In Falluja, Young Marines Saw the Savagery of an Urban WarBy DEXTER FILKINS - Leadership example at bottom
Published: November 21, 2004
ALLUJA, Iraq, Nov. 18 - Eight days after the Americans entered the city on foot, a pair of marines wound their way up the darkened innards of a minaret, shot through with holes by an American tank.
As the marines inched upward, a burst of gunfire rang down, fired by an insurgent hiding in the top of the tower. The bullets hit the first marine in the face, his blood spattering the marine behind him. The marine in the rear tumbled backward down the stairwell, while Lance Cpl. William Miller, age 22, lay in silence halfway up, mortally wounded.
"Miller!" the marines called from below. "Miller!"
With that, the marines' near mystical commandment against leaving a comrade behind seized the group. One after another, the young marines dashed into the minaret, into darkness and into gunfire, and wound their way up the stairs.
After four attempts, Corporal Miller's lifeless body emerged from the tower, his comrades choking and covered with dust. With more insurgents closing in, the marines ran through volleys of machine-gun fire back to their base.
"I was trying to be careful, but I was trying to get him out, you know what I'm saying?" Lance Cpl. Michael Gogin, 19, said afterward.
So went eight days of combat for this Iraqi city, the most sustained period of street-to-street fighting that Americans have encountered since the Vietnam War. The proximity gave the fighting a hellish intensity, with soldiers often close enough to look their enemies in the eyes.
For a correspondent who has covered a half dozen armed conflicts, including the war in Iraq since its start in March 2003, the fighting seen while traveling with a frontline unit in Falluja was a qualitatively different experience, a leap into a different kind of battle.
From the first rockets vaulting out of the city as the marines moved in, the noise and feel of the battle seemed altogether extraordinary; at other times, hardly real at all. The intimacy of combat, this plunge into urban warfare, was new to this generation of American soldiers, but it is a kind of fighting they will probably see again: a grinding struggle to root out guerrillas entrenched in a city, on streets marked in a language few American soldiers could comprehend.
The price for the Americans so far: 51 dead and 425 wounded, a number that may yet increase but that already exceeds the toll from any battle in the Iraq war.
Marines in Harm's Way
The 150 marines with whom I traveled, Bravo Company of the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, had it as tough as any unit in the fight. They moved through the city almost entirely on foot, into the heart of the resistance, rarely protected by tanks or troop carriers, working their way through Falluja's narrow streets with 75-pound packs on their backs.
In eight days of fighting, Bravo Company took 36 casualties, including 6 dead, meaning that the unit's men had about a one-in-four chance of being wounded or killed in little more than a week.
The sounds, sights and feel of the battle were as old as war itself, and as new as the Pentagon's latest weapons systems. The eerie pop from the cannon of the AC-130 gunship, prowling above the city at night, firing at guerrillas who were often only steps away from Americans on the ground. The weird buzz of the Dragon Eye pilotless airplane, hovering over the battlefield as its video cameras beamed real-time images back to the base.
The glow of the insurgents' flares, throwing daylight over a landscape to help them spot their targets: us.
The nervous shove of a marine scrambling for space along a brick wall as tracer rounds ricocheted above.
The silence between the ping of the shell leaving its mortar tube and the explosion when it strikes.
The screams of the marines when one of their comrades, Cpl. Jake Knospler, lost part of his jaw to a hand grenade.
"No, no, no!" the marines shouted as they dragged Corporal Knospler from the darkened house where the bomb went off. It was 2 a.m., the sky dark without a moon. "No, no, no!"
Nothing in the combat I saw even remotely resembled the scenes regularly flashed across movie screens; even so, they often seemed no more real
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Mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades began raining down on Bravo Company the moment its men began piling out of their troop carriers just outside Falluja. The shells looked like Fourth of July bottle rockets, sailing over the ridge ahead as if fired by children, exploding in a whoosh of sparks.
Whole buildings, minarets and human beings were vaporized in barrages of exploding shells. A man dressed in a white dishdasha crawled across a desolate field, reaching behind a gnarled plant to hide, when he collapsed before a burst of fire from an American tank.
