June 18, 2010 had already started out pretty miserably for Corporal Clifford Wooldridge of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. Not five minutes after leaving the secure Coalition-held perimeter into enemy territory, he’d had his Humvee blown out from under him by a Taliban IED. Slightly annoyed by this, he’d re-loaded his squad into another vehicle, which was of course then subsequently blown up by another IED (jeez, and you think you’re having a rough Friday!), and now, even though he was leading a convoy of four vehicles through a particularly Taliban-infested valley where enemy ambush was about as common as hipster mustaches at trendy downtown "dive" bars, Corporal Wooldridge was basically just happy not to have to pick twisted pieces of his vehicle's chassis out of the soles of his combat boots.
Saying that the Marine occupation of Musa Qala hadn't really gone as planned would be kind of like saying that being mauled to death by a rabid T-Rex would kind of suck ass. Located in the middle of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Musa Qala was prime poppy-growing country, and since the Taliban make most of their coin off of illegal heroin and opium sales, they weren't exactly excited about the idea of a bunch of American and Afghan soldiers rolling in there and setting fire to their favorite cash crop. The Marines had been sent in to talk with the townspeople in the valley, assess the situation, and try to persuade the local leadership to ally with the Afghan government and stop providing aid to the Taliban.
When they reached the valley, they found every townsperson had (perhaps wisely) fled their homes in fear of the insanity that was about to go down, and instead of walking into a delicious dinner with the locals the 125-man detachment of 3/7 Marines rolled up on 250 well-trained, well-equipped, battle-hardened Taliban fighters entrenched in ambush-friendly mountain bunkers with dozens more troops streaming across the Pakistani border every day.
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
It was about a week into the Marine offensive when Corporal Woolridge led his four-vehicle mounted patrol on a mission to circle around and capture a critical hill that would be necessary for controlling the region. Obviously, the Taliban weren't interested in handing it over. They opened fire from positions in the mountains to the front and the abandoned village to the side, hammering the Marine convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons while the Humvee turret gunners returned the favor with a heavy-handed helping of hot lead from their .50 caliber machine guns.
While the gunners laid down fire, Wooldridge bailed out of his vehicle, grabbed his M-249 SAW (a squad light machine gun), told his fire team to hang tight, and prepared to do something really really insane.
Correctly realizing that in previous fights the Taliban would attack, fire all their RPG ammo, then fade back into the mountains to hide and wait for the next ambush, Corporal Wooldridge (seen at the top of this article holding a cigarette in his mouth and looking admittedly badass while doing so) decided that, naturally, the best course of action wouldn't be to return fire, fight for his life, and try not to put himself in a position where he could easily be killed by bullets, but instead to charge across an open field firing his machine gun at the enemy in an effort to flank them and cut off their escape route.
So that's of course exactly what he did.
The 23 year-old from Port Angeles, Washington charged across an open field, gun blazing, hit the treeline, drilled a guy with a white-hot burst of 5.56mm NATO death, then hit the deck and laid down suppressing fire while the rest of his fire team raced across the field to join him.
With his four-man squad now assembled in a position behind the flank of the enemy, Wooldridge spotted a team of at least 15 enemy troops armed with heavy weapons and RPGs hiding in the abandoned village preparing to ambush the Marine Humvees. Not about to let that sort of aggression abide, Wooldridge rallied his team and led them on a daring charge straight across open ground once again, firing his machine gun straight into the crowd of unsuspecting Taliban. His attack shredded the enemy weapons team, killing 8 of the enemy (including the RPG operator) and sending the rest of them scattering into the village, but as Wooldridge's team prepared to secure the area the Marine Corporal stopped them cold in their tracks.
He'd heard something. Voices. And they were close.
Wooldridge was certain they were hostiles – Taliban prepping a counter-attack – and that the voices were coming from behind a nearby wall. He told his men to hold tight, gripped his weapon, and charged balls-out around the side of the wall.
