Patriot Profiles: ‘Maybe you can look back and smile or say, ‘Wow — that was close’

This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney

Few symbols are more iconic than a Purple Heart medal awarded to American service members wounded in battle. Nearly two million have been awarded since World War I. During a routine patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, 2004, Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Abraham Alvarez was to about to be included in the list of Purple Heart recipients.

As a young kid, Alvarez got a good look into what a Marine does.

“I saw my buddy’s dad lay out all his gear getting ready for deployment and thought ‘It’s really neat to go out and do something for your country.’” The aura of this Marine is what compelled him to take the leap. His mantle of duty and sacrifice stayed with Alvarez as he experienced intense combat and has helped make him the man he is today.

Alvarez, of Spanish descent and a native Californian from Anaheim, remembers, “All I wanted to do was be in the Infantry,” adding, “I thought about all the cool gadgets and the cool things they get to do with them and that led the way.”

When Alvarez joined up his better-than-average physical abilities, enthusiastic drive and dedication, and the way he held his head up were noticed, which landed him in scout sniper indoctrination training. That three-week course was one of the hardest things he’d done in life and led him into situations most of us would never want to experience.

During a close quarter encounter, Alvarez’s sniper team entered a house in Fallujah, clearing room to room.

“The enemy was two feet in front of you. He [the enemy] threw a grenade and my leg caught some of the shrapnel. My left lower calf was bleeding as we continued clearing the house. Once we were done, I was extracted to a hospital and treated for my wounds.”

It took time and patience for Alvarez to learn all the weapons systems a scout sniper may use, including light medium machine guns, anti-tank rockets, and squad automatic weapons. A Marine Infantryman dons an 80-90- pound survival pack, plus weapon and cannot count on getting a ride anywhere. “Believe me, it’s never comfortable — you just get used to it.”

Each mission demands extreme caution handling operational information.

“While we listen to the enemy they are listening to us as well, in order to adapt and get one step ahead to meet their objective”, says Alvarez, adding, “We always practice operational security to keep everyone safe.”

Even communicating to loved ones across the ocean requires caution. “It’s not always secure, because of the way it’s transmitted.”

Alvarez graduated with honors in most programs due, in part, to growing up with four brothers.

“We were very competitive, driving each other to do better. It wasn’t as much ‘me verses him’ but more ‘go ahead, you can do it. It’s going to be fine.’”

War, we know, is not always fine. A lot of complexities accompany political and military strategies. Gunny Alvarez, respectfully nicknamed, joined 2nd Battalion 1st Marines out of Camp Pendleton on his first Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF) deployment as a scout sniper.

“We ended up in a platoon analyzing the map and area of interest. Most of my missions took place at night, overseeing and patrolling territories the Marines had taken over. We had to bring back useful and appropriate information for the company commander to task out his troops to better operate in the area.”

Sporting a long-range rifle, Alvarez was able to engage the enemy at farther distances and provide an enhanced overwatch capability for Marine forces.

Alvarez relates, “The enemy couldn’t see us or catch us. We were difficult to detect under any observation. Knowing we were out there makes the enemy fearful.

“In dangerous situations, you appreciate that guy next to you, because he may not always be there. The relationships you forge under such circumstances make you appreciate the smaller things in life.”

On subsequent deployments to Fallujah during OIF, he was part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit that ran missions anywhere the commanding General needed them, including the successful offensive Operation Steel Curtain. “Stress is a constant element out there. Mentally, how you deal with a situation sets you apart. When we train, you are put through a degree higher than what is expected in combat.”

When I spoke with Joseph, he was deployed aboard the USS Iwo Jima amphibious assault ship sailing in the Arabian Sea. As a Gunnery Sergeant, he commands an Infantry platoon of 45 Marines.

“I concentrate on keeping my Marines alive — teaching everything I can from my experiences in life and overall as a Marine.”

On the ship, they do a lot of close quarter drills, drawing tactical scenarios on the ship floor. “You have to be patient and creative, so your men can stay proficient and ready.”

Ship training in mock set-ups marries with ground training that affords live ammunition and moving targets.

“We started out in Jordan, supporting the Jordanian military. “It was an experience like no other,” Alvarez said. “I got to see Jordanian tactics, learn some of their language and culture.”

In turn, they shared some of their personal stories.

“Our guys helped the Royal Moroccan Army as well,” he said. “We learned about them and they learned about us. That helps build the relationship Marines have in the world.”

The Iwo Jima went on to Kuwait.

“What made Kuwait great is we had shooting houses,” Alvarez said. “We could go in the buildings and shoot. It’s something you don’t normally find anywhere else in the world.”

The firing ranges in Kuwait are a plus with less wait time to use and limitless space out in the desert.

“We can employ any weapons system out there to its fullest capacity.”

Alvarez reflects on that day he earned the Purple Heart, facing a hateful assassin in the house in Fallujah.

“The Marines in front of me saw the grenade. They took the best measures possible in order for me to survive. I’m a religious man and I felt God that day. Didn’t think I was going to make it.”

For 12 years, Alvarez has been no “sunshine patriot.” He wears the Marine Corps aura, “Even when tough times come aground, you work through it. Maybe you can look back and smile or say, ‘Wow — that was close.’”

War is a refiner’s fire for young men with dreams and passions. It leaves in its ash the diamonds.