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21 November 2004

See also Eyeballing the Iraq Kill and Maim Zone.

New York Times, November 21, 2004

In Falluja, Young Marines Saw the Savagery of an Urban War


FALLUJA, Iraq, Nov. 18 - Eight days after the Americans entered the city on foot, a pair of marines wound their way up the darkened innards of a minaret, shot through with holes by an American tank.

As the marines inched their way along, a burst of gunfire rang down, fired by an insurgent hiding in the top of the tower. The bullets hit the first marine in the face, his blood spattering the marine behind him. Lance Cpl. William Miller, age 22, lay in silence half way up, mortally wounded.

"Miller!" the marines called from below. "Miller!"

With that, the marines' near mystical commandment against leaving a comrade behind seized the group. One after another, the young marines dashed into the minaret, into darkness and into gunfire, and wound their way up the stairs.

After four attempts, Corporal Miller's lifeless body emerged from the tower, his comrades choking and covered with dust, dodging volleys of machine-gun fire as they carried him back to their base. "I was trying to be careful, but I was trying to get him out, you know what I'm saying?" Lance Cpl. Michael Gogin, 19, said afterward.

So went eight days of combat for this Iraqi city, the most sustained period of street-to-street fighting that Americans have encountered since the Vietnam War. The proximity gave the fighting a hellish intensity, with soldiers often close enough to look their enemies in the eyes.

For a correspondent who has covered a half dozen armed conflicts, including the war in Iraq since its opening in March 2003, the fighting seen while traveling with a frontline unit in Falluja was a qualitatively different experience, a leap into a different kind of battle.

From the first rockets vaulting out of the city as the marines moved in, the noise and feel of the battle seemed altogether extraordinary; at other times, hardly real at all. This intimacy of combat, this plunge into urban warfare, was new to this generation of American soldiers, but it is a kind of fighting they will probably see again: a grinding struggle to root out guerrillas entrenched in a neighborhood, on streets marked in a language few American soldiers could comprehend.

At the minaret, as more insurgents closed in to join the battle, the marines ran through volleys of machine gun fire back to their base. Hours later, American jets dropped three 500-pound bombs on the mosque, reducing the minaret to rubble. Marines returned the next day to make sure the guerrillas were dead.

The price for the Americans so far: 51 dead and 425 wounded, a number that may yet increase but that already exceeds that from any battle in the Iraq war.

Marines in Harm's Way

The 150 marines with whom I traveled, Company B of the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, had it as tough as any unit in the fight. They moved through the city almost entirely on foot, into the heart of the resistance, rarely protected by tanks or troop carriers, working their way through Falluja's narrow streets with 75-pound packs on their backs.

[Image] [Image]

In eight days of fighting, Company B took 36 casualties, including 6 dead, meaning that one in four of the company was either wounded or killed in little more than a week.

The sounds, sights and feel of the battle were as old as war itself, and as new as the Pentagon's latest weapons systems. The eerie pop from the cannon of the AC-130 gunship, prowling above the city, firing at guerrillas who were often only steps away from Americans on the ground. The weird buzz of the Dragon Eye pilotless airplane, hovering over the battlefield as its video cameras beamed real-time images back to the base.

The glow of the insurgents' flares, throwing daylight over a landscape to help them spot their targets: us.

The nervous shove of a marine scrambling for space along a brick wall as tracer rounds ricocheted above.

The silence between the ping of the shell leaving its mortar tube and the explosion when it strikes.

The screams of the marines when one of their comrades, Cpl. Jake Knospler, lost part of his jaw to a hand grenade.

"No, no, no!" the marines shouted as they dragged Corporal Knospler from the darkened house where the bomb went off. It was 2 a.m., the sky dark without a moon. "No, no, no!"

Nothing in the combat I saw even remotely resembled the scenes regularly flashed across movie screens, but often seemed no more real.

Mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades began raining down on Company B the moment its men began piling out of their troop carries just outside of Falluja. The shells looked like Fourth of July rockets, sailing over the ridge ahead as if fired by children, exploding in a whoosh of sparks.

Whole buildings, minarets and human beings were vaporized in barrages of exploding shells. A man dressed in a white dishdasha crawled across a desolate field, reaching behind a gnarled plant to hide, when he collapsed before a burst of fire from an American tank.

Sometimes the casualties came in volleys, like bursts of machine-gun fire. On the first morning of battle, during a ferocious struggle for the Muhammadia Mosque, about 45 marines with Company B's Third Platoon dashed across 40th Street, right into interlocking streams of fire. By the time the platoon made it to the other side, five men lay bleeding in the street.

