My Day In Hell At Landing Zone Eagle

Reads: 128  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic


A gritty war story about brotherhood and loss during the height of counter-insurgency operations in Al Anbar Province. Read the story of one of the hardest hit Infantry Battalions in the Iraq
War,and the affect it had on the Marines who fought that difficult conflict. The 1st Marine Division under General James Mattis took the lead role in this fight against Al Qaeda and it's foreign
fighters bent on waging Jihad against American sons in this ancient smuggling corridor known as the Euphrates River Valley.

Submitted: October 24, 2017

A A A | A A A

Submitted: October 24, 2017

A A A

A A A


It was scorching hot…again.

 

We had all gotten used to it at this point. Al Anbar Province and its unforgiving desert terrain seemed to punish you for trying to attempt to do anything from the hours of 1000 to 1800, when the giant fireball begins its slow descent below the Syrian Border each day. Even worse when you are buttoned up in a Kevlar flak jacket, Kevlar helmet, 180 rounds of bullets and a few grenades attached to your person. One might find some relief, if you pushed the visor of your helmet up about an inch higher than it should be over your forehead – the additional space within allows cooler air to enter the “brain housing group”. I really welcomed this as my head seemed to continuously throb and ache ever since some Al Qaeda fuckers tried to kill me and my patrol with large artillery shells two weeks prior in a shitty little town called New Ubaydi. This rat’s nest was considered the “high class” neighborhood of our area of responsibility (AOR), and it sat just on the south side of the great Euphrates River that would roll in from Syria roughly 30 miles to the west.

 

On this particular day, about 30 United States Marine grunts and I found ourselves nestled at the bottom of a large “wadi”, or desert ravine, which was about 100 meters off of ASR TIN – the main highway that runs in to New Ubaydi. The men of Weapons Company 3rd Battalion/7th Marines, were preparing to set up “snap VCPs” or vehicle check points, where we would search every single vehicle and person who tried to enter the city to our North. The position was superb as all of our vehicles or “vics” were completely covered and concealed from the road. These impressive Humvees had all kinds of deadly weapons systems on them like the TOW missile, Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher, “the ma deuce” .50 heavy machine gun, and of course my favorite, the M240G medium machine gun. Even deadlier where the motivated Marines that manned each system – their training was the best in the world and their pride in their craft was obvious to say the least. We also had outstanding Navy medics called “Corpsmen” or more affectionately “Docs”, whose sole responsibility was to care for their Marine brothers when they were sick or wounded.

 

Weapons Company had their Company Commander back finally from Camp Husaybah - a fortified Marine outpost that sat right on the Syrian Border, after he was ordered to move back to Camp Al Qaim to begin a new phase of operations with his Marines. For the previous two months, it was drilled into our heads from our feared General Mattis, to “first do no harm” as we would focus on leading “humanitarian and civil affairs projects” in order to promote a “pro-coalition mentality”. The thought was if we treated these people with kindness, then they would start giving up intelligence on our enemy Al Qaeda, and these efforts would please all of the important bureaucrats in Baghdad and Washington. I seemed to lose all enthusiasm with this after I almost got vaporized from an “IED” or “roadside bomb” that was trying to get me out of the picture in the affairs of New Ubaydi two weeks prior. Now, my focus just seemed to be trying to stop my head from throbbing all day and to just try and stay aware and focused on something. I was clearly injured from this traumatic brain injury (TBI), but Major Schreffler, my mentor and close friend, kept me in the game because “the Battalion needed me”. It was just like most of the football games I played where I got the shit kicked out of me, but I had to stay in and play - Marines call this “sucking it the fuck up.” If the injury happened a year or two later, I would have been taken out of the action and recovering on a golf course in Germany.

 

I was pleased about not having any responsibility whatsoever except being the “advisor” to Captain Tim Powledge, our Company Commander. I was his Executive Officer or “XO” and I had worked very closely with him over the previous 6 months training the Company for war at our home base in Twentynine Palms, California. I would set up all of the ranges and logistics for the Company to go out and conduct lethal live fire exercises in the Mojave Desert, the home of the legendary 7th Marine Regiment. We had a great relationship up to this point, as I always genuinely looked out for the guy, even when all three of our Platoon Commanders thought the guy was a fucking asshole. I tried my best to tell these battle hardened Lieutenants to “give the guy a chance” and so forth. Ever since Powledge took over Weapons Company, he had something to prove. See, all of his people, even his Lance Corporals, were all combat veterans from the invasion of Iraq. Powledge was not - he was in the schoolhouse at Quantico, learning how to be a “Company Grade” Officer. He watched us pull down Saddam’s stature in Baghdad with a bunch of other hard charging grunt officers at the Officer’s Club at Camp Barrett. However, I never once talked shit about Powledge. I considered this low class behavior and I sensed that if I engaged in this type of banter, it would ultimately hurt the Marines in Weapons Company – our most valuable asset. Even after I had command of what remained of Weapons Company while he was gone, I quickly supported him and what he was doing. He had nominated himself in the previous weeks to go help my man Captain Rick Gannon out on the Syrian Border, with the rest of Lima Company – my old Company.

 

Lima Company was the “Main Effort” of our Battalion, and they had occupied a large fortified complex from the US Army and its cowboys from 1/3 Armored Calvary Regiment, that literally sat right on the Iraq-Syria Border. Lima became a “Task Force” and had an additional 200 Marines and Sailors attached to it under Captain Gannon’s command to manage this special mission - making it a total of 400. Rick and his Marines controlled the border crossing, and at any time, had the authority to close or open the border crossing as he or the Battalion Commander saw fit. This only happened several times for security reasons as the local populace would be furious. This area was an ancient smuggling corridor for centuries, and people made a living crossing that border daily for trade. It made sense for Powledge to go west there to help Rick because he could use the help. The reality was, Rick was happier than a pig in shit. This was a fucking dream job for a Company Commander – it would be safe to say that Rick was most likely the envy of every Company Commander in the Marine Corps at that moment. But Rick was Rick, steady and easy and never let that shit get into his head. A total professional, whose father received a Silver Star in Vietnam as a Marine Lieutenant for wiping out a Company of gooks on the Cambodia border in 1967.

 

Rick was like my older brother, and he loved me dearly. He invited me and my former Platoon Sergeant, Matt Carpenter, over to his home for our last dinner before we shipped out to Al Anbar Province. Matt brought his wife and kids over and we all munched on pizza and wings furnished by Rick’s amazing wife, Sally. Rick just had a giant smile on his face the whole time – sure he would miss his family and he was nervous, but my God, what an opportunity he had and he knew it. As that lovely evening began to wind down, Rick and I stepped outside for a minute and packed two robust “dips” of smokeless tobacco. Rick was one of the only guys I knew that could successfully pull off an “upper decker”, where he would place the tobacco in his upper lip. He would move it around to ensure proper dental care and so forth. I always dropped in the lower decker, but occasional would do the upper if my lower lip got to raw from it. We stood outside in the brisk high desert air and looked up into the vast stars above us.

“You know Tommy, the Colonel asked me if I wanted you to be my XO for this one.”

“Really Sir? No shit huh. I would have loved to be your XO.”

Rick took over Lima Company from Captain George Schreffler in Karbala when George became the “S-3” or Operations Officer for 3/7 in MAY 2003. In this position, George would now devise all operational plans for the Battalion and would actually “fight the Battalion” when we went after it. The Battalion Commander would lead and provide intent, but George was the guy that made it all happen. Both Rick and I were thrilled about that, because we were both so close with George. Lima’s amazing experience and talent from our first deployment, and their exceptional leader in Rick, made them the Battalion “Main Effort” for Operation Iraqi Freedom II in Al Anbar Province. Rick had already gotten his orders to relieve an Army Company that had been there since the invasion one year prior, and the rest of the Battalion would essential support Lima’s mission. The Officers of 3/7 all saw the intelligence reports on our new area of operation and it was terrifying. The classified, or “SECRET” graphics presented to us were covered with red spots that indicated IED strikes. The entire area was littered with IEDS, and we were going to roll through it with fiberglass Humvees. I guess you could say we all had some form of dread about this, but our cockiness and egos as Marine grunt Officers, with the absolute baddest fucking Infantry Battalion in the Marine Corps, seemed to mute this feeling.

