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California-based Marines reflect on recent combat operations in Fallujah

7 Jul 2006 | Cpl. Graham A. Paulsgrove

After more than a month of living out of armored vehicles and combating insurgents daily near Fallujah, nearly 100 U.S. Marines recently returned to this region in western Al Anbar province to continue security and stability operations.

After months of life “on the road” throughout Fallujah, Marines from the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based D Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, have returned to western Iraq to help their parent battalion maintain security and stability.

“This is a lot quieter area than what we came from - every day we were guaranteed something would happen,” said Pfc. Nathan D. Wagner, a 22-year-old team leader with Company D.

Nearly two weeks back at their base in this wide, rural desert region of Al Anbar, the Marines spent days on the move in and around Fallujah, a city of approximately 200,000 which was the site of major combat operations between coalition forces and insurgents in November 2004.

For 60-plus days, the Marines spent their time in and out of their eight wheeled light armored vehicles maintaining security, rooting out insurgents, looking for improvised explosive devices and conducting humanitarian missions in Kharma, a town on Fallujah’s outskirts, and in Habbaniyah, a large town lying between Fallujah and Ramadi.

Both cities are still hotbeds of insurgent activity. 

Life on the road

After two weeks of working alongside Iraqi soldiers in Al Qaim, a city near the Iraqi-Syrian border, the Marines were sent to Kharma, where kept a heavily-trafficked section of road between Fallujah and Baghdad clear of insurgent activity. They also assisted ground Marines – infantrymen – with operations in Fallujah’s neighboring town of Habbanyiah.

After their operations in the Sunni Triangle were completed, they went to Haditha to help provided security for a raid which resulted in the capture of a high ranking terrorist in the insurgency.

“I honestly think we’re making Iraq a better place,” said Wagner. “We’re getting rid of insurgents a few at a time but it’s a long and hard road, and there will always be bad guys. But we are making it harder for them to operate.”

D Company roamed the cities and countryside in Light armored vehicles – armored troop carriers which Marines say are ideal for any terrain. Sturdy, safe, the vehicles also pack a punch in combat – each has three mounted machine guns. Plus, the vehicles are capable of traveling 70-plus miles per hour and traverse nearly any type of terrain.

For weeks at a time, the company lived out of their vehicles, sleeping inside or next to them, seldom returning to a base for a hot meal or shower, according to Cpl. Joseph Sherwood, a team leader in the company. 

“We never had a place to come home to since we were always on the move, so the vehicles were our homes,” said Sherwood, a native Orlando, Fla.

“We were ‘nomadic warriors,’” said Cpl. Mike J. Murray, an optics technician with the company. “We went all over the place, and we had food, water, fuel and ammo, so we were good.”

Under fire, body armor pays dividends

Though the company did not suffer any deaths during its time near Fallujah, three Marines were injured during a rocket attack in Kharma. 

On thee different occasions, three other Marines would have been injured from sniper fire, but all walked away with slight bruising from the impact of 7.62 mm rounds into their protective body armor. All three attributed their body armor to saving their lives.

The Marines say the threat of sniper fire and IED attacks was constant.

While being the lead man on a patrol through Habbanyiah looking for IEDs, 21-year-old Pfc. Jason Hanson, from Forks, Wash., was knocked off his feet after he was shot in the chest by an insurgent during a small skirmish.

“I saw [Hanson] on the ground, ran up to him and rolled him over,” said Seaman Chad T. Kenyon, one of the company’s Navy corpsmen and a 20-year-old from Tucson, Ariz. “I saw that the round had gone through the front of his flak, so I opened up his flak and saw no bleeding. Then he looked up at me and said, ‘I’m fine, Doc.’”

The body armor, while heavy and cumbersome, did its job - save the life of its wearer.

“I’m happy to carry the extra weight,” said Hanson, grinning slightly.

Hanson’s brush with death was not uncommon for the hardened warriors of D Company - Sgt. Joshua S. Adams, a 21-year-old vehicle commander from Bowling Green, Mo., was hit while his platoon cordoned off an area with an IED in it. 

