FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., ventured into Fallujah for the first time in more than a month, without a single shot fired.
The patrol into the city June 14 - conducted by the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, attached to the 1st Marine Division - had Marines on edge. The city was turned over to the authority of the Fallujah Brigade after fighting ended in April and since then, Marine presence was scaled back significantly. One patrol ventured into the city in May without incident.
"It was a tough mission and had the potential to get real ugly real quick," said Lt. Col. Giles Kyser, the battalion commander from Dumfries, Va., to his Marines. "For the rest of your life you'll be able to say you stuck your head in the lion's mouth and came out without a scratch."
Kyser said there was no group of Marines with whom he would have rather carried out the mission.
Marines from 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, also a Camp Lejeune-based unit, escorted the patrol into the maze of city streets. The same streets, just two months ago, were littered with the debris of combat. Marines carved out portions of the city, pushing back terrorist forces before Iraqi leaders called for a cease-fire agreement with Coalition commanders.
The city is still tense. Marines warned each other before the patrol to be ready for anything.
"One of two things will happen," said Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Doub, a 20-year-old from Winston-Salem, N.C. "Either it'll be a smooth ride or all hell is going to break loose."
For the Marines involved, it was thorny mission. They had to think on their feet when they were forced to limit themselves in personnel and vehicles by their Iraqi Civil Defense Corps escort.
"We didn't have that many vehicles at all for this mission. It was just a reinforced squad of Marines, that was it," Lance Cpl. Steven B. Knetchel, a rifleman with 2nd Battalion's Company G.
The 24-year-old from Woodinville, Wash., said he was fine with a smaller, more agile force. Behind the squad was a small army of Marine forces ready to help their comrades should the mission turn sour.
"We had fixed and rotary wing air support, artillery and a large quick reaction force waiting just outside the city in case anything happened," he added. "We were all pretty comfortable with that."
They found that Iraqi police and soldiers turned out in full force to ensure the patrol wasn't tampered with as they passed the sand-filled barriers into the city.
There were ICDC and police lining the streets like it was a parade, Knetchel said. The numbers of ICDC easily tripled the number of Marines. Still, Marines didn't let their guard down.
"It was a very open city," Knechtel said of the maze of streets through Fallujah. "That's good because we could see a long way, but it was bad because there were a lot of spots for the enemy to hide."
The Marines took up defensive positions around a key building where Marine and Iraqi leaders met to talk about plans for the future. They kept their vigil aware of the danger in the city.
"We were keeping watch over the place, and we saw some things that made us nervous," said Sgt. Lucas B. Hodges, a 23-year-old sniper from Chicago. "We saw some vehicles pull up to the crowds of people. They had weapons inside, but no one used any of them."
The lack of gunfire surprised all the Marines in the city and was echoed by Knetchel.
"I can't believe not one shot was fired the whole time," he said.
The Marines were prepared for a battle reminiscent of Mogadishu. They readied themselves for this possibility by going through dozens of rehearsal drills prior to the mission to prepare for any scenario.
"To me, the only thing that mattered was the guy next to me," Knetchel said. "The squad did their job by bringing everyone back alive and in one piece.
"Because not one shot was fired, I think the mission went really well," Knetchel said. "It couldn't have gone any better."