Monday, February 14, 2005

Marines in Fallujah Living up to their Storied Tradition ... to the Dismay of a New Generation of Bad Guys

Leatherneck Magazine typically runs stories detailing the Marine Corps' storied history as the world's premier fighting force. There's a lot of such history to cover, from the Boxer Rebellion (not the Senator), Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir, Viet Nam, etc. Now, a new chapter of history is being written -- in Iraq.

The February 2005 Leatherneck contains some excellent reports from the epicenter of the Marines' efforts in Iraq -- Fallujah. Associated Press Radio corresponent Ross W. Simspon provides a recap from the initial April 2004 assault on the city. Then, a number of Marine combat correspondents provide a series of insightful reports from the final November 2004 battle.

Please remember that the violent descriptions that follow are just that -- descriptions. However, the young Marines depicted herein have seen them first-hand, and they continue to do so.

Leading from the Front

Ross Simpson reports of the exploits of 1st Lt. Chris Ayres, Platoon Commander, 2nd Plt., Co. B, 1/5, who on April 7 went face-to-face with an enemy sniper in a Fallujah alley. Both emptied a magazine of rounds, but both survived -- for a while, at least. The sniper retreated to another building and apparently shot and killed 3rd Plt. Commander, 1st Lt. Joshua Palmer. Like Ayres, Lt. Palmer had sought out the sniper in order to protect his men.

Lt. Ayres survived the April 2004 assault on Fallujah, but he did not do so unscathed. Less than a week after the sniper shootout, Lt. Ayres' platoon again came under fire. As he pressed ahead in an amtrak to try to locate his 3rd squad, Ayres' vehicle was ambushed. Simpson reports that an RPG hit "right below the commander's hatch, hitting him [Ayres] in the leg and exploding in the engine compartment, setting the trac on fire." Simpson describes Ayres' injuries as follows:

"When I looked down at my leg, I could see my [utilities] were blackened, but I couldn't feel my leg. It was numb instantly, and it's been numb ever since," said Ayres.

"The round blew off my hamstring," said Ayres, who now wears a special cast on his right leg that looks like a giant shoehorn.

Shooting their Way out of an Ambush

After Lt. Ayres was hit, the Marines in the amtrak then found themselves under attack by at least 200 enemy fighters. However, it turns out that the Marines had the enemy right where they wanted them. Check out Ross Simpson's report of how the ambush turned out:

The streets in Fallujah were so narrow that the driver, Private First Class Mathew D. Puckett, couldn't turn around. He did the only thing he could do -- attack west to Phase Line Yellow, which was 800 meters west of friendly lines.

Puckett finally was able to hang a couple of lefts and turn his 25-ton trac back toward friendly lines, but it was burning furiously. The leathernecks in the back were having trouble breathing because of the heavy, black smoke filling the troop compartment.

Sometime between Ayres getting hit and the trac coming to a halt dead in the street, Cpl. Kolm was hit in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade and killed instantly. LCpl McCarver, sitting directly behind the gun turret, was blown into the belly of the trac by the explosion. ...

When he regained consciousness, McCarver could feel the left side of his face burning. The blast also partially deafened him, and he couldn't hear out of his left ear for days.

From where McCarver was lying, he could look into the turret above him. McCarver climbed back onto the bench in the open troop compartment in the rear half of the trac and fired four 200-round durms of the 5.56 mm ammo into alleys full of insurgents.

The Marines in the troop compartment felt like ducks in a shooting gallery, but they didn't give up. McCarver remembers walking his rounds into a mass of humanity.

"I couldn't miss," said McCarver, who squeezed the trigger when he approached an intersection and kept the hammer down until the trac passed the kill zone.

The battle-scarred trac gave up the ghost about 150 meters from a house that offered two necessary ingredients for survival: "cover and concealment."

For the next six hours, they fought like demons against overwhelming odds and lived to tell their story.

Thus, a couple of 20-year-olds kept their wits under intense fire and helped saved their fellow Marines' lives. This is what Marines are doing in Iraq. This is what they have always done.

Marine Corporal Wounded Four Times told to Head Home

Marine combat correspondents bring news from the November 2004 battle that reminds us of why we love our Marines. First, SSgt Nathaniel T. Garcia reports that Cpl. Robert Mitchell, a squad leader with K/3/1, was sent home after being wounded four times in five months. The last wound came in the final November 2004 battle for Fallujah. Cpl. Mitchell was told by his battalion, "You've done enough". He didn't want to go home, though. Here's what he told SSgt Garcia, about being sent home to Omaha, Nebraska:

"Being told by my [commanding officer], sergeant major, platoon commander and all my buddies that I have done enough -- that helps to ease my thoughts," said Mitchell. "It is supportive, but at the same time, I came out here to lead a squad and finish the job."

