A Marine sergeant was turned into a visual icon when, in May 2008, Taliban fire just missed his head and a Reuters photographer captured the moment.
It’s a series of images that ended up in newspapers across the world: Rifle in hand, Bill Bee cringed as the air around him filled with debris from the muddy wall in front of him. He wasn’t wearing a helmet or Kevlar vest.
But, as Bee recounts in his new memoir, “The Shot: The Harrowing Journey of a Marine in the War on Terror,” there is much more to his story than those photos taken in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Raised in a trailer park in rural Ohio, Bee signed up with a Marine recruiter before he even had finished high school. He was sent to Afghanistan within months of the 9/11 attacks and would end up completing four deployments there.
At some points, he and his Marines were engaging in multiple firefights a day. In his memoir, Bee describes killing a local Taliban commander, as well as running into a poppy field to draw out Taliban fire — a feat for which he was awarded an Achievement Medal.
But the book is not all about acts of valor and successes in battle.
Bee describes with unflinching detail the uncomfortable conditions ― including 120-degree weather and rotting underwear ― that he encountered in Afghanistan.
And far worse than the physical discomfort was the deaths of his fellow Marines.
In June 2010, Bee led two young sergeants, Derek Shanfield and Zach Walters, into a building in Afghanistan’s Marjah during a patrol. An improvised explosive device went off while they were in the building, killing Shanfield and Walters and leaving Bee with a severe traumatic brain injury. Their deaths devastated Bee, who wrote that he felt he was responsible.
Bee’s troubles did not end when he returned to the United States.
Reeling from post-traumatic stress disorder and neurological issues, Bee began drinking heavily and became prone to angry outbursts. He even attempted suicide.
He left the Marines in 2013 as a staff sergeant and began teaching Veterans Affairs classes for troops leaving service.
Meanwhile, he writes, he wasn’t receiving appropriate health care and benefits from the VA.
Now, Bee writes in “The Shot,” he is better able to manage his PTSD thanks to an eye therapy he received in Austin, Texas.
Media attention to his story has led to smoother interactions with the VA, and he was awarded a Purple Heart in 2016. In 2019, he took on a job operating motorized targets for Marine training, which he called “the coolest job out there.”
Bee worked with Wills Robinson, an editor at Daily Mail Online to write “The Shot,” which was published by Knox Press on Sept. 13.
Marine Corps Times spoke with Bee about the famous photographs, the less famous events that shaped his life and the process of turning it all into a memoir.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why did you decide to write this book?
A. Initially, it came from the article that Wills wrote in 2015.
I had been approached by media about talking to them about the picture before, but I never really wanted to. I’m a very introverted person, let’s put it that way. But Wills wrote me a letter, like a handwritten letter, and I held on to it, because who writes a letter anymore? One week, I had received a bill from the VA for some stuff that should have been covered.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I called him up, and I was like, “Man, I’ll be more than happy to talk to you about everything, but I’m gonna be honest about this s--t.” And that’s basically what I shot for. It didn’t matter what question he asked; it didn’t matter what we were talking about.
Q. Who is the intended audience of the book?
A. I’d say a combination of service members and veterans.
I want guys who read the book to understand that there are times you need to break down and ask for help. Especially in the grunt community, there’s a suck-it-up mentality. You know: ‘You’ll get fixed when you’re getting closer to getting out.’
Guys don’t take care of themselves like they should, both physically and mentally. When you just keep kicking that can down the road, eventually stuff starts going bad for you.
Q. In your book, you talk about some of the most formative experiences of your life prior to going to Afghanistan. One of them was 9/11. You describe watching the attacks on TV from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. How did those attacks affect you?
A. That was probably the single most determining factor in my life.
Because, before 9/11, being a grunt was just, ‘Maybe we’ll see something, you know, if a war kicks off years down the road, but it’s not going to happen to us.’ And when that happened, that reoriented everything.
My first deployment, yeah, it was nice to get out there and do stuff. But my second deployment, when I started interacting with the locals in Afghanistan, was when I realized, there’s actually value to what we’re doing.
Q. Why didn’t you have your helmet and Kevlar on during the famous photo of you narrowly avoiding being shot by the Taliban?