“We were blocking off a road and one car pulled up from a side street, and the guy in the back of vehicle started moving around to face us, and as I was telling Sgt. Adams, he got hit,” said Lance Cpl. Kyle V. Lyons, 25, the gunner on Adam’s vehicle from Houston. “He dropped down and then said he was fine.”

“My gunner took over while I assessed my wounds and pulled some shrapnel out of my arm, then we chased down the car,” said Adams.  “The round went into my SAPI but when it hit, the round shattered and some of it went into my wrist.”

“SAPIs” are the thick, ballistic metal plates placed inside U.S. troops’ body armor for protection from shrapnel and small-arms fire.

The vehicle was chased down and the two men were eventually detained. As for the rounds which struck Adams, they could have proven fatal if he had not worn his body armor, according to Petty Officer 3rd Class Jose Mata Jr., 26, the company’s senior corpsmen from Hialeah, Fla. 

“The round would have hit him in the liver, causing massive internal damage - it could have been bad,” said Mata Jr. “The SAPI plates did their job.”

The long drive home

With less than three months left in Iraq before they return to their home station in southern California, the company will continue to operate within its own battle space in western Al Anbar province – a large expanse of desert dotted with small towns, and hundreds of miles away from Fallujah.

“It’s good to know that we are on the tail end of a very eventful deployment,” said Sherwood, now a two-time veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He deployed with another Twentynine Palms-based unit, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, during the initial push to Baghdad in 2003. 

While the Marines are glad to be back patrolling desert towns and villages here, some says they miss the excitement and day-to-day action they experienced in the Fallujah region – IEDs, insurgents and all.

Daily patrols and combat operations through Habbiniyah was an “infantryman’s dream,” said Wagner, who added he’d rather be in the thick of the action in Al Anbar’s more urban areas than in what he calls a “quiet desert with a few towns.”

“We were in a lot more active areas than what we have out here,” said Wagner, a native of Fruitland, Idaho. “This is mainly a quiet desert with a few towns while before we were inside the cities for weeks at a time.”

The time spent “in the field” didn’t bother the Marines – the hot meals and showers were missed, but worse things can always happen, said Murray.

“Being out there for weeks at a time wasn’t bad because really strong camaraderie and brotherhood is built,” said Murray. “And a few guys got really good at making coffee in the field.”

Wild, wild west

Now, the Marines are back to patrolling western Anbar’s vast regions, where they’re not encountering the same day-to-day violence they did in eastern Al Anbar province. Still, the insurgent activity is ever present in this region, just in a different form, the Marines say.

In the Fallujah region, insurgents would often attack U.S. and Iraqi military forces directly. Here, they like to hide, said Sherwood.

“I am glad we are [in western Iraq] – the threat is ever present here, but the terrorists out here are much less confrontational,” said Sherwood. “[The mission here] provides us with a bigger challenge - out here they are much more likely to avoid us, so we have to be ever so more diligent in our operations of taking them down.”

The battalion is responsible for one of the largest areas in Iraq, so having an extra company of mechanized infantry Marines actively operating the area puts more Marines in more places, making it more difficult for insurgents to operate.

“While our battalion has been doing a good job without us, we’re here to close the gap,” said Murray, 22, from Winchester, Va. “With so much wide open space, it’s hard to monitor all the insurgent activity.”

Murray, on his second deployment to Iraq with the battalion, spent the majority of this tour working alongside the infantrymen of Company D, patrolling through the cities, versus his usual job of repairing and assessing optics on the company’s light armored vehicles.

“During my last deployment I stayed on this base for the vast majority of the time – this time I have gotten to see firsthand the Iraqis experience democracy and the freedoms that many take for granted in the United States,” said Murray. 

After the company’s return to their forward operating base here late last month, the company took a weeklong break from before hitting the streets on patrol again. Time was allocated to perform maintenance on vehicles and weapons, straighten out administrative and pay issues, and decompress before hitting Iraq’s roads again.

“It’s good to have a break, as opposed to being on the move all the time,” said Wagner. 

“We also have gotten a chance to watch the World Cup just about every night,” added Murray. “So life is good.”

Email Cpl. Paulsgrove at: paulsgrovega@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil