HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
He may not be the Michael Phelps of Marine Corps Combat Water Survival, but his courage and quick thinking were good enough to save a local boy who fell into a canal near a small village in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Cpl. Richard J. Zondor, a rifleman with Combined Anti-armor Team 2, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, was holding security on a road near Laki, Oct. 14. Close to the post, a narrow bridge crossed a swift-running canal. Zondor and Lance Cpl. Michael A. Falkenstein, a fellow rifleman with 3/1, watched an old man, Haji Mirbash, and his six-year-old son, Fada Mohamad, herd sheep over the bridge.
Zondor watched for a moment, then turned away. As he turned, he heard a splash and instinctively started laughing, thinking a sheep had fallen. Then, he saw the boy struggling in the canal.
At first, Falkenstein thought the boy was swimming, but Zondor, having seen the incident a flash before, was already beginning to interpret the true nature of the situation -- the boy’s snug, white hat bobbing up and down, momentarily disappearing under the canal’s coursing current.
“In that instant, it clicked that he was drowning,” said Zondor.
Zondor flung off his kevlar and flak jacket. A few locals from the marketplace were screaming. Reality began to set in for Falkenstein as Zondor ran about ten meters and dove into the canal.
Falkenstein said he was bewildered at first. For a few seconds, he was simply a spectator.
“The canal itself was moving very quickly, and you could tell that [neither] of them were touching the bottom,” said Falkenstein. “They were struggling.”
As it turns out, Zondor is among the least buoyant in a brotherhood of amphibious warriors. His swim qualification is level 4, the Marine Corps’ minimum standard.
“In boot camp, I did it, but I was like, ‘Whoa, I hate this,’” admitted Zondor.
But in that moment in Laki, Zondor was reacting on instinct, without thought of past performances in the highly-regulated training environment of a Marine Corps combat pool. Zondor described the feeling as a visceral fear for the small, six-year-old child.
“In that moment, I knew the kid was splashing above water, drowning,” said Zondor. “The river was at its highest point.”
Zondor sidestroked to the boy, grasped him with his free hand, and swam to the edge of the canal. Falkenstein, now fully registering the situation, ran to help pull the two out of the water with the help of Afghan National Army soldier Narhaden.
As soon as they emerged from the canal, the boy ran smiling to his brother.
Zondor said his adrenaline kept pumping for 15 minutes after the incident.
According to Zondor, the citizens of Laki are becoming increasingly familiar with acts of benevolence on the part of Marines and Afghan National Security forces. The coalition continually maintains roads and bridges in the area, distributes seeds for the Food Zone Program and passes out hygiene products to the local populace. They’re also building a local school.
As for the boy, Zondor said he sees him just about every day, and asks, “Hey, are you staying out of the water?”
For Zondor, the question bears some irony.
“Being from Texas, he didn’t go swimming a lot, obviously not being a strong swimmer,” said Gunnery Sgt. Matthew A. Sanders, Zondor’s platoon commander. “But, he did what he had to do.”