The marines rushed out to get them, as they would days later in the minaret, but it was too late for Sgt. Lonny D. Wells, who bled to death on the side of the road. One of the men who braved gunfire to pull in Sergeant Wells was Cpl. Nathan R. Anderson, who died three days later in an ambush.

Sergeant Wells's death dealt the Third Platoon a heavy blow; as a leader of one of its squads, he had written letters to the parents of its younger members, assuring them he would look over them during the tour in Iraq.

"He loved playing cards," Cpl. Gentian Marku recalled. "He knew all the probabilities."

More than once, death crept up and snatched a member of Company B and quietly slipped away. Cpl. Nick Ziolkowski, nicknamed Ski, was a Company B sniper. For hours at a stretch, Corporal Ziolkowski would sit on a rooftop, looking through the scope on his bolt-action M-40 rifle, waiting for guerrillas to step into his sights. The scope was big and wide, and Corporal Ziolkowski often took off his helmet to get a better look.

Tall, good-looking and gregarious, Corporal Ziolkowski was one of Company B's most popular soldiers. Unlike most snipers, who learned to shoot growing up in the countryside, Corporal Ziolkowski grew up near Baltimore, and was never familiar with guns until he joined the Marines. Though Baltimore boasts no beach front, Corporal Ziolkowski's passion was surfing; at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Company B's base, he often would organize his entire day around the tides.

"All I need now is a beach with some waves," Corporal Ziolkowski said, during a break from his sniper duties at Falluja's Grand Mosque, where he killed three men in a single day.

During that same break, Corporal Ziolkowski foretold his own death. The snipers, he said, were now among the most hunted of American soldiers.

During the first battle for Falluja, in April, Corporal Ziolkowski said, American snipers had been especially lethal, and intelligence officers had warned him that this time, the snipers would be targets.

"They are trying to take us out," Corporal Ziolkowski said.

The bullet knocked Corporal Ziolkowski backward and onto his back. He had been sitting on a rooftop on the outskirts of the Shuhada neighborhood, an area controlled by insurgents, peering through his wide scope. He had taken his helmet off to get a better view. The bullet hit him in the head.


Cpl. Nicholas Ziolkowski: A sniper who was killed by a sniper.


Tracy Miller of Towson, Md., holds a photograph of herself and her son, Marine Cpl. Nicholas L. Ziolkowski, 22, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2004 at her Towson apartment. Ziolkowski was killed Nov. 21 [sic] during fighting in Fallujah, Iraq. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

Young Men, Heavy Burdens

For all the death about the place, one inescapable impression left by the marines was their youth. Everyone knows that soldiers are young; it is another thing to see men barely out of adolescence, many of whom were still in high school when this war began, shoot people dead.

The marines of Company B often fought over the packets of M&M's that came with their rations. Sitting in their barracks, they sang along with the Garth Brooks paean to chewing tobacco, "Copenhagen," named for the brand they bought almost to a man:

One of Company B's more youthful members was Cpl. Romulo Jimenez II, age 21 from Bellington, W.Va., who spent much of his time showing off his tattoos - he had flames climbing up one of his arms - and talking about his 1992 Ford Mustang. Corporal Jimenez was a popular member of Company B's Second Platoon, not least because he introduced his sister to a fellow marine, Lance Cpl. Sean Evans, and the couple married.

In the days before the battle started, Corporal Jimenez called his sister, Katherine, to ask that she fix up the interior of his Mustang before he got home.

"Make it look real nice," he told her.

On Wednesday, Nov. 10, at around 2 p.m., Corporal Jimenez was shot in the neck by a sniper as he advanced with his platoon through the northern end of Falluja, just near the green-domed Muhammadia Mosque. He died instantly.


Marines carry the casket of Cpl. Romulo Jimenez II, 21, after his funeral service in Bellington, W.Va., Friday, Nov. 19, 2004. Jimenez was killed in Fallujah, on Nov. 10, 2004. Jimenez had enlisted recently for a second tour of duty and was a member of the Marine Expeditionary Force 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division. (AP Photo/The Inter-Mountain, Suzanne Stewart)


Mourners gather for the burial of Marine Cpl. Romulo Jimenez II, Friday, Nov. 19, 2004, in Belington, W.Va. Jimenez, 21, of Miami, died Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004, in the battle to oust insurgents from Fallujah. He had enlisted recently for a second tour of duty and was a member of the Marine Expeditionary Force 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division. (AP Photo/The Inter-Mountain, Suzanne Stewart)

Despite their youth, the marines seemed to tower over their peers outside the military in maturity and guts. Many of Company B's best marines, its most proficient killers, were 19 and 20 years old; some directed their comrades in maneuvers and assaults. Company B's three lieutenants, each responsible for the lives of about 50 men, were 23 and 24 years old.

