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You've seen these iconic photos before, but you've likely never heard the true stories behind them. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.


Living Legends: The Incredible True Stories Behind Three Iconic Photographs

December 25, 2022Mac Caltrider,Jack Mandaville

Joe Rosenthal’s beyond iconic photo of six Marines raising the American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima grabbed the world’s attention when it was published in the spring of 1945. It wasn’t until after the photograph had been widely circulated that the public learned the truth of the moment Rosenthal had captured: The photo was actually of Marines raising a flag to replace another, smaller flag that had been planted atop Mount Suribachi earlier that day. We also learned later that some of the men in the picture were misidentified by the press, and several of them were killed in action soon after it was taken.

But does that context ultimately matter? After all, it is the image itself, not the story around it, that is ingrained in our collective memory and enshrines the legacies of the Americans who fought and died in the Pacific theater during World War II.

The power of photography cannot be overstated. And it can be especially potent when the subject matter relates to war and the military. Warfighters inhabit a universe far removed from the daily lives of most ordinary people. For those of us on the homefront, photography provides a glimpse across that gulf, and from a safe enough distance that the life of a soldier can appear glamorous. Just as with the Marines originally identified in Rosenthal’s famous photograph, troops throughout the generations have been transformed into minor celebrities with just the snap of a camera. But their fame rarely stretches beyond the images, which can take on a life of their own while the context around them often gets lost forever.

Returning to the question of whether the context matters: We believe it does, and we assume our readers do too. Which is why we looked into stories of three warfighters who were thrust into the spotlight after photographs of them went viral. Each revealed a fascinating story, reminding us that the truth is often far bigger, and more incredible, than what any single image can convey.

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Mike Vining at the time of his retirement. Photo courtesy of Mike Vining.

Mike Vining

One afternoon in May 1970, a young American bomb technician crouched in the Cambodian jungle, unspooling a roll of detonating cord. It was the last roll from the 12th case of det cord the 26-year-old Army specialist needed to complete his mission. The cord — nearly 3,000 feet of it — was connected to 300 cases of C4 rigged to destroy a massive stockpile of enemy weapons and ammunition.

The bomb tech, Spc. Mike Vining, was a member of an eight-man explosive ordnance disposal team, one of just 13 such units operating at the time in Indochina and the only one involved in the Cambodian campaign. By this point in his tour, Vining had conducted plenty of EOD missions, yet what he was now preparing to blow up was much bigger than anything he had destroyed before. If he pulled it off, the destruction of the supply cache — nicknamed “Rock Island East” after the biggest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the United States — would amount to the second-largest command detonation of the entire Vietnam War. But now that the det cord was finally in place, and the charges were all set and ready to go, he still had to figure out how to initiate the explosion.

As fate would have it, and through no effort of his own, Vining would find himself a subject of great interest to millions of strangers on the internet. In the early 2000s, a photo of Vining in uniform surfaced online in the form of a meme. Then the meme went viral.

Time was of the essence. Vining’s team was deep inside enemy territory, and the helicopter pilots were anxious to return to the relative safety of the sky. Having already used his last fuse igniter, Vining took out a matchbook, cut a slit in the det cord with his knife, stuck a match inside, and lit it. The charges started to detonate as he ran back to the last helicopter on the ground and hopped on one of the skids. As the Huey ascended over the jungle, he gazed proudly at the bright flashes and thunderous explosions created by his handiwork. The mission was complete.

Vining never imagined that anyone who hadn’t been directly involved in the operation would ever hear about Rock Island East. And he certainly never thought that his personal exploits as a soldier would be remembered and appreciated by anyone except his comrades. After all, he spent most of his 30-year military career working among the quiet professionals of the US Army Special Forces. But as fate would have it, and through no effort of his own, Vining would eventually find himself a subject of great interest to millions of strangers on the internet. It happened, as these things usually do, quite suddenly. In the early 2000s, a photo of Vining in uniform surfaced online in the form of a meme. Then the meme went viral.

