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07 October 2014

Not something new, but a wonderful story

Andrew Koenig.

On the one hand, he was shot in the head. On the other, the bullet bounced off him.

In one of those rare battlefield miracles, an insurgent sniper hit Lance Cpl. Koenig dead on in the front of his helmet, and he walked away from it with a smile on his face.

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Lance Cpl. Andrew Koenig shows the spot on his helmet where a Taliban bullet struck, almost centered, between the eyes. Bryan Denton for the Wall Street Journal

"I don't think I could be any luckier than this," Lance Cpl. Koenig said two hours after the shooting.

Lance Cpl. Koenig's brush with death came during a day of intense fighting for the Marines of Company B, 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment.

The company had landed by helicopter in the predawn dark on Saturday, launching a major coalition offensive to take Marjah from the Taliban.

The Marines set up an outpost in a former drug lab and roadside-bomb factory and soon found themselves under near-constant attack.

Lance Cpl. Koenig, a lanky 21-year-old with jug-handle ears and a burr of sandy hair, is a designated marksman. His job is to hit the elusive Taliban fighters hiding in the tightly packed neighborhood near the base.

The insurgent sniper hit him first. The Casper, Wyo., native was kneeling on the roof of the one-story outpost, looking for targets.

He was reaching back to his left for his rifle when the sniper's round slammed into his helmet.

The impact knocked him onto his back.

"I'm hit," he yelled to his buddy, Lance Cpl. Scott Gabrian, a 21-year-old from St. Louis.

Lance Cpl. Gabrian belly-crawled along the rooftop to his friend's side. He patted Lance Cpl. Koenig's body, looking for wounds.

Then he noticed that the plate that usually secures night-vision goggles to the front of Lance Cpl. Koenig's helmet was missing. In its place was a thumb-deep dent in the hard Kevlar shell.

Lance Cpl. Gabrian slid his hands under his friend's helmet, looking for an entry wound. "You're not bleeding," he assured Lance Cpl. Koenig. "You're going to be OK."

Lance Cpl. Koenig climbed down the metal ladder and walked to the company aid station to see the Navy corpsman.

The only injury: A small, numb red welt on his forehead, just above his right eye.

He had spent 15 minutes with Doc, as the Marines call the medics, when an insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade exploded on the rooftop, next to Lance Cpl. Gabrian.

The shock wave left him with a concussion and hearing loss.

He joined Lance Cpl. Koenig at the aid station, where the two friends embraced, their eyes welling.

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Marines took cover after coming under attack during the Marjah offensive Monday. Bryan Denton for The Wall Street Journal

These kids are awesome, regardless of what you think about the policy of being in Afghanistan. May this young man come home safely someday to do something special in the world, like become a devoted husband and father.

—Michael Bone

The men had served together in Afghanistan in 2008, and Lance Cpl. Koenig had survived two blasts from roadside bombs.

"We've got each other's backs," Lance Cpl. Gabrian said, the explosion still ringing in his ears.

Word of Lance Cpl. Koenig's close call spread quickly through the outpost, as he emerged from the shock of the experience and walked through the outpost with a Cheshire cat grin.

"He's alive for a reason," Tim Coderre, a North Carolina narcotics detective working with the Marines as a consultant, told one of the men. "From a spiritual point of view, that doesn't happen by accident."

Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Shelton, whose job is to keep the Marines stocked with food, water and gear, teased the lance corporal for failing to take care of his helmet.

"I need that damaged-gear statement tonight," Gunnery Sgt. Shelton told Lance Cpl. Koenig. It was understood, however, that Lance Cpl. Koenig would be allowed to keep the helmet as a souvenir.

Gunnery Sgt. Shelton, a 36-year-old veteran from Nashville, said he had never seen a Marine survive a direct shot to the head.

But next to him was Cpl. Christopher Ahrens, who quietly mentioned that two bullets had grazed his helmet the day the Marines attacked Marjah. The same thing, he said, happened to him three times in firefights in Iraq.

Cpl. Ahrens, 26, from Havre de Grace, Md., lifted the camouflaged cloth cover on his helmet, exposing the holes where the bullets had entered and exited.

He turned it over to display the picture card tucked inside, depicting Michael the Archangel stamping on Lucifer's head. "I don't need luck," he said.

After his moment with Lance Cpl. Gabrian, Lance Cpl. Koenig put his dented helmet back on his head and climbed the metal ladder to resume his rooftop duty within an hour of being hit.

"I know any one of these guys would do the same," he explained. "If they could keep going, they would."

Write to Michael M. Phillips at michael.phillips@wsj.com

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