Tuesday, February 12, 2008

For unit, third time in Fallujah is a charm

Marines buoyed by gains since 2004, 2006 tours
By Geoff Ziezulewicz, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Tuesday, February 12, 2008

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Marine Sgt. Matthew Keenan’s third trip to this city was unnerving at first. But it had nothing to do with enemy contact.

“We were coming into Fallujah, and there were lights,” said Keenan, 24. “That was crazy.”

You’ll have to excuse Keenan for being bowled over by such an innocuous circumstance. Keenan was in Fallujah before, when the only light came from fires and Marines in combat: He was here in 2004 during the Battle of Fallujah. And in 2006, when the enemy’s tactics had evolved.

Some men of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines have seen the city at its lowest point and are witnesses now as Fallujah tentatively makes its way forward.

“I pretty much have a house here,” joked Sgt. Sergio Mucino, on his third deployment to Fallujah and fourth overall in Iraq.

Despite lingering issues involving electricity and water, Marines said the city’s peace outbreak is a vindication for those who have been here before.

Mucino said he’s not sure yet if the city’s progress was worth the lives of his lost comrades — a close personal friend in particular — and the sacrifices Marines have made.

“I want to say yes, but who knows where it’ll go from here,” he said. “From what I saw until now, it’s seriously progressing.”

‘There were insurgents everywhere’
Sgt. Leodir Santos, now on his third Fallujah deployment with 3-5, headed to the city in the late summer of 2004 knowing a fight was brewing.

“We knew something big was going to happen,” he said. “We didn’t know what.”

Stationed at Camp Baharia outside the city, Santos was not in Fallujah for the first part of that battle in November, but he knew it was close.

“Twenty-four seven, they had incoming inside the FOB, always,” he said. “Same thing for outgoing. You could hear planes blazing away inside the city.”

One night, a round struck right outside his tent.

He had always wanted frontline action, he said, “but not at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Meanwhile, Mucino was pushing through the city with Lima Company.

The residents had been told to evacuate before Marines went in, and Mucino said he remembers that there would be streets with nothing at all, but insurgents would swarm on other thoroughfares.

Before the fight, Santos remembers the exodus of city residents clamoring to get out before the Marines invaded.

“It was like Godzilla,” he said, “people moving away and all the traffic backed up.”

“There were insurgents everywhere,” Keenan said. “And the mentality was to rid the city of them.”

On the tail end of the initial city fighting, Santos took part in a “mini-push” that targeted a stubborn area in the northeast of the city.

“Every room was either sprayed with M-16s or had a flash-bang or grenade thrown inside,” he said, adding that freezing nights were spent trying to sleep on rooftops. Guys were sleeping in the sweat-drenched clothes they had spent the day fighting in.

“Any time we’d find a house with any kind of weapons we’d burn the house down,” he said.

The city was empty for the rest of 2004. Santos said he remembers seeing huge packs of wild dogs and that’s about it.

Mucino, Keenan and Santos finished their deployment by the spring of 2005. But before they left, the people of Fallujah were allowed to return in January.

“I had never seen the city with the population in it,” Mucino said. “We thought, ‘Oh man, how are they going to react? Their houses are demolished.’”

Roads become perilous
In early 2006, the 3-5 Marines returned to the city. Their peril now lay in the roads they traveled.

“It was nothing but IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” Mucino said. “There was an IED pretty much every day. It was pretty much a faceless enemy.”

Regardless of where they were in and around Fallujah, Santos, Mucino and Keenan all said that roadside bombs plagued that second deployment.

“You’re not necessarily face to face with the bad guys,” said Keenan, who spent his deployment largely at a base just across from the city. “It was pretty monotonous the whole time. The same thing over and over and over again.”

The frustration of not being able to secure 800 meters of road between Camp Fallujah and Camp Taqqadum was infuriating during that second deployment, Santos said. He remembers between 25 and 30 vehicles being blown up.

“There was no way the IEDs should have been there,” he said.

In the fall of 2006, the men went home again.

Mucino is at a loss to remember exactly when he got back, only that he made it home in time for his birthday, around the end of September.

Talking to people
Now Keenan, Santos and Mucino are in Fallujah again, here with Lima Company until May. And again, things changed while they were gone.

“We still haven’t got shot at or hit by an IED,” Santos said. “It’s like there’s something missing. It’s not the same Iraq anymore.”

Before, training involved urban warfare. This time around, their training involved talking to people.

“I knew coming over here was going to be a little bit different,” Santos said. “We started picking up trash inside the city. We didn’t do any of that during our first deployment.”

Santos said he has no problem with the change in orders.

“First deployment, if you tell me to kill somebody, I’ll put two shots in the head,” he said. “Now if you tell me to give some kids candy, there you go.”

Keenan said he’s heartened to see Fallujah take steps forward.

“For the guys who were in the [2004] push, to see the city and how it’s changed, it’s awesome,” he said. “It shows us that what we did actually worked.”

Ever mindful of the past, Santos said Marines must keep making progress in Fallujah, to honor the fallen and to bring eventual closure to the mission here.

“If we don’t accomplish what we came to do, all those sacrifices will be wasted,” Santos said. “All that work, for what?”

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