Marine's 'Brilliant' Response to Live-Fire Accident Helped Earn Him the Leftwich Trophy

  • Courtesy: Capt. Brian Coleman
    Courtesy: Capt. Brian Coleman
  • Capt. Brian Coleman, bottom row, second on viewer's right. (Courtesy: Capt. Brian Coleman)
    Capt. Brian Coleman, bottom row, second on viewer's right. (Courtesy: Capt. Brian Coleman)

A Marine infantry officer who led troops in four countries during a recent Middle East deployment after his battalion suffered a serious training accident will receive his service's prestigious Leftwich Trophy.

Capt. Brian Coleman, commanding officer of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, returned from Afghanistan last week. Now, he's being honored for his stellar leadership as he prepared and led his Marines to face off against terrorists in Iraq and Syria and work with allies in Jordan and Afghanistan.

"As expected, the competition was exceptionally keen," Commandant Gen. Robert Neller wrote in the award announcement. "All nominees had exemplary records which indicated noteworthy leadership and command ability."

Despite the recognition, Coleman told Military.com he still thinks about the 100 things he could have done better along the way.

That attitude doesn't surprise his commanding officer.

"That's Brian -- even if you do it right, you do it as best as you possibly can, there's always room for improvement," said Lt. Col. James Birchfield, who put Coleman up for the award. "It's that desire and will to get better. He's never satisfied with 'good enough.'"

The battalion got off to a challenging start when preparing for its deployment with one of the Marine Corps' land-based crisis response units.

Last May, two Marines suffered gunshot wounds during a live-fire training exercise at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms in California. Both survived the mishap and were later released from the hospital, and Coleman helped revamp their training to prevent similar accidents, Birchfield said.

Creating tough and realistic training is not hard to do, Birchfield said, but it takes talent to make the training safe. Now, leaders with 3/4 are carefully assessing their Marines' rehearsals before moving on to live-fire training. If they aren't meeting the requirements, they're starting over.

"Brian ... added a couple extra steps that were, quite frankly, brilliant," Birchfield said. "His approach had us alter our entire approach to how we conducted training as a battalion."

The pre-deployment accident put scrutiny on the battalion when it headed downrange. The deployment proved incredibly busy, and Coleman and his Marines were pulled in several directions.

Some were firing mortars at Islamic State group terrorists while others conducted vehicle security patrols or participated in helicopter operations. The Marines also served as a quick-reaction force and offered fire support for special operators. And they secured new bases where U.S. troops could train Afghan forces.

"I'm terribly proud of these guys and what they've done," Coleman said. "My responsibilities on that deployment were to create an environment that facilitated the talented young men who work under me to really thrive. … That's all you are as a leader, is just a facilitator."

Coleman reminded his infantry Marines constantly about the value of their work. And he made that a priority despite some of the teams working in rather isolated conditions.

"One thing we can't issue an officer is his personality and his character," Birchfield said. "... Brian has that kind of personality that's really conducive with being a solid infantry leader."

Coleman and his Marines were using technology and weapons systems that aren't normally seen at the company level, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools and 120mm and 81mm mortars, he said.

"My mortarmen were trained on 60mm mortars ... and they came out there and stepped up to use a new weapons system, and they were doing it brilliantly against an enemy that was actively trying to get after us," Coleman said. "It's the most humbling thing to see these guys meet those challenges and absolutely crush them."

He credits his company with being the real success story behind the Leftwich Trophy.

"Nobody would've looked twice at me unless the company as a whole hadn't been out there performing," Coleman said. "It's kind of uncomfortable for me to be recognized in this way because this organization doesn't work without people depending on each other and leaning on each other. I leaned on my guys every day."

The Leftwich Trophy is named for Navy Cross recipient Lt. Col. William G. Leftwich Jr., who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1970 while helping extract a reconnaissance team. Coleman has vowed to make sure he and his unit carry that legacy forward.

He has long looked up to other Leftwich Trophy recipients, including Brig. Gen. Julian Alford, who oversaw Coleman's unit in Afghanistan, and Maj. Daniel Grainger, who was an instructor at Infantry Officer Course when Coleman attended.

"These are just legends in my eyes, and guys you're kind of awestruck at as you're a young officer coming up," Coleman said. "So to be recognized among those really talented leaders is an honor and a privilege.

"But it's really more of a recognition of our company as a whole," he added. "I'll just be the holder of the award."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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