Enemy Mortarmen Beware ... Snipers in the Neighborhood

Also during the fight for Fallujah, Sgt. Memo M. Sandoval, a Marine sniper, was sent by his commanding officer to stop an enemy mortar team responsible for two previous attacks. After waiting for several hours in the prone position for a shot, here is how LCpl Miguel A. Carrasco, Jr. describes what Sgt. Sandoval did as the mortar team prepared to make one attack too many:

Sandoval saw that one of the men was about to drop a mortar down the tube. He knew he had to make a well-aimed shot before the insurgent gunner launced the round. Sandoval cleared his thoughts, slowed his breathing and gently squeezed the trigger of his M40A3 sniper rifle. The 7.62 mm round covered the 950 yards in a flash, slamming into the chest of the first insurgent.

"The battalion [executive officer] ordered me to 'make the mortars stop,'" said Sandoval. "I took it personally and went out specifically to stop the insurgents."

Sandoval composed himself for the next shot at the assistant gunner. The last two shots took out the driver of the vehicle that carried the weapon.

Finding Bad Guys Marine Corps-Style

Finally, in the following, gripping account of a Fallujah firefight by LCpl Miguel Carrasco, we see not only a firefight but also a microcosm of the Marine Corps:

They are members of 2d Squad, 3d Platoon, Company K, 3d Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. They are entering a house in Fallujah, intent on clearing it of insurgents during Operation Al Fajr, Nov. 14, 2004.

As the Marines reached the top of the second floor, the point man noticed two rooms on the left and two directly in front. The point man rolled past the first door in order to provide security from the remaining three doors.

The second Marine kicked in the door with no idea of what was on the other side waiting for him.

"All of a sudden I heard 5.56 rounds coming in and out of the room," said Lance Corporal Kip P. Yeager, a team leader. "Then, I saw [Lance Corporal George J.] Payton on the ground in pain."

The insurgents inside the room tried to throw a grenade out, but LCpl Payton, another team leader, blocked it with his body. The blast severed his leg.

"While Payton was on the ground, he was still firing back at the insurgents," said Sergeant Martin T. Gonzalez, squad leader.

"After the first explosion, you couldn't hear anything. I couldn't even hear my own weapon ...," said Corporal Mason H. Fisher, a team leader. ...

The Marines were inside a house in the middle of a firefight and unaware of what was still inside the room.

"I made eye contact with [Fisher] and noticed that we both had grenades ready to throw inside the room," said Yeager. "I yelled 'Frag out!' and threw the grenade inside the room along with [Fisher]."

A grenade has only a four- to five-second response time until it blows up. Just as both grenades went inside the room, the unthinkable happened.

"I saw the grenade bounce back out of the room ...," said Fisher, who picked up the grenade and threw it back inside.

"It seemed like forever before the grenades went off. In fact, the whole firefight lasted about 15 to 20 seconds," said Yeager. "It was the longest 15 seconds of my life."

Before the smoke could settle from the two grenade blasts, Gonzalez entered the room and found himself looking at the business end of an M16 pointed by an insurgent.

"There was no round in the chamber. He pulled the trigger and nothing happened, and then he was shot and killed by me and Yeager," said Gonzalez.

Like many of the insurgents who have been caught or killed, the ones inside the room were high on drugs. Gonzalez didn't hesitate to shoot another insurgent in the room, probably high on methampetamines, who held a loaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

"He didn't go down after the first few shots, so Yeager took him out," said Gonzalez. ...

"My main concern was Payton. I knew right away that I needed to apply a tourniquet to his left leg." said Hospitalman Apprentice Jae Y. Kwon. "As soon as the firing stopped, I ran past the doorway and started to assess Payton." ...

The "doc" and the platoon leader were working on Payton.

"I held him in my arms trying to reassure him everything would be OK, said [Second Lieutenant Colin M.] Browning. ...

George J. Payton, 21, a native of Culver City, California, died the following day.

"He will always be remembered," said Yeager, Payton's best friend, "by his family and friends back in his hometown [and] also here in this battalion."

Semper Fidelis