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Cpl. Ryan M. Blaich, II Marine Expeditionary Force
FALLUJAH — It is hard to imagine someone never hearing of this city or of the house-to-house fighting that has taken place here since the war began. U.S. military officials called it “the heaviest urban combat since the battle of Hue City in Vietnam,” nearly 40 years ago.
During the early winter months of 2004, Fallujah was at the center of a joint U.S. military and Iraqi offensive against insurgents led by Marines of I Marine Expeditionary Force. Prior to the offensive operation inside the city limits on Nov. 7, there hadn’t been a U.S. military presence since April 2004. This gave insurgents time to build up defensive positions, booby trap houses, plant roadside bombs and scope out sniper positions from towering mosques. This made Fallujah overwhelmingly dangerous and deadly, and for more than a month, Marines and Iraqi commandos battled in the fiercest skirmishes this war has seen.
The operation, know as Al Fajr, “the dawn” in Arabic, ended Dec. 23, 2004. Now, three years later, some of the same Marines who were a part of the devastating clashes are back, this time to rebuild the city and help locals who have recently began moving back into their homes.
Arriving less than three months ago, Marines of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, are back to finish what they started. Although there is a dramatic change in the way they carry out daily operations compared to Al Fajr, they remain focused on keeping the enemy out of the city.
“When I left (Fallujah) in 2003, I thought I would never be back again," said Capt. Stuart Glenn, commanding officer for Company I, 3rd Bn., 5th Marines. "But things changed for the worst with the insurgents. Just talking to the fellas before I had come back, I was expecting a much more kinetic fight. But rather than trying to find (the insurgents) constantly and destroy them, we’re destroying their ability to operate in the city."
Within seconds of driving through the city, it is easy to see the proof of the past kinetic fights Glenn was expecting. Many of the buildings, residences and mosques flaunt the signs war. Most homes are scattered with bullet holes, sections of walls and mosques are gone, scorched vehicles still remain in alleyways and along the roadside. But like most of the Anbar province, this is all changing.
"In 2004, our main goal was clearing out the city and getting rid of all insurgent presence," said Sgt. Mario Tabarracci, an infantryman and a squad leader with 2nd platoon. "Now, the whole war has pretty much changed. I mean I haven’t even fired a shot yet and it’s been almost three months. There is not much insurgent activity going on. We’re just here to make the Iraqi people welcome us more and start rebuilding the city."
Before the battle during 2004, Fallujah was known as the city of mosques, with more than 200 spread throughout the city. Just before the initial invasion, there were an estimated 400,000 residents here. Many packed up and left as Marines began to prepare for battle in the rural, desert communities outside of the town. Those who stayed were assumed to be insurgents and were engaged as such.
Sgt. Cody Turpen, 22, a squad leader with 3rd platoon, was here three years ago as a lance corporal. As part of an infantry unit deployed to Fallujah, Turpen knew he’d see combat. He knew it was going to be tough to clear out a city full of terrorists. Even now, Turpen finds it difficult to describe what those days were like.
"I don’t know. Just, every day, there were battles every day,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen day to day. There could be some guy in a house waiting on us. It just changed every day throughout our deployment."
As Turpen, a serious, stocky Marine, tried to think of words to portray that time in his life, he focused on the pavement a few feet in front of him. And for a moment, he fell silent and slowly shook his head back and forth. His eyes seemed to reflect muzzle flashes, men shouting, and the sweaty faces of close friends.
Turpen is a recipient of the Purple Heart. Shortly after entering the city during Al Fajr, Turpen was shot in his right leg while reloading his weapon. The wound did not hit any major arteries or bones and he was back in the fight within two weeks. Before the end of the operation, Turpen was hit a second time in his lower back by shrapnel from an enemy grenade.
This company, known as India, is full of war-hardened Marines, such as Turpen and Tabarracci. Combat veterans who are now team and squad leaders. Their past experiences make them invaluable to younger Marines on their first deployment, to the innocent Iraqi civilians going on with their lives, to commissioned officers who have many fragile projects to think about, and to the entire battalion with a staunch reputation to uphold.
"It’s a tremendous weight these Marines bare every day, understanding they are in a very complex environment. They have to go from handing out candy to shooting 7.62 down range with their 240 (Golf) in a heartbeat," said Glenn. "That’s pretty tough for an 18, 19-year-old kid."
The environment here is calm. The explosions and pop shots are few and far between these days. Now when Marines walk down the streets, they are attacked by children wanting attention, not terrorists.
This summer saw the first significant numbers of families moving back into their homes. Today, more than 300,000 Iraqis have moved back into the city. The security is at such a high, leaders from both sides are able to concentrate on the quality of life for the peaceful Iraqi people. From small services such as more trashcans on the streets to larger projects like reopening old cemeteries, building new water towers and rebuilding destroyed businesses, this battalion is working all day, every day to show the people of this diverse city they are here to help.
To Glenn, getting the locals to understand the Marines’ true intent is tremendously important.
"(The civil affairs group) has rebuilt mosques, which I think is incredible," he said. "It tells the people, 'You know what, we’re not at war with Islam. We respect that religion. As a matter of fact we want to rebuild your mosques because we respect what religion does for a culture.'"
Most Marines believe it is this cooperation and relationship with the locals in communities throughout the Anbar province that has kept terrorists out and causalities down. Keeping the peace while operating with stealth vigilance is what Marines are adapting to. Not everyone is an enemy, but the enemy seems to wait and attack when least expected.
"There is still a threat these Marines operate in," Glenn said. "To me, that’s just as courageous as the guys who were rolling through here, which many of these guys in this company did, in 2004. Every day these guys go out and there’s a threat and they can’t operate like there’s a threat in regards to the way they treat the people and the interaction they have to do in the street. It takes a lot of courage for these guys to go out and do what they do knowing there is somebody out there that wants them dead."
(Story by Cpl. Ryan M. Blaich, II Marine Expeditionary Force)