Friday, June 29, 2007

2D Battalion 5th Marines... Al Fallujah

The motions come to me now without much thought: flack jacket buttoned up, helmet and goggles strapped and on, gloves on, magazine in, pistol locked and loaded. I climb into the HUMMER knowing what I have to do to be safe and leave the firm base. Today I am riding outside the wire into the city of Fallujah with the Marines of 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. This mission is a little different as I have my Commanding Officer (CO) with me, from Quantico, he is also in country serving in the Joint History office in Baghdad. He has come out west to see me and spend some time with the Marines in the field. Something deep inside of all Marines will have them march towards the sound of the guns and battle, I cannot explain it, but I sense that is what has brought the Colonel out West and his visit to me. It is good to see him and brings back a face I know from Quantico, as so far I have been by myself in Iraq making friends as I go. I did not come out here with a unit or people I trained with, I came alone, and I welcome a familiar face.

When I mentioned to people before I left the States that I would be based in Camp Fallujah their eyes grew wide and they looked at me as if I were a man headed to a death sentence, or that perhaps I had completely lost my mind as I volunteered to go. No doubt this city has a reputation as a killing ground and has seen its share of bloodshed, men going above and beyond and often giving the final full measure with their lives. Their blood and souls are a part of this city; Fallujah will long be remembered in Marine Corps history, for the valor of men who found something deep inside of them here and for those who did not go home.

We ride out in a six vehicle convoy along with the Commanding Officer of 2/6, a tall man of quiet professionalism, dedicated to his craft and his Marines. Today's journey we will visit various out posts within the city and stop at two Iraqi police stations. I watch as the CO meets with his Marines at the various stops and quietly talks with them, a shepherd of sorts tending to his flock, keeping their spirits up and letting them know what a great job they are doing. At one stop I watch a squad of Marines coming in off a patrol in the city, drenched in sweat, tired and hungry, the CO asks how they are doing and they respond with "Great sir". Some of these young men are not even 20 yet. Looking for America's best?...follow me and I will show them to you.

Riding from post to post I cannot help but notice the children who come out and watch as we drive by. They wave and smile, their parents look on quietly with little emotion in their face. I cannot help but think they have seen too much in such a short time. I think of my own daughter and how lucky we are in the United States as I force a smile and wave to the to the children of this war torn city.

Changes are taking place here similar to those I reported in Ramadi, in fact the Battalion is operating in the same way with Marines out in the city with some changes to adapt to the Fallujah specific issues. But this is not the same city my friend and fellow Field Historian Maj Joe Winslow covered back during operation "Al Fajr" in 2004 when the Marines went street by street sweeping north to south several times with tremendous fighting in this urban environment. Today things are moving forward in a positive sense, a sign that lives taken here were not in vain.

After spending 7 hours in the city one cannot come away without acknowledging progress is being made, but are we getting closer to closure out here in the western badlands? Looking at Ramadi and Fallujah, I am encouraged to believe so, but time will tell.

The Colonel and I compare notes when we get back and share our thoughts on the day's events. He wears a smile that only another Marine could understand. I am hot, tired and hungry, he asks how am I doing, and without hesitation I reply "Great sir", and smile quietly.

Two pictures to this post: The first, the hope for the future of this country, the children. the second, a reminder that this is still a war zone with a dismounted patrol screening for the leading edge of the convoy I was riding in.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Ar Ramadi

With a quick smack from my right hand the magazine slides into place, my left hand pulls the upper receiver of my pistol back and letting it slide forward it goes home with a click driving the first round of the clip into the chamber, 15 left in the clip, locked and loaded. With the command of "Condition One" all weapons loaded the three other Marines and myself all climb back in the HUMMER. I feel the sweat dripping down my back and down my ribs as the flack jacket I am wearing hugs my upper torso, with my helmet and goggles strapped on the sweat just keeps coming, partly from my heightened heart rate and the increasing heat at only 10:00AM. I am riding with the Marines of 2nd Battalion 5th Marines through the streets of Ar Ramadi. These mean streets have for the past couple of years been a hard and brutal fight for Marine Battalions rotating through here with heavy insurgent activity and lots of fighting. As we move down the streets my eyes are wide and scanning everything, my heart racing looking at everything with a critical eye, any car, the people, the road and everything in my view, all with my right hand resting on my pistol. We are outside the wire and traveling through the city, if nothing else I will be over cautious. I am keenly aware that I am not in Southern Maryland anymore.

We arrive at one of the numerous Combat Outposts (COPS) in the city, this is where the Marines live among the locals and work patrols with the Iraqi police and Army slowly restoring peace and security to this former wild west town. I spend the day out in the city at the COPS and talk with several Marines on the changes that have taken place in Ramadi. It was a great week of getting out to the tip of the spear of this war with the men of 2/5. Today under the command of 2/5 and with added Marines from the “surge” effort Ramadi is a different place. I visited the COPS within the city and saw first hand the changes taking place. The reasons, Good old Marine Corps perseverance, the effects of the “Anbar Awakening” combined with outstanding leadership have paid huge dividends in this city. Attacks are on the decline, in direct fire on the base has been reduced considerably and 2/5 has done an amazing job in working with the local Iraqi Police and Army here, assisting them to take control of their city. The Marines living in the COPS here are out among the locals getting to know the neighborhoods and the people who inhabit them. This has also forced the enemy to rethink their strategy and has them losing ground.

