Marine who grew up here honored for taking charge|[01/27/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 27, 2008

Vicksburg native Joseph “Joey” Gillis is a hero — a Marine sergeant who has been in the war zone four times. He’s a man who is proud of his Southern upbringing. And, he steps up when his fellow Marines — and his country — need him.

At 24, Gillis has learned the value of life and the price of freedom. He has seen the enemy kill two comrades and injure several more in his platoon. And, instead of standing by afraid, the young sergeant took command.

Those efforts were honored in December when he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device, one of the highest Marine honors awarded to those who distinguish themselves by heroic action, outstanding achievement or meritorious service.

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It was nearly a year ago, on Feb. 5, 2007, on his second of three tours in Iraq, that Gillis and his platoon, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 6, II Marine Expeditionary Force, were fired on by machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, one of which killed a Marine. It was the first combat most of the men had seen and the first casualty for their battalion. Eleven days later, Gillis and his battalion were walking near the Euphrates River in downtown Ramadi when a rocket struck their vehicle, killing another Marine and injuring at least one other.

“If people have nothing to do with it, they get out of the way. I knew something was about to happen,” Gillis said of the moments leading up to the attack.

Months after the attacks and months before Gillis received the award, Lance Cpl. Jeremy M. Nelson wrote a summary of the events, reporting the sergeant’s actions and heroism and recommending that Gillis receive the medal.

He wrote that “Sgt. Gillis ensured the platoon remained combat-effective by training and providing steady guidance and counsel to his Marines during continuous combat operations, His consistent leadership and invaluable experience also allowed him to perform the billet of a staff noncommissioned officer with the utmost professionalism and proficiency.”

Further, he wrote that Gillis “led the convoy out of the kill zone to the nearest military post, Camp Corregidor.” The platoon commander was injured in the attack, which called for Gillis to step up and take over the command, which he did for nearly a month.”

Nelson’s account and words of tribute were seconded in writing by Lt. Col. James F. McGrath and Sgt. Maj. Andres M. Moratalla.

McGrath told how Gillis, “while still under substantial fire, … shifted his attention to taking charge of the evacuation of a wounded Marine, evacuating him … Sgt. Gillis returned to engagement and continued to direct enemy fire onto the enemy location until close air support was able to eliminate the enemy threat.”

Today, Gillis has trouble retelling the events of those days, which he compared to fighting in World War II — with both sides firing at the same time.

“There are a lot more details, but I don’t like to talk about it,” he said.

Though honored by the medal, Gillis said it was honor enough to be allowed to step up as platoon commander.

“Even if I didn’t get the award — I’m just a sergeant. That was a big thing,” he said. “I brought all my Marines home except for a few.

Gillis said his platoon did more than just fight while they were overseas. They were there to see a more unified Iraq, an event that was a direct result of their efforts.

“It’s not kill, kill, kill — not what you see on TV,” he said. “If you go to be a rifleman — that’s what you’re going to do. But, you do a lot more than just fight.”

On his first Iraqi tour, in 2004, his battalion was responsible for the second “biggest” take down of enemy troops, which led to a resurgence in the Iraqi economy. On his second tour, Gillis was asked to assume duties in charge of a newly created Iraqi Counterinsurgency Force training team. He was responsible for administrative functions of the program, teaching classes and maintaining all of the gear. He and other Marines prepared local neighborhood watch members for the Iraqi Police Academy.

“We trained Iraqis to start taking over their country,” he said.

Being a Marine is something Gillis has always wanted to do.

“I always played war when I was a kid,” he said.

His father, Mike Gillis, of Vicksburg, remembers his son loving the military.

“Even when he was a little boy — he always liked the military,” he said. “He would always build Army forts. And, he’s always had a fiery side to him. I always said, ‘I’d hate to be on the other end of that fiery side as an enemy.”

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Joey Gillis stopped thinking about stepping up and did it.

“It was pretty much set in stone,” he said. “I was all about it.”

He enlisted on Oct. 29, 2001, in the Marine Corps’ late-entry program and, once he finished high school in southeast Indiana, where he moved in 1996 to live with his mother, Susan Mahan, he was “ready to go.” He headed to Parris Island, S.C., on Aug. 4, 2002, and began his 13-week basic training. On Nov. 12, he started his basic infantry training in North Carolina and, in February 2003, became part of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. As part of an anti-terrorism force, his first deployment was to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he and his platoon guarded the base where prisoners were kept.

It wasn’t until May 2004 that Gillis was sent to the Middle East. He served until December 2004 in an infantry battalion in eastern Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In August 2005, Gillis made his first trip to Iraq.

Now he’s home in Hubert, N.C., where he’s been since August, and he’s teaching corporals at Camp Lejeune how to rise through the ranks.

Though he, too, underwent intense training before heading overseas, Gillis said there was no way to fully prepare for combat.

“It’s kind of like a car wreck — you don’t know when it’s going to come,” he said.

While there, he often saw bombs overhead and was impressed by the “awesome fire power” of the United States.

“Your adrenaline is pumping a million miles a minute. You just stop to watch the bombs blow up,” he said. “It’s remarkable the things they can do. It will rock your world.”

After Gillis’ first deployment to Iraq, he married a woman with a child, and that, too, rocked his world.

“It’s totally different. I still had to do what I had to do, but I couldn’t do all those crazy things I used to do, because now I have a wife and a child,” he said. “It made me fight and survive even harder. It was tough, but I still had to do what I had to do.”

Gillis plans to make the Marines his career and will stay in the infantry as long as he can.

“You want to do your best, so you do what you’re told and you take the initiative,” he said. “It’s not really the awards. You put those on your chest, and it takes a while to explain what they are. If you can take someone who is a subordinate and push them so they’re better than you, then you’ve done your job.”

Mike Gillis said he is proud of his son, and has relied on faith to get him through each of the deployments.

“No man wants his son going to war,” he said. “But, you also never expect your son to do what he did. He turned out to be an excellent Marine — the role-model type. I knew my son was over there giving his all to keep the fanatics from coming back over here.”

Joey Gillis said that’s all part of it.

“It’s something I wanted to do. It’s something I’m proud to do,” he said. “I love being an American. I was born in the South, and that taught me to give people respect.”

He is grateful, he said, for the respect he gets for serving and he fully supports the nation’s role in the Middle East.

“A lot of what you hear on the news — you hear all bad things. But there are a lot of good things going on over there,” he said.

“Iraq is getting better. It’s getting a lot better.”