Enemy fire, exploding rounds and fire. Nothing to fear.
Story by Cpl. Daniel Blatter
SALAM BAZAAR, Afghanistan – Adrenalin was rushing the morning of April 14th, 2010 as Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2 and members of the Afghan National Security Forces approached the Salam Bazaar in Helmand province.
The Marines of Alpha Company, 1/2, were tasked with securing the bazaar, known as a haven for Taliban activity, including heavy weapons and focal point for the drug trade.
All reports indicated enemy contact was imminent.
By mid-afternoon, the Marines had secured the bazaar, but things would not stay quiet for long. By the day's end, many heroic deeds would be accomplished, but the actions of one Marine would leave his fellow brothers-in-arms calling him a hero.
Staff Sgt. Robert K. Kesterson, the platoon commander for 2nd platoon, Alpha Company, 1/2, and many of his Marines were disappointed with only finding several homemade explosives and scattered amounts of drugs. They were prepared for anything. The day had dwindled down and the atmosphere was calm and controlled, the raid of the bazaar was over, or so they thought.
That's when all hell broke loose.
"We started taking heavy contact from RPG, indirect, small arms and machine gun fire and an improvised explosive devise destroyed one of our vehicles," said Capt. Jeremy S. Wilkinson, the company commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment.
"It was a pretty complex situation out there," said Kesterson, "but, with all the training we had, our reactions became second nature."
Initially, there were no injuries until the lead vehicle, loaded with Marines, rolled over an IED.
Although Kesterson was in the third vehicle, nearly 100 yards to the rear of the detonated IED, he was there in an instant.
"Our vehicles received a lot of debris from the explosion," said Kesterson. "We could tell it was a big IED. Dust was everywhere and I could not see anything for what seemed like an eternity."
The lone casualty at the time was Lance Cpl. Justin Shaw, an assaultman in the squad. He had suffered a serious concussion, requiring immediate medical attention. Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Pagan, the lead vehicle commander, quickly gathered his wits, ordered his Marines to provide security around the downed vehicle, while he called for the 'medivac.'
Once Shaw was carried out of the vehicle and loaded into the ambulance vehicle, Cpl. Brent Larimer, also an assaultman in the squad, jumped into the turret and began to lay down suppressive fire.
What happened next was a true test of Kesterson's courage.
Kesterson, known to his men as Staff Sgt K, glanced back and saw Larimer was engulfed in flames.
"When I looked back, I realized that Larimer and the vehicle were on fire," said Pfc. Shane W. Barlow, the team leader and driver of the lead vehicle. "I jumped out and ran around and saw him laying on the turret stand. He was on fire and because of the intense heat rounds were cooking off inside the vehicle."
Immediately, Kesterson ran up to the truck where Larimer was and reached in, ripping him from the vehicle. Kesterson then threw himself on top of Larimer to put out the flames.
"When I saw the vehicle catch fire and a Marine was in serious trouble. That's when I jumped into the burning vehicle and pulled Cpl. Larimer out," said Kesterson, 34, from Greenberg, Tenn.
"I reached in and grabbed the Marine," Kesterson said. "His left arm and left rib cage was on fire. I pulled him out and patted him down and threw dirt on him to get the fire out."
Kesterson stayed there with Larimer until the 'medivac' arrived.
"I couldn't believe it," said Barlow. "He jumped in a burning vehicle while rounds were being cooked off, to save the life of a Marine who was burning alive. To me, the man is a hero."
But like many of the heroic deeds by Marines throughout our proud history, Kesterson was quick to downplay what had transpired. He humbly confided that he was just glad to have been in the right place, at the right time, to help a fellow Marine in need.
"I just did what I think anyone else would have done in that kind of situation," said Kesterson. "I just reacted."