Rick fired out a very precise projectile of tobacco juice on his neatly trimmed back yard and took a deep exhale…“I told the Colonel to move you over to Weapons Company Tommy – much better for you and your professional development. You do realize the best Lieutenant in the Battalion goes over to Weapons Company as XO right?”

He was referring to the fact that the billet of Weapons Company XO is supposed to be held by a Captain. Once again, I was filling a billet that was a higher rank then my current rank. I had taken Lima Company Weapons Platoon into the fight during the Invasion on year prior, and also successfully served as the Company Fire Support Team Leader – both billets for First Lieutenants and I was just a boot ass Second Lieutenant. Albeit, no other boot ass Second Lieutenant got the kind of kills I did as a Fire Support Team Leader that’s for sure. I had a Major (LTC select) working for me while I was a “butter bar”, and together we shot $2.2M of ordinance at the enemy in just 3 weeks during “The March Up”. Fuck you with the 2d Lieutenant and a map meme.

“Yup. I wanted to send you over there because it was great for your professional development as a Marine Officer. You couldn’t ask for a better opportunity Tommy…”

“Wow Sir. Thanks so much for that. Although, being away from you and Lima is tough – I miss the hell out of you guys”

“You’ll do great Tommy, I know it. I’m sure we will work with you and Weapons Company and we will have plenty of opportunities to see each other in Al Qaim.”

“Enshallah Sir, Enshallah” I said as Rick answered with one of his hearty laughs and big smile. I was really proud to know that I was one of Rick’s most trusted and closest friends, and that he thought so highly of me. It was friends like this that makes a man’s life rich, knowing that such a fine human being, a man of true honor, was there looking out for my interests. I was very touched, and as I threw out that “dead lipper” out in to the grass, I realized I had a small lump in my throat because of it. That went away instantly when I looked at Rick’s toothy grin, just like his Dad’s big Irish grin. When he wasn’t smiling, he looked more like his mother, a beautiful Mexican woman with long black hair from Southern California. As a Marine Company Commander, as Captain Gannon, he always had to employ “bearing” to keep his men honest, so his smiles were few and far between. But when we would get together privately, that was when the real Rick came out, and he was such a sweetheart.

 

The pizza and wings at Rick’s air conditioned home that night seemed like another lifetime away on this day however. Instead, I am staring at a package of MRE cheese spread and preserved crackers that I was mentally masturbating over all morning. I had the radio in my ear as I sat in the front seat of the Weapons Company command variant Humvee (or M998 Command and Control HMMWV), listening for potential chatter from Battalion. My head throbbed and throbbed and the countless Motrins prescribed by our loving “Doc” just wasn’t cutting the fucking mustard. I glanced out the unzipped canvas window of the hummer to observe the scorching desert landscaped spectacled by impressive “gun trucks” positioned in a tactical formation. The tall and intimidating looking Captain Powledge briefing his section and team leaders on the concept of operations for that day. I was glad to be out of that madness, and watching the radio that day was just perfect for me. I could focus on my throbbing head I suppose. One week before, one of our patrols had set up a VCP on that same highway and stopped a shitty early 80s model Toyota Tercel. As the driver approached the check point, he slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car and ran into the desert back towards New Ubaydi. The Marines were unsuccessful in getting that cocksucker into custody, but instead focused on searching his vehicle. The searched turned up a video camera – on it was footage of Al Qaeda blowing up one of our patrols on that same road several days earlier. Really spooky shit. These fuckers were recording their attacks on us for propaganda videos. Little did we know, their leader, the menacing Abu Zarqawi, was hiding out with his senior management in our AOR - specifically in the city of Husaybah. We also discovered, through “Signals Intelligence” or SIGINT, that (6) seasoned snipers from Chechnya had moved into our area to start killing our Marines. This intelligence was acquired from surveillance of mobile phone traffic from impressive US Air Force aircraft that would orbit above us as we were all completely unaware of it on the deck.

Finally, I decided to go after those cheese and crackers I had sitting on the dashboard – I had the cheese heated up just enough to ensure proper and efficient spreading on the cracker. One year before, during “The March Up”, Marines would have literally killed each other for that famous combo. I thought the regular cheese spread was better than the nacho cheese spread that was out there. Perhaps my tender Irish stomach couldn’t handle that zest that came along with it. I carefully ripped off the corner of the cheese spread packet, and had also opened the crackers successfully too. Off to a terrific start here as sometimes the crackers would fall apart when you open them – most likely because they were 10 years old. I carefully spread the cheese on one corner of the cracker, and began to make love to this amazing creation. I took a bite and reveled in the pure bliss of it. I slowly chewed it and closed my eyes and savored every morsel. Just as I swallowed the first bite, the radio handset cracked off in my right ear. I was startled by it as the reality of the war had now interrupted my erotic encounter with my cheese and crackers. BLADE 3 was on the line, Major Schreffler, and I instantly focused on his transmission.

“Whiskey 5, this is Blade 3 actual over”

“Blade 3 actual, this is Whiskey 5, send your traffic over”. The enthusiasm in my voice was obvious to the Major as together we both invaded the Country one year before. We spent three weeks in an armored Winnebago as we both went on the craziest camping trip of our lives, and came out victorious when we were the first Marines in to Baghdad. I would have taken a bullet for George Schreffler, and his reputation was growing in the Marine Corps as someone who “might end up being Commandant someday”. I quickly put the cheese and crackers down and took out my writing gear for whatever he wanted.

“Whiskey Five, be advised we have major action going down in Husyabah and I need to speak to Whiskey Six now, over”

“Roger Sir, stand by one. Whiskey Five out”

I quickly put the handset back on the MRC-145 dual radio and stepped out of the vic and into the scorching sun of Al Anbar Province. My eyes immediately squinted as I called out for Captain Powledge, who was a short distance away from me.

“Hey Sir, it’s Blade 3 actual and he needs to talk to you ASAP”

“Roger XO, I’ll be right over” The big Company Commander quickly finished his discussions with his Sergeants and Corporals and began to make his way over to the command variant. I glanced down to see a large dung beetle pushing stool across the landscape vigorously. I thought to myself “where the fuck are you going?” and entered into a David Attenborough nature show. Thank God it wasn’t one of those camel spiders that would literally scream at you and attack you. My little nature project interrupted as Powledge walks up to the vic and picks up the handset. I stood next to him with my note pad and pen and prepared to assist him with whatever he needed. I felt my sphincter constrict slightly at thinking about what “major action in Husyabah” meant.

Powledge “rogered up” on the radio and I watched him listening to Major Schreffler as he received our Company’s orders. I began to wonder about Rick, and all of those loveable Marines in my Weapons Platoon from the previous tour. I thought of Corporal Chris “Gibby” Gibson and the other studs who were the best shooters in the 1st Marine Division, and wondered about what they were doing. Weapons Platoon was Rick’s favorite Platoon in his Company, and Gibby was Rick’s favorite Marine. He never told anyone about this, but it was obvious to me because of the conversations we would have when I had command of that prestigious Platoon the previous year. Rick would never want any of his Marines to know that he had a favorite – that would be unprofessional. His love for Gibby was obvious though and all of Lima’s Lieutenants knew it as well.

