The men of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 3rd Marine Recon Battalion first escaped death in the form of a U-shaped ambush by Taliban forces late in the afternoon on June 6, 2011. Then, they escaped death again, this time from a 500-pound GBU-54 laser-guided bomb dropped 34 meters from their position about an hour after they requested supporting fire. The ordnance was well within the danger-close range of 130 meters, and even inside the distance (70 meters), where the probability of incapacitation is 10 percent. This was followed by two 675-pound HIMAR missiles fired in an open sheaf about 70 meters from their position—also danger-close for that ordnance. The only reason the platoon did not have significant, immediate casualties from the explosions was the Marines and sailors had found cover in micro-terrain, a small canal not seen on the maps. The overpressure of the blast was nonetheless debilitating; some of the men were rendered unconscious. One described the blast in detail: “I was unconscious for a moment. All the air was sucked out of my lungs. I thought I was going to die. It was the most terrifying moment of my life. Then debris fell on us for a solid minute.”
The Bronze medal citation for SSgt Jeremy Froio, the joint terminal attack controller, stated, “It is impossible to overstate the earth-shattering affect this ordnance had on the platoon at such close range.” Virtually every member of 1st Platoon demonstrated concussion symptoms following the bombing. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Travis Homiak, had ordered the use of the heaviest munitions on station despite the recommendation from the battalion operations officer, Maj. Fred Galvin, who had recommended the use of smaller munitions, which were available and would be highly likely to neutralize the enemy while posing significantly less danger to the Marines and sailors of 1st Platoon.
The unit returned to base camp early on the morning of June 7th, under the cover of darkness. Upon return, members were assigned to guard duty and other routine base camp activities. Not only did the battalion command make the decision to use the GBU-54 and HIMARS instead of more appropriately sized munitions, but requests by the platoon SARC (special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman) to follow the theater-wide concussion protocol prescribed by the Department of Defense in Directive-Type Memorandum (DTM) 09-033 issued on June 21, 2010, fell on deaf ears higher in the command.
At minimum, those men should have received a 24-hour concussion observation period before being assigned other duties or being sent back out for follow-on missions. DTM 09-033 stresses that it is particularly important to follow the protocol when the percussive blast is from friendly fire. The observations should have been entered in the Marines’ and sailors’ medical records. Instead, routine base camp activities and guard duty took priority, and no record of the incidents were added to the affected service members’ medical records. For the next several months, the platoons from Bravo Company would receive contact from the enemy (direct and indirect fires) on a regular basis, being ambushed on almost every patrol during the first half of their deployment, taking sniper fire in their base camp, and having grenades lobbed at them over the base camp berm. Although there were numerous percussive blasts experienced, DTM 09-033 was willfully and knowingly ignored for the entire deployment by Lt. Col. Travis Homiak.
As a result, the mental and physical damage done to the men who were actually fighting the enemy on an almost daily basis continued to add up. The command failed to properly document this damage within the medical records of the affected Marines, and it has caused many to lose out on the appropriate benefits and care from the VA they needed to address CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), TBI (traumatic brain injury), and PTSD.
The long-term results of the blast
At the age of four, Randall Stevenson, Jr., nicknamed “Steve-o” by his buddies, knew he would someday sport dress blues like his father, Randall Stevenson, Sr. Randall Sr. was a Marine artillery officer who originally dropped out of college as a senior to enlist in 1979, in response to the Iranians taking over the U.S. embassy. Although accepted to LSU, Steve-o chose to enlist in the Corps while still in high school—just before his eighteenth birthday. This allowed him to secure an infantry contract guaranteeing him the opportunity to test for Recon selection. In September, 2009, he went to MCRD San Diego, in keeping with a three-generation family tradition. His great-uncle had the now-famous Gunny Lee Ermey as one of his drill instructors, and his father had been selected for OCS at the completion of boot camp. Steve-o often recalled the “truest words ever spoken,” uttered by his father before he went to boot camp: “You will always be my son, but in a few weeks, you will also be my brother.”