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Vining stands in front of a broken M37 truck near Song Be Bridge, Vietnam, Nov. 10, 1970. Photo courtesy of Mike Vining.

The now-famous photo of Vining was taken in 1999, just before he retired from the military. In it, he appears attired in his Army dress uniform, his chest gleaming with an astonishing number of ribbons, badges, and medals. He is also wearing a pair of large, clear-framed spectacles and smiling amicably, as you might imagine, say, a grandfather would upon handing you a piece of his favorite hard candy. From the neck up, he looks more like a stunt double for Mister Rogers than an elite warrior, yet the various details of his uniform clearly indicate that he has fought in his fair share of battles. Hence why someone on the internet thought it would be funny to caption the photo, “You don’t operate, do you son?” The joke being that despite the big glasses and the goofy grin, this guy is in fact way cooler than you.

The meme spread quickly and Vining — or, rather, the mythical warfighter he appeared to be in his retirement photo — soon became a legend among young troops cutting their teeth on the nascent battlefields of the Global War on Terror. But while many embraced the myth, it was not without its detractors. A legion of armchair sleuths undertook a campaign to expose Vining as a fraud, surfacing wherever his picture appeared online to point out supposed discrepancies on his uniform as proof that this was a case of stolen valor. But the truth is, not only did Vining earn every bit of brass on his chest, but his military career was even more remarkable than what can be gleaned from his uniform.

From the neck up, he looks more like a stunt double for Mister Rogers than an elite warrior, yet the various details of his uniform clearly indicate that he has fought in his fair share of battles.

Born in 1950, two months after NATO unanimously voted to deploy troops to South Korea, Vining grew up in the small town of Greenville, Michigan. He says that he knew at an early age that he was destined to become a soldier. “That was always my plan, even when I was a little kid,” he told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do in the Army, but I was really interested in mountaineering and in chemistry.”

One day, Vining responded to an ad in Popular Science magazine and spent $1 on a manual that promised to teach him 101 different formulas for explosives and pyrotechnics. In the pages of the manual, Vining discovered a new love for all things that go boom. Making explosives became his childhood hobby. While other kids idled away their afternoons playing baseball or kick the can, Vining was busy building firecrackers and other small “bombs” and setting them off in his backyard. Then he stumbled across a movie about a British bomb tech tasked with defusing unexploded ordnance during the Battle of Britain. Vining recalls that while he was watching the film he had an epiphany: “I thought, ‘Wow, what kind of person does it take to do that kind of job? That bomb could go off at any time!’” From that moment on he was determined to become that kind of person.

Vining joined the US Army just before his 18th birthday, enlisting as an ammunition maintenance specialist. At that time, enlisting as an explosive ordnance disposal tech wasn’t an option; however, as Vining’s recruiter explained to him, having a job that entailed blowing stuff up would be a good first step toward achieving his dream. As an ammunition maintenance specialist, he would learn, among other things, how to dispose of ordnance using explosives. The recruiter’s advice was sound. When the Army called for volunteers to attend EOD school, Vining immediately raised his hand and was selected for the course.

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Vining (front row, at right) as a member of Delta Force's C Team, B Squadron. Photo courtesy of Mike Vining.

Vining graduated from EOD school in May 1969, and shortly thereafter he was shipped off to Vietnam. There, he was assigned to an eight-man team tasked with providing EOD support to virtually every unit in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s III Corps, which covered the region surrounding Saigon. Over the next two years, he participated in countless missions in Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia. In addition to destroying Rock Island East, he was also involved in the demolition of a hidden enemy fortress that Vining dubbed Warehouse Hill because it was located deep inside a mountain and housed one of the largest North Vietnamese Army supply caches ever found. Unlike with Rock Island East, there were no embedded reporters present to chronicle the destruction of Warehouse Hill, but Vining still keeps his copy of the EOD report as proof that the subterranean fortress once existed.