I studied Powledge’s face as he continued to listen on the radio, and it soon became a look of dread and concern. He was quickly scribbling a few things down in his notepad – he then wrote a grid down on the windshield of our vic with his black map pen. That grid coordinate was where we were going, and I anxiously waited for him to conclude his call with the Major so I could hear what was going on about 30 kilometers away (18 miles). As he chatted away, I took that grid and plotted it quickly on my 1:50,000 map of Al Qaim. My map pen touched down right in the middle of the Husaybah municipal athletic stadium which sat on “East End Road”, and it was renamed Landing Zone Eagle or “LZ Eagle”. As he was concluding his discussion, I called the Sergeants and Corporals over to our vic, knowing that Captain Powledge will be publishing a Fragmentary Order of “Frag Order” to his Marines about our next mission once he got off the net with the Battalion S-3.

“OK. Listen up Marines, there is a major shitstorm brewing in Husyabah. Intelligence reports that an estimated (200) Muj have moved into Husaybah proper and are attacking Camp Husyabah and Lima Company. Word is there are five fallen angels from Lima...”

The Marines were silent with disbelief. A fallen angel is one of our own dead. So, there were (5) dead Marines from Lima Company that had succumbed to this major fight that was happening in Husaybah against Al Qaeda. “The Muj” or Mujahedeen, were the foot soldiers of Al Qaeda. Many of these fighters were foreigners, from shitholes like Libya, Morocco and even places like Chad. AQ recruiters would venture into poor villages with bags of money and make proposals to poor Muslims and their families. In every case, they had never seen that kind of money before, and it was an instant sell – particularly when you throw the whole “Jihad” thing in there. Jihad means an Islamic religious war against an Infidel that is looking to destroy Islamic values or “Sharia Law”. The poor and often emaciated soldiers joined Al Qaeda and found themselves sneaking across the Syrian Border and in to places like Ramadi or Fallujah, about 100 miles to our East. 3/7 was the most remotely positioned Battalion in the Marine Corps and these assholes wanted to fix us in place on this particular day, while their buddies were fighting in those other cities. This was day one of a Regional coordinated offensive by Al Qaeda, led by the maniac Zarqawi, most likely from within the outskirts of the city limits of Husaybah.

I couldn’t help but to be overcome with worry and fear, thinking about who those five dead Marines were. I thought quickly about my last visit to Camp Husaybah about one week before. Officers like First Lieutenants Ike Moore and Dougie French, and even Rick, had requested I come over for morale purposes. In other words, I would keep everyone entertained with jokes and stories and that would improve everyone’s attitude. I spent a lot of that visit in Rick’s office that sat in an Administration building about 100 meters away from the actual border crossing. The whole placed was stacked with sand bags, and there were armored vehicles and tanks parked around the area. The place would constantly take indirect fire, 82mm or 120mm mortars would be fired from a distance away and then “splash down” on to the intended target area. Perhaps this is why the Marines wanted me to come out there – because of that ever present fear of knowing that any one of those mortars could land and kill anyone of them at any time. We had a lot of laughs that day, and after eating tray rats with Rick and the guys, I prepared for my departure back to Camp Al Qaim, where our Battalion was located, about 40 kilometers or “klicks” away. As I walked away from the Lima Company office to my outbound vehicle, Rick called out to me and I turned to look at him. He pointed at me and winked, one of his signature moves. That was then followed by a hearty laugh and his big toothy grin spread from ear to ear. That was the image I had in my head, the last time I saw Rick, and I was now consumed with worry wondering if he was ok.

Powledge quickly publishes his order to his Marines – he concludes with a comment saying, “We might need to shoot our way in to Husaybah”. The plan was for our Marines to move in to Husaybah and get to that soccer field on the east side of town in order to secure it. Kilo Company, under Captain Trent Gibson, would provide Route Security through their Area of Operation – a series of towns like “Sadah” and “Karabila” along Route Bronze, the main highway that leads to Husaybah. Three days before, one of Trent’s Corporals jumped on a hand grenade at a snap VCP during a search of an Al Qaeda operative. Corporal Jason Dunham, a Squad Leader for Company K, jumped on the grenade without hesitation and covered it with his Kevlar helmet to protect his Marines. He sustained a fatal injury and died two weeks later in a hospital in Landshtule, Germany. Several years later, President George Bush would present his grieving parents with the Medal of Honor that Corporal Dunham earned for his actions that day. The Navy also named a really impressive brand new Guided Missile Destroyer, the USS Jason Dunham, after the brave war hero. I remember visiting Trent’s XO, one of my close friends named First Lieutenant Rudy Salcido at Kilo’s Company Office at Camp Al Qaim, and seeing a large Ziploc bag filled with shredded Kevlar – the remnants of Corporal Dunham’s helmet. Rudy went on to tell me that they were sending it back to the States for the forthcoming investigation for the Medal of Honor, as we both devoured preserved food sent from his wife. 

Within 15 minutes, the Sergeants and Corporals have briefed their Marines and our unit slowly pulls out of the wadi and on to ASR TIN that leads from New Ubaydi to MSR BRONZE, the main highway that runs west to Husaybah and the Syrian Border. Our mission was to secure the soccer stadium in Husaybah “proper” and facilitate the “dustoff”, or helicopter evacuation, of wounded Marines who were engaging in bloody house to house fighting in that dense urban populace that was covered with suicidal jihadists. As Powledge and I are moving along, our “condition one” M16A2 service rifles oriented outboard, he tells me that he wants me to secure the LZ once we get there while he pops smoke for the inbound helos and coordinates with Battalion.

“Roger that Sir” as my throbbing head was now joined by my sphincter that would not go back to where it is supposed to be and assume its normal function. The mix of the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) plus the “sphincteritis” was almost too much, and I quickly packed the hot plastic container of smokeless wintergreen tobacco before plunging an almost unprofessional sized lipper in the lower deck. The hot dip on my tender flesh was almost orgasmic as the nicotine jolted into my bloodstream. Every 20 seconds or so, I would deploy streams of tobacco juice into an empty water bottle that had Arabic writing on it, while pushing the tobacco around neatly, and maybe even compulsively. Our deadly group of Marines and mobile weapons systems cautiously moved down MSR BRONZE until we see the familiar sight of First Lieutenant Chris McManus’s gun trucks that would guide us in, parked on the side of the road. Chris was actually one of Powledge’s Marines, yet his deadly motorized Platoon, Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT) White was tasked with supporting Trent and his Marines with “mobile fires”. We pulled the section over on the side of the dirty highway and the Lieutenant from Long Island comes up to our vic to chat, sporting an absurd amount of smokeless tobacco in his lower lip. We had to wait for George to give us the “green light” on the radio to move in, as he was sequentially moving units in to Husaybah in order to reduce or minimize fratricide, or “friendly fire”. Our brief chat with McManus is interrupted by a low flying F/A-18 Attack Jet, or “fast mover”, that was racing east to meet the engagement ahead. Those pilots had to be careful because the edge of Camp Husaybah was literally right on the Syrian border, and they could not “over shoot” the target as they would violate Syrian Airspace. So the pilots would do these fancy turns right over the outpost on the border and orbit east to await orders. Those orders mainly would include dropping ordinance like a Mark-82 500lb bomb on to an enemy strongpoint. We also had attack helicopters like AH-1 Cobras “snakes” that would provide more concise yet less destructive fires, like the laser guided hellfire missile, that would be hovering below them by several thousand feet.

As we sat and waited for the word, the awful but very familiar smell of human excreta, trash, and rotting death wallowed up from below us. A wadi that ran from the Euphrates was sitting just below and I looked down to see the toxic sludge and the source of this horrendous odor. I could taste it as I sucked on my dip and fired it into the empty bottle – the baking Mesopotamian heat making the dreadful odor seem exponentially worse. The radio then blurts out over the speaker and Powledge grabs the handset and gets the order from Major Schreffler to begin our slow and deliberate advance into the city of Husaybah. Chris and I are staring into each other’s wide open eyes and saying, “This shit is fucking crazy bro…” As Powledge and I start to drive away, I yelled out to my friend Chris, “Watch your fucking ass dude. The Muj is everywhere.” Chris nervously nods in the affirmative as he moved back to his Marines that were keeping a watchful eye on the highway. Chris was still shook up from losing one of his brave Marines one week before in a firefight. Private First Class Elias Torres was killed in this exact same spot, as he was “wearing it out” with a M240G in the pitch dark against a squad size Al Qaeda element that was positioned in a nearby village. Torres always loved throwing the football with me, and the brave hero received a Silver Star posthumously for his actions on that bloody MSR that night.

