OKINAWA, Japan -- A cloud of dust filled the air as ground forces engaged the enemy in Fallujah, Iraq. Enemy small arms fire created flashes of light. As bullets flew in from all directions, Staff Sgt. Kevin W. Leishman laid on top of an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) with his M240 machine gun, returning fire to the enemy that surrounded him and his team.
On Nov. 10, 2004—the Marine Corps Birthday—Leishman served as an AAV mechanic with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Leishman and his Marines fought in the historic Second Battle of Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In the midst of bullets flying and impacting all around him, a round entered and lodged itself in his right forearm, embedding into his muscle tissue.
“I didn’t know what it was right away,” said Leishman. “When you’re shooting a machine gun, you have hot brass going everywhere, and sometimes you get hot brass down your blouse.”
Leishman continued on with his mission like nothing had happened. People get tunnel vision during combat, explained Leishman. Training kicks in and creates an intense focus on the mission at hand.
It wasn’t until a couple hours later that Leishman realized he had been shot. He applied dressings to his wound to stop the bleeding after returning back to camp.
Operation Phantom Fury
The Marines of BLT 1/4 deployed to Fallujah from May of 2004 to April 2005 to support combat operations for Operation Phantom Fury, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Every day was pretty busy, but my little world was just a sliver of the big picture that was happening there,” said Leishman. “We had the whole might of the MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force], which we don’t see a lot of… When you get to see the MAGTF swing through an occupied enemy city, it’s a great experience for any Marine.”
Leishman said his platoon saw many infantry Marines suffer as casualties from rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire from the enemy. Fierce urban combat dominated the battle space.
The Second Battle of Fallujah is this generation’s version of the Battle of Hue City, said Brig. Gen. Kyle Ellison, the commanding general of 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
Belated Purple Heart
Due to Leishman’s unit hastily attaching to the 11th MEU for Operation Phantom Fury, Operation Iraqi Freedom, his and his Marines’ medical documents were not transferred to the medical staff on the MEU.
Though Leishman’s wound sustained during battle was documented while in Iraq, it was never brought to light when he returned to his original command.
16 years later, now a captain, Leishman is stationed on Camp Courtney, Okinawa, Japan, under 3D MEB where his commanding general, Ellison, was made aware of his time in Iraq.
After learning that Leishman should have been awarded for his sustained wound during action, Ellison met with Leishman and started the process to enable him to receive the Purple Heart medal.
To complete the paperwork required there would need to be at least one eye witness to give a statement, explained Leishman. To his surprise, his old platoon commander from his time in BLT 1/4 is also currently stationed in Okinawa, working with III Marine Expeditionary Force on Camp Courtney.
With this last piece of the puzzle, Leishman receiving the Purple Heart medal was approved.
Leishman was awarded the Purple Heart medal by Ellison Feb. 24, 2021.
“It’s an honor; this is something that is shared by many and made possible by everybody that was there,” said Leishman. “So to get singled out and shown this honor, it’s great, but it’s not something I earned alone. Many that receive this [Purple Heart] aren’t alive or have significant wounds and have had to leave the Marine Corps.”
That day was about more than just receiving a medal. It was about courage, selfless sacrifice and giving back to something bigger than oneself because of conviction, said Ellison. The Purple Heart Medal is about recognizing a Marine who didn’t move away from the sound of guns, but towards it.
By Leishman wearing the award on his uniform, he represents the hundreds of others that wear the same award on their chest and those who never returned from battle.
“It takes special men and women to do the kinds of things Marines do,” said Ellison. “As you [Leishman] wear that award, wear it with pride. Not for yourself, but for everybody else, for the countless men and women who have sacrificed their lives for our nation and for the ones who will do so in the future. Because our business is not done.”