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Utah Marine receives Navy Cross
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - When his platoon was ambushed in an attack by insurgents in Iraq last year, Marine Sgt. Willie L. Copeland III took charge.

He led five Marines out of the heaviest fire, found cover and killed 10 of the enemy in close combat. When his commanding officer fell wounded, Copeland used his body to shield the officer as he administered first aid.

For his leadership and dedication to duty, the 26-year-old from Utah on Thursday received the Navy Cross, the Navy's second-highest honor. Seven Marines have received the Navy Cross for Operation Iraqi Freedom through Jan. 10, according to the latest figures from the Marine Corps Awards Branch.

The attack killed one Marine and wounded several others.

Copeland said he was embarrassed by the attention and explained that he was doing only what every Marine would do.

''Nothing's natural about running into bullets,'' he said. ''It's more important for me to make sure my men are OK.''

Copeland is a member of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, whose members are seen as some of the Corps' toughest, on par with Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces.

On the afternoon of April 7, 2004, Copeland's platoon was in a 15-vehicle convoy that was ambushed by 40 to 60 insurgents southeast of Fallujah in a volatile region known as the Sunni Triangle. The insurgents, firing from well-fortified and concealed positions along the Euphrates River, crippled the lead Humvee with a rocket-propelled grenade and disabled Copeland's vehicle with mortar rounds and gunfire.

Col. Rory Talkington, who recommended Copeland for the Navy Cross, said the fighting was the worst 1st Recon experienced during its deployment.

''Everybody in that platoon was heavily engaged in close combat,'' Talkington said. ''The fact that Sgt. Copeland was not hit was just miraculous.''

Copeland led five Marines out of the heaviest fire and rushed across an open field toward the enemy, according to the medal citation. The Marines crossed a deep and muddy canal and worked their way up to firing positions near the enemy.

Ten insurgents were killed at close range. Others were forced to flee.

Reinforcements soon arrived at the scene, but not before Copeland's commanding officer, Capt. Brent Morel, was mortally wounded.

Copeland did not want to discuss the battle Thursday, but a Navy Times account of it said Copeland shielded Morel with his own body and dragged the officer to an irrigation ditch.

Copeland stripped off his combat gear, vest and blouse and treated Morel, who was still conscious, by covering the captain's bleeding wounds with his hands and tying a bandage around his chest. For 15 minutes, Copeland stayed with Morel until an armored Humvee arrived. Morel was taken to a combat hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Copeland's father, Larry, who works in a steel mill and raises cows in Smithfield, Utah, was proud but not surprised by his son's actions under fire.

''All the way through school, if he was in trouble it was because he was helping someone else,'' Larry Copeland said following the award ceremony at Camp Pendleton.

Copeland has been in the Marines for seven years and is gearing up for his third deployment to Iraq.

He met his wife, Marine Sgt. Danielle Copeland, a 24-year-old from Pasadena, Texas, at Camp Pendleton in 2001. The two were married 1 1/2 years ago.

''I think every man would be proud to serve with him,'' Danielle Copeland said of her husband. ''He would never leave a man behind.''

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