Minutes later, our unit is approaching the infamous arches that are positioned on the east side of Husaybah. This was always the indicator for when shit would get real, when you passed the arches going in to Husaybah. While gripping my M16 and scanning outboard, we passed through the arches and on to Market Street on the north end, and my mind went back to worrying about Rick and the guys and if they were ok.

I thought about an experience Rick and I had together 9 months earlier when we were in Karbala. General Mattis had published an order saying the next Marine seen not wearing a helmet in a humvee, would be relieved or punished severely. Rick had just taken over Lima Company from George, and we quickly developed an outstanding relationship that enabled us to really “think outside the box” of our operations. Rick had tasked me with leading the Company’s Human Intelligence efforts “in zone” – mostly due to my innate ability to socialize successfully with the local populace and gain their trust. I interviewed, hired and fired a plethora of local nationals that could act as interpreters for Lima Company. I developed sources that would provide us intelligence, and I even had some go “undercover” in the shrines with one of our Marines who was half Mexican, but could pass for Arabic. I coordinated the first joint Iraqi-Marine patrol in theatre, and word got out quickly throughout the Division about the success Lima was having with these initiatives. I would spend most of the days driving around Karbala with a team of Scout Snipers, meeting business and government leaders and so forth. On one occasion, we were returning back to the Karbala Police Headquarters for one reason or another, and we ran into our Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Belcher. The only problem was, I was not wearing my helmet in the humvee – he looked at me like he was ready to kill me from across the dirty parking lot that had locals running around it.

“Oh fuck” I muttered to Sergeant Eschelman, the sniper who was driving. He stops the Humvee and I quickly put my helmet on and Belcher yells for me to come over to him. He had members of his staff hanging around him and his vehicle. They had decided to take a little cruise around town that day and wanted to stop by the Police Station unannounced. I quickly trot over to the “BC” and as I approached he screams at me to “Go ahead and get to attention Lieutenant!!!” I quickly stepped directly in front of my Battalion Commander and “locked myself up” at attention and stood there for what seemed like an eternity while he was verbally ripping me to pieces. I remember looking out of my peripheral vision and seeing a large Iraqi Woman covered in a black cape pulling her kid along as he stared at the action in wide eyed amazement. Belcher concludes his epic ass chewing with, “You and your fucking CO will need to be at my office by 1800 tonight for a little chat!” He quickly steps away and I let out a huge exhale and “unlock” as the crowd around us seemed embarrassed for me. I walked back to the Humvee quite humiliated and got in and told Sergeant Eschelman to go back to our firm base immediately so I could brief Captain Gannon.

A short time later, we arrived to our firm base at the Karbala Municipal Stadium, and Rick was in the Company office doing Administrative work. He loved doing “admin”, and Rick relished in any opportunity to school any of his hard charging Infantry Lieutenants on the proper procedures for labeling and filing paperwork. As grunts, we hated it, but Rick loved it. He looked up from the plywood desk our Company Gunnery Sergeant had made for him, sporting a robust upper decker of Copenhagen fine, and he says with a pleasant smile, “Hey Tommy, what’s up?”

“Hey Sir, we’ve got a little problem…” and I went on to tell him about Belcher ripping my ass in the parking lot of the Karbala Police Station for not wearing my Kevlar helmet in the humvee. He starts shaking his head in disbelief before realizing we needed to hurry up and get going over to see the Battalion Commander as 1800 was quickly approaching. He and I rode over in the back of a high back humvee, and he barely talked about the issue. He realized that it was a rule, and I had broken it, despite how sexy or impressive our operations were at the time. Now, we both would have to deal with the repercussions of General Mattis’s wrath, as he constantly threatened relief or “bad paper” for even minor offenses for officers in his fabled Division. General Mattis managed his officers through fear and intimidation. We get to the Battalion Headquarters on the other side of town and we quickly report to the Colonel’s office. I was told to wait outside the “hatch” as my Company Commander went in to receive his ass chewing for my fuck up. It was a one sided conversation and I felt horrible for putting Rick in that positon, as he was such an awesome guy. Finally, the Colonel blurts out, “Okay Captain, give me one fucking reason why I don’t fire Tom O’Neil right now!?!?”

“Because he is my best Lieutenant Sir,” responded Rick instantly. The Colonel was silent for what seemed to be an eternity before saying, “Well, he’s been, CORRECTION, you’ve been warned Captain…no more fucking bullshit, is that clear Skipper?”

“Aye Aye Sir” and the hatch blew open and Rick came charging out saying “let’s go” without even looking at me. I quickly followed my CO and we went back to the Humvee and headed back to the Lima Company Firm Base. As we were riding back to our home, Rick told me, “You know you fucked up right Tommy? Don’t do it again. Be very aware of everybody around you from now on. Let’s just chalk this up as a lesson learned.” That was that. I could have very easily been relieved, but Rick totally had my back, and he didn’t throw me under the bus, and I was so moved by that. It showed me how much he cared about me and what he was willing to do for me. From that day on, I would have stepped in front of a train for Rick Gannon – he would have my stubborn Irish loyalty forever.

We finally got into Husaybah proper and after a few quick left turns on to “East End Road”, the Marines of Weapons Company 3/7 are racing in to our new defensive position that we would establish to support the evacuation of wounded Marines from the battle going on next to us. Thank heavens, we didn’t take any fire going in, and we prepared to set up a “hasty 360 defense” with our vehicles. We could hear a “shit ton” of gunfire right down the street – mostly outgoing, heavy Marine fire from “crew served weapons”. As our 12 vehicles pulled in to the stadium, we noticed that there was a building on the north side of the soccer field that was ideal for a makeshift command post – it had several locker rooms and a non-working shower. The problem with this positon was there was no tall cement fence going around the perimeter like the one Lima had in Karbala one year before. Not only were we exposed to indirect fire (mortars), but clearly direct fire as well (I.E- AK47). In other words, someone from outside the field could easily shoot anyone of us unimpeded. The pucker factor just went up a couple of notches.

Our twenty vics pull into the exposed field and Powledge tells me to “load up the defense XO”, or establish our perimeter, as he was going to wait for the Battalion Commander to arrive any minute. The BC had been racing around this madness trying to lead his Marines against a very difficult, and often times, fortified enemy. Our Skipper and a few Marines, ventured in to that vacant building and set up radios and got the place organized as this position would become a vital part of the Battalion operations for the next 8 hours of battle. I now had the arduous task of positioning our vehicles in a manner that covered “every sector of fire” and it took patience and foresight, which was very difficult to manage in lieu of my throbbing head. Just as I am beginning to start my task, the familiar sight of our Army cohorts, Green Berets with the 3rd Special Forces Group, come flying in to the soccer field in four armored Humvees. Their Commander was a 30 year old West Pointer, a Captain named Andy Knaggs, and we got along great as a result of the fact that my Grandfather, Colonel Thomas A. O’Neil, was a World War II and Korean War hero resting eternally at his sacred home, the United States Military Academy. Andy had the deer in the head lights look as he and his men had been evading heavy gunfire, and had no idea what the hell was going on.

“Hey Tom, do you mind if we stick around here with you guys?”

“No problem Sir, but I can’t have you running in and out of here. You’ve got to stay put here until this thing is over.”

“Sure thing Tom. Do you want us to cover a sector of fire?”

