Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms --
MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER, Calif. – A massive blast shakes the ground as the Marines arrive at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Chaos erupts before their eyes as they attempt to approach the airport gate. Vehicles shake and people scream and run in terror as Marine Sgt. Leilana TupuaRodriguez tries to orient herself to figure out what is going on.
This was the scene criminal investigator TupuaRodriguez walked into on that fateful day, Aug. 26, 2021.
“Right as we get to the interior gate everything goes boom and you hear vehicles shaking and you start seeing people run," said TupuaRodriguez.
How TupuaRodriguez reacted to the situation that day not only saved lives but earned her the Jim Kallstrom Award for bravery, which she received during a ceremony at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, Aug. 29, 2022.
Etching her name in history was not something she imagined would happen when she started her deployment with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
TupuaRodriquez deployed as a criminal investigator with the 24th MEU in February 2021 and in July 2021 arrived in Kuwait to standby for operations in Afghanistan. While there, she prepared service members to search and assess individuals in support of their evacuation mission. As the only criminal investigator non-commissioned officer she was then tasked with teaching service members how to properly search people and biometrically enroll people.
"Because I had knowledge and training on how to properly search people, detainees or evacuees, I was tasked with teaching males and females how to properly search people,” said TupuaRodriguez about her time in Kuwait.
After a month in Kuwait, 24th MEU deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan to assist in the evacuation operations at the airport, Aug. 15, 2021. TupuaRodriguez continued to train and prepare Marines to search people while they received intelligence briefs about potential threats.
"We were getting a lot of intel briefs about Improvised Explosive Devices [IEDs], but that particular day felt different," recalled TupuaRodriguez.
On Aug. 26, immediately after the blast rang out, TupuaRodriguez knew her mission changed from searching to saving lives.
She knew she had to step up.
“[After the blast] Army medics came out and asked, 'hey sergeant where do you need me' and I just thought, how did I end up in this position?” said TupuaRodriguez. “I start separating civilians and Marines and I start controlling civilians because they were going crazy.
“You must adapt and overcome any situation. You are expected to do that."
TupuaRodriguez’s ability to control the chaos helped her assist other servicemembers there at the time of the bombing. In total, they aided and saved more than 500 dislocated civilians and apprehended and processed 60 people.
Her initiative and cool composure during crises, rare traits which were crucial during the bombing in Kabul, were noticed by her senior leaders at MCAGCC Criminal Investigation Division (CID), her current duty station.
“Her ability to gauge a situation, to analyze and to act, it’s all one fluid motion to her and she just does it,” said Master Sgt. Samuel Powers, chief investigator with CID, Headquarters Battalion, Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms.
The Kallstrom Awards, one for outstanding leadership and one for bravery, are presented annually in honor of Jim Kallstrom. A Marine Corps Captain and Vietnam War veteran, Jim Kallstrom distinguished himself over a twenty-eight-year career with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, culminating in his assignment as the Assistant Director in Charge, New York Division. The Jim Kallstrom Awards recognize those Military Police, who in the performance of their duties, best exemplify the ethos of protect and serve, and honor, courage and commitment and a genuine concern for the well-being of the Corps, fellow Marines and the community they serve.
“This award speaks to her character as an individual, her desire to help in every way,” said Powers. “She just cares about taking care of people and doing the right thing. Bravery is just second nature.
“So as for who she is as a person, that's her instinct to help, to fix, to do anything because doing something is better than doing nothing.”
As many Marines, TupuaRodriguez’s bravery was exemplified by her commitment to deploy in service to her country, even as some in her family feared for her safety.
A Bremerton, Washington native, TupuaRodriguez’s family were initially against her decision to serve in the armed forces. Despite this, she left for Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Feb. 10, 2014, not knowing she would watch history unfold seven years later.
TupuaRodriguez added her family is now her biggest supporters and are extremely proud of the Marine she has become.
“She was part of the largest evacuation operation that we've ever seen and her role in that was instrumental, ensuring people made it out alive,” explained Powers. “When you think of a Marine, that is who you think of. You don't think of a female Marine, you don't think of a male Marine, that's what you think of.”
“When you get called to do something, you have to do it,” said TupuaRodriguez.