After the war, Vining continued to work as a bomb tech as Army EOD expanded its role within special operations. Because of his unique skill set, Vining was able to continue working in bomb disposal while back on the homefront. In 1976, while serving on Sen. Bob Dole’s personal Secret Service detail, Vining responded to a series of bomb attacks in Quincy, Illinois. Four bombs had gone off in what first appeared to be an assassination attempt on Dole but later turned out to be unrelated to Dole’s visit. Vining’s team, led by Army Master Sgt. Kenneth Foster, was sent to destroy a fifth, unexploded device near the Colt Industries compressor plant in Quincy. As Foster investigated the device, the dynamite exploded, killing him instantly.

“I was the first one to get down to Ken, but there was nothing I could do,” Vining recalls. “He took the entire blast to his upper body and was dead immediately.”

One day Vining received an email from a friend. Attached to the email was Vining’s retirement photo, stamped with the words, “You don’t operate, do you son?”

Foster’s death had a deep impact on Vining. Soon after the incident, he made up his mind to give up bomb disposal and devote the rest of his career to saving lives as a Special Forces medic. But before he could begin down that path, Vining received a phone call from a Special Forces sergeant major informing him of a new elite unit being stood up at Fort Bragg. The unit — now known as Special Forces Detachment Delta — was looking to recruit a few EOD noncommissioned officers with good reputations and combat experience.

Vining agreed to an interview with Col. Charles Beckwith, who was heading the new unit. Beckwith explained that he had a vision of transforming EOD specialists from mere support personnel to full-fledged operators. Two weeks later, Vining and five other bomb techs joined the inaugural class of the Operator Training Course (OTC) at Fort Bragg. Only Vining and one other EOD specialist passed the six-month course. A third bomb tech subsequently passed the course with the following class. Together, the three of them then attended Special Forces Assessment and Selection and were all chosen to join Beckwith’s fledgling Delta Force. Vining served in a variety of roles during his time with The Unit. He worked as a breaching expert and an OTC instructor, and even helped establish a separate EOD unit to support Delta on missions that required additional bomb techs. At 42, he transferred out of The Unit and went to work at Joint Special Operations Command. There, he worked as the J-3 operations sergeant major.

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Vining (far right) disembarks an aircraft following Operation Eagle Claw, April 1980. Photo courtesy of Mike Vining.

Then, in 1998, three decades after he enlisted, Vining took his official retirement photo. Beneath his sly grin and oversize spectacles sits an array of ribbons and badges denoting the EOD technician was a member of Special Forces, had served in Vietnam, Iran, and Grenada, was decorated with jump wings and a Bronze Star, and had fought in combat.

In 1999, Vining hung up his uniform for good, packed his things, and set off to spend the rest of his days enjoying his newfound freedom with his beloved wife, Donna. They traveled the world, climbed mountains, and devoted their time to exploring together. Life was good. Then one day Vining received an email from a friend. Attached to the email was Vining’s retirement photo, stamped with the words, “You don’t operate, do you son?” His friend explained that the picture was all over the internet. Vining had been memefied.

“Luckily, I was retired by the time that meme went viral, so it didn’t impact my career,” Vining says. “But it did drive people to look into my background.”

Indeed, before long, an army of internet trolls was waging a crusade to expose Vining as a fraud. With only his retirement photo to go off of, the trolls attempted to build a case of stolen valor by noting certain discrepancies they perceived on his uniform. For example, some pointed out that his EOD badge was situated too low on his jacket and that he wore a combat infantryman badge, which, the trolls argued, didn’t add up because the CIB is exclusively awarded to infantrymen and the man in the picture was supposedly a bomb tech.

His now-famous retirement photo was just another unremarkable moment in an otherwise remarkable career.

With a hint of exasperation in his voice, Vining repeated the answer he gives whenever he is confronted by internet uniform police. “Uniform specifications were different in the ’90s than they are now,” he told Coffee or Die. “Even though I was EOD, I had a CIB because my duty position in Delta was infantry. I was not in a strictly EOD role, I was an operator when I earned the CIB in Grenada.”

