EXCLUSIVE: The story behind an iconic image from the War on Terror

An interview with Staff Sergeant William Bee, the first since he was captured in a brush with death in Helmand Province in 2008.

His GoFundMe page, which was set up in conjunction with the article, is here

Read the full story at DailyMail.com here

When Staff Sergeant William ‘Bill’ Bee heard a single shot from what he feared was a Taliban sniper, he quickly grabbed his rifle and prepared to fire back.

The Marine – whose wife Bobbie was seven months pregnant with their son Ethan – risked his life by running to a nearby wall without wearing his helmet or Kevlar vest and aimed at a window 150 meters away. Seconds later his world was plunged into darkness.

The bullet missed his head by inches and caused the sandbank in front of him to explode, but his friends fighting alongside him in the 24th Expeditionary Unit thought he had been hit.

While the father-to-be was frantically carried away on a stretcher through the streets of Garmsir, a photographer embedded with their unit told him he had accidentally captured the horrifying close call – and it became one of the most iconic images of the War on Terror.

Seven years on, in his first interview since the picture was taken, the heroic Sergeant Bee – whose brush with death was seen on TVs and in newspapers around the world – has told Daily Mail Online in an emotional account how he now has constant flashbacks, violent outbursts and has tried to kill himself since leaving Marines.

The 33-year-old veteran, who has served his country five times overseas, has bursts of anger so severe that he has punched holes in the wall of his home, and has suffered moments of lost time – he would find a pack’s worth of cigarettes in a milk jug and sweaters stacked neatly in the fridge – but says couldn’t remember doing any of it.

He’s struggled to get the psychiatric help he truly needs from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) – the government agency he accuses of having too many bureaucrats making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year of taxpayer money.

In his harrowing account, he has also revealed for the first time how two of his friends were killed when an IED exploded on his final deployment in Afghanistan – and he has blamed himself for their deaths ever since.

Seconds later his world was plunged into darkness. The sequence of images taken in Garmsir, Afghanistan, on May 18, 2008, would become one of the most iconic from the War on Terror

The bullet missed his head by inches and caused the sandbank in front of him to explode, but his comrades of the 24th Expeditionary Unit thought he had been hit

His fellow Marines soon realized he was fine allowing embedded photographer Goran Tomasevic to show him the pictures he had captured by accident. The next day they featured on TVs and in newspapers around the world

The bullet missed his head by inches and caused the sandbank in front of him to explode, but his comrades of the 24th Expeditionary Unit thought he had been hit. His fellow Marines soon realized he was fine allowing embedded photographer Goran Tomasevic to show him the pictures he had captured by accident. The next day they featured on TVs and in newspapers around the world

In the blast that left his pals dead, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that would shape the rest of his life. His wife said the person she said goodbye to before he boarded the bus on his final tour was not the same man who returned home.

Despite his long-term, recurring health problems, he manages to teach classes to ex-soldiers at the VA, helping ex-servicemen and women transition back to their normal lives and use their skills to find new careers.

He lives with Bobbie, in a small house in Jacksonville North Carolina, with their seven-year-old son Ethan – who he first met after the picture was taken – but they struggle to make ends meet. It means they can’t afford to get the essential medical treatment elsewhere.

Sergeant Bee requires regular treatment and medication, but only gets an appointment every nine months.

In between those sessions, the only person he can talk to is his wife – and she is left to try and look after him.

‘She puts up with all of it. When I can’t take it anymore and need someone to talk to, she’s always there, she realizes that she can’t understand what I’ve done and what I’ve been through, but she also realizes she can help.’

His flashbacks require anti-psychosis medication and regular appointments with a psychiatrist. But when he tries to arrange an appointment, he is met with administrative obstacles and is told to wait.

He praises the doctors and nurses at the VA, but condemns the lack of resources they have, while bureaucrats work on lucrative, tax-payer funded contracts.

Since his regular psychiatrist moved to private practice, VA officials have said they are still trying to re-assign her patients, meaning a further delay in his sessions.