“That would be super Sir. Go ahead and take your vics and cover 12 – 4”, referring to the Landing Zone defense as one big clock. I was now directing this Green Beret Captain and his special operators in this hellish battle, and he knew that I was in charge of the LZ. He quickly took his talented men and got them into position on the north to northeast side of the soccer field. Meanwhile, our Marines had settled in nicely and I exhaled with delight seeing a very robust defense in place to cover the “dustoff” of 3/7’s wounded Marines. Our command variant Humvee, with its powerful radios, was in position just off the center of the field and we would land the Army UH-60 “slick helicopters” right in the center of the field once the wounded Marines arrived from bloody house to house fighting. I ran into the dark building to let my CO know that we are “good to go” and we can start moving casualties in whenever Major Schreffler deems it appropriate. The coolness of that building was instantly refreshing but of course it reeked of stale urine and refuse. The radio was now up in there and I let Captain Powledge know that the defense is set, and yet my head seemed to throb worse and worse and I still had a big lump in my throat wondering who those fallen angels from Lima were. The loud reports of crew served weapons systems fire right down the street at Al Qaeda seemed to perpetuate the “sphincterits” that just wasn’t going away anytime soon. The head continued to throb and throb and I had to really focus hard on things. The speaker on the radio blurts out and Powledge answers and it is our Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Lopez - a self-described “Chicago Mexican.” The BC frantically told Powledge he was en route to our position, and Lima’s fallen angels would be following him shortly thereafter.

I quickly made my way out of the dark, cool but smelly building and back out in the scorching desert sun. Lance Corporal John Colonder was in the driver’s seat of the command variant Humvee a short distance away, nervously smoking a Marlboro Light. He was constantly rubbing the right side of his face, as he too was wounded alongside me two weeks ago by those deadly roadside bombs.

“You all right Colonder?”

“My fucking head is killing me Sir…”

“Well, drink some water and have Doc get you some more Motrin. I need you to keep an ear on the fucking radio and tell me when the Battalion Commander gets inside friendly lines.” More explosive gunfire down the street.

I had set up an “entry control point” at the front entrance of the soccer field that had overhead cover, manned by a “fire team (4 men)” that would facilitate the security, accountability and entry of Battalion units into the Landing Zone. Just as I felt somewhat satisfied with the way things were going, I observed what appeared to be a 120mm mortar land roughly 200m away to our southeast, landing in a shitty wadi that sat right next to the soccer field. The report sent off a large wave of concussion and dust followed by a deep thud. Wide right thankfully, hopefully the next one doesn’t land right on our heads.

That impact immediately created the urge for more nicotine, due to the increasing and constant fear and worry about what the hell was going on around us. I quickly removed a full tin of Kodiak wintergreen, telling myself, “Fuck it. Do a horseshoe…” A “horseshoe” is when you pack the entire lower mandible to the absolute brim full of smokeless tobacco, stretching from molar to molar. One horseshoe would deplete about a quarter of a container, or “tin”. I thought back to my good buddy First Lieutenant Kyle Pirnat, my bro from 1/7 who invaded Iraq the year before and got out before the second tour, thinking of his wife and kids before the Marine Corps. The guy who replaced him, another buddy of mine from 1/7 named First Lieutenant Ron Winchester, was killed in action when his Battalion relieved 3/7 in Al Qaim. Kyle had once told me how he was able to pull off a double horseshoe in Najaf on several occasions in the summer of 2003. In this case, both the upper and lower decker were completely packed to the brim. Apparently, his Battalion Commander made a comment about it, “Christ, Pirnat, got enough dip in there?”

“Rah Sir...”

I spit out another long stream on to the dirt floor and look around before the radio blurts out and it is Captain Powledge calling us from inside the command post.

“XO, the BC is pulling in now. Make sure he gets over here, over.”

“Roger Sir,” and I quickly trotted over to the ECP. As I quickly moved over to meet the Colonel, I looked around at all the rooftops just beyond the soccer field to our west and realized, “Oh fuck. If they get one of those snipers on these roofs, we’re fucked.” I was referring to those SIGINT reports about those Chechen Snipers that had snuck into our Area of Operations several days before. Most likely to support this offensive.

The Battalion Commander’s four vehicle convoy comes charging in through the ECP and I personally “ground guide” his vehicles safely into the confines of the secured LZ. He jumps out and looks at me with a frenzied look in his eyes, that I had never seen before, and said, “We’re the fuck is Captain Powledge!?!?”

“He’s right over there Sir, in that building, we’ve got a command post set up and we are ready to start with the dustoffs. The perimeter is secured Sir.”

He doesn’t answer but bluntly says, “Our fallen angels will be here any minute and it is your responsibility to make sure they get back to Camp Al Qaim”, our central base that sat 30 kilometers to our southeast, in desolate, lunar like terrain. Our Battalion had taken over command from 1/3 ACR after they modified a large railhead and Administration Building for the Iraqi National Railroad. The tracks literally came right through the base and trains going from Syria to Baghdad, and vice versa would pass by every hour or so.

“Aye Aye Sir” as I watched him disappear into the command post to “link up” with Captain Powledge. I quickly made my way back over to Colonder and the command variant Humvee and wait for what’s next. That ever present worry of who those fallen angels were almost compelled me to scream out “Who the fuck is it Sir?!?!” He wanted no part of that discussion as he mind was consumed with trying to preserve our glorious Battalion in this awful, bloody house to house engagement that was happening all around us. Not only would I have to wait in agony, but now I would have to assemble some form of convoy back to Camp Al Qaim. The good news was our Landing Zone also became an ammunition supply point, where convoys from Camp Al Qaim would bring ammunition like AT-4 Rockets, boxes of 7.62 link, 5.56 ball, 5.56 link, and 40mm grenades for the M203s. Plus, boxes of MREs, Bottled Water, medical supplies and other items that were essential in sustainment of a reinforced United States Rifle Company in combat were delivered there by our “4 shop” under the heroic direction of Captain Russ Blazer. Weapons Company also had a stash of ammo for their Mark 19s, TOWs, .50 Cal Machine Guns, 81mm Mortars and even Javelin guided missiles at Camp Gannon so they could easily resupply there. Camp Husaybah was about 1km to our west right on the Syrian Border directly down Market Street.

And then finally that moment of dread occurred and the fallen angels arrived to our position. One of Lima’s high back Humvees, driven by one of my former machine gunners, Lance Corporal Francisco Villegas pulled in solo as one of our CAAT units escorted the Marine and the angels before quickly driving back into the fight on Market Street, just off to our north. Our Marines, like Sergeant Richard Cervantes, were putting TOW missiles into buildings filled with insurgents and winning this bloody battle. Bullets were flying all over the city, and unfortunately civilians started getting hit. The BC told me personally that absolutely no civilians get on our aircraft for treatment at any cost – they would have to go to that filthy and ill equipped hospital just off of Market Street to get some form of treatment, but would likely die due to lack of capabilities and facilities.

My stomach dropped down to my feet as I saw that Humvee from afar. I knew at that moment I had to face the truth and walk over there and square this shit away. Just get it over with Tommy. I realized, despite the massive horseshoe of dip I had in my mandible, that I needed more nicotine. I swiped one of Colonder’s Marlboro Lights he had on the center console, lit it and started pulling heavily on it, while dipping as I started that dreadful walk to the Humvee. Hellacious gunfire continuing to eat up flesh, bone and concrete and it seemed just right around the corner from the soccer field. An AH-1 Attack Cobra and a UH-1 Huey were flying in a menacing manner all over the city, and the normal comforting thud of the Snakes blades seem to give me some form of comfort. I could see a completely distraught Villegas now standing outside the Humvee, lighting a cigarette and waiting for someone to come tell him what to do. It seemed like an eternity but I finally made it over to him. He saw me coming and his look of grief and misery perked up somewhat and he manage to slip out a “Rah Sir…”

“Villegas…are you all right Marine?”

“Negative Sir. This is really fucked up…” The Marine’s eyes began to swell up as I anxiously walked closer to him.

