by JAMES S. KIM
When former Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Jonathan Kong saw a Marine go down in open ground from a Taliban ambush, it was more than his training that spurred him into action. Kong remembers that it was like seeing his little brother in trouble.
“Dawers and I were pretty close friends,” Kong told KoreAm in a phone interview, speaking about Cpl. Michael Dawers, the injured Marine. “So I saw him get hit … but I wasn’t really thinking at the time. My feet were already moving. He was already squirming and screaming.”
After reaching the Marine, Kong managed to pull him to safety as the firefight raged on. For his actions, Kong received a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor in combat, during a ceremony at Camp Pendleton in California on Sept. 19.
“There’s not a Marine or sailor here that can say they haven’t been scared under fire. But it’s what you do with that fear,” Major General Lawrence Nicholson, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, said at the ceremony, addressing Kong. “It’s how you channel it, and how you react to it.
“On that June morning, Doc Kong reacted instinctively … [He] saw that Marine laying there in great anguish, and Doc Kong decided at that point that he had to get to his Marine,” the general said. “It is humbling today for all of us to hear that citation, to know what you did in the face of enormous risk and peril to yourself.”
As the squad’s battlefield medical specialist, it was Kong’s job to take care of his fellow Marines, from gun- shot wounds to minor cuts. But the relationship between a Navy corpsman and Marine goes much deeper than doctor-patient.
“Basically, if you’re a corpsman, the Marines will call you a Marine,” said Kong, 25. “They’ll call you ‘Doc.’ We literally do every single thing with them. You definitely get close, and there’s always the underlying theme where I’m there for them as their caregiver.
“You develop this brotherhood that the Marines have with each other. If anything, it might be an even deeper bond, because we’ re there to keep them safe.”
Kong, then Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class, was on his second deployment in June 2011, serving with Company B of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The squad had trained together for months, but they had yet to see any action during a seasonal fighting lull. That changed during a four-day clearing operation in Kotozay, a village in the dangerous Sangin district in Afghanistan. They kept hearing from the locals that the Taliban were nearby.
The Marines were moving cautiously from compound to compound, minimizing their time out in the open. Kong recalls he was at least 15 meters behind Dawers—a tactic to minimize IED damage—when the Taliban opened fire.
“The first burst hit him right in the chest,” Kong said. “After that, it just erupted. They opened fire on us, and I just started running. I didn’t think about it when I started running, and halfway to him I started thinking, ‘Oh sh-t, this is it.’ It was very clear what was happening at that point. The volume of rounds started increasing. What [the Taliban] like to do is wound you and hope the other guys come out, then shoot [them].
“It seemed helpless as I was running out there. I started shooting back, and I finally made my way to him. I was trying to pull him away, [but since] we were doing a four-day operation, we had a lot more gear than normal. He had a 100-pound rucksack on him, and he was lying in some mud. I was trying to pull him, and he wasn’t moving—I couldn’t get him out. Rounds were kicking all around me and hitting the wall behind us.
“As a desperate measure, I grabbed my rifle and started shooting back,” he continued. “It was basically go down fighting at this point. I thought we were dead in the water and we weren’t going to make it out, so I started returning fire. That’ s when our machine gunner posted up on the corner of the compound and started putting down rounds. I turned back around and unsnapped the pack.
“I grabbed Dawers, and the rounds were still coming down around us, so I just started dragging him away. We ducked behind a wall, and that was that.”
Jonathan Kong with Michael Dawers, who is holding the chest plate that stopped the bullet. Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps
Kong began stripping the Marine down to assess his condition. Dawers was lucky: A bullet had nicked the top half-inch of his chest plate, and he had suffered a crushed sternum and bruised lung. An inch higher, and the bullet would have probably hit his heart.
As Kong prepared Dawers for air evacuation, the Marine’s first words to the corpsman were, “Doc, you just saved my life.”
It was a defining moment for the young corpsman, who had been entertaining the idea of going into medicine as a career.
“I always wanted to do medicine,” Kong said. “After joining the military and becoming a corpsman, that’ s when it started to click for me. I understood it. I felt that I was good at it, and it made sense for me.”
Kong, who finished his six-year Navy enlistment last year, is now attending classes at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, Calif., before applying to transfer to a university as an undergraduate next year. He isn’ t setting any limits for himself: Ivy League universities are at the top of his list, and then it’s medical school. Kong, who has also been awarded the Navy Good Conduct Medal, Combat Action Ribbon and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, has his sights on becoming an emergency room doctor to utilize his skills and training.
“After that deployment to Afghanistan and after coming home,” Kong said, “we had around 200 Purple Hearts, and 17 guys didn’t make it home. I think I was like, I’m just going to go for it. I’m going to do big things in my life.
“That’s when med school came on to the blotter. … This is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to attack it with everything I have.”
Featured photo courtesy of Cpl. Ismael E. Ortega/Marine Corps
This article was published in the October/November 2014 issue of KoreAm under the title “Courage Under Fire” Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).