‘I need someone to talk to outside of my wife, because I cannot expect her to take anything more upon herself that she already has,’ he said.

‘The VA has taken huge leaps in improving their care, they just need more doctors and nurses out on the street helping Veterans, and less executives making hundreds of thousands of dollars doing bureaucratic jobs.’

Sergeant Bee’s struggle is much to familiar with many ex-servicemen who aren’t given the support and treatment they need to survive.

The VA has also been under fire recently for their shortfalls in providing care for troops and not holding staff accused of misconduct accountable. Many of their problems start because they don’t have enough nurses or doctors, but they are struggling to get the government funding needed to increase the number of medical staff.

Dan Caldwell, CVA’s Legislative and Political Director, told Daily Mail Online: ‘The bureaucracy (at the VA) is out of control, and it is starting to resemble a quasi-criminal organisation like the Mafia.

Seven years, on in his first interview since the picture was taken Sergeant Bee has told Daily Mail Online how he now has constant flashbacks and has tried to kill himself

Bee also says he’s struggled to get the psychiatric help he truly needs from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA)

‘That might sound like very strong rhetoric, but if you look at how they’re behaving in terms of not holding people accountable. Allowing people that have committed serious crimes to remain on the payroll and oftentimes longer before they can actually go and fire them, it’s completely unacceptable. It’s one of the many problems with the VA but it’s the biggest.

‘It is inhibiting their ability to actually reform and fix itself so they can provide care in a more timely manner.’

Carlos Fuentes, Senior Legislative Associate, Veterans of Foreign Wars – who helps veterans get further access to healthcare – added: ‘There’s a need for managers and folks who aren’t delivering direct care, VA needs to take a look at those folks and determine if their jobs are necessary.

‘VA has received funds to increase capacity, however there has been a misalignment between resources that the VA are given and its mission.

‘By and large veterans are happy with the care that they receive, but access is an issue. ‘Our hope is to redesign the way VA delivers care. That includes an increase in usage of private sector doctors instead of simply giving a veteran a card and leaving them on their own, VA really needs to take a local approach.’

Sergeant Bee was deployed to Afghanistan four times. His first tour was one week after 9/11. He transferred and started his first offensive on Christmas Day.

It was during his first tour that he earned his combat ribbon and experienced his first of many firefights.

After another stint in Helmand, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay on his 21st birthday to provide fence line security at the controversial detention center.

His fourth tour – his third in Afghanistan – was the Battle for Garmsir.

‘During 2008, Garmsir was a hotbed of Taliban activity. So our MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) dropped us off right square in the middle of the area of heavy Taliban influence by helicopter in one of, if not the, largest heliborne insertions in the war at that time. It was called Operation Azada Wosa (or Be Free).’

Thinking back to that day, May 18, 2008, he remembers why he wasn’t wearing his full protective kit at the time, and has tried to explain why it happened in the years since.

‘When we inserted, all we had on us was what we could carry on us and in our “Day-Pack” which was essentially a backpack that someone back home would be using to go school with.

‘We were expected to last seven days with what was inside We ended up living out of it for about 30 days. It’s contents were usually one change of cammies, one pair of socks, and as much ammo and water as a Marine could fit. I normally weigh 170lbs. When weighed pre-flight, I was 250.’

When Sergeant Bee talked with friends and family back home, he got the impression they thought the American forces fought from huge fortified bases, or moved between battle sites in large convoys.

‘That’s not how the Marine Infantry works,’ he said. ‘The “grunts” get dropped off via helo, and we fight from house to house, securing specific properties or objectives along the way.

‘Entire squads of 12 Marines would sleep, eat, and live in rooms the size of a guest room in your average American home. We would dig out a “mouse hole” to fight from.

‘People seem to think that when we get deployed, we are fighting every day, almost like it’s a game of Call of Duty.

‘It’s definitely not. As an Infantryman, I could count on one hand the number of firefights I had been in. But Garmsir changed that.

‘From the day we stepped foot in the district, we were receiving fire daily. Not just a platoon in the company, but every compound from 4th platoon were in firefights three times a day.

