HELMAND PROVINCE, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
"I think psychologically it started to get to me. It was like, all right I just stepped on an IED again; I've got to be hurt. There's no way I'm not hurt. ... How many guys do you hear that step on two IEDs in one deployment?"
That he wasn't hurt is one of the enigmas surrounding U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. William Schultz. As lead engineer during more than 100 patrols with Company L, Battalion Landing Team 3/8, Regimental Combat Team 8, Schultz is credited with discovering more than 50 Improvised Explosive Devices in the BLT's approximate 90-day operational period in Helmand province. BLT 3/8 had been conducting counterinsurgency operations there since January. Two of Schultz's IEDs were discovered the hard way.
"We're not even 100 yards away; I can see the whole thing," said Gunnery Sgt. John Foster, platoon sergeant of 1st Platoon, Company L, speaking of the day Schultz stepped on his second IED. "I link up with this element, and he's standing on the road and he's just looking at me. ... I'm like 'How's it going? What's up?' I already knew what happened. ... He's like, 'It's fine. It's good. I think I broke my foot.' He's just standing there looking at it. And then just walks back on his own, never puts any gear down, no problems. They made him not work the next day." It is a theater requirement after blast exposure to receive a 24 hour rest break.
One might think the law of averages and sheer volume give credit to Schultz's ability to discover IEDs, but those who've worked with him attribute it to something else. Considering that for Schultz to serve as lead engineer on more than 100 security patrols in a 90-day period and that patrols didn't take place every one of those 90 days, Schultz would have had to patrol every day a patrol took place and multiple times on many of those days.
"If a team was going out, Sergeant Schultz was going out," Foster said. "There are other engineers there, they're going to do their part, but he's going to do twice as much. If something needs to be carried, if something needs to be fixed, if something needs to be climbed, if somebody needs to go on a roof, if somebody needs to go in a compound, if somebody needs to do something that nobody wants to do, that's him. He's going to do it. It's like a sense of duty, responsibility, leadership."
"It's very important for me to be the best engineer in our platoon," Schultz explained. "If I'm the best, my Marines have something to strive to be. If they get to my level, I've got to be better than them. ... There should be no room for mistakes. I wouldn't say I made mistakes with the IEDs, but I wouldn't say I didn't. It's a two-way street. In hindsight I've learned lessons from both incidents. And I try to push that on to the Marines."
Schultz said setting the example for junior Marines to emulate is extremely important to him. He set the example March 13 when, coming under enemy machine-gun fire impacting inches from his position, Schultz demolished a compound wall with explosives, then ensured the compound was clear of IEDs in order to provide the Marines of L Company's 2nd Platoon a position from which to fight.
He set the example again March 23. Caught in a complex ambush taking machine-gun and indirect enemy fire, without regard for his own safety Schultz continued to sweep for IEDs through a field to an area of cover while indirect fire rounds impacted within ten meters of his position. Again, he demolished a wall and cleared a compound for the Marines of 2nd Platoon. His leaders credit him with saving many lives.
But on March 30, Schultz's motivation became very personal. His best friend and team member, Cpl. Joseph Woodke, was severely injured by an IED. Schultz was the first there to treat his friend's wounds. He personally cleared the medical evacuation helicopter landing zone. While a consummate professional before this, the incident affected him deeply, catapulting his drive to safeguard fellow Marines to new levels.
"He's like a brother to me," Schultz said of Woodke. "His family and my family are very close. It's still hard. Any time the mind's not active, it fades back to him. Being one of the first Marines on site to tend to his wounds, ... It drove me to take more risks. I was kind of criticized a lot for not allowing my Marines to do certain things. At that point I already had two wounded in my squad and I just didn't want to see anybody else hurt; ... A lot of people criticized me about that. They didn't feel that was the right path, but at that point with the limited amount of time we had left, it was worth it to me to not lose another guy as opposed to myself."
With Marines from 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, coming in to relieve BLT 3/8, the BLT 3/8 Commander, Lt. Col. Farrell Sullivan, decided to take Schultz out of the fight, ordering his best engineer to Camp Leatherneck to ensure the 3/4 engineers received a thorough turnover and to get some well-earned rest.
“Being Marines of 2nd (Combat Engineer Battalion), I have the utmost confidence in them,” said Schultz. “They've learned from the same people I've learned from, so there's no reason they shouldn't be prepared.”
But true to his nature, after a brief time Schultz requested to return to Lima Company in the field. Why?
"Not to sound cheesy, but they're like family to me,” Schultz said. “You don't work with somebody for over a year and not develop bonds. ... There's nothing I wouldn't do for them. Another part of that is to make sure they're not doing things wrong, to be able to (oversee) them. One time, after the second IED hit me, I told (Company L 1st Sgt. Troy Nicks), 'This is the best engineer squad the battalion's got.' And First Sergeant Nicks replied, 'Well I find it hard to believe they're the best if you're not willing to cut ties with them and let them operate by themselves.' I don't know. … Not to sound cliché, but it comes down to love. My Marines, that's really all I've got here," Schultz said.