Steve-o spent much of his first two years in training, including School of Infantry, Advanced Infantry Training, Amphibious Reconnaissance School, and Airborne (Paratrooper) School. Corporal Stevenson deployed to Afghanistan in May, 2011, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, where he was initially a SAW gunner on his Recon team and later became the assistant team leader. After the deployment, he was transferred to III MEF Force Recon Company and continued advanced training at Freefall School and Scout/Sniper School. He was promoted to sergeant just before he completed his four-year contract. This was partially due to the fact that the re-enlistment rate for third contracts in 3rd Recon Battalion had dropped from 72 percent to 27 percent, creating a dearth of sergeants and staff sergeants in the Recon community. This reflected the low morale of the unit, something so severe, it became the subject of a command climate investigation by the 3rd Marine Division inspector general.
Steve-o chose to not re-enlist, and although he passionately loved the Corps, he told his father and girlfriend the values he had been taught about Marines taking care of their own were not being embodied by some senior officers and senior staff NCOs, who were more interested in positioning themselves for political gain or awards, assignments, and promotions than being Marines. Steve-o openly expressed admiration and respect for the staff NCOs in his company and platoon, and for his platoon commander, who was later his Force Recon company commander, Captain Philip Peacock. Steve-o said, “He did everything he could to keep us alive and accomplish the mission.” Captain Peacock, the sole officer with 1st Platoon at the time, has declined to comment on the events of June 6, 2011.
Entering the civilian phase of life proved challenging for Steve-o. He was rated as 60 percent disabled, with 10 percent for tinnitus and 50 percent for PTSD, which is considered a psychological problem. He had difficulty concentrating, he was subject to mood swings, and his sleep was plagued by nightmares. Although Steve-o was usually the loving and caring person he had always been, he seemed tormented—his personality would occasionally and briefly shift to a more cautious or violent nature. He complained that the counselors at the VA did not understand him and that he needed to talk to someone, but could not. He complained that the medication given to him for PTSD seemed to make him worse. In November, 2015, he spent a couple of weeks with his father, which included their celebrating the Marine Corps birthday together. During that visit, he expressed his desire to return to Afghanistan, where he had never felt more afraid or more alive. His motivation was to go back to finish what he had started and to help take care of other Marines, for whom he expressed his love with tears rolling down his cheeks, saying, “I know it is crazy, but God knows I love them!” However, a darkness had attached itself to Steve-o, a darkness that his father confided to his wife and priest that he feared was leading Steve-o to suicide.
On the evening of April 1, 2016, the day before his 25th birthday, Steve-o spent some time with his father. He told him, “Something is broken in my brain. I need to find out what it is and get it fixed, or I won’t be around. I can be fine for months, then for no reason at all, I suddenly want to blow my fµ¢%!#& brains out!”
He expressed his frustration, saying no one understood, and he just listened and felt he could not talk in group sessions. His father suggested immediate help, but Steve-o, who felt he needed in-patient care, was determined to wait until the end of the semester to preserve his VA educational benefits and housing allowance. Steve-o’s mother recognized the seriousness of his condition, and unwilling to wait for a VA appointment, scheduled an appointment with a private social worker for the morning of April 6th. However, in the evening of April 5th, Steve-o was found dead in his closet, where he had hung himself—surrounded by his Marine medals and mementos.
During the visitation and funeral, 37 Recon Marines and sailors came from all over the nation to help carry Steve-o’s bodily remains to their final resting place. During those days and months that followed, the family learned more about their young Marine and his experiences. His team leader described him as “the team’s moral compass, seeing all humans as having inherent value and unable to hate others of different ethnicities or religious beliefs, even when the enemy was of that ethnicity and religion.” His platoon commander in Afghanistan said he seemed like “too good of a kid to be in war, someone who truly lived for others” and he was “the first in the company to share his food with children from the village, and without endangering the Marines, set an example that eventually the entire company followed, and which created a spirit of goodwill between the village and the Marines.” He also said Steve-o was “brave, so brave he scared me at times.” Others described how he would buy hot food and give it to homeless people he saw in Okinawa, shrugging off the inevitable teasing from other Marines. Team members described him as fun-loving and mischievous, but a real warrior.