There is a much different story to tell out here in the Al Anbar province than in Baghdad. We are winning out here but news of the gains and successes here never seem to make the 6:00 news. I was told by a Colonel awhile back " I worry that we are close to winning this war but will the American people have the patience to let us?". This western part of Iraq is at a tipping point, but will we have the time?

Even with all the good news I will add never let your guard down, after being back inside the wire of camp Ramadi I stepped outside of the vehicle to a loud earth shattering explosion that caused everyone to pause and look around as if we were receiving incoming. I later found out it was a suicide vehicle attack right outside the wire. Lesson learned, never let your guard down this is still a very dangerous place.

I also hit the Marines of 5th ANGLICO and had a good day with them, perfect timing as they had just come off a long mission and had some great stories to tell. When the topic of Ramadi came up we discussed the same issues I had with 2/5 and the turn around that is taking place here and all seemed to be in agreement. Tribal engagement, The surge, AQI overplaying their hand and the local Iraqi’s seeing a better way to live have made for success in this city.

The attached pictures for this post show my view traveling down the streets of Ramadi from my seat in the HUMMER. The other is of a group of Marines preparing to do a foot patrol out in the neighborhoods from one of the COPS.

Of note also I have linked my office and can mate (Room mate) Capt Tony Licari's blog now to my page, when you get a chance check out his thoughts and opinions under blogs of interest.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Al Taqaddum

Standing on the rooftop of the old Iraqi Air Force control tower my eyes scan the horizon stretched out before me to where the desert meets the sky of this barren lunar landscape. The hot wind and temps even at 8:30pm make me sweat even with my cammie top off and standing in a t-shirt, I bite down on the cigar I have been smoking for the last 20 min as the hot wind flows over me. I gaze out over the runway before me lighting up as the sun sinks slowly in the horizon giving this place a surreal quality as the hum of generators and turning CH-46's fill my ears. It's becoming night and the helos are turning their exterior lights on and they begin to flash. Off to my left I hear the familiar slapping sound of rotors turning on some Cobra's, they will take flight under the cover of darkness... we own the night. As I stand viewing all the sites around me I soak it all in. I feel good after over a month now on the ground I am comfortable, strong, proud and confident. As a Marine this is where I want and need to be.

I have spent the week at this former Iraqi Air Force base now a major hub for the Al Anbar area of operations. I have spent five days with four different squadrons and some tenant activities aboard this logistical Juggernaut of a base. I can not help but think of the things I have seen and heard this week, some that caused me to step back and now on the rooftop reflect a little.

I have attached two pictures to this posting one is of a CH-46 casualty evacuation helo, this is the war time ambulance in the sky, you get shot or hit an IED and there is a good chance the Marines of HMM-161 the "Greyhawks" could be the difference between living and dieing. I spoke at length with a young combat corpsman who in civilian terms would be a paramedic in the squadron who told me horrific stories. Tales of evacuating Marines and Soldiers and having to make decisions of who has the best chance of surviving and making the decision to move on leaving a Marine or Solider to god and working on those with the best chance for survival. This young man was maybe 24 years old. He is here making decisions on life and death....daily

I also had a gut check of my own when I made a visit to the Personnel Recovery Unit, this is where the Marines prepare the dead to be flown home one last time. I was met a LtCol who was the commander of this unit. We spoke at length and although the words said one thing as I gazed into the face and eyes they told another story, I saw the sadness and fatigue I can only imagine comes with such a difficult job. But when I asked how the Marines cope with this difficult task I was told " We are helping a Marine or Solider who can not help themselves get home" I swallowed hard when hearing that. I just nodded my head no words were worthy of a response.

I also had a good day with the Marines of HMM-262 the "Flying Tigers" an Okinawa Japan based squadron on their first combat deployment since Vietnam. Interesting story, they have formed an association with former Flying Tiger Marines who made the last combat deployment to Vietnam, and the old vets keep in constant contact with the squadron. They even had a coin made that on one side shows the squadron logo while on the flip side it states " RVN (Republic of Vietnam) to Iraq, we got your back". I was told by the Executive Officer that air crew members have taken to making a cut on their squadron patches and slide the coin in behind the patch and fly their mission with the coin in place....Marines taking care of Marines even now some 40 years later.

The second picture is my view on the roof, so now I gaze at my watch it's 9:00pm time for me to get moving so I can catch my helo back to Fallujah. I take another draw off my cigar and put my cammie top back on. I take a final look out at the darkening sky then close my eyes and just listen for a moment... remember this... I grab my pack and strap my pistol back on... time to move.

The General and the Gunner

The cool air felt great after walking in the 113 degree heat that had engulfed this day, now sitting in the air conditioned office of the Commanding General Forward (CG FWD) for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (MLG) I could not stop thinking how fortunate I am. Within 35 days of being in country I have had the unique privilege to have meetings with two Marine Corps Generals. My first with BGen Hanifen the CG FWD for the 2nd Marine Air Wing, and now BGen Kessler of the 2nd MLG.

