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Marines Recount Fierce Battle

15 Sep 2004 | Cpl. Matthew R. Jones

Along the Syrian border is a small town called Husaybah.  Though diminutive in size, it has seen its fair share of violent clashes between United States Marines and terrorist insurgents.

Marines from 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, know this first hand. They take home with them the vivid memories of a fierce encounter.

"We were getting small-arms fire, machine-gun fire and mortared on a regular basis for the entire time we were there," said Lance Cpl. Austin T. Herbel, an assaultman for Weapons Platoon, Company L.

"The locals were afraid to help us because the terrorist would kill anyone who helped us," said Lance Cpl. Andrew Y. Tuttle, another assaultman for Weapons Platoon.

"It was so bad that children would get their hands cut off for selling us sodas," added Lance Cpl. Joshua J. Rutherford, a machine gunner for Weapons Platoon.

Though the unit went through numerous firefights, one stands out in their mind as the most intense. 

"On April 17th, our platoon was involved in a 14-hour fire fight," said Rutherford. "This day made me truly understand what the battalion commander meant when he said 'When it comes down to it you are not fighting for freedom, you are fighting for the person to the left and right of you and not for any political reason.'"

That day on the northwest edge of the town, members of an adjoining unit witnessed mortars being fired and started taking rocket-propelled-grenade fire and small arms fire. 

"Our platoon was the quick reaction force," said Herbel a 21-year-old native of Colby, Kan. 

As the quick reaction force approached the area in which the other Marines had witnessed the insurgent activity, the platoon started to take fire, said Herbel.

During the next 14 hours, the Marines would experience some of the fiercest fighting since the end of the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We spent the rest of the day fighting block by block," said Tuttle.
The platoon dismounted their vehicles and began patrolling the streets.  

"We started taking fire from two-story buildings, I jumped in a humvee and started to drive down the street in order to provide cover for other Marines," said Herbel. 

The platoon continued to push north along a street known to the Marines as "East End Street." 

"As we drove down the street, insurgents would come out of house and we would lay down a lot of fire at them," recounted Herbel. "Suddenly, we stopped, at the time I did not know why."

Later, Herbel would know the reason. Lance Cpl. Gary Vanleuven had been shot and killed by a sniper. He was the first of five Company L Marines to die fighting for the freedom of Iraq that day. 

"We continued north, all the way collecting insurgents and weapons in the back of the hummers," said Tuttle, 21, who was also driving a humvee to provide cover for his platoon members. "We got to one house that the insurgents were using as a stronghold, pulled into a alleyway behind the house and waited for the rest of the platoon.

"We used a school as a rally point to take the house.  The entire time we were fighting the insurgents in the house, we were taking fire from every other direction," added the Union, Mo., native.

The fire from the insurgents inside the house would soon claim three more Marines.

"Lance Cpl. Valdez and Lance Cpl. Smith dragged Cpl. Gibson into the courtyard of the house after Gibson had been shot in the street, looking for cover," Tuttle added.

Once inside the courtyard, all three of these courageous Marines would find themselves in a final fight for their lives. The machine guns and RPG's fired from the house, however, would find their mark.

"My squad laid down suppressive fire so that other Marines could fire (anti-tank rockets) into the house," said Rutherford, 22, from West Union, Ohio. 

In addition to the small-arms fire, three rockets were fired at the house. However, the insurgents would not leave the house.  The platoon decided to smoke the insurgents out of the house. All nine insurgents from inside the house were eventually killed.

However, they were not the only ones to die in that house. The final member of the company to die that day was Capt. Gannon, according to Tuttle. 

"We spent a lot of time at that house, simply because no Marine is left behind.  Once Marines fell in the courtyard, we were going to get them," said Herbel. 
The unit continued to push through the hostile town, all the while collecting weapons and detainees as well as wounded Marines. They would meet the rest of the battalion on Market Street.

"It was getting close to 2300 and we had been fighting constantly, no breaks," said Tuttle.

At that time, Tuttle and Herbel were among Marines that pushed to a soccer field to set up a casualty evacuation site.

"There were Cobras and Hueys flying overheard, providing fire support," said Tuttle. 

After the casualties were evacuated from the town, the Marines pushed on to Al Qaim for supplies, ammunition and to drop of the detainees.

With that part of the mission complete. The Marines were ordered to go out again and sweep the rest of the city. 

"The entire battalion got on line and swept west, back towards our firm base," said Rutherford.

The battalion swept a two-kilometer square of the town block by block using mounted and dismounted Marines. They continued until they reached the camp. At the base, six of their platoons were put on line to provide security.

"We were told there were over 300 insurgents that day and that we had killed over 150, including 14 Al Queda officers," said Rutherford.

"The town was pretty quite from then until June," said Herbal.

The unit took more than just the physical loses from the day of fighting; they took some of life's harshest lessons learned - the hardest way. One company had lost five members in one short day.

"You do not know when someone's time is up, one minute you will be talking to someone and then they are gone," said Herbel.

"I learned that you do not know how fragile life is until you have experienced it and seen how fast it can go," concluded Tuttle.