When Joshua Acevedo left the Marine Corps as a sergeant in 2013 following four combat tours, he felt betrayed by the service he once loved. Now the former infantry squad leader will receive the service’s fourth-highest valor award – something he says he hopes will restore his faith in the Corps.
Acevedo joined the Marine Corps with the hope of turning it into a career. The veteran of three combat tours in Iraq, he deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand province in September 2010, where he was tasked with leading a squad largely seen by his battalion leaders as the unit’s black sheep.
But what his Marines lacked in spit shine and polish, they more than made up for in courage and capability, he said. The members of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines began covering the bulk of the company’s combat missions. Their skill would even earn them a reputation among the enemy forces they were annihilating.
“They were bad asses, no doubt about it,” Acevedo said of his squad, which left country without a single injury. “They were the kind of Marines I learned about growing up. They enabled me to do a lot more than I could have done with a bunch of meritorious kids.”
Their camaraderie was most evident in a day-long firefight just north of Durzay. Acevedo’s actions resulted in a Silver Star nomination.
But the honor was soon buried beneath allegations of a battlefield murder.
The once-celebrated squad leader was ostracized, and fighting a battle for which he was ill-equipped. As was his habit in the ‘Stan, Acevedo would emerge victorious – but this time, he would not emerge unscathed. The court battle cost him a career, and caused him to lose faith in his beloved Corps.
Five years after Acevedo and his Marines faced an ambush on the battlefield, the former sergeant will be recognized by one of this generation’s most revered leaders. Retired Gen. Jim Mattis will read a citation for a Bronze Star with combat distinguishing device before Acevedo is pinned with the medal at a Marine Corps birthday ball on Oct. 31.
It’s a moment Acevedo said he hopes will take away some of the bitterness he has felt since leaving the Marine Corps.
From hero to zero
On Nov. 20, 2010, Acevedo and his squad were hours into a firefight when the squad leader ordered his assault element to take an enemy-infested hilltop.
Their individual rushes were soon halted by PKM machine gun fire from the direct front. Simultaneously, the support element got hit by a new attack from the east, and could do little to cover their fellow Marines.
The enemy was gaining fire superiority and the Marines were low on ammunition. The assault element radioed that it was down to one magazine each, 25 Squad Automatic Weapon rounds and a few grenades. The team said they would fix bayonets if Acevedo wanted them to continue the push.
He gave the order: Fix bayonets.
But Acevedo would not let his Marines go it alone. He gathered what ammo he could from the support element. His pockets were soon stuffed with M203 rounds, his kit was full of 5.56 mags, and he held all the SAW ammo he could find. After a quick prayer, he ran the 100 yards that stood between him and his Marines. Not only was it covered by enemy fire, it had not been swept for IEDs.
“The guys said the ground around me got chewed up pretty good, but nobody hit me,” he said. This run through the field of fire would earn him the Bronze Star with V.
Reinforcements arrived after a successful AH-1 Cobra gun-run.
“We had the option to get on the bird,” Acevedo said. “I took a vote: Do you guys want to get out of here or do you want to stay? With big-ass grins they said, ‘Give us some ammo and we’ll stay all day.’”
The hill was soon taken, and the black sheep squad returned to Patrol Base Hernandez under the cover of darkness. It was one of many victories. The squad’s area of operations, which had firefights at least every other day, went silent by the end of their second month on station.
“It didn’t shift elsewhere, it just stopped,” said former Capt. Nicholas Schmitz, who was their platoon commander.
While that battle ceased, another soon raged. A Marine attached to the company claimed he saw Acevedo shoot an unarmed insurgent during a firefight.
Acevedo’s career came to a screeching halt for the next year as he was investigated for murder.
Regaining lost faith
Acevedo doesn’t like to discuss the matter that landed him in an Article 32 hearing.
“I was bitter when I left the Marine Corps,” he said. “I left thinking this brotherhood they talk about doesn’t even exist.”
He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. Joseph Low, a Marine veteran who took on Acevedo’s case pro bono, said it was nothing more than a Marine “shooting his mouth off” with an untrue war story that kept getting bigger and bigger. Eventually, someone in an official capacity gets wind of the tale and the Marine Corps is forced to investigate.
Low said Corps officials did the right thing by investigating the claims, but said the service needs to do a better job of helping Marines who are found innocent in these cases “pick up the pieces.”
“There is no rebuild,” he told Marine Corps Times. “We’ll go into some of these towns in Iraq and Afghanistan and pour a lot of money and personnel hours into rebuilding the damage that was caused, but they don’t do that with individual Marines.
“I wish I could spend time with some Marine Corps officials to help them understand that accusations, true or untrue, are like a bullet out of a gun – you’ll never get it back.”
Acevedo’s case was a perfect example of that, Low said. They were able to punch holes in the claims made by the accuser, a corporal who served as a photographer during 2/1’s deployment. But the legal hiatus was also a career killer for Acevedo.
He had served eight years when the yearlong investigation started. During that time, he was unable to complete career requirements necessary to advance to staff sergeant. When ultimately cleared, Acevedo had no fight left in him.
But Low, along with Acevedo’s squad and platoon commander, would not remain quiet. Once the Marine was cleared of the charges, they pushed with vigor to ensure his actions would receive the honor due.
Schmitz, in particular, was determined to see it through. While some Bronze Stars have been turned around in as little as four months, he spent the next four years pushing through bureaucracy and cutting red tape. The former captain, who got out in 2013, admitted that he grew disillusioned and cynical, himself.
“The guy is a combat leader who did some incredible things,” he said. “It seemed like the Marine Corps couldn’t say anything good about the guy.”
“It’s disappointing that what you have done in combat and what you did to save other lives is purposefully erased and buried due to some allegations,” said Low, who joined Schmitz in his campaign.
Acevedo now works in Iraq for Triple Canopy, a provider of integrated security and mission support services. He will receive his Bronze Star with V at the Marine Corps Ball in Sonoma, California. A number of former squad members will be at his side. He would have it no other way.
“It is more of a squad award in my eyes,” he said. “Absolutely nothing could have been done without them.”
Schmitz also reached out to Mattis and asked the former head of U.S. Central Command to take part. He quickly agreed.
“The valor displayed by Sgt. Acevedo stands on its own, unadorned by who is privileged to present the actual award to him,” Mattis told Marine Corps Times. “I’m a guest at the weekend USMC birthday celebration and my role is simply to do what every Marine does when a Marine’s performance is recognized by peers and superiors as valorous – to stand and pay my respects.”
Schmitz asked Acevedo if he wanted Mattis to pin on his medal, which many Marines would consider a great honor.
“Hell no,” he said. “I like Mattis. He is a bad ass. But he wasn’t there. You were. I want you to pin it on.”
Acevedo hopes that moment will help him find closure. For the past five years he has been haunted by unanswered questions: Was he a good leader? Was he a good Marine?
“We used to joke that it is a short fall from hero to zero,” he said. “I left as a zero, and I feel like I’m always chasing it. I feel like this might let me let it go.”