‘The engagements were rarely close, typically at a range of 200 to 300 meters, but were so regular you could set your watch by them. It literally got to the point that Marines that were not on post would sleep through them, because nothing the Taliban had could penetrate the walls.’

Sergeant Bee's wife Bobbie (right) was seven months pregnant with their son Ethan (center) when he had the horrifying near miss in Helmand Province. Ethan is now seven, but has only seen the pictures once. When classmates ask him what his father does, he tells them: 'He used to go shoot bad guys'

The second anyone would step outside they would immediately come under fire from AK47’s and RPG’s (Rocket-Propelled Grenades). So they fought from the buildings.

On May 18 and the temperature was hovering around the 115 degree mark, as it did most days in the hostile region.

‘The position we were in had a large poppy field to the west, with a house roughly 150 meters away,’ he said.

‘To the north was a building we had to keep an eye on, we didn’t have any friendlies in that direction and it was about 50m.

‘The east was considered inside our area of influence, and directly next door to the south was the third platoon.’

Sergeant Bee had just finished a four-hour rotation as Sergeant of the Guard (SOG).

‘I had been relieved, and was doing my laundry – which consisted of a hand operated water-pump, a bar of soap, and an old metal bucket to wash and rinse with.

‘Then I heard a single shot, which drew my attention. It was a common occurrence to hear a burst of gunfire, but a single shot was a cause for concern. It meant someone was attempting to use accurate fire,’ Sergeant Bee said.

‘Not thinking about my gear, I immediately grabbed my rifle, which is never farther than one-arms distance from a grunt when in-zone.

‘I went to check on the Marine on post, an attachment to one of our squads from the Engineer Unit in our MEU.

‘An ember (embedded photographer) from Reuters, Goran Tomasevic, accompanied me. He attached himself to our platoon a few days prior.

‘He was a great guy to talk to. He had seen more combat than most grunts I know.

‘When I checked on the Marine, I noticed movement in the building to our north, and immediately drew down on it, leaning against the wall to stabilize myself prior to taking the shot.

‘I noticed Goran getting ready to take a picture, but paid him no mind, I was more focused on dropping the guy I believed had maneuvered on our position and shot at one of our posts.

‘The second I had my sights on the window, the world went dark.’

Sergeant Bee woke up on a stretcher, surrounded by green smoke. He believes the Marine on post thought he was hit, so immediately called for our platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Orjuela (Gunny O.J., now Sergeant Major O.J.) to get him out of there.

They threw smoke grenades to obscure the team’s positions, as they evacuated him, thinking he was unconscious. But soon he assured them he was fine.

‘Goran then came over with a huge grin on his face,’ Sergeant Bee said.

‘He told me he had been testing a new lens on his camera, and had accidentally set the camera to sequence shot, and showed me the pictures.

‘I told them how cool they were, and he’d be looking at a Pulitzer for such an awesome photo. His reply, and I quote: “I am f****** Serbian, I would never get that”.’

The family lives in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and they struggle to make ends meet. Sergeant Bee works for the VA - helping soldiers transition back to their everyday lives - but says he needs the embattled government agency to get him more frequent appointments with a psychiatrist

After the close call he stayed embedded with the platoon for another five days. They met again briefly in Marjah in 2010, but both of them were left angry when they learned they weren’t being deployed together for the second time.

The next day, Sergeant Bee received a call over the radio, saying the pictures of had created a big stir.

The Marine Corps needed authorization to release his name to the media.

But first he needed to tell his wife what happened. However she had already seen the picture.

‘I immediately knew it was him,’ Bobbie told Daily Mail Online. ‘Because I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant I thought I was going to go into labour. I was pretty stressed out and so when I first saw it I immediately called for my mom to come upstairs to look at my computer. And then I called Key Wives (a group of volunteers who kept loved ones up to date with operations Marines were involved in).

‘My reaction was that he wasn’t okay unless I talk to him. First I asked him if he was truly okay. And then I said: “Where the hell is your Kevlar?”