He came face-to-face with four heavily-equipped Taliban fighters carrying AK-47s, RPGs, and a Soviet-built PKM 7.62-caliber heavy machine gun – and they were all standing within 10 feet of him.
Now, the Taliban are definitely – definitely – not a bunch of pussies. I know I write a lot of stuff on this site about Americans and British and Gurkhas or whoever defeating them in combat, but that's mostly because the uncontrollable Captain America jingo tendencies in me make it excruciatingly difficult to glorify people who shoot at Americans on a daily basis. But look – these are battle-hardened, well-trained, unquestionably-devoted warriors who live in brutal mountain conditions and descend from men that have successfully fought off everyone from Cyrus the Great to Alexander the Great to Queen Victoria to the entirety of the Soviet Union. At a range of ten feet, any one of these guys is capable of squeezing a trigger and blowing away even the toughest United States Marine.
Not that this stopped Corporal Clifford Wooldridge from doing this.
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That's right. Staring four men down Old West Wyatt Earp-style, Corporal Wooldridge hoisted his SAW, hammered down the trigger, and didn't let go until he'd fired every last round remaining in the weapon.
Unfortunately, this wasn't enough bullets to kill all four enemy fighters.
Wooldridge smoked the first three guys in the span of roughly a split second, but when he swung the weapon to the fourth enemy soldier – the one packing the PKM heavy machine gun – his mag had run dry. Wooldridge tried to bluff him, motioning for the dude to drop his weapon, but he wasn't buying it. The guy raised his gun and fired off a burst, but not before Wooldridge dove back behind the wall, taking cover as bullets ripped the wall up around him.
Now, as anyone who likes Call of Duty 4: Modern Xtreme 2 Black Ops 4 Warfare Hyper Championship Special Edition can probably tell you, reloading an M249 SAW isn't exactly a simple operation. You aren't swapping out battery packs in an Xbox controller, you're securing and then manually feeding a 100-round box of ammunition into a weapon that weighs the same as a fully-grown adult beagle. Wooldridge threw his back against the wall and went to work trying to reload his weapon, but when he saw the barrel of the PKM slowly peeking around the side of the wall, he knew he was going to have to act fast.
So he dropped his gun, ran over, and grabbed the barrel of the Taliban dude's machine gun.
Kind of like this, only marginally more intense.
Wooldridge grabbed the gun and the dude was like, "uh let go," but Wooldridge was like, "no way", and instead of giving the guy his weapon back he slammed the Taliban fighter up against the wall and before long both men hit the ground still holding the gun. Now, I'm not sure how big this Taliban guy was, but Clifford Wooldridge was a high school football-playing diesel mechanic who used to repair those things lumberjacks use to chop down forests in the Pacific Northwest, and before long Wooldridge was kind of kicking the crap out of the other guy. The Taliban warrior, locked in hand-to-hand fist-fight old-school combat with a dude who was obviously beating the hell out of him, decided that if he was going down the Marine was coming with him, and he took one hand off his machine gun and reached up to pull the pin on one of the hand grenades strapped to the outside of Wooldridge's tactical vest.
That was the opening Wooldridge needed. He ripped the PKM out of the guy's hands and then proceeded to beat the dude to death with his own machine gun. Which is pretty badass.
By the time the rest of the Marines rounded the corner and found Wooldridge standing there amid a pile of dead enemy soldiers, the enemy ambush had been thwarted and the coast was clear. In the battle Corporal Clifford Wooldridge had personally taken out 13 enemy troops, flanked their position, and, perhaps more importantly, broke their fighting spirit – Afghan interpreters would later relay to American commanders in the region that the story of Wooldridge's hand-to-hand action effectively crushed the morale of the region's defenders.
For his actions in the battle, Clifford Wooldridge would receive the Navy Cross – the second-highest award for valor available to Marines – and was selected the USO Marine of the Year for 2012.
Navy Cross Citation
NBC San Diego