Editor's Note: This story is part of Stars and Stripes annual Heroes special section - for more profiles and videos of the heroes, visit www.stripes.com/heroes. We are publishing it in honor of Flag Day.
Lance Cpl. Cody Goebel wasn't fooled by the serene farmlands and rocky desert that surrounded his squad's remote outpost in Afghanistan. He knew he was in a hornet's nest.
The Marines from Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment had been on the ground in the volatile Sangin district of Helmand province for less than 48 hours when the first fight began.
Over the weeks that followed, the battle had been steady - perpetual attacks and constant operations to root out the Taliban, with maybe a day here or there passing without incident.
On the morning of Nov. 22, 2010, Goebel, a Nevada native who hails from Topaz Ranch Estates, stood behind a .50-caliber machine gun at a security position atop Observation Post 25, his line of sight obscured by a tree line 200 meters away. By the end of the day, he would single-handedly kill six insurgents and repel an attack that threatened the post and the lives of his friends - all despite being shot through the neck.
He would earn the nation's third-highest medal for valor in combat, the Silver Star.
"It was a fast-moving deployment," Goebel, now 21, said by phone from Afghanistan where he is back behind the machine gun for his second combat deployment, this time with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. "We were constantly in a fight."
In 2010, Goebel's unit deployed to Afghanistan on a seven-month tour. According to media reports, the Marines were tasked with pushing further into Taliban-controlled territory than their British predecessors had and aggressively taking the fight to an enemy that sniped officers, set up ambushes in trenches around the farmhouses, fired from holes cut into mud-walled compounds, and set a never-ending stream of improvised explosive devices.
By the spring, the Three-Five had suffered 25 deaths and around 200 of its Marines had been wounded, the worst casualties of any battalion in the 10-year war.
At 10:14 a.m. on Nov. 22, Goebel noticed a suspicious man crossing the road toward one of the other Marine positions. A shot rang out and he fell to the ground. He felt time slow as he lay on his back looking toward the sky.
Goebel knew he was hit, but in the moment he wasn't sure where.
The Marine jumped up and re-mounted his machine gun, firing with only his right arm. His left arm dangled.
"I screamed at the top of my lungs for somebody to get up there. Probably sounded like a little girl," he said with a laugh. "I thought I was hit in the arm. I didn't realize the bullet had gone through my neck."
The Marine began laying down a devastating salvo of fire. He knew he had killed one enemy when he saw pink mist downrange. Soon after, he ran out of .50-cal ammunition and couldn't reload without the use of his left arm, so he grabbed his M-16 and continued to lay down rounds.
Goebel said he knew the position was critical to his squad's defense so he continued to fight despite his wound.
His award citation said that he refused medical attention for seven minutes while he continued fighting until he was relieved.
"I just wanted to kill the guy who had just tried to kill me," Goebel said. "I saw mist. Then it kind of kicked in. I thought, 'There's probably more, I better stay up here and make sure there was nobody else coming up.'"
The married father of two killed six attackers but doesn't know how strong the enemy force was. When relief came, he was thrown over the back of some sandbags and had to run 25 meters across the roof while under fire and descend a 20-foot ladder to the casualty collection point. There he found Petty Officer 3rd Class Alexander Federov, a Navy corpsman assigned to the battalion.
Federov helped Goebel take his flak jacket off. That is when they discovered his arterial neck wound. The Marine didn't feel any pain until Federov applied life-saving pressure.
"That was one of the most painful things I've ever felt," Goebel said.
He'd lost so much blood - about three pints - that he was unsteady on his feet, a sensation he likened to drunkenness.
His friends killed the insurgent who had shot him later on.
When his comrades gathered around them, he attempted to assure them he was fine. To prove it, he started telling jokes and insisted that Federov's aid hurt more than being shot.
"He was very coherent considering he had been bleeding for 10 minutes," Federov said in a Marine Corps news release from the award ceremony in December. "From a medical stand point, he should have lost consciousness, but he was calm, joking and even singing."
"I don't think I'm a hero," Goebel said. "It comes down to training. ... It's more that I did my job."
He said he joined the Marines in 2008 because he wanted the challenge. His current combat deployment will be his last on active duty. He transitions to the reserves in January and wants to get a psychology degree, climb Mount Everest, and work for National Geographic making documentary films.
"Hopefully I don't run out of challenges," he said.