Capt. Benjamin Middendorf is the newest Leftwich Trophy recipient. (Cpl. Timothy Lenzo / Marine Corps)
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Three insurgents burst into the police headquarters in Musa Qala, Afghanistan, hell bent on killing Haji Abdul “Koka” Wali. One of the attackers gravely wounded the district’s police chief with a burst of 7.62mm rounds from an AK47; a second detonated a suicide vest.
The April 10, 2012, attack critically injured one of the major stabilizing figures in the region. Wali, an implacable foe of the Taliban, survived, but his injuries rendered him incapable of returning to the battlefield in Helmand province. That prompted Marines in the region to launch a counteroffensive.
On April 14, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., launched the multiday Operation Lariat, hitting the insurgents in areas they still controlled outside Musa Qala district center. It was “kind of a watershed moment” in which numerous insurgents were killed, said Capt. Benjamin Middendorf, then the commander of Golf Company 2/5.
For his leadership during that deployment, Middendorf, 34, has been selected as the recipient of the 2012 Lt. Col. William Leftwich Jr. Trophy for Outstanding Leadership. The award goes annually to the Corps’ top infantry captain.
Middendorf credited his Marines with carrying themselves well while facing a fierce insurgency. They arrived in Afghanistan early in 2012, and returned to Pendleton in September.
“They’re pretty dang excited for me,” said Middendorf, now commander of Headquarters Company, 5th Marines. “They’re pretty excited to be able to say, ‘My company commander got the Leftwich,’ and that means more to me than anything else.”
Middendorf, a West Point graduate originally from Rochester, Minn., will receive the award June 6 at the Marine Corps Association and Foundation Ground Awards Dinner in Arlington, Va. He joins a distinguished list of recipients that includes recently retired Gen. John Allen, the last commander of the war in Afghanistan; Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, the first commander of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command; and Maj. Gen. James Laster, the current chief of staff at U.S. Special Operations Command.
The trophy has been awarded each year since 1979 in honor of a Navy Cross recipient who was killed on Nov. 18, 1970, during the heliborne emergency extraction of one of his reconnaissance teams. The extract team’s helicopter crashed into a mountainside in enemy territory, killing all personnel on board. Leftwich had been awarded the Navy Cross and a Purple Heart five years before for braving enemy machine-gun fire to rush to the aid of a mortally wounded Marine and delaying his own evacuation so he could call in additional airstrikes.
A tough deployment
Golf Company did not lose any Marines under Middendorf’s leadership, but the unit did have its hardships. Two men sustained major injuries: Lance Cpl. Colton Carlson lost both legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device in May, and 1st Lt. Michael Rhoads was badly wounded during Operation Lariat.
Middendorf credited both Marines for their sacrifices, adding that his company acted “beyond reproach” throughout the deployment. He highlighted Carlson’s toughness, in particular.
“If you want to talk about a guy who’s as tough as woodpecker lips, he hit an IED and put his own tourniquet on as the Marines were sweeping up to him,” Middendorf said. “He didn’t lose consciousness, and maintained his composure.”
Rhoads, a forward observer, was wounded in the shoulder while lying in the prone position, Middendorf said. The lieutenant was investigating suspicious compounds when he came under fire. According to a Marine Corps news release, he went into shock and had internal bleeding, but was saved by three Navy corpsmen on the scene.
Other Marines sustained concussions in IED strikes and gunshot wounds that deflected off body armor, but the company avoided other catastrophic injuries.
“Thank God,” Middendorf said, “that I was able to get everyone out of there alive.”
Golf Gompany spent the first few months working out of Combat Outpost Habib. As Afghan forces began to lead security operations near population centers, the Marines transitioned to running raids and multiday disruptive operations on Taliban strongholds away from Musa Qala district center.
Middendorf has been selected for major, and expects to move to Garden City, N.Y., for inspector and instructor duty, he said.■ He took over as Golf Company’s commander in May 2010, and deployed to Afghanistan previously in 2005 with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
It marks the fourth consecutive year that a Marine has won the Leftwich Trophy for leadership in Afghanistan.
The 2011 recipient, Capt. Casey Brock, received the award for leading Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, in Sangin district. Capt. T. Ryan Sparks won the 2010 trophy for leading Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., through the initial days of combat in the insurgent stronghold of Marjah. Capt. Christopher Conner won the 2009 award for leading Lejeune’s Charlie Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, during an undermanned deployment in Helmand province.