MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- For most service members, the Bronze Star Medal is a symbol of personal heroism. But for 1st Lt. James Salka, the medal represents something greater then himself—it represents the courage and sacrifice of an entire unit.
Salka, the executive officer of Company E, Battalion Landing Team 2/6, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with combat distinguishing device by Maj. Gen. Brian Beaudrault, the commanding general of 2nd Marine Division, during an award ceremony aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune June 8.
“It is obviously a huge honor to be awarded the Bronze Star, but the real heroes are the Marines and Sailors of 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment,” said Salka. “They fought heroically day in and day out. They are the real heroes and I accept this award on their behalf.”
Salka was awarded for his service in Afghanistan while serving as a platoon commander with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.
When Salka deployed to Helmand province in 2013, Afghanistan was in a state of transition. The Afghan National Security Forces had assumed the lead in providing security throughout the country and the U.S. military had accepted a secondary role, serving as military advisors for the Afghans’ counterinsurgency mission.
Salka, who was on his first combat deployment, was given a mission independent of advising—to protect Camps Leatherneck, Bastion, and Shorbak.
Safeguarding the bases had become a top priority for military leadership. The bases had been attacked by insurgents in 2012, resulting in the death of two U.S. Marines and the destruction of military aircraft worth $500 million. Military leaders recognized continuous patrols around the bases and nearby villages would be necessary to prevent insurgents from infiltrating the bases again.
When Salka’s unit began their security mission, coalition forces had started to remove troops from the district centers in Marjah and Saingan and began basing those troops at Leatherneck and Bastion. Simultaneously, the U.S. Marine Corps had started retrograding equipment and deconstructing military bases in preparation for their ultimate withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The outlying patrol bases that had provided a defense against base attacks slowly dwindled, which left Salka and his Marines to protect a vast desert stretching more than 100 miles. Insurgents funneled weapons and explosives through many of the small farming communities that encircled the bases. The Afghan National Army had yet to establish permanent bases in many of these areas, so it was up to Salka and his Marines to disrupt this network.
Salka said to protect the bases and combat the movement of lethal aid, his unit conducted daily operations to locate weapons caches and identify individuals connected to insurgent activities. Salka said the unit focused on searching compounds, performing day and night security patrols, and conducting helicopter raids.
“Our fight was mud hut to mud hut,” said Salka. “At this time in the war, there were very few units who were patrolling outside the base. So in most cases, our presence was the only deterrence against insurgency.”
The Fight for Now Zad
Eight weeks into their deployment, Salka’s platoon received a mission to conduct a helicopter raid into Now Zad, a volatile district in the north of Helmand province. The area had been a Taliban stronghold for much of the war and had been given the nickname “Triangle of Guilt.”
The Marines flew four helicopters into Now Zad and inserted into the village under the cover of darkness. Just as the sun rose, insurgents began to fire at the Marines. Enemy fighters had surrounded the town and the Marines were taking fire from all sides.
“There were calls coming across the radio saying guys had been wounded and others saying they were engaged in firefights and running low on ammo,” said Salka.
With part of his platoon based in adjacent compounds, Salka exposed himself to machinegun fire to resupply them.
Capt. Juan Plascencia, who served as Salka’s company commander, realized their planned extraction points were not going to happen due to the sheer volume of enemy fighters. Plascencia instructed Salka to maneuver through the village to find an alternative landing zone for the helicopters.
As the Marines moved through the village, Salka said the fighting never stopped.
“The Marines were shooting mortars and snipers were engaging individuals who were firing at them,” said Salka. “We had confirmed several enemy fighters had been killed, but the resistance never really stopped. So we continued to fight.”
Another platoon flew in on top of the mountains and alleviated some of the pressure off of Salka’s platoon by momentarily redirecting the enemy’s fire while Salka identified a new landing zone. It was across an open field about 800 yards from the platoon’s position.
As they moved across the open area, machinegun fire and rocket propelled grenades erupted.
“They obviously knew we were trying to get out of there,” said Salka. “We knew it was going to be a wild run to the aircraft.”
During the movement to the aircraft, Lance Cpl. Johnathan Burns fell to the ground. Earlier in the day, Burns had injured his leg while engaging the enemy. Without hesitation, Salka picked him up and carried him to the extraction site, which was more than 300 yards away.
“Once we started, [Burns] fell down,” said Salka. “It was just a natural reaction to pick him up and help him out. I would expect anyone would have done it if they were in my shoes.”
Salka spent another five months in Afghanistan following Now Zad and went on another 164 patrols during his deployment. Firefights and improvised explosive device attacks became part of his daily life. He was even injured by a roadside bomb attack while conducting a mounted patrol.
Salka said Afghanistan was some of the best times and worst times of his life.
“Some people try to make combat some romantic thing, but it is gruesome,” said Salka. “Once you see it, you do not necessarily look forward to it. War is ugly, but it is our line of work. I learned a lot about myself and I will carry that experience with me forever.”