With more than half his blood draining onto an Iraqi battleground, a bullet-riddled Brad Kasal feared he might never again see his family in Afton, Iowa.
But the first sergeant’s resolve to save a younger Marine lying next to him pushed aside such thoughts.
“I was losing consciousness,” a recuperating Kasal recalled last week. “I forced myself to stay awake. I was worried about saving him and keeping the enemy at bay.”
Both Kasal, 38, and Pfc. Alexander Nicoll survived that Nov. 13 Fallujah firefight, albeit with life-altering injuries. Nicoll lost part of a leg; Kasal is fighting to save his.
Kasal’s heroics have been memorialized by a journalist’s photograph that’s quickly spreading over the Internet.
The powerful image shows the bloodied warrior with his arms wrapped around the necks of two comrades pulling him to safety. By then, Kasal, leader of 170 Marines, had absorbed seven rounds from a fully-automatic rifle and up to 40 pieces of grenade shrapnel. Still clenched in Kasal’s right hand is his 9 mm Beretta.
What happened during the hour or so leading up to that moment is a story of wartime loyalty, bravery, brotherhood.
The events highlighted a bond among three Marines: Kasal, Nicoll and 24-year-old R.J. Mitchell of Omaha. They earlier had served together in the same Marine company.
As with any photograph, there is more than meets the eye. In interviews, Kasal, Mitchell and others recounted the deeper story behind the picture.
They were five days into Operation Phantom Fury, the American assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
Troops were clearing buildings of terrorists when Kasal spotted a wounded American who said at least three Marines were trapped in a nearby house filled with “bad guys.”
Kasal rounded up a crew and led the way.
“I knew it was the toughest fighting we were doing,” he would recall.
He entered first to give the Marines more confidence.
He noticed several dead Iraqis on the floor. He pointed two of his men toward a wounded American, then took Nicoll with him to check an “uncleared” room.
Shots burst from an AK-47 assault rifle 2 feet from Kasal. He backed up, then returned fire.
“I stuck my barrel right in his chest, we were that close,” said Kasal. “I kept pulling the trigger until he went down . . . then I shot him two more times in the forehead to make sure he was dead.”
From a staircase behind him came another barrage. “I never even saw it coming,” Kasal said.
Round after round after round, nearly cutting his leg in half.
He watched Nicoll get sprayed, too, and saw him bleeding from the midsection.
In spite of his own wounds, Kasal crawled back to help his comrade.
Sliding on his belly, Kasal kicked away the insurgent he had killed and pulled Nicoll into a tiny adjoining room for cover. On the way, he was shot in the buttocks.
Both men were bleeding profusely but protected by a wall. Kasal wrapped a field dressing around Nicoll’s leg.
Then came the grenade-exploding just 4 feet away.
Kasal rolled on top of Nicoll, trying to protect him from the blast.
Omahan Mitchell came running into the room to help. He, too, was hit by grenade shrapnel.
At Kasal’s behest, Mitchell tended to Nicoll’s injuries. Kasal laid his rifle in the doorway – a sign to other Marines that friendly forces were inside – then pulled out his 9 mm for protection.
Mitchell radioed other troops, who came later to pull the wounded Marines out.
The dire circumstances brought together three Marines who had served together in Kilo Company before Kasal shifted to Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.
Mitchell calls Kasal the epitome of a Marine. Kasal says he was honored to fight beside a trusted comrade like Mitchell. Both praised the younger Nicoll’s courage.
And they did not forget other Marines, who ultimately collapsed the house on remaining insurgents. Mitchell said the two lance corporals shown in the photo pulling Kasal to safety are heroes, too.
“It’s crazy what a human body is capable of doing when you actually have meaning to do something,” Mitchell said. “You’re completely willing to put your life on the line for your fellow Marine.”
Shot multiple times in the firefight was yet another Marine with Midlands ties, Cpl. Ryan Weemer. The Fremont, Neb., native had hobbled out to seek help, passing Kasal and Mitchell on their way in.
The final rescue phase of the battle claimed the life of Sgt. Byron Norwood, whose parents were spotlighted during President Bush’s State of the Union address.
Joseph H. Alexander, a retired Marine colonel who is now a military historian, said the photo of Kasal’s rescue is making the rounds in the tight-knit Marine community.
“He’s badly shot up, but he’s still got his weapons and he’s not quitting,” Alexander said of the photograph. “That’s the kind of men you want fighting for your country.”
Alexander, who saw his share of bravery in the Vietnam War, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see high military honors bestowed on Kasal.
“He was conspicuously brave at the risk of his own life, took care of his troops and was such a warrior. That’s not going to escape the attention of any of his superiors,” Alexander said.
Sixty percent of Kasal’s blood was shed that day.
“I’ll be honest. A couple of times I didn’t think I was going to make it out,” he said. “I thought I was going to bleed to death.”
Separation from his unit during recovery ached more than the wounds, he said. “It’s hard to explain – just that bond.”