Eventually some of Vining’s former comrades chimed in to the online debate and vouched for the authenticity of the photo, and the naysayers quieted down. But the saga didn’t end there. Once the internet generally accepted Vining’s remarkable career as a reality, people started seeing the legendary operator everywhere — namely, in photos featuring mysterious men in tactical attire doing cool stuff in far-flung dangerous places. In one particular photo from 1991 of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s personal security detail, a man with a similar build to Vining’s, dressed in a button-down shirt tucked into pleated khakis and sporting Army-issue “birth control glasses” is shown carrying a rifle and escorting the general off a Black Hawk helicopter. It’s regularly credited as being Vining, but in actuality it’s one of Vining’s former colleagues, Bill Cronin III.

living legends, General Norman Schwarzkopf

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf with security detail during the Persian Gulf War, 1991. The man at right is regularly credited as being Vining, but in actuality it’s one of Vining’s former colleagues, Bill Cronin III. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Dean Wagner.

“That photo is actually Bill and two other guys from The Unit, Craig Maxim and Norm Crawford,” Vining says. “I was doing something completely different at the time they were running that security detail.”

That mix-up was exacerbated this year thanks to Col. Jesse Johnson’s book, Warfighter: The Story of an American Fighting Man. In it, Johnson claims Vining was on that detail, not Cronin.

Vining’s long service in the Army was never about accruing uniform trinkets or tangible displays of achievement. He pursued a career in EOD out of a love for explosives and served selflessly for 30 years in support of his comrades and of the United States. His now-famous retirement photo was just another unremarkable moment in an otherwise remarkable career, yet for being one of the most mundane days during his three decades of service, it’s the one he most often has to defend.

“Leave it to people on the internet to see a picture of someone they don’t know in uniform and try and pick it apart.”

Living legends, Chris DeBlanc, Fallujah grenade meme

In November 2004, when Lance Cpl. Chris DeBlanc tossed a frag grenade down a stairwell in Fallujah, the last thing on his mind was getting turned into a meme. Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images.

Chris DeBlanc

There is no shortage of iconic photographs of American Marines in the Iraq War. Notable mentions include the “Marlboro Man” of Operation Phantom Fury, 1st Sgt. Bradley Kasal being assisted out of the infamous “Hell House,” and the Marines of 1st Tank Battalion pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square. But if any one image best encapsulates the distinct experience of serving as a Marine in that conflict, it is perhaps Scott Peterson’s famous photo of an anonymous lance corporal casually dropping a grenade down a stairwell.

Peterson took the photo in November 2004 while embedded with Charlie Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, during the Second Battle of Fallujah. Though published in the Christian Science Monitor soon after it was taken, the image wasn’t necessarily well known for the first decade of its circulation. Then, at some point during the early 2010s, somebody stumbled upon the photo, slapped a few simple words on it, and — voila! — a viral meme was born.

Anyone who has followed any military-related social media pages over the years has undoubtedly seen the photo pop up in their feeds more than a few times. Even people with little or no connection to this world have probably come across the meme in some form or another. Often, it appears with a caption saying something really interesting and insightful, like “Vibe check,” or “THE POST BELOW ME IS JUST SHIT.”

The lone figure in the photo has never been publicly identified aside from the original Getty Images caption. But his identity is no secret to the men who served alongside him in Fallujah. And among an even smaller group of people, the mysterious Marine may be recognizable because of the less glamorous work he’s done post-military service. His name is Chris DeBlanc, aka “D-Bo,” and he’s a tax guy.

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Chris DeBlanc behind an M240 machine gun outside Fallujah, Iraq. Photo courtesy of Chris DeBlanc.

Yes, you read that right, the famous Grenade Meme Guy is now a Virginia-based certified public accountant and personal financial adviser. He’s really good at it too.