“Did you hear Sir?”

“Negative, Villegas, who the fuck is it?” as I had now made my way around the back and saw the ghastly image of (5) olive drab body bags filled and stacked in the back of his Humvee.

“It’s Captain Gannon Sir…and Gibby…Valdez…Smith…and Van Leuven…”

A massive volley of .50 caliber heavy machine gun and M240G medium machine gun rattling off just over my shoulder as I stared down at the fallen angels. My dead brothers…

No way…

Impossible…

I don’t believe it…

I was completely stunned and it seemed like God pulled all of the air out of my lungs. The burning cigarette fell from my hand and on to the deck. I just stared into the back of that Humvee - maybe for 5 minutes straight. Just looking into it. The tobacco juice overflowed and slowly dripped out of the side of my mouth. It seemed as if a giant vacuous black hole opened up in my chest and I was completely frozen.

“Sir!”

“Sir!”

“Lieutenant O’Neil Sir!” and I looked up and it was Villegas and he was pointing over to Colonder by the command variant Humvee and he’s yelling “Sir, Captain Powledge says we got our first dustoff coming in two mikes!”

“I got it…I got it Lance Corporal” I muttered, in total disbelief at what I was looking at. I seemed to be almost punch drunk as I slowly took off my Kevlar and the sweat poured down on to my face and on to my mustache. My wounded brain and head throbbed even harder. I looked at Lance Corporal Villegas and his ghastly face.

“Are they ok Villegas?”

“Who Sir?”

“The Marines God damn it!!”

“What Sir?”

“Who the fuck did this Villegas?!”

“They was all going in to a house Sir…and it was packed with a bunch of Muj. They all got hit goin in there Sir - Captain Gannon led Gibby and them out into the fight. Van Lueven got hit by a sniper though somewhere else.” Weapons Platoon, again Rick’s favorite Platoon and under the leadership of First Lieutenant Danny Carroll, responded as a “reactionary” force, after a Force Reconnaissance Platoon from 1st Force Reconnaissance Company under Captain Mike Hudson, engaged a squad sized Muj element that was shooting 82mm mortars at Camp Al Qaim from a nearby courtyard of a former Ba’ath Party Headquarters on Market Street. This was actually the first engagement of the Battle of Husaybah and it couldn’t have been led by a better Marine Officer in Mike Hudson. Total professional and just a great guy all around. He and his boys were going from rooftop to rooftop all morning, in the stifling heat, trying not to get their asses shot off in the process, while shooting at Muj running around the streets, or in courtyards below them. They would then give enemy positions over the radio to Major Schreffler who was leading the fight from Camp Husaybah. Very dangerous and scary stuff and they performed beautifully, but they were physically and mentally exhausted and traumatized from their heroic efforts.

“XO!” it was Captain Powledge shouting from afar and he was walking out to the middle of the field with a M26 smoke grenade, where he was preparing to “pop smoke” for an incoming UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter that was quickly speeding into our LZ from Camp Al Qaim. I suddenly snapped out of it and got my breath and wits about me. I told Villegas to sit tight and told him I would send him water and MRE over in a second as I sprinted over to Captain Powledge.

“Rick…” I said to myself. I immediately thought of Sally, his lovely wife and one of her big smiles. Then I thought about the fact that he was hit with Gibby. I smiled slightly, knowing that it somehow made some sense that Rick was with his favorite Marine, slugging it out, when they met their demise. This clearly did not justify anything, but to me, it was really heavy that they went out together like that.

“Rick…” Now I know why the BC looked so fucked up. His best Company Commander, his Main Effort was just killed in action. It was now up to Major Schreffler and First Lieutenant Dominique Neal, Lima’s Executive Officer, to get Lima through the rest of the fight. George had just happened to roll out to Husyabah the night before to work on future operations with Rick when the Battle of Husaybah kicked off the following morning. The timing was perfect and it was a blessing that the two exceptional Marine Officers were holding our beloved Lima together.

I got up to Captain Powledge and the first thing I said was, “Sir, did you hear about Captain Gannon?” He looked down solemnly and let out a “Yah. The Colonel told me when he got here. He is in the Command Post now and he needs some space. He is taking it pretty hard Tom”.

“Roger Sir” we both looked deep into each other’s eyes, reassuring each other that we would make it out of this thing together, with honor. Himself sporting a robust lower decker of Copenhagen fine cut.

“Popping Smoke!” and the big Captain pulls the pin and floats the grenade about 15m away as it pushed out a giant cloud of yellow smoke. This gave the pilot the signal that the LZ was clear and they could land unimpeded. We just hope some Muj won’t shoot an RPG or PKM at it from one of those fucking rooftops next to the soccer field. Enshallah…

We both looked up to see the amazing skill of the 160th SOAR helo pilots as they did this incredible acrobatic approach to avoid hostile fire. They flew low and fast over roof tops and then popped up high right above the soccer stadium, and almost “fish tailed” as it came down on to the LZ – the rotor wash kicking around sand and stone in our faces as we had to look away to protect our eyes. While I was with the fallen angels, five wounded Marines who were all shot up were positioned on the edge of the field at a triage station, and our focused Navy Corpsmen managed these affairs brilliantly, and with great courage. We were all exposed to hostile fire and no one gave a shit. All we cared about, was getting those wounded Marines on that aircraft, so we could save their lives.

“Rick…” I kept saying myself, as my cranium continued to throb, and the sphincter would slightly constrict. The Blackhawk touches down in a controlled rage and the motivated Docs rush out with stretchers and load the Marines on to the aircraft. I watched as the Corpsmen took exceptional care of each Marine and assisted the helo crew with securing the stretchers. They all gave each other the thumbs up and the Docs run back to the edge of the field. In less than 60 seconds, the birds were loaded and were now “dusting off” with our priority casualties where their lives would be saved by Navy Surgeons in the air conditioned “Shock Trauma Tents” back at Camp Al Qaim. We had just executed our first successful dustoff of five wounded Marines and it went superbly, and it would be another 45 minutes before we did another one. I turned my head away as the Blackhawk started its climb off the deck and the sand and stone kicked around hitting me in the back, waiting for the pressure to stop as the helicopter raises and I turn to watch it fly away quickly.

The radio on the speaker blurts out and it is Major Schreffler telling Powledge that he is going to push two mechanized Infantry Platoons from India Company down to our position, and they are going to stage with us at the Landing Zone until he puts them on line and sweeps the city later on. I immediately thought of the limited space in my head and already started figuring out where I would stage those four amphibious assault vehicles and the 80 or so occupants. Just as I am doing this, the ECP calls me up and says he has Force Recon requesting permission to enter friendly lines.

“Of course, let them in,” and the grief that consumed me with the loss of Rick, Gibby and the rest of the boys went away temporarily as now I would need to attend to these beat up Force Recon Marines. It was Captain Mike Hudson, and him and his small team of special operators, had humped it over to our position at the soccer field after George telling him to get out of that battlespace. In roughly one hour or so, George was going to put the entire Battalion on line and push from North the South and clear the area of enemy remaining Muj elements. Mike and his people had certainly done enough for the day, and the exhausted and traumatized Marines needed food, water, bullets and a place to rest for several hours before things cooled off. Landing Zone Eagle, and its growing resources and security, became the perfect destination for those Force Recon bubbas and I graciously offered anything I could to the brave Captain.

“Thank so much Tom, we really appreciate this. It’s been a long morning.”

“No issues whatsoever Sir. You fellas can rack out in this dark room over in the Command Post. I’ll have one of our Marines run a box of MREs and water over for you guys. We can get you ammo when you need it as well Sir.”