A. That was a 2008 deployment and an extremely kinetic environment.
In the first couple of months, it was literally house-to-house. In a setting like that, you just can’t be wearing your gear 24/7, regardless of what my wife would like to think. We’d taken over a compound and we knew we were going to be there a couple of days. We got pretty ripe by then — four or five weeks at that point without a shower. So I decided to do laundry, because my socks and my pants could stand up on their own with the mud.
I was doing the laundry, and we heard the word that there was a Taliban marksman in the area, and when they shot at our post, that’s what clued me in that something was going on. Because it wasn’t 10-round bursts that those guys usually used to fire over a wall; it was just one shot out of nowhere. That was more concerning than anything. I ran over to our engineer who was sitting on the wall. There just wasn’t time. I wasn’t thinking about grabbing my gear; I wasn’t thinking about the flak; I just wanted to check and make sure he was good.
Q. When Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic showed you the photograph, you said your first reaction was to laugh. Why?
A. Probably a little bit of shock. You know, I had just talked myself out of the stretcher at that point. Doc was still checking on me to make sure I was good.
It was a combination of the shock of that picture, how hard Goran was laughing, just the whole situation — the ridiculousness of it. That’s kind of what struck me. Plus, I mean, just coming down off the adrenaline.
Q. How do you feel when you look back on your service in the Marine Corps?
A. It’s good and bad. It’s the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” kind of deal.
Because some of the best times of my life were in the Marine Corps, but some of the worst times, too. It wouldn’t necessarily be what you think. Being deployed, being in firefights — I had an absolute blast doing that stuff. That was fun as hell, especially when none of our guys were getting hit. But the bad times side of it: seeing some stuff that you really don’t want to see, dealing with some stuff that you really don’t want to deal with. It don’t matter how hard you think you are at the time — it just gets to you eventually. So I can look back at pride with, “I didn’t just deploy, but I actually got out there and did something on those deployments.” But on the flip side of the coin, it’s also, for every single thing that happened, “Why did it happen that way? How could I have done it different?”
Q. In the book, you’re very open about your struggles with PTSD, including your challenges with drinking, angry outbursts and a suicide attempt. Some people with PTSD try to avoid thinking about traumatic memories, but you wrote a book about them. Was writing the book helpful?
A. I think it was.
Something that really helped me out when I first got out was teaching those [benefits briefing] classes for the VA. I was getting up in front of Marines, 30 to 50 dudes a week, and telling them about not just the issues I was having with the VA, but how those issues came about. I think being able to talk about why I was so jacked up, once a week, every week, for six years — that helped me realize that talking with people really does make a difference. And even if I can’t go back in time and fix the stuff, if I can point it out to other people, like, “Hey, if you see this in the future” — that alone is worth writing about it.
Q. What was the hardest part of the book to write?
A. One was talking about Shanfield and Walters, what happened down in Marjah. The other one was breaking down the issues that I was having as a person at the time. I was not a good husband; I was not a good Marine. I went through a real rough spot. Just trying to explain to Wills that this is how s--t really was, this is how I acted, it’s not exactly something to be proud about. That’s probably the worst part about doing the whole book.
Q. Throughout ‘The Shot,’ you write glowingly about your wife, Bobbie. How does she feel about the book?
A. She has not read it, and she does not plan on reading it.
It’s not out of spite or anything like that. It’s more along the lines of, some of the stuff that I’ve done, she doesn’t exactly want to know about it, which I can completely understand. She’s been supportive 100%. I wouldn’t have my Purple Heart if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t have that retroactive retirement claim going if it wasn’t for. Ah, s--t, I wouldn’t be up and breathing if it wasn’t for her. She’s not exactly indifferent about the book. She’s all about it. She’s helping set up signings and stuff like that. But she also doesn’t want to dive too deep into it.
Q. Toward the end of the book, you write that you got a great job operating robots for grunt target practice. Are you still working there?
A. I am: Marathon Targets. It’s the greatest job on base. I make as much as I did as a staff sergeant, but at the same time, I don’t have to deal with any of the BS of sleeping in the rain, freezing my butt off or anything like that. If it’s too hot, I set the air conditioner of the truck. But I still get to work with Marines. I still get to help train them. I think it’s the coolest job out there.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.