UNSUNG HEROES: Marine Recruiters Use MCMAP To Stop Robber, Still Keep Dress Blues Clean

Unsung Heroes
(From left to right) Sgt. Ricardo Schebesta, Staff Sgt. Bryson Twigg, and Staff Sgt. Ben Shoemaker, Marine recruiters in Lynnwood and Everett, Washington, responded to a situation Jan. 6, 2015, in which two young men attempted to rob an elderly woman outside their Lynnwood recruiting office.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Reece Lodder

Every week, Task & Purpose devotes this column to stories of heroism from the men and women who served in the American armed forces after 9/11. These stories are often stories of valor in combat — be it an Army sergeant first class who gave his life exposing himself to fire after an IED explosion in Iraq, an Air Force combat controller who braved enemy fire to call for air support in Afghanistan, or a Navy Corpsman who ignored his own wounds in an IED attack in Afghanistan — the past decade and a half of warfare is rife with stories of extraordinary gallantry and selflessness in the name of national service and brotherhood.

But this week’s story of unsung heroism takes place far away from the deserts of Iraq or the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, in a strip mall in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood.

There, in the Armed Forces Career Center office, three Marine recruiters thwarted a robbery in progress by chasing and apprehending a man who had just attempted to rob a 60-year-old woman.

In interviews with Task & Purpose, the Marines declined to describe their actions as heroic, Staff Sgt. Ben Shoemaker, who actually placed the suspect in the wristlock, described the attention they received as “a little overrated,” saying, “I did what everyone should do in that situation, why wouldn’t you help someone who needs help?”

But in exploring the details of the attempted robbery, it quickly becomes evident that the men disregarded their personal safety and well being in the interest of the public good. Words like “heroism” exist in the English language for the sole purpose of describing actions like these.

Sgt. Ricardo Schebesta, Staff Sgt. Bryson Twigg, and Shoemaker, were in their office around 5 p.m. on Jan. 6 when they heard a loud series of honks. Schebesta described it to Task & Purpose as “between 15 and 20 honks.” Shoemaker said in a phone interview that he first thought it to be a car alarm. It turned out to be the victim of the crime, chasing two robbers in her pickup truck between the road and the parking lot, including driving over grass slopes, and desperately trying to get someone’s attention.

Despite being told by the victim the suspects were armed with a gun, the Marines ran through rush-hour traffic to pursue them. Shoemaker subdued one of the suspects using a wrist lock, a technique taught in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, and held the suspect until police arrived to arrest him. Police retrieved a metal bat from the suspect’s pants but have not yet located his accomplice.

Schebesta told Task & Purpose that he and Twigg ran toward the two men, while Shoemaker approached the woman in the truck.

“At first I thought she was the problem,” Shoemaker said, “trying to run over a guy.”

But when Shoemaker reached the woman and banged on her window, she said that the two men had tried to rob her. She said they had a gun.

The Marines gave chase, pursuing the men across the parking lot and through traffic. When asked if hearing that the men had a gun, while he was unarmed, gave Shoemaker pause, he said curtly it did not. He said that knowledge resonated with him in a different way.

“It made it that much more important to me that they couldn’t get away,” the Marine infantry unit leader told Task & Purpose.

“I think we did what we’re known to do as Marines,” Schebesta told Task & Purpose. “We’re happy in this community to give the Marines a name outside of what people just hear in the news.”

In his dress blue bravos, Shoemaker caught up with one of the suspects, and immediately took control of him using a wrist lock technique taught in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

The hand-to-hand combat program, nicknamed MCMAP, has a mixed reputation among Marines who sometimes find it hard to believe the program’s techniques work.

“Apparently MCMAP works,” said Shoemaker, who has a green belt in the program, with a little bit of a laugh. “I didn’t think about what I was doing at all, I just did it.”

There was another important aspect of Marine Corps culture that colored Shoemaker’s interaction with the would-be robber: the desire to keep his dress blues clean.

When Task & Purpose asked Shoemaker if his blues slowed him down, he said, “That is 100% the reason we didn’t go to the ground, because I had my blues on.”

The Marine recruiters said that their experiences in that parking lot reinforced to them their mission and presence in the community. These Marines said that it was great for the Seattle community to see the character and values of the Marine Corps up close and personal.

“It definitely gives a different perspective people than we’re used to,” Schebesta said. “A lot of people don’t get to see how we help people, because we’re doing it in such far away places.”

Schebesta certainly knows a thing or two about offering help in faraway places. The nine-year veteran of the Marine Corps deployed to the Philippines to provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of a typhoon in 2009, and Japan to provide help after the fourth-largest recorded earthquake in world history and its ensuing typhoon-wreaked devastation there.

Twigg came to the recruiting field from the aviation community, an aviation supply specialist who has worked on F-18 Hornets at Marine Corps air stations in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Miramar, California.

Shoemaker is a decorated infantryman with multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The three Marines each come from vastly different corners of the Marine Corps experience, connected by their service as recruiters and now united in this story, one that has garnered national news coverage, including an interview with Fox & Friends on the Fox News Channel.

(From left to right) Staff Sgt. Ben Shoemaker, Sgt. Ricardo Schebesta, and Staff Sgt. Bryson Twigg, Marine recruiters who helped stop a Jan. 6 robbery in Lynnwood, Washington, answer questions during a remote interview from Seattle on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” morning show Jan. 14, 2015.

“I’m glad the public is able to see some direct good,” Twigg said.

Now, the men are back to work as recruiters, and they’re hoping the community they recruit from has taken note of their efforts.

“It’s very rewarding, one of the more rewarding jobs I’ve ever had,” Twigg said, of recruiting. “Every day, I go out on the street and seek to find my eventual replacement in the Marine Corps. The guy who will serve alongside me and eventually replace me.”

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

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However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.

When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

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