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Marine never left

Last modified: 11/11/2010 12:00:00 AM
Marine Cpl. Michael Ouellette, his left leg severed, his world engulfed in dust and smoke, wouldn't leave his men behind.

That's why Raymond Mabus, the secretary of the Navy, flew from Washington to Londonderry yesterday. That's why Ouellette was awarded posthumously the Navy Cross, the highest honor Mabus can present.

And that's why the cavernous room at the Marine Reserve Support Center featured equal amounts of pride and sorrow.

Because Ouellette said, simply, no. Not just yet.

"He was refusing to go," said Gunnery Sgt. Jason Mills of Detroit, who arrived on the scene after the battle had started. "He still had Marines in contact, so he didn't want to leave the battlefield until they were all accounted for."

Ouellette, a 1999 Manchester Memorial High School graduate, died that day, March 22, 2009, at the age of 28. He died during an ambush in Nowzad District, Afghanistan, losing consciousness shortly after he was loaded into an ambulance for the 1½-mile ride back to his base.

That's where he died, as did Cpl. Anthony Williams of Pennsylvania in what the men who were there described as utter chaos.

"Going into something like that,

all you see is a lot of dust, a lot of smoke," Mills said. "Marines running back and forth trying to return fire, lots of noise. What gets you is the smoke and confusion. You can't really see much going into it."

Unlike the cloud of violence, though, Ouellette's role was clear. He led a squad of a dozen men, a support group for combat operations. He stepped on an improvised explosive device, losing his leg but not his loyalty to his men or his mission.

Anywhere between 20 and 50 enemy combatants pounced, forming an L-shape around the Marines, hitting them with mortars and automatic weapons.

Ouellette called for attack helicopters, directing their strafing runs to suppress the enemy, keep them off his men. He gave orders to his squad, adding some sanity to a place where nothing made sense.

He did his job and he saved lives, so Mabus, in a soothing voice and measured pace, told a packed house of several hundred that what Ouellette had done was rare, even for a Marine.

"Every so often, an act of heroism comes along that is so profound that's it's tough to describe by even those who witnessed it," Mabus said. "His first thought was for his fellow Marines. . . . He did what he had to do to keep his Marines safe."

Added Mills, "This citation doesn't really say it all."

But the event said enough to attract Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Sen.-elect Kelly Ayotte. Both were visibly moved.

"They live being Marines every day," Ayotte said. "It's about who they are and what they believe in, and it's clear that Cpl. Ouellette fit into that category."

Ouellette's family said plenty, too. Ouellette's 29-year-old brother, Alan, lives in Goffstown. He used to play chess with Michael, three-day tournaments that were not always peaceful. The sibling rivalry was passionate, the competition fierce.

"There was a broomstick and a lawn chair involved at one point," Alan said, rewinding his mind and smiling. "We used to yell at each other the whole way through."

Alan described a brother who bought a 1,500-page book by chess champion Gary Kasparov so he could play the game better, a brother who read books on military history and strategy so he could lead men better.

"If he was in charge and taking care of something," Alan said, "he was very, very thorough."

Michael's mother, Donna Ouellette, spoke about her son's desire to be a chef, about his time at a culinary school in California and about his trip to New Orleans, where he loved the culture and was deeply affected when Hurricane Katrina hit.

"He was devastated, like he lost his second home," said Donna, who lives in Manchester. "That's when he decided that his dream of being a cook would be put on hold. It was time for him to join the Marines."

Donna also spoke about the balancing act of emotions she felt during the ceremony.

"It is a total mix of feelings," Donna said. "Of course I am extremely proud that they are honoring Michael this way. I wish he were here to receive it in person, but that wasn't meant to be. It's a very bittersweet day."

And Stephanie Ouellette of Manchester, Michael's 32-year-old sister, said she wasn't surprised when she heard what her brother had done in Afghanistan. Not surprised at all.

She also praised the Marines for their love and dedication to her family. There's always a Marine around every corner, she said, ready to lend a hand.

"They call us on a random Tuesday, come on holidays" Stephanie said. "We're never alone. They flew in guys from Afghanistan for this, and there are guys that drove across country to come here. They're our family as well."

They came from out West, and they came from down South. One Marine who had to be there was Adam Rupert of West Virginia.

Rupert spent most of his military career with Ouellette, who entered boot camp five years ago. They trained together, lived together, fought together.

Rupert was there the day Ouellette died, right by his side. The scene he described, when Ouellette was on the ground dying, only added to the fallen Marine's story.

"He told me he had never been so proud of his Marines in his life," Rupert said. "He was happy that he could watch his squad work and all his Marines were doing their jobs. He was proud to be able to sit back and watch his boys do what they'd been trained to do."

Rupert then choked up, pausing.

"He didn't seem down at all," Rupert continued. "He was rather happy, with a smile on his face."

An award-winning smile, at that.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)


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