DeBlanc’s journey from Marine to meme started in the Global War on Terror’s earliest days. He first cut his teeth in combat as a team leader in the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A little over a year after he returned from that deployment, DeBlanc and his unit found themselves back in Iraq, this time in the heart of the Marine Corps’ largest battle since the Vietnam War — Operation Phantom Fury.

During the month-and-a-half-long operation, the Marines of Charlie Company, 1st LAR, fought block-to-block, house-to-house, and room-to-room through the city of Fallujah. They sustained many casualties. Approximately 25% of the unit was either wounded or killed in the operation. At the height of the battle, the Marines revised their tactics, pivoting from entering homes at the ground level to entering from rooftops.

“You have a tactical advantage when you’re attacking down,” DeBlanc told Coffee or Die. “They could either fight us and die in the house or run to the streets where our [light armored vehicles] were waiting to mow them down.”


Chris DeBlanc in the turret of his light armored vehicle in Iraq, 2004. Photo courtesy of Chris DeBlanc.

That simple formula for house-clearing became the standard operating procedure for the remainder of the operation, as the city’s compact layout allowed the Marines to move easily from building to building by crawling across ladders one man at a time.

DeBlanc recalls that seven Marines from adjacent units had been killed on the day the famous photograph was snapped. The Marines of Charlie Company were pulling no punches at that point. Every house was receiving the same treatment.

“Ammo is cheap. Life isn’t,” says Marine Lt. Col. Paul Webber, then a lieutenant in DeBlanc’s sister platoon. “So throw the grenade.”

DeBlanc recalls that seven Marines from adjacent units had been killed on the day the famous photograph was snapped.

DeBlanc did just that: He threw a grenade down a stairwell with the intention of taking out any enemy fighters who might have been waiting for the Marines on the ground floor. “So I chuck this thing down there and count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight,” he recalls. “It didn’t go off.”

“It was a dud,” says Timothy Milholin, who remembers that he was standing in the doorway behind Peterson when he took the picture. “We threw so many more grenades after that I don’t think we ended up even going down there.”

“I had a shitload of grenades in that cargo pocket,” DeBlanc added, referring to the giant bulge that protrudes from the left side of his trousers in the photo.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, that single moment — which lives in his memory among a sea of much more significant moments he experienced during the Second Battle of Fallujah — would make him immortal.

DeBlanc’s reentry into civilian life happened quickly. He left the Marine Corps shortly after his unit’s return from Fallujah and then hit the ground running. He got a degree from Richmond University and briefly worked as a public accountant. From 2011 to 2013, in order to pay off his student loans, he put his accounting career on hold to work as a contractor in Afghanistan, where he “got tan, lifted weights, and smoked cigars.”

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DeBlanc served in 1st LAR during Operation Phantom Fury. Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images.

It was shortly after his return to the United States, as he was settling in with a new wife and a corporate accounting job, that he started seeing Peterson’s photograph, overlaid with the standard Coolvetica meme font, pop up on various Marine Corps-related Facebook groups.

“I’m all of a sudden getting all these messages from people who were there,” says DeBlanc. “‘Hey, D-Bo, check it out.’”

Milholin echoes the random nature with which the meme ascended in popularity, saying, “People who never knew I was involved with that were sharing the picture with me.”

Webber had similar experiences with colleagues while still an active-duty Marine. He told Coffee or Die: “This crusty old civilian GS showed me the image blown up as a poster in his office. I said, ‘Hey, Gary, I was there when that photo was taken.’”

Peterson took hundreds of photos in Fallujah, many of them featuring a clearly identifiable DeBlanc. As a historical document, there is nothing more special about the grenade-tossing photo than there is about any other photo Peterson took during the battle. Chances are it would have remained buried forever in the vast Getty Images archives had it not been resurrected as a meme and unleashed on the world in the age of social media.

Constantly seeing a photograph of himself taken years ago at such a significant juncture in his life, combined with its usage as a tool for strangers on the internet to convey jokes and opinions on everything from war and politics to video games and online dating, has been a surreal, and somewhat frustrating, experience for DeBlanc.

