Just four days before he was killed in a helicopter crash, Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif was awarded one of the military’s highest honors for heroism, a commendation he earned for his efforts to save a mortally wounded friend in heavy gunfire in Afghanistan.
Seif, 26, was given the Silver Star in a room full of his fellow Marines, walking arm in arm with his wife after the ceremony. The boy who grew up playing soldier in his Michigan backyard was hailed by one of his superiors, Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, as a selfless person who put himself in the line of fire so that Sgt. Justin Hansen wouldn’t be left behind.
He and Hansen came under heavy fire as they closed in on a bomb expert in Afghanistan. His comrade was wounded; Seif moved him to safety, treated his wounds and fired back. At the ceremony, he deflected praise.
“There are definitely some individuals out there who deserve (the medal) just as well,” Seif said. “But it’s an honor to accept it on the behalf of the unit and on behalf of the rest of the men.”
The young Marine’s story emerged Friday when the Marines killed in the crash were publicly identified, some three days after the crash. The deceased had been students and husbands, officers and sons.
Four were National Guard soldiers from Louisiana also were killed, though they have not been identified.
During a Friday news conference at Camp Lejeune, Osterman — who is commander of Marine Corps special operations forces — said the Marines were flying offshore to practice rappelling down ropes into the water and then making for land. He didn’t know whether the Marines were planning to reach shore by swimming or in small rubber boats, but the same drill had been practiced hours earlier during daylight, Osterman said.
“They literally had done it hours before in daylight as part of the rehearsal for being able to do the nighttime operations, which inherently are more difficult,” Osterman said.
The teams of Marines and Army-piloted choppers made a judgment call on whether conditions were sufficient for the training mission to go ahead. Then when they were heading out to start the mission, they tried to abort after deciding it was too risky, Osterman said.
Training is part of being ready for high risk operations. The seven Marines were members of the same team who constantly trained and faced danger together, he said.
Marine Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, has seen its members honored for valor and suffering with 19 Silver Star medals, 7 Navy Crosses, 189 Purple Hearts and 207 Bronze Stars, Osterman said.
“They really epitomized the silent warrior and the quiet professional that is really a hallmark of all the Marines here at MARSOC,” Osterman said of the 2,500 MARSOC troops. He declined to cite specific instances of heroism or the missions accomplished by other Marines who were on the doomed chopper.
Like other clandestine services, a private ceremony remembering the special operations Marines will be held in the coming weeks to help surviving family members close the page on their deaths.
Read about the Marines’ stories below:
TREVOR P. BLAYLOCK
Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock, 29, was born in Lake Orion, Mich., and swam on the varsity swim team. Upon graduation, he attended Henry Ford Community College.
In 2006, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was previously stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.
He served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in Al Anbar Province.
THOMAS A. SAUNDERS
Born in Bonn, Germany, Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, 33, enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school in Virginia. Following basic training in 1999, he was assigned to Camp Lejeune.
He deployed in Kosovo and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom with a special operations task force.
LIAM A. FLYNN
Born in Reading, England, Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn, 33, moved to Queens, N.Y. in 2002.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps that year. After boot camp, he was assigned to Camp Lejeune.
He served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
STANFORD H. SHAW III
Capt. Stanford Henry Shaw III, 31, was from Basking Ridge, N.J., and attended Ridge High School, where he was student government president and captain of the varsity lacrosse team.
He attended the United States Naval Academy and upon his graduation in 2006 became a commissioned Marine officer. After graduating from the Infantry Officer Course, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.
He served two tours of duty in Iraq, according to information provided by the Marines at Camp Lejeune.
MARCUS S. BAWOL
Staff Sgt. Marcus S. Bawol of Warren, Mich., “loved everything about the military,” said his sister, Brandy Peek.
“He couldn’t wait to join. He wanted to fight for our country and was always striving to be the best Marine he could be.”
The 27-year-old graduated in 2006 from Warren Mott High School. Bawol played baseball and football and was a member of the school’s swim team, according to district Superintendent Robert Livernois.
Bawol attended Olivet College for a year, where he was a catcher on the baseball team.
He had planned to marry his fiancée in October, Peek said.
On Thursday, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts ordered flags in the city, just north of Detroit, flown at half-staff.
KERRY M. KEMP
Staff Sgt. Kerry Michael Kemp, 27, was the proud father of a baby just shy of her first birthday and loved horsing around with his nephews.
“He would wrestle with them. He really got into that, the wrestling and playing. He’d carry them around on his back,” said his sister-in-law, Lora Waraksa.
He was a “proud Marine, a loving husband and most wonderful father,” she said. He also loved golfing and the ocean — he often took his nephews out to hunt for sea shells.
Born in Memphis, Kemp met his wife, Jenna, at Port Washington High School in Wisconsin, where he was voted “best smile” by his senior class. He graduated in 2005.
He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Lush reported from Tampa. Associated Press reporters Corey Williams in Detroit and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
Photo by Sgt. Lia Gamero