Sometimes the casualties came in volleys, like bursts of machine-gun fire. On the first morning of battle, during a ferocious struggle for the Muhammadia Mosque, about 45 marines with Bravo Company's Third Platoon dashed across 40th Street, right into interlocking streams of fire. By the time the platoon made it to the other side, five men lay bleeding in the street.
The marines rushed out to get them, as they would days later in the minaret, but it was too late for Sgt. Lonny Wells, who bled to death on the side of the road. One of the men who braved gunfire to pull in Sergeant Wells was Cpl. Nathan Anderson, who died three days later in an ambush.
Sergeant Wells's death dealt the Third Platoon a heavy blow; as a leader of one of its squads, he had written letters to the parents of its younger members, assuring them he would look over them during the tour in Iraq.
"He loved playing cards," Cpl. Gentian Marku recalled. "He knew all the probabilities."
More than once, death crept up and snatched a member of Bravo Company and quietly slipped away. Cpl. Nick Ziolkowski, nicknamed Ski, was a Bravo Company sniper. For hours at a stretch, Corporal Ziolkowski would sit on a rooftop, looking through the scope on his bolt-action M-40 rifle, waiting for guerrillas to step into his sights. The scope was big and wide, and Corporal Ziolkowski often took off his helmet to get a better look.
Tall, good-looking and gregarious, Corporal Ziolkowski was one of Bravo Company's most popular soldiers. Unlike most snipers, who learned to shoot growing up in the countryside, Corporal Ziolkowski grew up near Baltimore, unfamiliar with guns. Though Baltimore boasts no beach front, Corporal Ziolkowski's passion was surfing; at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Bravo Company's base, he would often organize his entire day around the tides.
"All I need now is a beach with some waves," Corporal Ziolkowski said, during a break from his sniper duties at Falluja's Grand Mosque, where he killed three men in a single day.
During that same break, Corporal Ziolkowski foretold his own death. The snipers, he said, were now among the most hunted of American soldiers.
In the first battle for Falluja, in April, American snipers had been especially lethal, Corporal Ziolkowski said, and intelligence officers had warned him that this time, the snipers would be targets.
"They are trying to take us out," Corporal Ziolkowski said.
The bullet knocked Corporal Ziolkowski backward and onto the roof. He had been sitting there on the outskirts of the Shuhada neighborhood, an area controlled by insurgents, peering through his wide scope. He had taken his helmet off to get a better view. The bullet hit him in the head.
Young Men, Heavy Burdens
For all the death about the place, one inescapable impression left by the marines was their youth. Everyone knows that soldiers are young; it is another thing to see men barely out of adolescence, many of whom were still in high school when this war began, shoot people dead.
The marines of Bravo Company often fought over the packets of M&M's that came with their rations. Sitting in their barracks, they sang along with the Garth Brooks paean to chewing tobacco, "Copenhagen," named for the brand they bought almost to a man:
Copenhagen, what a wad of flavor
Copenhagen, you can see it in my smile
Copenhagen, hey do yourself a favor, dip
Copenhagen, it drives the cowgirls wild
One of Bravo Company's more youthful members was Cpl. Romulo Jimenez II, age 21 from Bellington, W.Va.. Cpl. Jimenez spent much of his time showing off his tattoos - he had flames climbing up one of his arms - and talking about his 1992 Ford Mustang. He was a popular member of Bravo Company's Second Platoon, not least because he introduced his sister to a fellow marine, Lance Cpl. Sean Evans, and the couple married.
In the days before the battle started, Corporal Jimenez called his sister, Katherine, to ask that she fix up the interior of his Mustang before he got home.
"Make it look real nice," he told her.
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On Wednesday, Nov. 10, around 2 p.m., Corporal Jimenez was shot in the neck by a sniper as he advanced with his platoon through the northern end of Falluja, just near the green-domed Muhammadia Mosque. He died instantly.
Despite their youth, the marines seemed to tower over their peers outside the military in maturity and guts. Many of Bravo Company's best marines, its most proficient killers, were 19 and 20 years old; some directed their comrades in maneuvers and assaults. Bravo Company's three lieutenants, each responsible for the lives of about 50 men, were 23 and 24 years old.