I’ll never forget the look in Mike’s eyes that day. A total professional, he too knew of his friend Rick’s demise and he wore that grief on his face. He and his men performed valiantly during hellish combat all morning, and they were finally successful in getting to safety. I was honored to take care of those Force Recon Marines at LZ Eagle – they all just collapsed in that dark room and cooled off. The familiar smell of cooking MREs followed by soft talking as the men had very little to say. They would eat, hydrate, and maybe sleep for a few hours before doing anything. The Marines of Weapons Company would keep an eye on them, and they rested peacefully knowing that they were secure. Those Force Recon Daddies were safer at that LZ than any other place in the world at that moment.

I came out of the Command Post to have Powledge yelling for me that our next helo is inbound. This would be our second UH-60 coming in hot, and we had hoped that we would have the same results like the last. The most important being no incoming fire on the helo as it approaches or exits the LZ. The Skipper pops another M26 smoke grenade and a large cloud of yellow smoke covers the center of the soccer field – the dazzling skill of the Army helicopter Pilots kept us all amazed. I am sure that the Warrant Officer behind the stick wanted to show off a little bit because the landing was like watching professional ice skaters going for a gold medal. The sleek black bird lands as we turn away temporarily – shielding us from the storm of dirt and rock that kicked up from the spinning blades of the aircraft. The group of Navy Corpsmen and wounded Marines on stretchers comes charging out from the side of the field again. One of the teams on the stretcher stops to untangle an active IV line that go caught up under one of the other Doc’s flak jackets. They quickly recover and get to the bird, dropping the stretcher off before securing the wounded Marine. The crew chief gives the thumbs up to the Corpsmen and everyone is now racing away and back to the triage station – the UH-60 popping up like a kite and gone in an instant. Another beautiful dustoff with zero friction…and then quiet. The shooting down the street stopped, there was no noise from aircraft in the air and it was like the battle stopped.

The wind blew gently and I was almost stunned at the fact that the chaos had stopped just like that. There was nothing odd about it – it was just by chance that at that moment, for those few minutes, everyone decided to stop shooting at each other. I walked slowly over to the command variant Humvee and sat in the front passenger seat. I took my helmet off and rubbed my face with my dirty hands to try and rub the grief off. The throb still continued, and actually had gotten worse since the dehydration from limited water and excessive nicotine intake. I had been putting “boosters” of tobacco in my “horseshoe” to keep the zest to it all morning. I was also smoking Colonder’s cigarettes as well, and I wince now thinking about how unhealthy all of that was. At the time, I wasn’t concerned about longevity – I was more concerned with “Gee, I wonder if I am going to get my fucking dick blown off here any second.”

I spit juice out the door and steal one of his Marlboro lights, light it and take a deep inhale and a deeper exhale before saying, “I can’t fucking believe it…”

“It fucking sucks Sir,” mumbles Colonder, referring to my grief from the loss of my dear friends at Lima Company, as he continued to rub his head. I started thinking about Rick again, and Gibby, Valdez, Smith and Van Lueven. I remember how close Gibby and Valdez were, the fact that they were both married and had kids (at least in Gibby’s case). Valdez had just gotten married to his high school sweetheart shortly before he deployed, a pretty girl from his hometown in south Texas. I just couldn’t believe it – I guess I was just completely stunned actually. I thought about how awesome Smith and Van Lueven were at being United States Marines. How cocky Gibby was after hitting that target at 400m with his SMAW during our first deployment in combat against the enemy – a record in the first Marine Division at the time. Images of Gibby and Valdez absolutely destroying people on the volleyball court. The fact that those two were the best of friends and how remarkable it was to watch the two work together, at ANYTHING. The thought of Rick coming up to me before one of our Company meetings in Karbala telling me quietly to, “Break Top’s balls”. I would then unleash an assload of tempered New Jersey sarcasm at our Company Gunnery Sergeant for the night’s entertainment. Remembering how sometimes Rick would need to excuse himself so he could erupt with laughter in private as to not look “unprofessional”. The thought of Rick breakdancing…yes, breakdancing. The Commanding Officer of Company L was the finest break-dancer I ever did see, and was also exceptional on “freestyle bikes”. There was an entire other side of Rick that I loved and adored, and that was what I was thinking about. None of that Marine shit. Or how pleasant Gary Van Lueven’s smile was, and his ever present team attitude and how he was always about helping the Platoon. Some of the nice talks I would have with Michael Smith about his wife and his hometown in West Virginia, and how impressed I was with the young man’s sense of character.

And now they were gone. I sat there and stared out in to the scorching desert heat and I could remember my high school football coach and mentor Lenny Weister telling me, “You gotta have a positive mental attitude boy” referring to one of several priceless pieces of advice he would give me about leading a good life. I kept repeating that in my mind, like Uncle Lenny would say in his deep western Pennsylvania accent every day when we trotted out to football practice. Before I knew it, my mind was somewhat clear, despite the throb after throb from getting blown up two weeks earlier. The sphincteritis also seemed to stop too. Perhaps that moment of peace was a gift from the Creator to keep my sanity – it provided a small moment of reflection on the horror of all of it, and fortunately, my mind was filled with only positive memories of my fallen brothers. The peace was over once the radio cracked and it was the ECP telling me, “Sir, we’ve got a problem out here…”

I closed my eyes momentarily and thought, “now what?” I took one long drag before flicking the burning cigarette butt out into the dirt, I exhaled or maybe it was a sigh, and clicked on the handset before telling the ECP to “send your traffic over”

“Sir, there is a women and her husband and kid out here. The kid is bleeding out really bad – they say one of our guys shot him.”

I didn’t even want to go over there – I had had enough of this shit for the day I told myself. Colonder heard the traffic on the speaker and shook his head in frustration, and I knew then that I would need to address this now. I put my fucking Kevlar helmet back on and got my wits about me, and I stood up and walked over to the ECP, nothing could prepare me for what was next. I approach the ECP and can see out in front of East End Road, a distraught Iraqi woman covered in a black cape with her husband standing next to her, and they were both looking down on the deck to a blanket they were pulling. On this blood soaked blanket, was their 15 year old son that was shot in the stomach by one of our M16s. The boy had been on the roof of his home on the corner of Train and East End Streets and he was playing with his pigeons. We had intelligence reports several days earlier saying that Al Qaeda was using civilians and their pigeons as markers for friendly units in the area. One of 3/7s Marines decided to shoot at the suspected informant and gave him a lethal shot to the stomach.

I walked out on to East End Street completely exposed with one of our Corpsmen and told the women in broken Arabic that we could not put her son on the helicopter. She was hysterical and livid, and cursing me up in down in her native tongue as her dying son looked up at me with total helplessness. I directed the Corpsman to remove the towel from the wound and a robust stream of blood emitted from the small hole in the stomach. The hole in the boy’s back was larger and had strings of yellow fat hanging out of it. He was a goner and probably had 2 or 3 hours left. He kept pleading with me in Arabic to “please help me Sir…”

The traumatized Corpsman put a fresh bandage on the wounds as I told the woman and her silent husband that there is nothing we could do for them or their boy, and I waved them off. Can you imagine that? Waving off a woman whose son was dying like that. I was only following orders from my Battalion Commander, who had told me on hour before, “no civilians allowed on the helos whatsoever”. This gave me some comfort knowing that all of this was completely out of my hands. She scolded me viciously before her and her demoralized husband got the idea, and forcefully grabbed and dragged the blanket and walked all the way down East End Road to their home on the corner. I watched them go all the way down the road – perhaps me sitting there watching it would make me feel somewhat better about all of it. It didn’t, and I walked back over to the command variant Humvee completely demoralized, wondering how much more of this shit I can take.

