Cartersville Marine receives Purple Heart, looks forward to future
by John DeFoor
Nov 01, 2011 | 3632 views | 0 0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cartersville native Marine Cpl. Alex Blake has returned home from Afghanistan and will be discharged in December.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Cartersville native Marine Cpl. Alex Blake has returned home from Afghanistan and will be discharged in December. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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"It was a normal day," said Marine Cpl. Alex Blake of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines Weapons Company. "We weren't doing anything special. We went out to pick up a few snipers. We got blown up. I don't remember anything after that."

Blake was driving an M-ATV -- mine resistant ambush protected vehicle -- in a group of several vehicles between the towns of Nawzad and Musa Qaleh in Afghanistan. The group had just picked up a team of snipers when Blake's vehicle hit an IED -- improvised explosive device. "I hit the IED with my back driver's side tire."

IEDs are usually fuel jugs filled with 40 to 60 pounds of explosives and a little fuel. Buried in the ground and attached to a pressure plate by wires, IEDs are a danger for drivers traveling the Afghan roads.

Many of the military's vehicles have a mine roller -- a device with eight wheels -- placed in the front of the vehicle to detonate the explosive and protect the vehicle from the blunt of the explosion. "If there is an IED out there, [the mine roller] is going to hit it and set it off," Blake said.

But the mine roller did not stop this IED. Blake said the IED was set up as a pin cap. "You roll over it once -- it clicks down, you roll over it again -- it clicks ups, and it has to roll over it one more time to go off."

The mine roller ran over the unseen IED, then the first vehicle, and then Blake's vehicle.

Blake regained consciousness 30 seconds later. "I didn't know where I was, I didn't know anything."

Blake's door was blown open from the overpressure; he awoke hanging out the door by his seat belt. The man in the passenger seat pulled him back into the vehicle. His M-ATV had five men inside it, including one sniper. All five received concussions. Two were knocked unconscious.

As the men in the other vehicles set up security around the vehicle, the group was receiving gunfire.

"A lot of times they'll set up an ambush around an IED," Blake said. "They'll put an IED close to a choke-point like a tree line. You have to go through that area because there is no other way to get through. You will hit the IED and then when you're trying to get that vehicle back to where you're working out of, they'll start shooting at you ... They are pretty smart, they've been fighting wars their whole life so they know what they are doing."

Hitting IEDs is a common thing, Blake said. All the men in the other vehicles had previously ran over an IED. His vehicle group was the only one not to -- until that day.

Due to the Marine group's superior fire power, the shooters abandoned their attack on the group of vehicles. The five men were loaded up into the other vehicles and the M-ATV was hooked to another vehicle for towing. After arrival at their camp, Blake and another Marine were flown to the hospital.

Blake called his parents from the hospital and was first to inform them of his injuries.

"If we had not heard from Alex first, it would have been harder to calm down," said his mother, Gayle Blake. "Afghanistan was really scary ... It's constantly in the back of your mind that your son is in a very dangerous place ... I did the most praying in my entire life while that child was over there [in Afghanistan]. We had people everywhere praying for Alex."

Blake spent two days at the hospital and then was transferred to Wounded Warriors at Camp Leatherneck. He went to the TBI Clinic -- Tramatic Brain Injury Clinic -- twice a week for a variety of tests to ensure there was no internal damage or bleeding. He would remain there for a month.

"He was dying to get back," said Gayle Blake. "It's that camaraderie, that brotherhood. He was worried that they were two guys short. 'Were they going to be okay without us?'"

"You develop unity, like a brotherhood with those people you work with," Alex Blake said.

After a long month, Blake returned to finish the last three months of his deployment. He received a Purple Heart for that mission. Blake said that he still does not remember the explosion.

Growing up in Cartersville, Blake always wanted to be a Marine.

"I chose the Marine Corps because I wanted to go infantry and the Marines are known for having the best infantry," Blake said. "Whenever you think about special missions you think of Navy SEALs, but when you get out of the special force community, then it goes to the Marine Corps."

"He knew from age 5 he wanted to be a Marine," said Gayle Blake.

Blake's godfather, Bill Bancroft, served as a Marine during the Vietnam War. Alex Blake said he admires the way Bancroft carries himself and what his godfather has done.

"He's 60 years old and can still do more pushups than anyone I know," he said.

"Alex and Bill have always been very close," said Gayle Blake. "I think that Bill had a big impact on Alex wanting to be a Marine."

Corporal Blake went to Paris Island on Martin Luther King Day in 2008 for boot camp.

His first deployment was with a MEU -- Marine Expeditionary Unit -- where he traveled throughout Europe, training and waiting for action. "We can be in any place in the world in 24 hours."

Blake traveled to Haiti in 2010 after the country experienced a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. His role in Haiti was to provide security from gangs. According to Blake, whenever there was a food drop, the gangs would appear and attempt steal food the from the locals. After his work in Haiti, Blake was deployed to Afghanistan.

During this deployment, Blake said he has been "blown-up" twice. The second time came a week and a half after he returned from Wounded Warriors. Fortunately, this incident did not require another trip to the hospital. That particular explosive was designed for a person to walk on, not Blake's truck.

"I lost three friends in Afghanistan," Blake said. "It's something you don't forget. You don't forget about the times you had with them. You use that to go back out the next day, [but] you don't go out seeking revenge because that's not what we are there for. You go out and remember them."

As a Marine, Blake said, "You miss a lot ... You don't know what you've got till it's gone ... You have it good here. You don't live in a tent, you have some form of air conditioning and heat, you have a bathroom. There's a thing called running water, which is pretty much amazing. Don't take for granted everything you have."

Blake said people can help the troops by sending care packages and letters.

Gayle Blake recommends sending food -- such as canned macaroni and cheese and pepperoni -- baby wipes, laundry detergent, shampoo, and drink mixes "because their water was so bad." These are the type of things soldiers constantly need.

"I would get letters from a first-grade class," Blake said. "I would sit there and I'd read them for hours. It was like Christmas ... It doesn't matter what you send, all you have to do is put a 30-cent stamp on it. Send me a letter. I'm in Afghanistan. You just want to get mail. You want to talk to the world."

A friend would send him a Daily Tribune newspaper. Blake and his fellow marines would read the newspaper and laugh when they read about the "hot" 90-degree temperature back at home. They were desperate for any news they could get from home. Blake would also take pictures of himself with the most recent newspaper at the various places his job took him for the Where in the World feature.

"[The U.S. Marines] are amazing, and we need to be supportive of all of them," Gayle Blake said. "They're giving up their lives ... We need to do something for them. Even now that Alex is back I still pray for those who are still over there."

She still sends care packages for the other Marines Blake worked with.

"I love the Marines; they have done wonders with Alex," said Gayle Blake. "He left a high school boy and came back a man ... Everyone that has helped Alex, I just want to say thanks. He is who he is today because of all of their prayers, input and caring."

While Blake has already been awarded the Purple Heart, he and many other Marines will attend a ceremony later for their service. Then in December, Blake will serve his last day in the United States Marine Corps, after which he will be discharged.

"I'm ready to go to college and the Marine Corps are going to pay me to go."

Blake plans to attend the University of Georgia to study sports medicine, but before that he has another plan: to hike the Appalachian Trail. He and a fellow Marine want to hike the 2,175-mile trail. Blake said they will wear their Wounded Warriors shirts and dedicate their hike to wounded warriors.