Donna Ouellette said she lived the most bittersweet moment of her life when she accepted her son’s Navy Cross on his behalf.
Donna is the mother of Cpl. Michael W. Ouellette, a Marine who was killed in action during combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 22, 2009. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus presented Donna the medal during a ceremony Nov. 10, conducted by Marines with 2nd Marine Division at the Marine Reserve Support Center in Manchester, N.H., Ouellette’s hometown.
“I’m awe-struck, proud, amazed, grateful, and truly honored,” said Donna. “It’s bittersweet, but I’m an incredibly proud mother.”
Cpl. Ouellette, a Marine of four years, was remembered as living an eventful life by his family and as leaving a lasting impression with every Marine with whom he interacted.
“He is our legend at Lima Company,” said his fellow company member, Sgt. Stephen Porter. “He left us with a legacy to tell and follow.”
Cpl. Ouellette was serving as a squad leader with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, in the Now Zad district of Helmand province. While on a foot patrol with his squad, an improvised explosive device detonated directly underneath him. The explosion severed his left leg and peppered him with shrapnel. Most of the Marines in the patrol were knocked over and stunned, but Cpl. Jesse Raper, who during the time was a lance corporal and a junior Marine in the squad, quickly came to Cpl. Ouellette’s aid.
After Raper placed a tourniquet on Cpl. Ouellette and dragged him out of the explosion crater, Cpl. Ouellette immediately assessed the situation and began to direct his Marines to provide security for their position. The IED explosion stemmed into an ambush, and Taliban forces began moving in and firing upon the squad’s position.
As leader of the squad and senior Marine in the patrol, Cpl. Ouellette directed fire from his riflemen to thwart the Taliban’s attack. Though he was bleeding severely and being treated by corpsman Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Nolen, Cpl. Ouellette continued to motivate his Marines to keep bringing their fight to the enemy combatants, who were just meters away attempting to envelope upon the Marines’ position.
Cpl. Ouellette then reported the attack and requested reinforcements over a radio transmission to the company’s headquarters. A friend of Cpl. Ouellette, Sgt. Randy Moffett, described Cpl. Ouellette’s tone as calm and direct.
Vengeance-piloted Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra helicopters arrived to the scene in moments after Cpl. Ouellette’s request for them and delivered a precise and accurate attack of firepower to the Taliban fighters who were danger-close to the Marines. Cpl. Ouellette continued to direct the attack from the sky over the radio.
When describing the close air support from the Cobra’s, Raper said the Taliban were met with their fate, “and it wasn’t a good day for them after that.”
The expertly-applied fire from the Marines on the ground and in the air soon became the demise of the Taliban’s attack.
Cpl. Ouellette never submitted his charge of the squad during the firefight and only relinquished when his Marines were met with reinforcements and began to return to their base – an act deemed courageous and badass in the Marine Corps, according to Marines on that patrol. He was evacuated by ambulance where he lost consciousness and succumbed to his wounds while en route to the base. He was 28 years old.
“The part he played for this ambush was phenomenal and incredible … and seriously heroic,” said Moffett.
For his conspicuous gallantry, bold leadership, wise judgment, and complete dedication to duty, Cpl. Ouellette was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the highest award presented by the Department of the Navy and the military’s second highest award for valor next to the Medal of Honor.
“[Cpl. Ouellette] is a Marine who in the true spirit of the Corps, gave his life to make sure his Marines lived,” said Mabus, just moments before he handed the Navy Cross medal to Donna.
Cpl. Ouellette’s good friends and fellow Marines agreed; Cpl. Ouellette’s priorities as a leader were the welfare of his Marines and their proficiency at their job.
“I’ll be damned if his sacrifices ever die,” said Porter, who provided mortar fire to the enemy’s position during the firefight. “I will always speak highly of that man because of the way he went down.”
Cpl. Ouellette was well-known for his stoic facades, yet raw sense of humor and philosophical discussions amongst his Marines when serving with the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., based unit. Towering at 6-foot 1-inch tall, weighing roughly 190 pounds and “solid,” his presence was felt through intimidation at times, which his junior Marines, peers and seniors altogether describe very respectful.
“Every little thing we did, we had to have a combat mindset,” said Raper. “Cpl. Ouellette made sure we were tough and never weak. He was hard, and we’re lucky for that. He was preparing us.”
Select Marines from his company, most of them in Cpl. Ouellette’s squad, continue to pay visits and keep in contact with Donna and the Ouellette family.
“From the moment the Marines knocked on my door to inform me of Michael’s death, it’s like the Marine Corps wrapped a warm blanket around me and never took it back,” said Donna. “It gives me comfort knowing that these were the men he served with. It’s like they’re my new adopted sons now.”
Tales of Cpl. Ouellette still ring amongst the Marines with 3rd Bn., 8th Marines. Very few know about the good times he had while on liberty. But all remember what he represented.
“He’s not a distant memory to me,” said Raper. “He’s a very important part of my life. His story is very precious to me and should continue to live on. It reminds us (Marines) who we are.”
Cpl. Ouellette’s official Marine Corps photo is mounted on a plaque and hanging on a hallway wall at Manchester Memorial High School, Cpl. Ouellette’s alma mater. The principal of the school, Arthur Adamakos, remembered Cpl. Ouellette as “a young man” during his high school days.
“It does not surprise me that he earned such an award given the caliber of person that he was,” said Adamakos.
The high school honors the memory of those who fought and died in wars after World War II, and now honors Cpl. Ouellette’s memory and story every year.
The Navy Cross ceremony shared the day with the Marine Corps’ 235th birthday, an appropriate date to honor Cpl. Ouellette, said Mabus.
“The Corps has been defined by and always will be defined by its people; its Marines,” added Mabus. “It is for people like Cpl. Ouellette who make the Marine Corps the most professional fighting force the world has seen today.”