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Frocked captain steps into commander's role

2 May 2004 | Lance Cpl. Macario P. Mora Jr.

Capt. Dominique B. Neal is still getting used to wearing the captain's bars he recently pinned on.  They are a bittersweet reminder of a day he led his Marines through a raging gunfight and the same day he lost his company commander.

April 17 began like any normal day for 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment's Company L at their forward operating base in Husaybah, the largest city in the Al Qaim region. 

That sense of normalcy was rocked, though, as the first hail of mortar rounds landed inside the base camp.  Less then an hour later they took their first of five casualties of the day when an improvised explosive device exploded, killing a Marine on patrol. 

"The Marines live for this opportunity," said Staff Sgt. Tylon Wilder, a convoy commander from Silver City, N.M.  "For the past few months they'd blow us up with IEDs then run off.  We could never get a target.  But on the 17th they felt our wrath, our pent up aggression."

The daylong firefight had begun, ending in five Marines dead and countless terrorists dead.

It was also the sort of day Neal trained for his entire career, but prayed would never come.  Neal was the company's executive officer and a 1st lieutenant.  The San Francisco Marine took control of the situation "without hesitation" after learning of one of the day's casualties. 

Capt. Richard J. Gannon III, commanding officer, was killed along with two others while attempting to rescue a wounded Marine.

"When I first heard I was in shock," Neal explained.  "Commanding officers aren't supposed to die.  He wasn't only the C.O., but he was also a close friend.  The only person I worked closely with."

Gannon was remembered as approachable by anyone, according to Neal. 

"He was my inspiration, and the reason I was able to catch on so quickly," Neal said.

After the initial attacks, activity picked up as the company sent Marines to evacuate casualties from the IED explosion.  Marines took cover as terrorists poured heavy fire from various buildings including a building now known to be the terrorists' headquarters.

"They went out and took cover in the wrong building," said Lance Cpl. Mark Edward Dean, a team leader for Company K from Owasso, Okla.  "Or maybe the right one... I'm not sure, but I do know they went into the building owned by the bad guy."

The terrorists, believed to be from neighboring Syria, were better trained than the Iraqi forces who attacked them before.

"I hate to admit it," said Lance Cpl. Joshua P. Carabajal, an infantryman with Company K from Newmall, Calif.  "But some of those guys were pretty good shots.  After we did a raid of the city the next day we found some real high-powered rifles."

Reinforcements were soon called and within hours support companies seized the city, allowing no one in or out.

Neal was credited with quickly reacting to the mission and situation at hand and dealing a heavy blow to the terrorists.

"When it was all said and done, I was already getting used to the fact that we were getting another C.O.," Neal explained.  "Then I heard the C.G. was coming down.  So I prepared myself."

On April 19, Neal was frocked by Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis to his current rank of captain and made commander of Company L.

"It was a total shock," Neal said.  "They did it right there next to the chow hall.  With the C.G. and all, you know you have to be on the ball, but I was just totally surprised by this."

Neal, though happy to become a captain, was also extremely aware of why he now wears his bars.

"The C.G. and battalion commander made me the company's commander," Neal said.  "But it's because of Gannon that I'm really one.  I'll never forget why it is I where these."

Neal believes whole-heartedly Gannon was the reason he was ready to lead Marines during the day's fight. 

"I've been helped a lot during the years," Neal said.  "But no one helped more then him."

Neal, not only carrying the weight of a company but now bearing a heavy conscience, knowing why it is he is where he is.

He plans on visiting Gannon's family to explain everything to the best of his knowledge.  He said he's going to send them all of his belongings.  Neal even refuses to move into Gannon's rack.

"I can't," Neal says.  "It's still his rack. You know, still I return a response when someone is calling for the X.O.  This is hard, but thanks to him I'll get through."

"I was with him when he first hit the 'Fleet,'" said Wilder.  "I was his platoon sergeant and I assure you there isn't an individual who deserves this type of credit more than him."

As a small token of what Gannon truly meant to his Marines, Neal wrote him up for a Silver Star.

"He deserves it," Neal said.  "He was out there.  Two lance corporals and a captain, trying to rescue one another.  That's what kind of Marine he was."