Face of Defense: Battle-hardened Marine Teaches Others
By Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryan Nygaard
2nd Marine Expeditionary Force
MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., Jan. 21, 2011 Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. William Abernathy, the company first sergeant for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group’s Military Police Support Company, has no trouble getting the attention of his Marines.
Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. William Abernathy gives instruction on how to properly load an M1014 shotgun at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Aug. 28, 2010. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Daniel A. Wulz
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“When Gunny Abernathy talks, everybody shuts up and listens,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Maleah Slaughter, a military policeman in the company. “He’s definitely somebody to be heard.”
Abernathy was born and raised in the small town of Madison, Miss., and graduated from Madison Central High School. “I was 16 years old before we got our first stop light,” he said in a distinctive Southern drawl.
Once he completed high school in May 1996, Abernathy quickly started down the path he’s been on ever since.
“I walked across the stage, gave my diploma to my mom, gave her a hug, got in [the recruiter’s] car, went to [Military Entrance Processing Station] and went to boot camp,” he said.
Abernathy said he became a Marine because he wanted to serve his country, but not in the sense of ‘Corps, country and Momma’s apple pie.’ Rather, he said, joining the military was more of a requirement than a career choice, in line with his belief that every American citizen should serve at least two years in any branch of service.
For Abernathy’s first four years in the Marine Corps, he served as an infantry machine gunner before making a lateral move to military police. In addition to his time here, he has been stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and Kanoehe Bay, Hawaii, and he even did a tour of duty as a recruiter in LaGrange, Ga.
"It was absolutely the worst tour of duty I've ever had,” he said. “And I've got five combat tours."
One of those tours was in Fallujah, Iraq, where he met his wife, Rachel, in 2005.
“Our guys went through a lot of ammo, … and she was our battalion [ammunition technician] chief,” he said. “When we got back, we kept up conversations, started dating, and a year or so later we got married.”
Abernathy’s other deployments also have made lasting impressions on him. On his last deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, where he was told by Afghan villagers the Taliban had a $50,000 price on his head, Abernathy found himself in a vicious firefight.
While repelling an enemy assault, Abernathy quickly and calmly helped every wounded Marine and established a casualty collection point behind barriers that effectively shielded the wounded from indirect fire.
It was during this firefight that he employed a unique first aid tool he tells all of his Marines to have in their individual first aid kits.
"I always carry tampons with me,” he said. “They plug bullet holes pretty good."
After the fight was over, Abernathy’s uniform was covered with blood from many of the Marines he helped. He wore that blood-stained uniform for more than a month, he said.
“I didn't have any water to wash the blood off my clothes,” he explained. “I barely had enough water to drink. I wore those kids' blood on me for about a month and a half. My commanding officer made me burn my uniform. I still got the boots that have blood all over them. I keep them in my house. I can't bring myself to throw them away. I just can't.”
Abernathy has a simple explanation for how he stays calm in battle: “I made my peace with God a long time ago,” he said.
It’s essential that leaders stay calm when under pressure, he added, because loss of bearing and panic only multiply the chaos.
"If my guys don't have faith in who's leading them, then we're all screwed,” he said. “I'm depending on them to beat back the bad guy, and if I'm flipping out, then they can't do that effectively."
It was also on this deployment that he suffered a mild case of traumatic brain injury caused by a high-mobility artillery rocket that exploded near him while he was chasing a sniper. This injury is keeping him from deploying with his fellow Marines.
“It kills me to see guys I know go to very bad areas and know that I can't go with them,” he said. “I'm not a warmonger. I know what I'm capable of and I damn sure know how to fight the Taliban. There's just one way to deal with them that's effective and gets results: You gain ground, you push them off, and you own the real estate. It is what it is.”
Many of his Marines say that if there is one thing Abernathy teaches them, it is how to stay alive, and Abernathy said that’s important to him.
“I’ve seen how brutal [the Taliban] can be,” he said. “I’ve seen what they do when they get their hands on one of ours. I’ll be damned if I take a kid into harm’s way and I don’t give him every tool that I have to use.”
Even though he has been through the wringer on more than one occasion, Abernathy said, he doesn’t use his experiences to brag or boast, but rather to validate what he is teaching.
“I try not to be that guy that’s got a story for everything,” he said. “I’m not the only one who’s seen and done combat. There is nothing glorious in war. There is nothing glorious in taking another life. There’s no awesome feeling that you get filled with. Dead is dead. You just killed somebody’s son, husband or brother. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about that stuff. It’s a necessary evil.”
Abernathy’s Marines are more than willing to hear his advice.
“When he talks, he says everything in a way you understand, and you know he’s not lying,” said Sgt. Brad Bianchi, a military policeman in the company. “You always want to hear what he has to say.”
Abernathy said he has yet to decide what he wants to do when his Marine Corps days are over. Many of his peers have encouraged him to pursue a college degree in psychology, he noted, because of his ability to counsel Marines who may be suffering from the effects of a combat deployment.
“I can relate to them,” he said. “It’s kind of hard for a combat veteran who’s chewed dirt, spilled blood and had his blood spilled to relate what he’s gone through to some 25-year-old psychologist who’s never even left the country or gone into combat. I put a different spin on things. For some of them, it helps. For others, it’s still a work in progress.”
Simplicity is the key to success, Abernathy said.
“Focus on the basics -- high speed is not always better,” he said. “So many people get wrapped around the axle about their own personal success, they forget what the purpose of this gun club is, which is to fight wars and to take care of our own.”