MARJAH, Afghanistan --
When the infantry Marines of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, were first told they were getting a combat camera Marine attached to their platoon for Operation Moshtarak’s push into Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan, they didn’t know what to expect.
“I thought, ‘he’s obviously not a grunt. He’s been to (Marine Combat Training). He’s got the basics down but maybe he has no idea what’s going on,” said Lance Cpl. Timothy J. Ryan, a fireteam leader with 2nd Platoon, Lima Co., 3/6.
That combat camera Marine, Lance Cpl. Justin D. Loya, attached to 3/6, showed that Marines truly are riflemen first. When one of Ryan’s Marines went down with a knee injury during the push, Loya essentially became the final piece of the team.
“He did what I would expect out of any of my Marines,” said Cpl. Benjamin Gurney, a squad leader with 2nd Platoon. “He was doing what any (rifleman) is supposed to do. During firefights, he’d hold his sectors. He would provide security when it had to be done and call out things he saw, stuff like that.”
Loya’s ability to perform the duties of a rifleman, or 0311, helped him win over the Marines of 2nd Platoon. He also bonded with them in other ways by providing humor and getting through the same hardships as everybody else with a positive attitude.
“He’s a funny guy, always cracking jokes,” said Cpl. Robert K. Bodach, the machine guns squad leader in 2nd platoon. “He’s a hard-worker. He’d go on every patrol if you’d let him.”
“When things were going badly, he was in there with us,” said the 26-year-old Ryan. “He could have been complaining but he didn’t. He kept a lot of people’s morale high.”
Even with Loya’s rifleman-first approach to combat, he still had to document the push of Marjah through photography. Taking photos is a skill that Loya, a reproduction specialist by trade, began learning almost immediately before deploying to Afghanistan in early January.
“It was a challenge for me just because everyone was expecting me to already know how to use a camera,” said Loya, from El Paso, Texas. “They didn’t know that I was actually a reproduction specialist. (Taking photos) was a lot of trial and error in the beginning, but practicing every day out here helped a lot. It was exciting and very gratifying to know that I got my training in theater.”
During his ‘training,’ Loya has seen plenty of contact. While with 2nd Platoon, the 20-year-old was involved in several firefights, some of which proved to be quite menacing.
“The most intense it got was our first firefight in (Kariz-E Seyyidi) when we first started to clear the area,” said Loya. “Two squads were receiving contact at one time from two different enemy positions. It was pretty intimidating but you just have to man up and remember that it’s a part of the job.”
Loya, now at Forward Operating Base Sher Wali, feels privileged to have taken part in the historic Operation Moshtarak with the Marines of Lima Co.
“Growing out here as a man comes with being deployed,” said Loya. “I’ve been able to see a different side of the Marine Corps (in Afghanistan) that I hadn’t before. I’m grateful that I was with Lima Company in particular because I made friends with a lot of the Marines there.”
Lima’s Marines feel the same way. Second Platoon looked at Loya so much as one of their own that they even made him an ‘honorary grunt.’
“We dubbed him as a grunt. It didn’t matter what his (military occupational specialty) was,” said Bodach, from Fort Myers, Fla.
“Loya didn’t stick out as a combat camera Marine except for the camera on his hip,” said Ryan, from Lucas, Ohio. “If he wanted to be a grunt, I’d say that he wouldn’t have to go to (the School of infantry.)”
Loya’s combat skills and awareness were met with skepticism when he first arrived to Lima Co. His departure had him leaving with the title of ‘honorary grunt’; not bad for somebody who had to learn a new MOS on short notice while adapting to his first combat deployment.
“What I expected out of getting a combat camera Marine was that I was going to have a guy attached that was going to take some pictures,” said Gurney. “What I got was a 0311, a rifleman who stood his place in patrol, held his sectors and did what he was supposed to be doing.”