Steven Cheek “woke up one day” to find his brother had sent him a link to a website.
“It was a site called Reddit. I had never heard of it before.”
On the site was a photo of Cheek smoking a cigarette, drinking the energy drink Rip It, sitting in front of a U.S. Marine Osprey helicopter that had landed awkwardly and tipped over.
The original poster, a Redditor called Keggerrs, pretended to be the Marine in the picture. He made up a story to go with the photo, telling readers how the helicopter leaked hydraulic fuel and made a hard landing, forcing the Marines to evacuate into hostile terrain and mitigate an ensuing firefight.
Keggerrs has since deleted the post from his Reddit history.
“Someone stole it off my Facebook, put it on the site, and wrote a made-up story to go with it,” says Cheek.
“When my brother contacted me, he said it had gone viral, and sent me other examples of how people had even added words [to the photo],” says Cheek, explaining that his photo had become a meme, which he pronounced “me me.”
Born in a small town in South Carolina, Cheek is a pastor’s son who “bounced around” the South a lot before enlisting in 2005. He doesn’t mess around with the Internet much and says he needs his wife’s help even putting photos on Facebook — or taking them down.
“So I deleted the image from my account. I wasn’t sure if I would get some government backlash,” says Cheek.
The Marine Corps doesn’t encourage Marines posting images to social media for obvious reasons.
Cheek alleges that the story posted on Reddit was entirely fabricated for the same reason we thought it was legit.
“There was no hydraulic fluid leaking from those helicopters,” Cheek tells us. Hydraulic fluid leaks, though rare, do happen in military helicopters.
Cheek’s story is much more interesting anyway.
“We were on a late night helicopter raid and visibility was low, there was also fog on the ground,” says Cheek.
Cheek says the raid — which took place in May of last year — was part of a larger mission to clear insurgents out of a place called Zamindawar. There were several helicopters involved in the raid.
“The pilots were using NVGs [night vision goggles], and the depth perception on those is a bit strange,” says Cheek.
Cheek’s helicopter landed smoothly, and his squad ran off and into defensive positions. As his helicopter zipped off though, another one attempted to land about “100 meters” from his position.
“You could hear the hard landing, and see the helicopter tip,” says Cheek.
Cheek was ordered to take some Marines and head over to provide support.
“You couldn’t see very clearly as we approached, I kind of expected everyone to be dead,” says Cheek.
Fortunately, there were no casualties.
Later, Cheek talked to the pilots. They told him they experienced “uneven rotor wash” as they approached their landing position because of the embankment (the same one they ended up landing on).
Cheek says the pilots told him the helicopter started to tilt, then turn, so they put it down right there.
“They saved everyone in that bird, it would have spun out of control,” says Cheek.
The next day, Cheek and his men were given the task of protecting the helicopter until the command could figure out what they would do with it.
“It’s an expensive piece of gear,” says Cheek, “the pilots flew out on the first day, and we stood guard for another three.”
They were deep in Taliban territory, and Cheeks says a watch could have been timed by the daily insurgent attacks.
“RPGs, mortars … every day around 2 o’clock it’d start,” says Cheek.
While the rest of the Marines swept through Zamindawar, Cheek and his squad kept the enemy at bay for three days.
“We had intel that they wanted to land a mortar (or rocket) on the helicopter and film it so that they could claim they shot it down, and use it for recruiting purposes,” says Cheek. “They were dialed in, for sure, but I don’t think the closest one got any closer that 50 meters.”
On the third day, a “huge” convoy of trucks came out to do an assessment on the helicopter.
“I mean, this convoy had to have at least 60 vehicles in it,” says Cheek.
The aviation specialists did an evaluation on the bird and found it to be perfectly flyable. So they wenched it into a more level position.
“Then the actual squadron commander got in it and flew it out,” says Cheek. “We were all cheering him on as he got off the ground, and we could see him do a fist pump right before he flew away.”
And how’d the picture happen?
“When the convoy pulled up, I went over to one of the vehicles and asked if they had any Rip Its,” says Cheek.
Rip Its are the energy drink the military supplies to its troops. They’re pretty ubiquitous in forward deployed environments.
“I wanted to get some for my guys, you know,” says Cheek. “They actually gave me a whole case.”
Cheek said his Marines goaded him into taking a photo in front of the helicopter.
“They said it’d be epic,” says Cheek.
Well, Cheek, the Internet thought it was epic all right: the Reddit post drew over 1 million views and 2000 comments.
“That’s nuts, man,” says Cheek.
As far as being Internet famous, “I don’t know,” says the small-town Marine, “I don’t really think about it.”
“Maybe Rip It could endorse me,” he jokes, “they could just pay me in energy drinks.”
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