. He is now enrolled in school to be a firefighter-paramedic.
"I think about it, but at the same time, crazy s--- always happens out there. That's just the way you've got to look at it."
His wife, Maribel, gave birth to their baby, Luis, whom his parents call Andres, three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Garcia -- who grew up in Texas before moving to the Chicago area and graduating from Zion-Benton High School -- said he holds no hard feelings and is Facebook friends with members from both sides of the sniper team.
"I do feel good about receiving the award, but at the same time, I know anybody would have done that if they saw their buddy down on the ground," he said. "That's how Marines work."