They told stories of his actions in combat, which he had not shared with family or friends, such as how, during an ambush, he exposed himself to enemy fire and immediately began to lay down suppressive fire with his SAW in short bursts while his teammates dove for cover. Later they learned the short bursts were due to his SAW jamming eight times, but he had cleared the weapon and resumed firing so quickly, it sounded like intentional short bursts. The few stories Steve-o had shared usually involved his making a mistake, such as taking his fingers out of his ears to ask if grenades thrown at him and another guard were going to ever explode—just as they exploded and gave him ringing ears for several days. He expressed shock that the unit had met with Taliban leaders with orders not to fire even if fired upon unless ordered to do so. He expressed disgust about how the Taliban, when cornered, knowing Marines would not shoot children, would send children between themselves and the Marines to cover their escape. When criticized for not having fired more rounds in a firefight, Steve-o’s response was, “I did not shoot at anyone who I did not know was an enemy combatant. I can face God for every round I sent downrange.” Steve-o embodied the essence of the diplomat-warrior our service personnel are called to be in the current conflict.
Shortly after it was published on June 13, 2016, Randall Stevenson, Sr., read an article on SOFREP and realized this was part of the story Steve-o had kept to himself. It led him to investigate what had happened in more detail, including medical research. He also connected with several other families who had lost veterans who were sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters to suicide. He discovered and joined other veterans who try to reduce veteran suicides through interventions, which have included at least two of the Recon Marines who served with his son.
Steve-o’s father had this to say about the aftermath of the 2011 deployment: “The seething anger that was and is below the surface of several Marines and sailors from 3rd Recon Battalion, including my son, is something they have only recently begun to share with me in small, measured comments, including why they are unable to talk about what happened, even to VA personnel. Randall was not the only Marine in the blast area affected. From what I understand, almost everyone in 1st Platoon has been diagnosed with PTSD. The proportion is too high not to consider that the correlation may indicate a causation.””
“Finally, there is also a lot of anger about the medals that were awarded. It appeared that most of the medals from that deployment went to officers and staff NCOs, many of whom were not directly in combat, whereas some real heroic actions by junior enlisted men were rarely recognized. I heard of things that were at the Navy Cross/Silver Star level, but there was no recognition for it. On the other hand, a Bronze Star was given to another Marine for handling logistics. Almost all of them came back feeling like they failed and have survivor’s guilt. It has been described as the truth getting twisted into something illogical, and it is difficult for them to mentally reconcile what they experienced.”
While grieving over the loss of their beloved son, the family was immediately faced with handling the aftermath of the VA demanding payment for their son’s GI Bill housing allowance for April, 2016, since he did not complete the full month of academic work. The allowance is paid at the beginning of the month. This was despite the VA not paying any of the funeral expenses, claiming they were declined and then ignoring or losing the application for an extension of SGLI coverage, even though it was delivered via certified mail with a tracking number, confirming delivery. “The people at the VA are great, but the bureaucracy is a Bloody Mary without alcohol…it’s a bloody shame,” said Stevenson, Sr.
Could this tragic situation have been handled better by the VA or the 3rd Recon Battalion command? Could it have even been avoided? According to Randall Stevenson, Sr., an actuary who, as the title implies, specializes in analyzing risk, the answer is yes. But he is not just making idle claims, he is acting to reduce the chance of other veterans and their families experiencing similar agonies. He has reduced his volunteer activities in his profession to focus on addressing the issue. With the encouragement of other families who have lost veterans to suicide, medical doctors, and some veteran support organizations, Stevenson and his firm are compiling a significantly discounted research study proposal with the hopes that they will be awarded a grant to perform further research on veteran suicides.
Steve-o’s grandmother contacted Congressman Ralph Lee Abraham, Jr., chairman of the House VA Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs and a member of the House VA Subcommittee on Health. With information provided by Randall Stevenson, Sr. in March, 2017, Congressman Abraham asked the Marine Corps to determine what happened on the operation in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan on June 6, 2011, and determine how it could have been better handled with respect to compliance with DTM 09-033. Stevenson, who was a battalion fire support coordinator and has countless combined arms exercise experiences, and who has also studied physics, human anatomy, and physiology, said, “I am formally a captain, always a Marine, just in a different phase of life. Marines take care of their own. I’ll do whatever I can to help my brother Marines and sailors.”
“Lt. Col. Travis Homiak’s delay in providing supporting fire and error in selecting an appropriate supporting arm may be understandable under combat conditions. However, the purpose of fire support coordination per FM 6-20-30 is “to facilitate the rapid engagement of targets and, at the same time, provide safeguards for friendly forces. Neither objective was accomplished by the timing and munitions selected. Furthermore, Lt. Col. Homiak’s blatant disregard for the well-being of the Marines and sailors under his command through willful disregard of DoD concussion protocol, and his saying he was willing to sacrifice them for the greater good, is inexcusable. Had he properly considered the well-being of those under his command, I believe the retention of Recon Marines would not have been an issue in his battalion, several young men would not have to face many of the problems they must now deal with for life, the VA could have provided more appropriate care for some of those with TBI/CTE, and I would have been taking my son out on his birthday instead of taking flowers to his tomb.”
“No member of the U.S. military should ever be denied the ability to defend themselves. As a Marine, I have earned the right in the civilian phase of life to say, ‘Col. Homiak is a demonstrated danger to the ideals of the Marine Corps and to those who were under his command; therefore, he should never be allowed to fill a command position again.’ I don’t hate the man, I pray for him, but I want to take care of the Marines who are my brothers and my son’s brothers. If the commandant was serious about his pledge to reduce Marine veteran suicides, he can start with protecting Marines from officers like Col. Homiak.”
Reviewing current research, Randall Stevenson, Sr. noted that significant progress in TBI and CTE research has and is being realized. He has a few observations and recommendations he believes warrant immediate consideration. Some he is preparing to send to the Marine Corps and lawmakers, but he expressed concern that if they were publicly presented, the information could be used by hostile combatants to inflict greater injuries on U.S. military personnel.
- Families, veterans, and VA personnel could be trained to recognize CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes and others with repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions and asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. Boxers have been known to have CTE since the 1920s. It is related to TBI. Possible signs and symptoms of CTE include: Difficulty thinking (cognitive impairment), impulsive behavior, depression or apathy, short-term memory loss, difficulty planning and carrying out tasks (executive function), emotional instability, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts or behavior.
- The transition from military service to civilian life tends to be abrupt and can be very stressful and disorienting for those who chose to end their service after completing their active-duty contractual obligations, especially if it occurs shortly after deployment. Letting the service members know what to expect and helping them reintegrate into civilian society could be very beneficial.
- Have VA personnel with security clearances high enough to allow the veterans to discuss what happened on classified missions with the interviewers. (The CIA has protocols for the crossover treatment.)
- Separate the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD due to psychological causes from PTSD due to organic, neurological causes. The latter should be treated by a neurologist. Psychological pharmaceuticals can be harmful to individuals with organic, neurological injuries.
- Include subsequent suicides, suicide attempts, and PTSD statistics of service personnel serving under a commanding officer as part of the officer’s record. That would add long-term consequences of actions to how a commander is evaluated. (The two things drilled into our heads at TBS were that we were to accomplish the mission and take care of our men [and women]. The current evaluation method seems to only address the first part and limits the second part to immediate results only.)
- Have some easier means of “forcing” veterans who are in danger to get the help they need. Many are resistant to help. In my son’s case, he felt he could not afford to lose the VA benefits from dropping out of school. Others become combative and refuse the help.
- Have research done to establish correlations between veteran premature deaths (suicides and other deaths not considered suicide, such as suicide by cop, accidental death, drug overdose, etc.) and potential causes. Current studies generally study a potential cause and then study the correlation. The currently scattered studies should be coordinated. The correlations study will require funding and probably should involve an actuarial firm, since they specialize in risk identification and quantification.
What can you do that will have an immediate impact? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures people in this nation have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Contact your U.S. senators and representatives and ask them to enact checks and balances to hold accountable overly ambitious commanders who are derelict in their duties, disregard directives designed to protect our military personnel, or recklessly endanger military personnel under their command. Specifically urge them to not allow the Marine Corps to assign Col. Homiak to any command positions based on his past behaviors, which have needlessly injured and endangered Marines and sailors, and which created an environment where morale was incredibly low.
The inspector general’s report of the command climate investigation of then-Lt. Col. Homiak following the 2011 combat deployment has still not been provided, despite being requested by Congressman Jones of North Carolina. All who serve this country by putting their health and lives in danger should have a right to competent leadership. Military personnel have a right to redress grievances through the UCMJ, Article 138. Abuse of authority includes tyrannical, careless, or capricious conduct; continuous and/or severe abusive language; discrimination; and creation of a hostile work environment. However, history has shown that whistle-blowers usually do not fare well, despite legal protections.