I recently wrote an article for the local newspaper about a soldier who recently received the Bronze Star. I interviewed the 35 year old Marine Corps gunnery sergeant over the phone, followed up with a little background from the citation he’d been given by his superiors and some quotes I’d taken down during the course of our conversation. I wrote a simple, concise piece describing the battle he was in and ended with his request to acknowledge local people who’ve supported him throughout his career.
The story was published by the Naples Daily News / Collier Citizen, and with a little help from the editor, it came off as a pretty good story.
It was the first article I’ve had published.
His team of special operations Marines was outmanned and outgunned. Taliban insurgents were lobbing grenades at them, as bullets whizzed past them from what seemed to be every angle.
Despite insurmountable odds, Naples native Will Simpson and several other soldiers saved the lives of two wounded team members in a small village compound in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, putting their own safety aside to do so.
For his part in rescuing his injured comrades, the 35-year-old gunnery sergeant was awarded the Bronze Star, one of the nation’s highest honors for bravery and valor on the battlefield, during a ceremony on April 9 at Camp Pendleton, a U.S. Marine Corps base in southern California.
Like many heroes tend to do, Simpson requested that recognition be given to his team over himself.
“I was just doing my job,” said Simpson, who attended Barron Collier High School his freshman and sophomore years before transferring to the Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. After graduating from the academy in 1998, he joined the Marines and has been enlisted ever since. He has seen five wartime tours of duty — one in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. “That’s what we do. I was just one part of the team.”
Each member of his Marine special operations team was instrumental, Simpson said. They were recognized for individual actions which saved the lives of two critically injured team members and protected many local civilians during the relentless two-day firefight against a large number of Taliban fighters intent on overpowering them at the edges of the small farming community.
Simpson was awarded his medal for his selfless actions of bravery and outstanding leadership in battle, facing a determined enemy who outnumbered his team eight to one. His co-leader on the mission, Gunnery Sgt. Brian C. Jacklin, was presented the Navy Cross at the ceremony. Several other members of the team were also awarded the Bronze Star.
The battle began in the early morning hours on June 14, 2012. The special ops team was conducting stability operations around the small Afghan village. Local farmers had advised Afghan police and army units of a strong presence of Taliban forces in the area. The Marines worked closely with both groups of Afghan forces to create fighting positions around the compound.
Simpson, the leader of Bravo Element, split half his men from the main team to establish defensive positions in a tree line approximately 350 meters from the main compound, effectively cutting off the enemy corridor of advance.
Around 7 a.m., the Marine units were simultaneously engaged with small arms fire, medium machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and grenades shot from underslung grenade launchers from several surrounding locations. In the course of those first volleys, the team leader and another teammate were critically wounded while returning fire from positions on an exposed rooftop in the compound.
Upon learning of the wounded Marines, Simpson recognized the need for support at the compound and ordered the collapse of his element back to the compound position. He then courageously led his team across 350 meters of open terrain seeded with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and fully exposed to enemy fire. The enemy fighters had maneuvered to within 100 meters of his element and immediately engaged with heavy, accurate and continuous volumes of machine gun fire and grenades as Simpson directed his men to the wounded men on the rooftop.
With no regard for personal safety and completely exposed to enemy fire, Simpson scaled the ladder and single-handedly pulled one of the injured Marines off the roof, handing him down to the unit medic and another Marine waiting below.
Once both Marines were on the ground, Simpson and the medic began administering aid to the wounded soldiers. Simpson calmly directed the other Marines around him on security priorities while simultaneously directing the Afghan forces to assist the evacuation of those casualties and to create a pick up zone for incoming helicopters.
Realizing that none of the existing exits to the compound were usable, Simpson continued to direct his element while taking the initiative to blow a hole in the southern wall of the compound using high explosive charges.
Under heavy enemy small arms fire, machine gun fire and grenades, Simpson led the litter bearers out of the compound to the unprotected pick up zone and waiting helicopters, laying down return fire while placing himself as a human shield between the enemy fire and the wounded Marines being evacuated. Once the wounded were safely away, Simpson and his men returned to the compound and continued to return fire on the enemy forces.
Simpson and his team continued to fight and defend their positions until joined and relieved later the next day by a larger unit.
“We knew we were going to start and finish a fight that day,” Simpson said. “It’s hard to read the stories in the newspaper, but I think people need to know what’s going on over there. These are some very bad guys.”
The citation that came along with Simpson’s Bronze Star reads: “Heavy fighting continued throughout the day without reprieve. Close air support and indirect fire facilitated by the selfless actions of Simpson, under great risk to his personal safety played a crucial role in preventing the team from being overrun. Simpson’s exemplary courage, battlefield leadership and selfless actions as an element leader at great personal risk while decisively engaged by a numerically superior enemy force undoubtedly saved the lives of his team commander and another element member.”
Simpson is an advanced sniper instructor for the Marine Raiders. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was recently renamed and rebranded in honor of the elite World War II unit. Many veterans recognize the Raiders as the first elite Marine operators.
He maintains a deep gratitude for many people in Naples who have supported his military career and accomplishments, including the Marine Corps League of Naples; Jim Elson, president of the Collier County Veterans Council; and Naples developer Jack Antaramian, who recently died.
Simpson also expressed a long-held appreciation for his high school wrestling coach and mentor, Fred Cannan, a decorated Army captain who served in Iraq. Cannan died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2005 after returning home from active duty. Simpson said he was an inspiration to him from the beginning.
Despite serving in five tours of duty so far, Simpson doesn’t have any plans at retiring from the Corps soon.
“I’ve still got a couple tours to go,” he said. “These days, the enemy is everywhere.”