As soon as I get back to the center of the soccer field to get an update from Colonder, the two mechanized infantry platoons from India Company show up and before I know it, I am directing the staging off these (4) large Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) and the (85) pax or bodies that came along with them. I quickly briefed the two Second Lieutenants on what was happening, warning them to stay away from the center of the soccer field as that is where we would be landing the helos for dustoffs. The two Rifle Platoon Commanders acknowledged and quickly got back to the affairs of managing their Marines in the defense. One positive of their arrival, is that they also brought along our old friends Ron Harris and Andy Cutraro, our “embedded journalists” from the Invasion one year before. They represented the world famous St. Louis Post and had done a phenomenal job of covering us during our actions during 3/7’s first tour in Mesopotamia, and had coincidently come out to Iraq from the US earlier in the week to catch up with us. The duo had arrived at our Camp two days before this major battle, and it turned out that they would be the ones broadcasting this horrible event to our families back home.

Ron and Andy’s reporting had gotten this story out as the top international news story for the day. Americans were waking up and reading about a hellish battle of the Syrian border with over 200 Al Qaeda suicide fighters fightin the Marines in a bloody street fight. Families of 3/7 Marines got this information and quickly got consumed with worry about their sons and if they were going to be all right. My father had been following this story in Hopewell, New Jersey, several miles away from where General Washington and the Yankees crossed the Delaware. My loving father had been a strong and steady supporter for me over the past couple of weeks, telling me via the Satellite phone that, “Everything would be fine son” on several occasions. This was extremely comforting to me after I was wounded two weeks prior, when my enthusiasm and ambition for being a Marine Officer started to fade once I realized what kind of conflict this was going to be. This story today however, was something entirely different. It had turned this big tough guy, a man who once regularly bench pressed 500 pounds and whose best friends were Philadelphia gangsters, into a quivering mess. He had managed to hold it together long enough to drive to the hospital in Trenton telling the Emergency Room staff there that, “I think I am having a heart attack”. He was worried sick that he might lose his only son - his namesake, whom he loved more than life itself.

6,000 miles away and I am right smack dab in the middle of a war on the Syrian Border, holding it together – but just barely. I put another booster in, and looked at the impressive defense I had together around the soccer field – the addition of the two infantry platoons projected a massive image of firepower. My eyes slowly went along the perimeter to see the Green Berets looking vigilant, all of our Marines from CAAT blue Charlie looking fucking outstanding…and SNAP…HISS. A vacuum of air sucked right over my head and I realized that someone just shot a single .308 round right over my “grape”.

“Holy fuck!!!” as I squatted down towards the back of the Humvee. Colonder jumped out of his driver seat and fell down next to me. “JE-SUS CHRIST! That is a fucking sniper Colonder!” I turned and shouted over at Second Lieutenant Dave Wright of 2d Platoon India Company, informing him about the sniper. He quickly looked around and made sure his men were aware of it and his eyes were now fixed on those open rooftops to our southwest.

“I fucking new that shit was going to happen!!! Sit tight Colonder, and keep an eye on those fucking rooftops – I need to brief Whiskey 6.”

I ran over to the Command Post and Captain Powledge was in there with the Colonel and other staff coordinating with Major Schreffler at Camp Husaybah and Captain Blazer at Camp Al Qaim. We had another helo inbound in minutes and he was getting a smoke grenade ready. I peeped in that other dark room and saw that Force Recon Team out cold.

“Hey Sir, we just took fucking sniper fire from those open rooves on the south west there”

Powledge frowns and looks down and then calls in to Major Schreffler who was fighting the Battalion about 1 kilometer away at a Camp Husaybah. Schreffler tells us to move one of those infantry Platoons out there to secure the rooftop once the helos get out of the LZ, after the next dustoff. Powledge and I both jog out to the field and he pops smoke for the inbound Blackhawk UH-60 Helicopter. Five minutes later, and we have our third dustoff of the day, again with zero friction. Despite the awful circumstances we found ourselves in, we were making huge pay dirt with these dustoffs, each bird carrying five wounded Marines back to the talented Navy Surgeons at Camp Al Qaim.

After our third dustoff, Major Schreffler was able to put the Battalion on line on Market Street, and over the next 3 hours, concluded this horrific battle by sweeping aggressively through the city of Husaybah. We finished our 5th and final dustoff at around 1600, and now the shooting was only sporadic. The massive volleys of fire that occurred hours before seemed like another lifetime as this battle began to wind down finally. We had gotten (25) wounded Marines out of that hellish Landing Zone during those dustoffs, and every single one of them survived. This included one Marine I saw who was shot (5) times going through the front door of a Al Qaeda strongpoint – a civilian house they had turned into a death box. 1800 finally rolled around, and the men of Weapons Company collapsed our 360 defense at the soccer stadium and began our slow and deliberate movement east on MSR BRONZE and back to Camp Al Qaim.

As we rolled out of Husaybah, we stopped and pulled over for a security halt on that dreadful highway, right around the same spot as we saw First Lieutenant Chris McManus as we were going in about 8 hours before. I got out of the command variant Humvee as Captain Powlege chatted away on the radio with one of his section leaders. I glanced back behind me to see the town of Husaybah, with that giant fireball going down right behind it. The orange cascade was mesmerizing…captivating, and every night, it would be a ritual for many to watch the sunset. Folks like Major Schreffler and Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Henderson, the Battalion Executive Officer, would line up along the chain link fence at the big railhead at Camp Al Qaim and watch the sun descend and disappear over the Syrian Border. I would join those men on occasion and drink one of many cokes that George Schreffler would furnish for the festivities.

Tonight’s sunset was different – it looked and felt like we were in hell. The setting sun over and behind Husaybah covered the whole place with a satanic glow and I realized that I had just survived a day in hell…and now I was driving out of it. I lost part of my soul at that Landing Zone to put it bluntly, and I was instantly infected with something that I would carry inside me forever. It would be something that I would suffer with, grow with and eventually manage to deal with. This day, 17 April, would be known as the worst day of my life, and it forever tainted the way I looked at things. I knew that if I survived this madness and I got home in four months, I would be leaving this life as a Marine Grunt forever, and never look back.

Exactly ten years later, and I am sitting in the National Museum of the United States Marine Corps and me and about fifty other friends and family of Major Richard J. Gannon II, have gathered in this sacred space to celebrate the life of a Marine legend. A four star General, in an impressive service “A” dress uniform, and sparkling “fruit salad” on his chest, would stand up and tell the story of the brave Major Gannon. He would talk about that hellish day on the Syrian Border, where then Captain Gannon bravely led his men from the front, into enemy fire where he would earn a Silver Star posthumously for his heroic leadership. Major Gannon would be considered in the same class as those heroes I used to read about at The Basic School or Infantry Officer Course (IOC) at the schoolhouse there in Quantico. I was awestruck about all of it – the fact that I had the amazing honor to know and work with someone who had become an absolute legend in the Marine Corps – specifically, the Grunts. Now his name would be etched in history forever, as it would shine bright on that wall in the glorious halls of the National Museum of the United States Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.

Oddly enough, I didn’t get emotional about any of it…until the last speaker. As I sat towards the middle of the audience, I glanced up to see Rick’s best friend from College, a Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity brother of his from Cornell University named Brian Drumm, or “the Drummer” as Rick would affectionately call him, stepping in front of the podium. I had gotten to know Brian over the past couple years at the annual “Rick Gannon Memorial Golf Outing” that occurs every year in lovely Ithaca, New York and really think the world of him. The Drummer stood tall at the podium and cleared his throat. It took a lot of guts for that civilian guy to get up there in front of all of those Marines, in that sacred space that is the National Museum of the United States Marine Corps, and command their attention.

“Thank you all very much for coming this evening, it is certainly an honor to be here. Throughout tonight’s ceremony, we talked about Major Gannon, the heroic Marine Officer who valiantly gave his life for his Unit, Country and Corps…”

“But now, I’d like to take a minute, and talk a little about Rick…”

And at that very moment, my heart burst wide open and I bowed my head in my lap, and cried away. I didn’t even need to hear any of it, because I already knew all of it.

That is what I will always connect to…

That is what I will always remember…

That is what I will always miss...

Rick…and how much he loved me.

 

FIN.


© Copyright 2018 Thomas O'Neil. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

More War and Military Short Stories