‘There was a lot of mixed emotions. It was the first time he had been deployed with me and I happened to be pregnant. It was 20 weeks exactly and we had just learned we were having a boy three hours before he boarded the bus for the tour.

‘What kept me going was thinking to myself that he was in training and not actually in harm’s way. I was trying to push all that aside but then it all came crashing down. It all became real and I realized he was in combat and he was actually fighting. He could be killed.

Sergeant Bee remembers the first time he spoke to Bobbie – and she made her feelings about what happened very clear.

‘She (Bobbie) took it about as well as could be expected, alternating between telling me I’m a dumbass for not having my gear on, and switching to how much she loved me, over and over.

‘The biggest thing I can remember from that conversation was her telling me: “From now on, you wear your gear. I don’t care if you are doing your laundry, or eating, or going to the bathroom, you will always wear your gear. Do you understand me?” ’

‘Like I said, if it wasn’t for her I’d have been dead long ago, and that’s not an exaggeration. I’ve put her through so much, and I owe my very life to that woman.’

Sergeant Bee now has a family life, but he took on a career which brought him the closest to losing it – and he would question anyone choosing to go down that path.

‘If someone came to me, telling me they were thinking of joining the Marines, the only question I would have for them is: Why?

‘Yes, you can get a job skill, you can get free college benefits and free healthcare. But if that is why a person wants to join, by all means go for it. But do it someplace else. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all offer the same benefits.

‘People who join the Marines typically do it because of the challenge it offers.

‘But if an individual is looking to become Marine infantry, they need to take some serious time to think about it. Men don’t join the Grunts to learn a skill, or for the college. It is out of pure patriotism.

‘A man who wants to be a grunt needs to realize, you will suffer: You’ll go to places that are so cold you have to keep your water close to your skin to keep it from freezing, and places so hot a plastic bottle will warp because the water inside is near boiling.

‘You will go months without a shower, with your underwear rotting away from you, all while holding a position in a town you’ve never heard of all because some General decides they want to take over that town.

‘But you’ll actually get the chance to kill the enemies of our country. Whether people are willing to admit it or not, there are people in the world who not only deserve death, but require it.

‘These are the ones that will decapitate a little girl and sew a dog’s head onto her body because of the girl giving information, the same people who will decapitate a mentally handicapped man for the same reason, or execute a child and put it in a bombed out building to make it appear to the media that Marines kill innocents.’

Sergeant Bee holds up a copy of The Daily Record, a newspaper covering Wooster, Ohio. It was one of the many news outlets that ran the stunning collection of images in the aftermath. Bee tried to call his wife before the photo was released, but Bobbie had already seen it

Two years later, Sergeant Bee was deployed again, during Operation Moshtarak (Translated from Dari, a language spoken in Afghanistan, into Together), in the Battle for the town of Marjah, Helmend Province.

More than 15,000 troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were involved, making it the largest joint operation during the War on Terror.

Ethan was only 15 months old when his father left him for war again.

‘I kept my mind away from it and didn’t want to think about where he was’ Bobbie said. ‘I had to go on with my daily life.’

Sergeant Bee was leading his squad once again, this time it was the 3rd platoon 1st squad Alpha Company 1/6.

‘That deployment was one of the most intense times of my life. It was my fourth deployment to Afghanistan, and I had never seen anything like it in my life,’ he said.

During the previous tour Garmsir, they would be engaged in gun battles three times a day, at ranges from 200m to 300m, almost like clockwork.

But in Marjah, the firefights would come at completely unexpected times.

Sergeant Bee said it would get to the point ‘where we would actually use grenades to clear rooms and buildings’.

‘At the very beginning of the deployment, Alpha company was tasked with providing a “feint” on the south side of Marjah, so the Taliban would believe we were going to come from that direction.

‘It was intended as a warm-up, so the boots (new Marines who hadn’t deployed before) would get their first taste as to what life outside the wire was like, in an environment that wasn’t supposed to be near as kinetic as the Battle for Marjah was intended to be.

‘We couldn’t have been more wrong.

