By Linda Scherer
LESTER PRAIRIE-WINSTED, MN After seven months in Afghanistan, Marine Corporal Andrew (Andy) Lyrek, a 2007 Lester Prairie graduate, returned home in time for Thanksgiving with much to be thankful for.
“It was definitely a relief coming back because I had no worries,” Lyrek said. “Everything is safe over here (in the US).”
Lyrek is serving with the Third Battalion First Marines Lima Company which recently returned from a successful mission in Garmsir District in Helmand Province, according to the battalion’s September newsletter. For the progress made in the Helmand area, 14 Marines lost their lives during the deployment.
The last several months before returning home were the worst, and a time Lyrek will not forget.
Since June, he survived a Taliban ambush that killed his squadron leader, went without food and water for several days in temperatures of more than 130 degrees, and was part of Lima Company’s push south into Helmand Province, clearing an estimated 150 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along the way.
“There were rounds always going over our heads and in front of us, close to us,” Lyrek said of the time his company moved farther south into an area once controlled by the Taliban.
“They (the military) can talk to you all they want, but until it actually happens, it’s unexpected,” Lyrek said. “You don’t believe it’s going to happen.”
This was Lyrek’s second deployment since entering the Marines June 24, 2007.
Becoming a Marine was important to Lyrek and he didn’t want to put if off. He enlisted in 2006, before graduation, as part of the delayed entry program.
“It was what I wanted to do. I knew I was going to do it, so I figured, ‘why wait?’” Lyrek said.
His first deployment was in 2008 to Japan.
“It wasn’t a combat deployment. We flew over to Japan for jungle training. We were actually there for two months. Then we shipped to the Philippines and trained with the Marines in the Philippines,” Lyrek said.
“When we returned to Japan, they flew us to South Korea and we worked with the South Korean Marines. We trained with them for about a month.”
His first deployment was definitely not as exciting as his second one, according to Lyrek.
Even the first part of his deployment in Afghanistan, Lyrek called “quiet” and “calm.”
“I didn’t know it (Afghanistan) was going to be so desolate. I had no idea what the houses and villages would be like,” Lyrek said. “The people are very poor there. Most of them don’t even have shoes.”
The area where Lyrek was stationed in Helmand Province was surrounded by farms. Some of the crops raised there are corn, wheat, poppy, and marijuana, according to Lyrek.
The people who live by the canals have access to water for their fields.
“And some people used the water for grass and flowers. It was weird to see,” Lyrek said. “We would walk into places where there would be flowers and green grass and it was totally unexpected.”
When they first arrived in Afghanistan, Lima Company relieved a battalion at Combat Outpost (COP) Koshtay, in the center of Garmsir District, within Helmand Province.
There were a number of villages nearby and the company patrolled the area and met the villagers.
The doctors from the villages were able to speak English. Although they didn’t speak it fluently, they were able to help the Marines communicate with the people.
“It was hot, about 148 degrees,” Lyrek said. “It is the hottest province in the country. Really unbearable.”
COP Koshtay was about a mile away from other combat outposts and had approximately 30 men.
It was a safe area which the Marines patrolled day and night. When they weren’t scheduled to patrol, they would play cards, play a little baseball, and they had Internet access.
When his company had been there about a month-and-a-half, Lyrek was told about his company’s first operation in Helmand Province. It was to clear the main road heading south of IEDs and set up two new patrol bases.
The two new bases would join many bases that had already been set up throughout the operation area, each being patrolled by a squad of up to 12 Marines.
“The operation was only to take us four days, but there were so many IEDs, it took us forever,” Lyrek said.
On the second day, June 7, as the group of 12 was pushing through an open field, six of them, led by their squadron leader Sgt. John Rankel, 23, of Indiana, were ambushed by approximately 30 Taliban hiding behind a large berm.
“We could see them. Their rounds on their guns were bigger, but they don’t have the accuracy or the distance that we have. That is what saved us,” Lyrek said. “We ended up calling the Cobra helicopters by radio and they took care of them.”
Rankel, who was shot during the ambush, and later died, was taken by helicopter to a medical center.
“We walked for miles and as soon as the sun would go down, we quit moving. We couldn’t see at night, and the area was so heavily laid with IEDs we had to stop. We had people up on the roofs to provide security at night.”
It was difficult to sleep, according to Lyrek. IEDs would go off and no one was sure if it was an animal or if a squad had stepped on a device.
“When we pushed down there (Helmand Province), we knew it was the most heavily laid area for IEDs in the whole place.”
Aside from constant danger, the company didn’t have food and water.
“Every night we were supposed to get resupplied and we thought they would come. That is what they told us, but that didn’t happen,” Lyrek said.
At night, during Operation Roadhouse, the group stayed in compounds or in local homes.
“There were wells and we tried to drink the water with iodine tablets, but we still got sick, Lyrek said.
“We would eat whatever food we could find. If there was flour, some guys would mix flour and water together and make bread. That was it.”
Food arrived on the fifth, or possibly sixth day, according to Lyrek, in the form of MRE meals (meals ready to eat).
Lyrek said by the time the meals arrived, he found they tasted better than usual.
Once their operation was completed, after 12 days, the company returned to COP Koshtay and were able to take a month to recover before they learned about their second undertaking, Operation Roadhouse II, which ended up being the most important part of their deployment.
This time they moved south with about 50 trucks and many military personnel to establish multiple patrol bases and outposts, clear the area of IEDs, and secure the Safar Bazaar.
The Safar Bazaar was the Taliban’s command center in southern Helmand Province, where the Taliban would get supplies and smuggle weapons to other Taliban fighters, according to Lyrek.
“We cleared over 150 IEDs on the way down there,” Lyrek said. “Even more clearing the bazaar. We also lost two more Marines from IEDs,” Lyrek said.
It took the Marines two days to clear the bazaar, and many more to clear out all of the IEDs.
When the bazaar reopened, Lyrek said the people were happy because they felt safer and it brought more shop owners and more shoppers to the area.
The Marines will continue to be a presence there and will continue to monitor the bazaar and keep it secure.
“I think we did a great job at everything we did,” Lyrek said.
He listed the seven Marines that died from Lima Company. They are Sgt. Brandon Bury, Corporal Donald Marler, Lt. Corporal Derek Hernandez, Sgt. Joseph Caskey, Corporal Kristopher Greer, Sgt. Floyd Holley, and squadron leader Rankel.
Three of the men died from injuries caused when IEDs went off.
And three of the men drowned when their 30-ton armored truck got stuck and the road gave way when they tried to get it out, causing it to rollover into the canal.
Lyrek’s family lives on a farm in Winsted
Lyrek came home to visit his parents, Dale and Lori Lyrek of Winsted, and siblings on a four-day leave from Camp Pendleton.
His older brother, Adam is married to Laurie and they live in Watertown.
His brother Matt lives in Montrose, his sister Jessie lives in Bloomington, and younger brother Thomas lives in Winsted. He also has four nieces and one nephew.
Lyrek returned to Camp Pendleton after Thanksgiving, but will be able to return home for a 15-day leave at Christmas time.
Lyrek said he didn’t have any special plans for Christmas.
“I just want to be with the family,” he said.
He will have fulfilled his four years of service duty in June 2011.
He is also considering extending his service time to include a possible deployment to Afghanistan in September 2011.