They are a strangely anonymous bunch. The men who fight America's wars seem invariably to come from little towns and medium-size cities far away from the nation's arteries along the coast. Line up a group of marines and ask them where they are from, and you will get a list of places you have never heard of: Pearland, Tex.; Lodi, Ohio; Osawatomie, Kan.

Typical of the marines who survived Falluja was Chad Ritchie, a 22-year-old corporal from Keezletown, Va. Corporal Ritchie, a soft-spoken, bespectacled intelligence officer, said he was happy to be out of the tiny place where he grew up, though he admitted that he sometimes missed the good times on Friday nights in the fields.

"We'd have a bonfire, and back the trucks up on it, and open up the backs, and someone would always have some speakers," Corporal Ritchie said. "We'd drink beer, tell stories."

Like many of the young men in Company B, Corporal Ritchie said he joined the Marines because he yearned for an adventure greater than his small town could offer.

"The guys who stayed, they're all living with their parents, making $7 an hour," Corporal Ritchie said. "I'm not going to be one of those people who gets old and says, 'I wish I had done this. I wish I had done that.' Every once in a while, you've got to do something hard, do something you're not comfortable with. A person needs a gut check."

Holding Up Under Fire

Marines like Corporal Ritchie proved themselves time and again in Falluja, not without fear. While camped out one night in the Iraqi National Guard building in the middle of city, Company B came under mortar fire that grew closer with each shot. The insurgents were "bracketing" the building, firing shots to the left and right of the target and adjusting their fire each time.

In the hallways, where the men had camped for the night, the murmured sounds of prayers rose between the explosions. After 20 tries, the shelling inexplicably stopped.

On one particularly grim night, a group of marines from Company B's First Platoon turned a corner in the darkness and headed up an alley. As they did so, they came across men dressed in uniforms worn by the Iraqi National Guard. The uniforms were so exact that they even carried pieces of red tape and white, the agreed upon signal to assure American soldiers that any Iraqis dressed that way would be friendly; the others could be killed.

The marines, spotting the red and white tape, waved, and the men in Iraqi uniforms opened fire. One American, Corporal Anderson, died instantly. One of the wounded men, Pfc. Andrew Russell, lay in the road, screaming from a nearly severed leg.


Cpl. Nathan R. Anderson
was killed in an ambush.


Capt. Read Omohundro:
During the battle for Falluja,
Captain Omohundro, the
34-year-old commander of
Company B kept his men
from folding through his
decisiveness and unflinching
calmness under fire.

A group of marines ran forward into the gunfire to pull their comrades out. But the ambush, presumably by insurgents, and the enemy flares and gunfire that followed, rattled Company B more than any other event all week. In the darkness, the men began to argue. Others stood around in the road. As the platoon's leader, lieutenant Andy Eckert, struggled to take charge, the Third Platoon seemed on the brink of panic.

"Everybody was scared," Lieutenant Eckert said afterward. "If the leader can't hold, then the unit can't hold together."

The unit did hold, but only after the intervention of Company B's commanding officer, Capt. Read Omohundro.

Time and again through the week, Captain Omohundro kept his men from folding, if not by his resolute manner then by his calmness under fire. In the first 16 hours of battle, when the combat was continuous and the threat of death ever present, Captain Omohundro never flinched, moving his men through the warrens and back alleys of Falluja with an uncanny sense of space and time, sensing the enemy, sensing the location of his men, even in the darkness, entirely self-possessed.

"Damn it, get moving," Captain Omohundro said, and his men, looking relieved that they had been given direction amid the anarchy, were only too happy to oblige.

A little later, Captain Omohundro, a 34-year-old Texan, allowed that the strain of the battle had weighed on him, but he said that he had long ago trained himself to keep any self-doubt hidden from view.

"It's not like I don't feel it," Captain Omohundro said. "But if I were to show it, the whole thing would come apart."

When the heavy fighting was finally over, a dog began to follow Company B through Falluja's broken streets. First it lay down in the road outside one of the buildings that Company B had occupied, between troop carriers. Then, as the troops moved on, the mangy dog slinked behind them, first on a series of house searches, then on a foot patrol, always keeping its distance, but never letting the marines out of its sight.

Company B, looking a bit ragged itself as it moved up through Falluja, momentarily fell out of its single-file line.

"Keep a sharp eye," Captain Omohundro told his men. "We ain't done with this war yet."