This was a great interview with BGen Kessler and reminded me of two friends talking over coffee if you can imagine that. The BGen is a very personable and down to earth individual. I found myself once again sitting across a small coffee table with a General in a time of war. What a fantastic experience to discuss what is happening within the mind of a general officer while sitting in a combat zone. The interview lasted just under an hour and was great opportunity to delve inside the inner workings of the Marine Corps at war

There has also been some questions as what exactly a Marine Corps Field Historian does, let me give you the official definition:

" A field historian gathers Marine Corps history as it happens. The Field History detachment deploys historians with major combat commands and sends those Marines out to the front lines to record history in the making. These historians collect oral interviews, original documents, photographs, and artifacts that become the primary source materials for topical monographs, definitive histories, and museum exhibits"

The Gunner's version:

" I am here to capture Marine Corps history, I see with my own eyes and hear first hand accounts of battles and the workings of the Marine Corps at war. I live forward in a combat zone with my fellow Marines and make sure their story is captured and told for future generations. I am collecting Marine Corps history not for CNN or the Media but for the official history and archives of our Corps.

I hope this helps better understand my role here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Reading through some material here in Fallujah, I ran across a memorial card for a service that was conducted for some Marines sadly who were killed in action during their tour in Iraq. What caused me to pause and take note were the words on the back of the pamphlet. I had read them before and knew immediately where they came from. Somehow sitting here in Iraq, knowing the choice I made to come here, and my personal reasons for that choice made the words jump off the page at me. It caused me to pause and reflect on what I had just read as if for the first time. The attitude and meaning of the words go straight to the heart, I think the quote sums up what a lot of the Marines feel about being here in Iraq.

Whoever does not have the stomach for this fight, let him depart. Give him his money to speed his departure since we wish not to die in this man’s company. Whoever lives past today and comes home safely will rouse himself every year on this day, show his neighbor his scars, and tell him embellished stories of all their great feats of battle. These stories he will teach his son and from this day until the end of the world we shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for whoever has shed his blood with me shall be my brother. And those men afraid to go will think themselves lesser men as they hear how we fought and died together.”

King Henry V
William Shakespeare

Nothing more needs to be said.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Wing

it's 12:40am and I am in a single line of Marines standing in the darkness, it's been a long hot day with temps again in the 105+ area. I am hot and tired already but my legs keep moving me forward with my gear, helmet, flack jacket and pack. I gaze out at the two big CH-53 Stallions that sit on the ramp with rotors turning, and with a wave of a hand and a flashlight moving in the darkness we all move forward towards the two big birds. Green light illuminates the cavernous inside of this beast and I grab my seat and throw my pack into the growing pile in the center of the Helo. I am leaving Fallujah and headed to the north, the edge of the empire and the sprawling Marine Air base of Al Asad.

A stop along the way to drop off and pick up passengers and cargo and at 03:10am we touch down at the airfield in Al Asad. I am greeted by my POC a F/A-18 pilot call sign "Troll" who is now working on the Wing Staff. By 04:00am I am in a large room that seems unused for centuries, dust and dirt are everywhere with mattress's stacked up along the wall along and empty boxes strewn about the floor. I see a bed with a mattress on it and pull out my poncho liner from my pack, this is as good as it will get this morning. At 07:30 I am up again and facing a new day in Iraq. last night in this space though as I will be billeted in a temp can for the week.

My trip to Al Asad was a collection effort to meet with senior leadership and conduct interviews on the aviation perspective of the on going battle here. I am fortunate to have a 2 hour meeting with the Commanding General, what a great opportunity to hear his thoughts and perspective. I also meet with his staff over the course of the week gathering a unique glimpse into the senior headquarters and their battle rhythm. By weeks end I have meet all the Commanding Officers, their Executive Officers and the Operations Officers of most of the Marine Aircraft Group . I also make key points of contact to follow-up with on future visits for a dig deeper down to the men and women actually flying the missions every day.

I continue to hear the same story from Fallujah and now to Al Asad "We Are Winning". The overall view of the Al Anbar province is considered a success right now, the wing has seen their mission change from dropping bombs (which they still do) to more security type of operations. Providing "eyes in the sky" and every Marines greatest comfort, Marine air available for close air support and casualty evacuation.

The times seem to be changing here but success will also be dependent on the Iraqi Government being able to continue to provide security for it's people. This is key for Iraq to grow and become independent and American forces to head home. A strong Iraqi police force and Army are required and this seems to be on an upward trend as well in the province. All of this is of course easier said than done but none the less you can not deny progress has been made and continues here in Al Anbar. The main focus of course is still the capital, The world is watching Baghdad and it's future will be the future of this country.

I have attached two pictures one is of the "Can" city I stayed in while at Al Asad the other is the 2nd Marine Air Wing (Forward) insignia. For those unfamiliar with a can it is basically an 8' x 12' cell, air conditioned in which 2 to 4 people can be housed. In Fallujah I am in a 2 man can, in this heat I am grateful for my little air conditioned space in which to sleep and re-energize myself.