Battleground Afghanistan looks inside the latest chapter of the Afghan conflict as seen by American Marines on the frontlines of the war. One of the men featured on this new series, Cpl Brandon Unis, enlisted in the Marine Corps on his 18th birthday. He joined for many different reasons including: 1) A realization after 9/11 that he wanted to stop enemies trying to hurt his family and friends; 2) A sense of independence and having the G.I. Bill pay his college tuition and 3) Doing the most difficult and challenging task he could think of. “I knew that if I could accomplish that [Marine Corps Infantry], I could accomplish anything,” he says. Cpl Unis went on two deployments. His first deployment was a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit), sailing the Pacific on the USS Essex, and training with foreign militaries; and the second was to Afghanistan with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, which was profiled in National Geographic Channel’s Battleground Afghanistan.
We spoke with Brandon to get his take on tonight’s series premiere of Battleground Afghanistan, and find out what he’s up to today:
Why did you agree to be featured on “Battleground Afghanistan?”
I wanted to contribute an honest view of the men and women fighting on the front lines.
What do you hope viewers will learn from watching the series? What do you like about it?
I hope viewers will learn that there is still a war going on, and what it’s like for the men and women fighting that war.
There have been many documentaries about infantrymen on the front lines. Restrepo comes to mind. I can’t recall ever seeing a TV series that focuses on this subject. Inside Combat Rescue is close, but it’s not specifically about the front line fighting. To me, that is a very new and interesting thing.
The series really shows an honest portrait of the modern day infantryman, and what he goes through on a daily basis.
What DON’T we see in the series?
One of the biggest things is the flies. The flies were everywhere, constantly badgering you. They were one of the only things between you and a little bit of sleep.
Another thing is post. Having to get up every few hours to go lay on a roof for an hour, sometimes in excruciating heat, is an experience in itself. I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to convey that on the show.
Only other thing I can think of is us just horsing around. Marines can be extremely funny (maybe a little crass). I saw it a few times, but I wish it showed a little more of the humor that we use to get through these situations and stay sane.
What made you a good Marine?
A lot of Marines in leadership positions care only about what the people in charge of them think. I was the opposite. I couldn’t care less what my superiors thought of me, as long as I was doing my job and doing it well.
On the other hand, I always fought as hard as I could for the Marines that I was in charge of. If they were ever treated unfairly, I would always go to bat for them. Leadership isn’t shouting out orders. Leadership is getting someone to do something, and them actually wanting to do it.
Describe Captain Middendorf and what people should know about him. In your definition, what makes a good Captain?
The man is a military genius. I’m worried that viewers will see Captain Middendorf as a guy that sits in safety, while ordering men to fight to the death. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. He leads from the front. It must have killed him to not be out there in the open, fighting with us. But the truth is, the place where he could help us the most was in the safety of a compound, directing assets around the battlefield like a game of chess. And he knew that.
His tactics were perfect. He was the brain and we were the muscle. I’d go as far to say that he might have won the war singlehandedly. During the seven months we were in Afghanistan, 35 Marines were killed due to hostile fire (none under Captain Middendorf’s command). Only 3 have been killed since then. None in 2013. That could be for many reasons, but I think it had a lot to do with us winning those battles so decisively. And we couldn’t have done it without him leading us.
He was just awarded a bronze star and the prestigious Leftwich award for the best infantry captain in the Marine Corps. I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t the Commandant of the Marine Corps one day. Or the President of the United States.
What was the worst mission you ever went on?
It was during a 15 day Op. The sun had just started to rise. It was almost the exact same time that my mom was being buried back in the states. It’s hard to concentrate when something like that is on your mind. We hadn’t taken any fire yet. As we moved out into the open, I could see that the broken down tank was to our direct right. And then I heard a sound.
It was a wooshing noise and I knew exactly what it was: an incoming RPG. I turned to my team and began to yell something like “Get down!” or “Watch out!”. The RPG missed by a good 50 meters, but the sound of the explosion probably drowned me out. That’s when they opened up on us. I saw LCPL Mashburn, in a cloud of dust, go down hard. I remember thinking that he was shot, and he was gonna bleed out if I didn’t carry him a good 500 meters to safety. I dove to the ground and screamed out to him.
He responded that he didn’t think he was hit. Turns out, he was shot, but it went straight through his body armor and never touched him. I immediately focused on trying to find the enemy through my optic. No luck. The rounds were impacting all around us, and for the life of me, I couldn’t see where the hell they were coming from. No one could. Fighting ghosts, like usual. Except this time they were hitting us hard.
I remember cursing this tank that was just sitting there. I knew it was broken down, but the guns were still supposed to work. For all I know that thing could have been empty. So there I sat, searching for ghosts, and wishing this tank would come to life, when two rounds hit within six inches of my face. That’s when I thought I was dead.
I remember thinking about my dad at that moment, and how he was gonna take it. Then, out of nowhere, like some guardian angel, was a second tank. It came flying in, unloading every weapon it had. The enemy fire immediately died down, and I snapped out of it. I knew this was our chance, and I jumped up and shouted something like “Let’s go! Move!”. And we ran.
At least that’s how I remember it.
What is your definition of a successful mission?
Any mission where you accomplish your goal, and take no serious casualties in the process, is a success in my book. “Branding Iron” was very successful, considering what we were going up against.
What do you think of the current war effort in Afghanistan?
I think it’s great that we handed the reins over to the Afghan government. I’m not sure if they’re ready for it, but we can’t keep holding their hand. And talks with the Taliban? I know we have a longstanding tradition of not negotiating with terrorists, but I can’t see this war ending any other way. We just have to make sure that they aren’t going to harbor anybody like Al Qaeda again, and if they do take power democratically, they aren’t going to suppress women.
Brandon was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for his work conducting TSE (Tactical Site Exploitation). On Dec 20, 2012, he got out of active duty and is now on inactive reserve. He will be attending Point Park University in the fall, majoring in Cinema Productions. Cpl Unis’ hope is to be able work in the film industry after college and make documentaries similar to Battleground Afghanistan. He is from Aliquippa, PA.
Watch Video: Cpl Unis Marine Profile
Tune in to Battleground Afghanistan: First Contact tonight at 9P.
Tonight, NGC is bringing you two new powerful, first person combat series. First, at 9P Battleground Afghanistan looks inside the latest chapter of the Afghan conflict as seen by American Marines on the frontlines of the war. Then, at 10P, Eyewitness War follows the men and women of the armed forces through the chaos of battle with real-life, first-person footage.