November 9,  2011

A  Name On The List

Although Veteran’s Day week is appropriate, this should have been posted a week ago, on the correct date, but writing it proved to be disablingly depressing. Writing it meant thinking about Trevor Yurista.

I met Captain (then Lieutenant) Yurista in August of 2007, when the First Battalion of the Second Marine Regiment was deployed in Iraq, scattered among several austere combat outposts in the Euphrates River Valley, between Ramadi and Hit. The command staff was based at one- COP MHC in Baghdadi; a reasonably secluded, defensible, one story, square building. I was there too, as an embedded reporter. In addition to a company of Marines, MHC was home to several platoons of Iraqi soldiers, most of whom resided in trailers that were situated in the farthest corner of the grounds, while one Iraqi platoon occupied a small corner of the main building. These Iraqis had their own separate door, and I never saw one of them step an unaccompanied foot on the Marines’ side of the building. They were working with a very small group of Marines that were not part of the First Battalion. Inside the outpost Marines had used plywood to construct their sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, and tactical operations center, all of which were connected and divided by more plywood. Navigating from the front of the building to the back required solving a veneer maze. Out back there was a cigarette pit where Marines gathered every night at midnight and where, if you pulled up a chair, you were guaranteed a great belly-laugh. There was also a fitness area, where no matter how hot you would find Marines fiendishly working out, every chance they got. But you wouldn’t find Trevor Yurista at either of those places.

At 3AM on my second day at MHC I woke up, needing to avail myself of the facilities- the PVC tubes that were pounded deep into the sand at the very back of the grounds. I grabbed my flashlight and entered the darkened corridors. Initially confident of the route, a minute later it was quite clear that I was lost and had no inkling of how to find the back of the building, nor in fact, the front. I continued. Down one hallway, up another, sharp left sharp right, trapped like a rat. I turned another corner and was halfway down its makeshift hallway when I dreadfully realized that I was strolling through the only place in the building that I absolutely should not have been; smack-dab in the middle of the Iraqi platoon’s living quarters. This realization was the result of the bemused looks being exchanged by the half dozen Iraqi soldiers that were standing in their doorways as I passed by. The Iraqis’ door to the yard must be around here somewhere, I thought, and kept walking. Unfortunately, the end of this hallway was the end of the line. There was no door. Turning back around to face the Iraqi gauntlet, I furtively glanced inside an adjacent room and saw two men seated at a small table, poring over a map. One was an Iraqi officer. Perched on the head of the other was the revulsive lid of the New York Yankees. It was Trevor Yurista.

Cpt. Yurista was an intelligence officer, in charge of the Marines that had been assigned the task of utilizing the Iraqi platoons. The nocturnal activity I had stumbled across was the result of the Iraqis’ (as any American trainer will attest) stubborn insistence on afternoon naps. Cpt. Yurista had decided that if the Iraqis were up and alert at 3AM, then he would be too. He mercifully led me out of the labyrinth and agreed to allow me to interview him on video the following afternoon.

I arrived to his office wearing my Red Sox hat, and though he didn’t explicitly acknowledge it, after inviting me to sit he removed his Marine camo hat and nonchalantly replaced it with the Evil Empire’s. Trevor exuded the same indefinable but undeniable presence that all natural born leaders possess, despite his soft spoken, taciturn, atypical Marine demeanor. He was genuinely humble, categorically dismissing every suggestion that his assignment, working with fledgling Iraqi soldiers, was difficult and extraordinarily hazardous. Although he patiently answered every question, he spoke carefully and generally, strictly observing operational security. He wanted to discuss baseball; especially his beloved Yankees and their rivals 200 miles north of The Bronx, and what he had missed while deployed. Showing me around later that afternoon, he led the way toward his own tactical operations center. When we arrived he walked through a vestibule and opened a door, then stepped to the side to allow me to proceed. As I did two giant Marines immediately sprang from their seats, loudly announcing that I could not enter. Cpt. Yurista stepped into the room and the Marines profusely apologized to both of us. He reassured them that they had reacted appropriately, and that he should have entered first.

“Now wait a minute mister I didn’t even kiss her. Don’t want no trouble with you.”        

Two days later he allowed me to accompany him, the two Marines from his TOC, and six Iraqi soldiers, to a  nearby village, but wouldn’t say a word about his objective there. As we walked through the village it was obvious that some of the residents were not happy with our presence. There were no waves here, no smiles, just menacing stares. I had the video camera rolling, and as we neared a dilapidated home with a man standing out front, closely watching us approach, I carelessly failed to observe Arabic decorum. Behind the home an Iraqi woman was in plain sight, vigorously tilling the soil. Despite the absurd heat she was clad in a black burqa, with only her eyes uncovered. My video camera found her and lingered. The man out front wore the long, unkempt beard and dirty dishdasha that marked him as a Wahabbist, a follower of the most conservative version of Islam. When he saw what I was doing he could not have been angrier, running towards me and screaming invective. Cpt. Yurista said nothing but reacted immediately; quickly walking out in front of our group, and with his two arms extended like an offensive lineman,  stopping the Arab in his tracks. The giants were beside him in a second, and then the Iraqi soldiers approached and began to mediate. After several minutes the volatile situation was defused. 

When I left Iraq we kept in touch by e-mail. Then, in September of 2008, Trevor volunteered to return to the war zone, this time in Afghanistan. True to form, his e-mails revealed nothing about the particulars of his activity there, but I knew he was outside the wire. A fobbit he most certainly was not. As November passed I realized he had not replied to my prior two e-mails, and a lousy thought crossed my mind. December came and went; still no reply. Finally in early January I stopped procrastinating and typed his name at the website, and learned that this quiet leader had been killed in action on October 27th, in Helmand Province. According to the citation (below) that accompanied the National Intelligence Medal for Valor that Trevor posthumously received, he was killed trying to protect other Marines, while operating 25 miles behind enemy lines.

A DVD from the footage I had of Trevor in Iraq was delivered to his family in New York.

There are four classic virtues. Courage, the kind that Trevor Yurista so splendidly exemplified, is one of them.   

Marine Corps captain receives top intelligence award posthumously at Stewart Air Guards Base

STEWART AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. -- Stewart Air National Guard Base will host the presentation of the National Intelligence Medal for Valor to the family of a Marine Corps Captain who was raised in Dutchess County and killed in action in Afghanistan, Oct. 27, 2008.

Capt. Trevor Yurista of Pleasant Valley will be honored with the Medal for Valor in recognition of the work he did from September to October 2008 while serving as a targeting officer for the Fore Reconnaissance Platoon of the Second Battalion 7th Marines in Helmand province.

Yurista identified the location of a bomb-making factory that was producing IEDS used against United States forces and coalition partners . He accompied the raiding team on the operation and successfully identified targets for air attack which destroyed more than 1,000 pounds of stored explosives. He was killed during the operation, which took place 25 kilometers behind enemy lines, while trying to protect other Marines.

The award ceremony will take place at the headquarters of the United States Marine Corps Aircraft Group 49 here because it is the Marine Corps location nearest Capt. Yurista's hometown.

Who: Retired Lt. Gen. Clapper, USAF, Director of National Intelligence; Brig. Gen. Stewart, HQMC Director of Intelligence; and the family of Capt. Trevor Yurista

What: Presentation of the National Intelligence Medal for Valor to the Yurista family