They are a strangely anonymous bunch. The men who fight America's wars seem invariably to come from little towns and medium-size cities far away from the nation's arteries along the coast. Line up a group of marines and ask them where they are from, and they will give you a list of places like Pearland, Tex.; Lodi, Ohio; Osawatomie, Kan.
Typical of the marines who fought in Falluja was Chad Ritchie, a 22-year-old corporal from Keezletown, Va. Corporal Ritchie, a soft-spoken, bespectacled intelligence officer, said he was happy to be out of the tiny place where he grew up, though he admitted that he sometimes missed the good times on Friday nights in the fields.
"We'd have a bonfire, and back the trucks up on it, and open up the backs, and someone would always have some speakers," Corporal Ritchie said. "We'd drink beer, tell stories."
Like many of the young men in Bravo Company, Corporal Ritchie said he had joined the Marines because he yearned for an adventure greater than his small town could offer.
"The guys who stayed, they're all living with their parents, making $7 an hour," Corporal Ritchie said. "I'm not going to be one of those people who gets old and says, 'I wish I had done this. I wish I had done that.' Every once in a while, you've got to do something hard, do something you're not comfortable with. A person needs a gut check."
Holding Up Under Fire
Marines like Corporal Ritchie proved themselves time and again in Falluja, but they were not without fear. While camped out one night in the Iraqi National Guard building in the middle of city, Bravo Company came under mortar fire that grew closer with each shot. The insurgents were "bracketing" the building, firing shots to the left and right of the target and adjusting their fire each time.
In the hallways, where the men had camped for the night, the murmured sounds of prayers rose between the explosions. After 20 tries, the shelling inexplicably stopped.
On one particularly grim night, a group of marines from Bravo Company's First Platoon turned a corner in the darkness and headed up an alley. As they did so, they came across men dressed in uniforms worn by the Iraqi National Guard. The uniforms were so perfect that they even carried pieces of red tape and white, the signal agreed upon to assure American soldiers that any Iraqis dressed that way would be friendly; the others could be killed.
The marines, spotting the red and white tape, waved, and the men in Iraqi uniforms opened fire. One American, Corporal Anderson, died instantly. One of the wounded men, Pfc. Andrew Russell, lay in the road, screaming from a nearly severed leg.
A group of marines ran forward into the gunfire to pull their comrades out. But the ambush, and the enemy flares and gunfire that followed, rattled the men of Bravo Company more than any event. In the darkness, the men began to argue. Others stood around in the road. As the platoon's leader, Lt. Andy Eckert, struggled to take charge, the Third Platoon seemed on the brink of panic.
"Everybody was scared," Lieutenant Eckert said afterward. "If the leader can't hold, then the unit can't hold together."
The unit did hold, but only after the intervention of Bravo Company's commanding officer, Capt. Read Omohundro.
Time and again through the week, Captain Omohundro kept his men from folding, if not by his resolute manner then by his calmness under fire. In the first 16 hours of battle, when the combat was continuous and the threat of death ever present, Captain Omohundro never flinched, moving his men through the warrens and back alleys of Falluja with an uncanny sense of space and time, sensing the enemy, sensing the location of his men, even in the darkness, entirely self-possessed.
"Damn it, get moving," Captain Omohundro said, and his men, looking relieved that they had been given direction amid the anarchy, were only too happy to oblige.
A little later, Captain Omohundro, a 34-year-old Texan, allowed that the strain of the battle had weighed on him, but he said that he had long ago trained himself to keep any self-doubt hidden from view.
"It's not like I don't feel it," Captain Omohundro said. "But if I were to show it, the whole thing would come apart."
When the heavy fighting was finally over, a dog began to follow Bravo Company through Falluja's broken streets. First it lay down in the road outside one of the buildings the company had occupied, between troop carriers. Then, as the troops moved on, the mangy dog slinked behind them, first on a series of house searches, then on a foot patrol, always keeping its distance, but never letting the marines out of its sight.
Bravo Company, looking a bit ragged itself as it moved up through Falluja, momentarily fell out of its single-file line.
"Keep a sharp eye," Captain Omohundro told his men. "We ain't done with this war yet."