‘On our very first patrol, we were tasked with providing overwatch for the 1st platoon that was clearing a series of buildings.’

They had barely moved 200 yards when they started receiving heavy enemy fire.

‘We quickly began maneuvering on the enemy fighters, bounding from building to building for cover as we moved to a better position to see where the gunfire was coming from.

‘I poked my head out the back door of one of the buildings, and saw three enemy fighters 200 meters away, an RPG team, getting ready to fire on 1st platoon.

‘The second I saw them, I grabbed an AT-4 ( 84mm Anti-tank rocket) one of my Marines was carrying, and took a shot at them.

‘Two-hundred meters is an extremely long shot for that weapon, especially considering I was using it on people rather than a tank.

‘The shot was one in a million. The only thing I can compare it to would be a Hail-Mary pass in the fourth quarter of a game. It only happens once in a lifetime.

‘One of our Officers was watching through our GBOSS (a powerful observation camera), and said it hit dead center between all of the militants.

‘I got so excited I literally spiked the expended AT-4 like a football, gave them the finger, and was laughing so hard tears were running down my face.’

Sergeant Bee found out later one of the men killed was a low-level Taliban commander for the area.

But first he had his squad to worry about.

A short time later they got pinned down in a courtyard, behind a knee-high, taking heavy fire from three directions.

All but two of the Marines were new, and it was the first gun battler they had ever experienced.

‘This was the worst firefight of my life up to this point,’ Sergeant Bee said.

‘We were pinned down, hundreds of meters from any support, at one point they even had an anti-aircraft gun set horizontal, which was verified by one of our officers.

‘My Marines were incredible, considering they had never fired shot a round in anger. They were pinned down, cut off, and taking more fire than I’ve ever seen, and they performed flawlessly.

‘Eighteen-year-old men, who wouldn’t be trusted to run a copying machine in an office back home, were absolutely destroying the Taliban.’

When night fell the Taliban fighters withdrew, enabling Sergeant Bee and his squad to egress back to their base.

As they returned, he debriefed his Marines, telling them how proud he was. He warned them to expect more confrontations like that in the future, but he hid his true feelings from them.

‘I was putting on a front, to make them think it was the norm, and that was business as usual.

‘But had the shakes so bad from coming down off the adrenaline, I couldn’t unscrew the lid of my water bottle.

‘I looked my friends in the eyes, and told them “This s*** is insane. I’ve never been in a fight like this, we’re all gonna be lucky to make it out alive.”

During the same deployment, Sergeant Bee would endure another brush with death that would end his military career and leave him facing one of the toughest, personal confrontations of his life.

Sergeant Bee is CASEVAC'd out of the area after he was caught up in an IED explosion that killed two of his friends. He told Daily Mail Online: 'My decision to place my Marines in that building, along with the fact that I failed to make my team leaders sweep the building with metal detectors, cost the lives of two Marines, and caused the rest of them to be injured'

‘Imagine my surprise when one of the Marines was Derek Shanfield, a Sergeant that I had known since he was a junior in High school.

He was one of a twin. Derek and his brother Devin grew up as corn farmers in Pennsylvania but wanted to be Marines like their older brother.

‘By the time I saw Derek again, he had gone from a high school student to a sergeant, moving swiftly through the ranks. I worked with their older brother.

On June 8, two weeks before his platoon were set to leave for the main battle in Marjah, he led them out on a patrol to get a taster of what the weeks to come would be like.

Their patrol consisted of Sergeant Bee’s squad, their Platoon Commander Lt Thomas Malone, and two sergeants from 2/6-Sergeant Zachary Walters and Sergeant Derek Shanfield.

Sergeant Bee said Commander Malone was ‘one of if not the best Marines’ he had ever seen.

‘My intent of the patrol was to show the two sergeants what happened anytime we entered the southern area of our AO (Area of Operations). Any time my squad would roll up in that area, a white van and some mopeds would always show up.

‘They would position themselves far enough out so that our small-arms couldn’t reach, and then spread out to different areas.

