CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Call it a little bit of justice.
Marine snipers from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment shot and killed an insurgent sniper and spotter preparing to shoot at passing Marines, June 16. And the insurgents were going to use a stolen Marine sniper rifle for the attack.
That rifle – an M-40A1 – belonged to the “Magnificent Bastards” of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, a battalion within the Regimental Combat Team 5 family. It was taken by insurgents when a team of four Marines were killed in a rooftop outpost June 21, 2004, in Ramadi.
Nearly two years to the day, Sgt. Maj. James E. Booker, the battalion’s sergeant major during their tour in Ramadi, said the news “sends a chill down my spine.”
“It makes me feel real good to know a brother sniper got final revenge,” said Booker, in a phone interview from his post as the Marine detachment sergeant major at Fort Sill, Okla. “I really respect those young studs to do what they did.”
Booker should know. Aside from leading his Marines through Ramadi, he’s a 20-year sniper himself, first acquiring the skill in 1986. He later led 1st Marine Division School’s Scout-Sniper School.
And Booker knew the four Marines killed on the rooftop that day as well. Lance Cpl. Deshon Otey was the sole survivor of an ambush that killed his entire squad in April 2004. Lance Cpl. Juan Lopez was a combat replacement, pulled in to beef up the ranks.
Lance Cpl. Pedro Contreras “was a good doggone kid,” Booker said. “He and I got in a gunfight together.”
The final member was Cpl. Tommy Parker Jr., the team’s only trained sniper.
“I can see it like the day I walked up there,” said Booker, a 44-year-old from Waco, Texas. He said they believed the team was killed around 10:40 a.m. After missing radio checks, a quick reaction force was dispatched.
“We were there within an hour of (insurgents) filming it,” he said. The video of the dead Marines was already playing across Arabic-language news channels.
A lot of confusion has surrounded that day. What is known is radio checks were logged from the time the team left their forward operating base around 1 a.m. until 7:30 a.m. the next day, the last time indicated in the logbook found in Contreras’ hand. They were found dead, blood pooled on the flat rooftop. A short wall surrounded the entire roof and a single staircase led to the top. They were found stripped of their weapons – two sniper rifles, four M-16A4s and a radio and thermal sight.
The rifle that was the extension of Parker was gone. He and his team were killed and there were no clear answers as to who killed them or what happened to their weapons.
“That’s sacred, the relationship you have with that thing,” Booker explained. “Parker shot thousands of rounds through that rifle.”
Cpl. Angel S. Villalobos, a 23-year-old from Taft, Texas, with RCT-5’s Personnel Security Detachment, was a Magnificent Bastard in Ramadi in 2004. He remembered the day clearly. It was the day before he himself was wounded.
“I wondered if it was this rifle that did it,” Villalobos said. “We were going through Ramadi, knocking down every door trying to find it.”
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew R. Campanano, a 26-year-old from Allentown, Pa., is serving with RCT-5 and saw the four Marines often. They lined up – scout snipers and the aid station’s hospital corpsmen – alongside each other in formations.
“The guys who got this back, they’re great,” Campanano said. “These are the guys fighting this war out here.”
Villalobos held the rifle in his hands and fell silent. He held it low, cradling it and examined the chipped paint jobs applied by Marines over the years. The Unertl scope was missing, replaced by a Tasco, but otherwise, the rifle was in good working order.
“It means a lot knowing we got our rifle back because now they can’t use it against us,” Villalobos said. “I’m glad to know they got it back, but it brings up a lot of questions. It makes you wonder if they’re the ones who might have taken it.”
The rifle’s long journey back into the hands of Marines from 5th Marine Regiment wasn’t forgotten by any of the former Magnificent Bastards, including Master Sgt. Rod B. Schlosser, the regiment’s assistant operations chief. He was the company gunnery sergeant for Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Ramadi.
The rifle was on his inventory and he cared for the four Marines.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Schlosser, a 38-year-old from Steubenville, Ohio. “You’re first thought is on the loss of the Marines. But you’re reminded to be thankful for the skills of the Marines today to bring closure to this.”
Schlosser said he often thought about the missing weapon, knowing the effect a sniper has on the battlefield. He also knew the insurgents had one of the finest rifles in their hands – and it was a Marine rifle, his Marines’ rifle.
“It gets under your skin,” he explained. “The most important thing is knowing it’s not in the hands of the enemy. There’s gratitude for the 3/5 Marines, for the lives they’ve saved taking it out of the enemy’s hands.”
Lt. Col. Paul J. Kennedy was the battalion’s commander in Ramadi. He now serves at the Office of Legislative Affairs and was told right away about the rifle’s recovery.
“I was very pleased,” Kennedy said by phone. “It’s justice being carried out. The guys who perpetrated this crime should be rotting in hell and 3/5 allowed that to occur.”
Kennedy has a hunch that the Darkhorse snipers of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment got those who killed, or at least had a part in killing, his Marines.
“I don’t believe that weapon passed hands,” he said. “I think it was at least probably part of that cell. The very fact it was one of our snipers that killed theirs trying to use our rifle is poetic justice.”
Kennedy said the news wasn’t so much closure on the loss of his four Marines. They can’t be replaced and the rifle is never a replacement for the Marines. Still, it was fitting that another 5th Marine Regiment battalion recovered a rifle stolen from his Marines. It’s a family matter, one battalion supporting another from the same regiment.
What will happen to the rifle is still a question to be answered. Marines from RCT-5 are tracking down which unit should own it, according to how weapons sets were passed among deploying battalions. And the M-40A1s are being phased out for M-40A3s, a newer version used by Marines now.
Booker said he’d hate to see the weapon go back into use, knowing insurgents used it to try, and possibly did, kill Marines.
“There are evil spirits on it,” Booker said. Instead, he thinks it should be preserved.
“I would like to see it sit in a place of honor,” he added.
Kennedy said his battalion never brought home any war trophies. There was a memorial service to honor their 35 killed in action, but no lasting memorial exists at the battalion’s headquarters.
Kennedy said this rifle might be the appropriate memorial to all his Marines killed.
“Maybe if it was hung in the battalion area,” he said, “it would be a fitting memory to those four and the rest.”