Fallujah grenade meme, military memes

Memes of DeBlanc continue to make the rounds across the internet. Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images.

“I joined the Marine Corps 21 years ago,” he says. “Time changes everything. It’s to the point that was a lifetime ago. I recognize the meme as, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ But I wish people knew where that was. It was Fallujah, the largest American military operation of the 21st century. I wish people knew what it cost.”

Now a family man and the owner of a public accounting firm with a staff of two dozen employees, Chris DeBlanc hardly resembles the coldblooded purveyor of grenade death the public sees whenever that image gets shared online. In fact, he looks exactly how you would imagine a certified public accountant looks.

“My kids see Chris as the tall, balding accountant. Nice guy. Laid-back,” says Milholin, who lives within driving distance of DeBlanc and has stayed in touch with him over the years. “They don’t see the Marine I knew in Fallujah.”

Perhaps there is a lesson here for us all. In a short time, DeBlanc’s life shifted from one extreme to another — from the chaos, violence, and blazing tempo of urban combat to the daily grind of building a successful civilian career and raising a family. Such people, from the flag raisers at Mount Suribachi to the Marines of Fallujah, remain forever frozen in the public consciousness as the poster boys of bygone wars. But they know better than anyone that life goes on and who they truly are is defined by what they are doing today.

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Australian SAS operator Dan Pronk holds up money seized from the Taliban in 2011. Photo courtesy of Dank Pronk.

Dan Pronk

In the spring of 2011, Australian Special Air Service medic Dan Pronk was working in a combined unit alongside American Drug Enforcement Administration agents on a mission to thwart the Taliban’s narcotics operations in Helmand province. Pronk, who had attended medical school on the military’s dime, had worked as a hospital physician before following his brother into special operations. Now, instead of a white lab coat and a stethoscope, he sported desert camouflage and carried a rifle, but the crux of his job remained the same. He was in Afghanistan to save lives.

Pronk found that the life of a combat medic suited him well. He thrived in austere environments and was capable of performing complicated lifesaving procedures under extreme pressure. In time, he began to feel at home amid the violence and chaos of war. It was only years later, when a photo of Pronk in Afghanistan went viral on the internet, that he started to realize just how extraordinary that experience was. To Pronk, the guy in the photo was just a soldier doing ordinary soldier things, but in the eyes of millions of social media users he looked larger than life.

It is no mystery why people were smitten by the photo: a long-haired and bearded Pronk wears a camouflaged M4 rifle and dark sunglasses, looking like a swaggering GWOT-version of Wyatt Earp mixed with Tupac.

“When you’re immersed in that environment, everything seems kind of normal,” Pronk told Coffee or Die. “Everyone else is doing it and you’ve got no basis for comparison. It’s not until you get out of that and transition back to civilian life that you look back and you sort of think, ‘Holy shit, those were really abnormal experiences.’”

The famous photo of Pronk captures him after a standard raid. But of course, it’s just a snapshot, a glimpse into a much deadlier day.

As Pronk tells it, the story begins on May 22, 2011. That morning, he and his teammates filed across the flight line at Tarin Kowt and boarded an MH-47G Chinook crewed by members of the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Their target objective was a compound housing a suspect kingpin in the local opium trade. They would fly in, raid the compound, nab the suspect, and be on their way. Business as usual.

The helicopter deposited the commandos about 200 meters outside the village where the compound was located. Almost immediately, they were assailed by a barrage of machine-gun fire and rockets. “We were engaged straightaway,” Pronk recalls. “It ended up turning into a 48-hour running gunfight.”

living legends, Dan Pronk

Dan Pronk on the way back from a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, 2011. Photo courtesy of Dan Pronk.

As the firefight raged into its second day, the unit began taking casualties. Several Australian operators were struck by shrapnel; another was shot squarely in his chest and saved by his armor. Then a group of commandos advancing forward in an attempt to eliminate the machine guns were struck by a large improvised explosive device. Before the smoke dissipated, Pronk ran into the fray to retrieve the wounded, including 32-year-old Sgt. Brett Wood, who had absorbed the brunt of the explosion.

