CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (March 14, 2011) --
In September 2001, Than Naing was cooking hamburgers in a fast-food restaurant in New York City and taking prerequisite classes part-time at the City College of New York in hopes of pursuing an engineering degree.
A 25-year-old recent immigrant from Burma, Naing had no knowledge of the Marine Corps and little interest in current world events. He could not identify Iraq or Afghanistan on a map.
That all changed after 9/11.
“Many people in America don’t appreciate democracy,” said Naing. “In Burma, there is no freedom of speech. If you say something bad about the generals that run the country, they will put you in prison for many years. That is why I joined the Marine Corps after 9/11. I was so happy to have the chance to live in a democracy, and I wanted to defend it. I saw the people dying in the Twin Towers. I felt like I had to give something back, because America gave me such a good life.”
Although Naing went to the nearby Marine Corps recruiting station to enlist just a week after 9/11, it took him more than two years of studying English as a Second Language while living and working in New York City to get his English fluency to a degree of proficiency to enable him to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
He passed the test and headed to Parris Island, S.C. for boot camp in May 2004.
“I didn’t know a lot about the U.S military, but my friend told me that the Marine Corps was the best (branch of service). And I wanted to be one of the best,” said Naing.
After graduating from recruit training, Pvt. 1st Class Naing was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, in October 2004.
Within a year he found himself walking the streets of Fallujah as a rifleman. During this tour, he learned from friends back in the States that his mother had passed away in Burma during his second month in Iraq. However, Naing opted not tell his command, “Because they would want me to go home, and I did not want to leave my fellow Marines in combat, and there was nothing I could do for my family at that time.”
Naing has not gone back to Burma since.
In 2006 he went back to Iraq for a second tour with 1/6, this time in Ramadi.
After several months of hard fighting during the height of the insurgency, Naing was shot in the left shoulder during a firefight Oct. 19, 2006. After being stabilized at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, he was transported to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. While at Bethesda, Naing pinned on corporal meritoriously.
Naing arrived back at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in January 2007 and was assigned to the Injured Support Unit, Wounded Warrior Barracks. During his 18 months of recovery with Wounded Warriors, Naing saw the organization evolve into a full-fledged Marine Corps unit, which was designated Wounded Warrior Battalion East.
He used his time constructively, mentoring junior Marines, continuing his university education and completing the process of applying for U.S. citizenship, which he eventually earned in May 2007.
“When I got my U.S. citizenship, I felt like a new man again on the earth,” said Naing.
Naing’s spirit of determination was quickly noted by the Injured Support Unit staff, and he was quickly given leadership responsibilities and encouraged to actively engage his fellow Marines to ensure they stayed on the right track to recovery and transition. He was awarded NCO of the quarter in the summer of 2008.
“I was impressed by his perseverance to get back on full duty, to reenlist, and truly get back into the fight,” said Sgt. Maj. Joel Collins, who served as the battalion sergeant major from 2008 to 2011.
“Even after he was placed back on full duty, he was still not in fighting shape,” explained Collins. “A collective effort from the staff, his fellow wounded warriors, and mostly from his own intestinal fortitude was he able to get back into shape to reenlist and get back to Fleet Marine Forces…. Naing is not afraid of a little heat. He is countable.”
With gritty determination, Naing rehabilitated his shoulder through extensive physical therapy, regular workouts in the gym with his buddies, and countless hours in the base pool. He pinned on the rank of sergeant in January 2009 and achieved his goal of returning to the operational forces that spring.
“I just wanted to get back to the Fleet and deploy again,” said Naing. “I joined the Marine Corps to be an infantryman and to go to combat. In (my previous tour), one of my best friends was killed by an IED. I wanted to go back to Iraq and fight in his honor.”
After passing his physical fitness test with a first class score, Naing, now 32 years old was assigned to Company I, 3rd Battalion 6th Marine Regiment as a squad leader.
Within a year, Naing found himself in the mountains of Afghanistan, leading his squad in almost daily combat in the summer heat in Marjah City, Helmand Province.
On June 13, 2010, Naing was checking the perimeter security around a vehicle checkpoint which his squad had set up near Marjah. A firefight broke out, and an Afghanistan National Army soldier in Naing’s squad was killed almost instantly by enemy fire. Then a Marine was hit in the arm. While directing his squad’s fire and calling in a situation report, Naing was shot in the chest by a Taliban fighter with a machine gun.
Although he was in and out of consciousness from loss of blood, Naing continued to call in reports to his platoon sergeant while still under fire. His corpsman dragged Naing into a ditch to patch up his wounds, and he was evacuated by helicopter in critical condition to a hospital at Camp Leatherneck.
“All I can remember is that I was screaming in the helicopter, because it was so painful,” said Naing.
For bravery under fire, Naing received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal with Combat “V.”
He was again evacuated to Bethesda. He arrived back at Camp Lejeune in September 2010 for his second tour with Wounded Warrior Battalion East.
“It’s definitely positive to see someone like him being an inspiration to the other guys, going through and fighting his own battles and keeping his attitude so positive all the time. He inspires others. He literally keeps the morale up for especially the junior Marines in the company,” said Sgt. Nathaniel Harris, a Wounded Warrior who knew Naing when they served together at 1/6 in 2005. They reconnected at Company A, where Harris has been a patient here since February 2010, after being severely wounded in Afghanistan.
Once again, Naing is pushing his own limits in the gym and at the pool, determined to return to full duty and deploy overseas for the fourth time.
“In my mind, I keep thinking about being a warrior. I think tactically; that’s how I am. The Marine Corps is perfect for me. I’m not a paperwork kind of guy. I just want to get back into the fight.”
If he has his druthers, Naing will go to university full-time under the Meritorious Enlisted Commissioning Program and become a Marine Corps infantry officer. He would be the first officer candidate in recent Marine Corps history to have two purple hearts upon commissioning.
“I believe that leadership begins with your example for others to follow. The exceptional example of Sgt Naing is extremely rare and very inspiring,” said Capt. Dennis Nichols, whose command of Company A, Wounded Warrior Battalion East, has spanned both of Naing’s tours here.
“He is a living example of tenacity and determination that he has exhibited now on two separate occasions both being very challenging and often times grueling,” said Nichols. “I feel that he is a prime example and will do extremely well as an officer.”
Wounded Warrior Battalion East is headquartered here with Companies A and B, which care for about 200 wounded, ill and injured Marines.
The battalion also supervises several hundred Wounded Warriors at seven subordinate detachments at hospitals throughout the country from the National Capitol Region to San Antonio, Texas.
The stated mission of Wounded Warrior Battalion East is taking care of wounded, ill and injured Marines and their families. With a full-time staff of more than 200 Marines, Sailors and civilian professionals, battalion staff ensures the care of our Wounded Warriors throughout the recovery and transition process.