‘I wanted the two sergeants to see what happened, so they would know how the Taliban operate in the area first-hand. We weren’t looking for a fight. We were too close to the end and I didn’t want to risk any of my guys.

Sergeant Bee selected a building to use as an observation area. He sent Lt Malone and Corporal Ponce (2nd in command), along with his fireteam, to a small building 50m north to act as an overwatch, in case they were under fire and had to leave in a hurry.

‘I put my guys all around the interior of the building looking out for any sign of movement, so they could advise once the enemy showed.

‘As I was talking with Shanfield and Walters on a small mound looking out, my DM (Designated Marksman), Lance Corporal Johnston called for my attention because he had a round jammed into his chamber and needed help getting it out.

‘I remember being frustrated with him, because it should have been a simple fix.’ It turned out, the jam saved Sergeant Bee’s life.

‘All I remember after I took a knee to help him was a roaring sound, and the sensation of my entire vision turning into what you would see if you were trying to look through a straw. The next thing I remember is waking up in a CAT scan machine, in a hospital.’

From what he heard about the incident, the Taliban had implanted IED’s outside of the building, that were large enough to blow the walls inward.

He said: ‘Almost every one of my Marines in the building had to get CASEVAC’d to Camp Dwyer – a forward operating base that had a hospital

‘Sergeants Shanfield and Walters were killed instantly.

‘My decision to place my Marines in that building, along with the fact that I failed to make my team leaders sweep the building with metal detectors, cost two lives, and caused the rest of them to be injured.

Bee (second from right) stands alongside some of his fellow Marines on one of his tours. A brain injury forced his military career to end, and from then he had to endure rehab and a battery of tests 

‘Some have heavy scars, some carry their scars on the inside, and some still have pieces of the wall stuck in their bodies to this day.’

Bobbie remembers that she was driving on the I-95 when she got the second, heartbreaking call of her husband’s military career.

She returned to their home in North Carolina to try and maintain some normalcy and got her friends to help look after Ethan, until her husband got back.

‘When he got home he was completely different. The person I said goodbye to is not the person that came home. We have since had to adjust to our new normal life.

‘He knows that he is not the same person that boarded that bus the second time.

‘But he’s alive, that’s what I keep saying, it could be a lot worse. We have friends that aren’t that lucky.

On the day of the platoon’s memorial, Sergeant Bee asked Sgt Shanfield’s family to come his house, with two Marines to support him.

‘I had to look his mother in the eye and explain how I got her son killed, ‘ he said. ‘That was the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in my life.’

Following his injury, he was sent through Bagrahm Air Field, Afghanistan, to Landstuhl, Germany, for treatment.

After two weeks, he was allowed home.

‘I had to go through rehab and therapy, along with a battery of tests. I had suffered a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), with brain damage to four sections of my brain, along with damage to my vestibular system (balance and senses) and hearing loss.’

The condition has not improved since, and he still struggles to get through a day without suffering the side effects.

Despite his constant health problems, he holds down a job at the VA , teaching classes to Marines that are in transition from the military to the civilian world.

‘I show them how to apply for their benefits, help them sign up for benefits, and help them identify and take advantage of career opportunities as they are separating.

‘The pay is absolute crap because we are contractors, but I enjoy it because I still get to work with Marines while helping them out.

Sergeant Bee’s son was born on July 29, 2008, while he was still in Garmsir, and didn’t meet him until he was three months old.

The youngster knows what his father did, but he isn’t old enough to grasp the nature of what happened. He has only seen the iconic image of his dad being shot once, and it was a chance encounter.

‘He saw it in a Marine Corps book at the local Barnes & Noble, there’s one picture in there of it, but he’s too young to really understand,’ Sergeant Bee said.

‘But it was one of the happiest moments of my life. All he knows about what I used to do is what the understanding of young child will allow, to this day, if you ask him what Daddy used to do in the Marines, his answer is invariably “He used to go shoot bad guys”.

‘I like to leave it at that with him. When he gets to become a teenager, I’ll set him down and explain to him the stuff that has happened during my time in, so he can reach the decision himself on whether he wants to follow in my footsteps or not.’


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