“Wood was pretty badly injured. He lost both his legs and an arm,” Pronk recalls. “The guy behind him was also pretty badly shrapped up through the arm and down his side.”

Pronk hauled the two casualties out of the kill zone and began working on them. Despite his best efforts, Pronk was unable to save Wood. Thanks to him, however, the other wounded operator survived.

Several weeks later, Pronk’s team was waiting to be extracted from another raid when they started taking fire from multiple positions. The operators bounded toward the landing zone, taking turns returning fire. The gunfight, which Pronk captured on his helmet camera, was still raging when a CH-47 landed. Pronk recalls that, as the commandos started loading in, the DEA agent kneeling next to him “got shot in his bum cheek and it blew out the front of his thigh.”

Pronk hoisted the wounded agent onto the ramp of the helicopter and then pulled himself inside. “I treated this bloke in flight, and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t too badly injured, thankfully,” he says. “So we left him on the bird and flew directly to our second raid for the day.”

The day’s second raid was on a Taliban storage facility, suspected of housing several tons of wet opium, weapons, and bomb-making supplies. After the first successful raid and the subsequent gunfight, Pronk’s team was moving like a well-oiled machine and they managed to take the building with ease.

As the operators began destroying the opium they had seized, Pronk’s teammate snapped a photo of him standing in front of a fire, holding a bag of opium in one hand and a fat stack of cash in the other. Pronk figured the picture would serve as little more than a way to make his close friends laugh after the mission, but he soon forgot ever having taken it.

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Pronk waits to board a helicopter before an anti-narcotics mission in Helmand province, 2011. Photo courtesy of Dan Pronk.

The image would spend the next five years sitting unseen on a flash drive. Then, in 2016, Pronk rediscovered the photo and posted it to his personal Facebook page. It very quickly went viral.

It is no mystery why people were smitten by the photo: a long-haired and bearded Pronk wears a camouflaged M4 rifle and dark sunglasses, looking like a swaggering GWOT-version of Wyatt Earp mixed with Tupac. But as with so many iconic war photos, it fails to convey the seriousness of the context. No one outside of Pronk’s team knew about the firefight hours earlier, or about the tragedy that followed.

“A few hours after that photo was taken, we had almost hit our extraction point when we got a call over the radio that we had another casualty — Rowan Robinson, the team’s engineer — from one of our blocking positions,” Pronk says. “He had a gunshot wound to the neck.”

According to Pronk, he and a teammate ran over a kilometer uphill to reach their wounded friend. When they got to the wounded operator, they dragged him to cover and could immediately see that he was in critical condition. Robinson didn’t show any signs of life.

Pronk began to treat Robinson’s neck while sporadic gunfire escalated into a full-fledged firefight all around him. Eventually, a US State Department Huey, armed with a minigun and carrying a Special Forces medic, arrived to evacuate the commandos and fly Robinson to a field hospital in nearby Tarin Kowt. Pronk and the Special Forces medic did everything they could to revive Robinson during the flight, but he still showed no signs of life when the surgical team took over at the hospital. The 23-year-old engineer was pronounced dead later that afternoon.

“Now, when I look at that photo it just reminds me of that day when we lost a bloke and had another guy shot,” Pronk says. “But I understand someone coming to it fresh and seeing a scruffy-looking bloke burning drugs and money and just thinking ‘Wow! That’s outrageous!’”

This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine.

Read Next: What Did We Leave Behind When We Left Afghanistan?

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

Jack Mandaville
Jack Mandaville

Jack Mandaville is a contributor at Coffee or Die. He liked being a Marine but loves being a civilian that does commentary on military culture because there’s no real sacrifice involved. He’s a satirical writer, entertainer, and amateur provocateur. His only real love outside his work opportunities is falling asleep to Netflix.

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west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

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