SOUTHERN SHORSURAK, HELMAND PROVINCE, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
Cpl. Matt Garst should be dead.
Few people survive stepping on an improvised explosive device. Even fewer walk away the same day after directly absorbing the force of the blast, but Garst did just that.
A squad leader with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Garst was leading his squad on a patrol in Southern Shorsurak, Afghanistan, June 23 to establish a vehicle checkpoint in support of Operation New Dawn.
The men were four miles from Company L's newly established observation post when they approached an abandoned compound close to where they needed to set up their checkpoint. It would serve well as an operating base — a place for the squad to set up communications and rotate Marines in and out of. But first, it had to be secured.
As they swept the area with a metal detector, the IED registered no warning on the device. The bomb was buried too deep and its metallic signature too weak. Two men walked over it without it detonating.
At six feet, two inches tall and 260 pounds with all his gear on, Garst is easily the largest man in his squad by 30 or 40 pounds — just enough extra weight to trigger the IED buried deep in hard-packed soil.
Lance Cpl. Edgar Jones, a combat engineer with the squad, found a pressure plate inside the compound and hollered to Garst, asking what he should do with it. Garst turned around to answer the Marine and stepped on the bomb.
“I can just barely remember the boom,” Garst said. “I remember the start of a loud noise and then I blacked out.”
Since Garst's improbable run-in with the IED, his tale has spread through the rest of the battalion, and as often happens in combat units, the story mutates, the tale becoming more and more extraordinary about what happened next: He held onto his rifle the whole time … He actually landed on his feet … He remained unmoved, absorbing the impact like he was muffling a fart in a crowded elevator …
What really happened even eludes Garst. All went black after the earth uppercut him. When he came to, he was standing on his feet holding his weapon, turning to see the remnants of the blast and wondering why his squad had a look on their faces as if they’d seen a ghost.
Marines in Company L think Garst is the luckiest guy in the battalion, and while that may seem a fair assessment, it was the enemy’s shoddy work that left Garst standing. The three-liters of homemade explosive only partially detonated.
Marines who witnessed the event from inside the compound caught glimpses of Garst’s feet flailing through the air just above the other side of the building’s eight-foot walls. The explosion knocked him at least fifteen feet away where he landed on his limp head and shoulders before immediately standing back up.
Not quite sure of what had just happened, Garst turned back toward the blast, now nothing but a column of dirt and smoke rising toward the sun.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh s---, I just hit an IED,’” he said. “Then I thought, ‘Well I’m standing. That’s good.’”
Garst’s squad stared at him in disbelief. The square-jawed Marine has a tendency to be short-tempered, and the realization that the blast was meant to kill him spiked his adrenaline and anger.
“It pissed me off,” he said.
He directed his men to establish a security perimeter while letting them know in his own way that he was OK.
“What the f--- are you looking at?” he said. “Get on the cordon!”
Garst quickly radioed back to base, calling an explosive ordnance disposal team and quick reaction force.
“I called them and said, ‘hey, I just got blown up. Get ready,’” he said. “The guy thought I was joking at first. ‘You got blown up? You’re not calling me. Get out of here.’”
Once EOD cleared the area, Garst led his squad the four miles back to their observation post — just hours after being ragdolled by an IED blast.
“I wasn’t going to let anybody else take my squad back after they’d been there for me,” he said. “That’s my job.”
The next day Garst awoke with a pounding headache and was as sore as he’d ever been in his life.
“Just getting up from trying to sleep was painful,” he said.
But he saw no reason being sore should slow him down. He popped some ibuprofen and after a day of rest, Garst was back out on patrol, showing his Marines and the enemy that just like his resolve — Cpl Matt Garst is unbreakable.