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Marines honored for service in Iraq

Injured in combat, 14 Buffalo-based Marines receive the respected Purple Heart medal for their sacrifices

News Staff Reporter
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Derek Gee/Buffalo News
Lance Cpl. Michael Mehltretter displays a photo of fellow Marines making their way through a crater after a September suicide bomb attack in Hit, Iraq.


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Dennis C. Enser/Buffalo News
From left, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Niezgoda, Lance Cpls. Nathan Timblin and James Caflisch, and Staff Sgt. Timothy Pudhorodsky will receive Purple Hearts in a ceremony today.


No bullet, suicide bomber or IED could stop these Marines.

They were wounded, yes.

But 14 men from the Buffalo-based India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment have lived to tell the tales of their brushes with danger in Iraq.

And today, the Marines, who have been home since October, will be awarded Purple Hearts, in the drill room of the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Center on Porter Avenue. The Marines and sailors of India Company were called to duty in January and stepped foot in Iraq in March.

They lost one man, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeffrey L. Wiener of Long Island. Another was more severely wounded, Lance Cpl. Mark Beyers of Alden, who lost an arm and a leg and who received his Purple Heart while in the hospital.

The Marines receiving their Purple Hearts today struggle with the knowledge that their own sacrifices pale in comparison to those of Beyers, not to mention the more than 2,150 U.S. troops who have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But today, as their names are called out, their citations are read aloud and they receive their Purple Hearts, the Marines say they will be proud to know that their country recognizes their sacrifice and willingness to serve. Here are some of their stories:

Lance Cpl. Michael Mehltretter

On Sept. 4, with a week and a half left in his tour in Iraq, Lance Cpl. Michael Mehltretter returned to his base in the city of Hit after a morning patrol.

He suddenly noticed a small pickup truck bursting through the first set of barriers into the base camp. As it approached the second barriers, it blew up into a ball of flames.

"The car exploded," Mehltretter, 21, of Grand Island recalled. "It knocked me unconscious."

He came to as the thick dust began to settle and the insurgents began their assault.

"They launched an attack on our base with rocket-propelled grenades," he said. "I got up in a window and began engaging."

About 20 minutes later, Mehltretter began to feel the effects of what would later be determined was a Level 3 concussion. "I kind of got nauseous. I couldn't hear and my vision was blurry."

"I feel a little funny," Mehltretter said of his injuries. "Mark Beyers lost one whole side of his body, basically, and I hurt my head. But we get the same medal."

But, he explained, "on the other hand, I did get hurt. I think everyone who went there faces the same dangers. I plan on wearing [the Purple Heart]. I'm proud to accept it."

Staff Sgt. Timothy Pudhorodsky

Staff Sgt. Timothy Pudhorodsky was wounded in the same attack.

Pudhorodsky, 31, of Buffalo, remembered first hearing small-arms fire.

Then he heard the explosion of the suicide bomber's car. He later learned that there were two suicide cars: the first was supposed to blow through the barriers to open the way for the second to hit the heart of the Marine base camp.

"But the force from the first one exploding caused the second to blow up," Pudhorodsky said, "which was a good because there would have been a lot of dead people."

The force of the blast knocked Pudhorodsky down, leaving him with a bad concussion and a right hand that was a bloody mess. Two sergeants came to his side and helped him regain consciousness.

Like Mehltretter, he wonders whether he deserves the same medal as those more seriously wounded. "I feel much more fortunate than the Marines that have lost an arm or even died," he said.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Niezgoda

He doesn't remember the sound of the improvised explosive device exploding.

"You know when you shut the kitchen door and it goes "thump'?" Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Niezgoda said. "That's what it was like."

Niezgoda had arrived in Iraq in June, later than the rest of the company, just as it was switching from security to ground combat operations.

It was Aug. 12 and Niezgoda was leading his platoon on a foot patrol when an IED hidden in a bush exploded. "It was triggered remotely," Niezgoda said.

It knocked Niezgoda and a second Marine unconscious. Niezgoda also suffered a blast wound to the bone in his arm.

Niezgoda, 35, who is also a state trooper out of Clarence, attributes his survival in part to the new protective gear he was wearing, much stronger than what he had been issued for his first tour in Iraq two years earlier.

"I have mixed feelings," he said about his Purple Heart. "It's an honor and humbling to be part of it. But then I look at Lance Cpl. Beyers and Cpl. Mark O'Brien [another Marine, not from India Company, who lost two limbs.]"

But when his headaches return, Niezgoda said, "that's when I figure, I definitely know I have this [the Purple Heart.]"

Lance Cpl. James Caflisch

Lance Cpl. James Caflisch isn't sheepish about how he was injured.

"I got shot in the buttocks, as Forest Gump would say," the 24-year-old Jamestown Marine shared with a smile.

Caflisch recounted how he was guarding an old school building in late August as other Marines took turns napping. He was looking out at a busy market from the second floor when he suddenly heard a gunshot - then a terrible stinging sensation in his backside.

"I took a second or two," he said, to realize what had happened. A sniper had taken a shot, which hit the building and ricocheted, striking Caflisch. He took cover as he waited for corpsmen to arrive to help him to a doctor.

As his fellow Marines realized that his wound wasn't serious, Caflisch recalled, "I got a lot of jokes toward me."

With less than a month left in his tour, Caflisch was sent back stateside early.

Despite the ribbing he gets for the location of his injury, he said he is proud to be getting a Purple Heart.

"It's a very big deal," he said. Lance Cpl. Nathan Timblin

No one on patrol with Lance Cpl. Nathan Timblin on Aug. 26 noticed the IED hidden under a pile of trash on the side of the road.

The ordnance, connected to a wire that led to a palm grove where an insurgent had been hiding, blew up, just as the men, all on foot, passed by. The bomb was apparently designed to strike a vehicle, with projectiles that hit high and low.

It hit Lance Cpl. Beyers the worst, destroying his arm and leg.

Timblin, 20, of North Tonawanda, was luckier, but the blast did its damage on him too. "I didn't know what happened," he said. "I was pretty out of it."

He remembered seeing everyone covered in smoke and seeing Beyers lying on the ground. Beyers was quickly taken to a hospital.

Timblin stayed, not realizing he had a serious head injury.

He, too, was taken to a hospital, where he spent a week.

When he recovered, he was sent back to the Marine base camp. The next morning, he woke up to the sound of gunfire. And then a rocket-propelled grenade crashed against his window. A fireball engulfed the room and the steel metal bars on the windows bent inwards.

It was the Sept. 4 double suicide attack.

He hit his head again and as he was being treated, someone dropped a bag next to him. It was filled with the body parts of the suicide bombers.

These days, he still has headaches and his memory isn't what it used to be. But, he says, "personally, I don't think I was wounded enough. There were other people who were hurt a lot more."

Also receiving Purple Hearts today:

Lance Cpl. Matthew Shaw; Lance Cpl. Jacob Monkelbann; Lance Cpl. Thomas McDonnell; Lance Cpl. Benjamin Jensen; Lance Cpl. Michael LePage; Lance Cpl. Michael Himes; Lance Cpl. Mark Kushner; Cpl. Brett Mullaney and Hospital Corpsman 2 George Cleveland.