When explosions ripped through the July morning routine at FOB Walton in Southern Afghanistan, the soldiers of the 276th Engineering Company looked to Staff Sgt. Cesar Martinez to guide them through their first real firefight.
He had been there before. This is his fourth deployment to a combat zone.
Martinez, 28, joined the 276th just before this deployment. Previously, he served with the storied 101st Army Airborne, in a unit known as the “Rakkasan,” a nickname earned during World War II.
“The name comes from the guys actually jumping out of the planes. Well, when they were coming down from the sky, you know if you look up to them, if you look up to a parachute it looks like a fallen-down umbrella. Well, the local Japanese people did not know what a parachute was at the time and the best explanation was a fallen down umbrella. So in Japanese it was Rakkasan, Rakkasan - fallen down umbrella,” Martinez told us. “So that was the nickname and it stuck and it's been the Rakkasans ever since. The best unit in the world.”
Twice, Martinez deployed to Iraq. This is his second tour in Afghanistan. On the last, he was running airborne assault missions out of helicopters. This time, he is a leader on a decidedly less glamorous mission: tearing down the bases and outposts used to fight America’s longest-running war.
But here he has a secondary role, too, as the “combatives” expert: instructor, tactician and combat expert.
“Even in the beginning, there were some times when I would just stay up all night and go over with my paper work, my battle drills and tactics - stuff that I could do to make my soldiers understand what we had to do the next day and so on,” Martinez recalled.
So when a vehicle-borne IED exploded at the FOB Walton wall, and Taliban fighters began to fire on his men, Martinez was among the first to react.
“We got attacked from a different position that we only practiced a few times, but thanks to all the training and all of us working together, we reacted properly,” he said. “We reacted perfect and no Americans got hurt that day.”
Several soldiers who fought beside Martinez credit his steady hand that day for the absence of any American casualties – which he says wasn’t actually all that steady.
“The shakes came back and the adrenaline came back, and I was just glad when it was over,” Martinez said. “It was about four hours.”
When this deployment ends, Martinez plans to leave the Army and go to school. He loves horses, he told us, and would like to become a veterinarian.
“I believe that I'll be fine in the civilian world,” he said in September. “We have several months left here in country and I believe that when I go back, I'll do fine.”