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May 29th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Remembering Fallujah
Photo courtesy Maj Rob Bodisch, USMC

Photo courtesy Maj Rob Bodisch, USMC

Throughout our short history, the American warrior has been fierce yet compassionate. Free men who fight for our nation have motivation unequaled anywhere. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen and Marines know that freedom is not free. They have sacrificed at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Normandy, the Chosin Reservoir, the Ia Drang Valley and in Kuwait.

Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who fought in Fallujah were no different; they paid a heavy price to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, many stories of these brave young men and women have gone untold. Among those heroes stood Juan Rubio, Jason Arellano, David Bellavia Jeremiah Workman, Nick Popaditch, Brad Kasal, Jeffery Lee and Todd Desgrosseilliers. They were just a few of many men commended for exceptional gallantry while fighting in, and around, Fallujah.

Nine Navy Crosses and twenty-two Silver Stars were awarded to participants of Operation Phantom Fury.

Marine Corps Sergeant Jason Arellano is one of my personal heroes, not because he charged into a house full of insurgents or risked his life to keep other Marines away from an exploding grenade, but because he led his squad, his Marines, through the bloodiest urban fight since Hue City, Vietnam, without losing a single man. Jason was the consummate squad leader. He led his men with determination, intelligence and attention to detail. There is no question that his Marines made it through the fight in Fallujah because of his leadership.

Jason was severely wounded in the bloodiest firefight of Operation Phantom Fury on December 12, 2004 when his company ran into a large group of fanatic diehards who had barricaded themselves in a block of buildings. Five Marines were killed clearing those fortified buildings and dozens were wounded. Many more would have been wounded or killed had it not been for Arellano’s selfless actions that day, warning fellow Marines of a live grenade and taking the brunt of the explosion himself. Jason nearly died in that explosion, but his fellow Marines were not hurt.

New Dawn tells stories of modern-day American heroes.

Jason wasn’t alone. US Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia expertly led his squad through the fight too. On one occasion, Bellavia single-handedly cleared an enemy stronghold in a fight that degenerated into hand-to-hand combat. David was awarded a Silver Star after receiving a recommendation for the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The stories from that battle abound, but for me the hero of heroes was a Navy Corpsman, Juan Rubio. He didn’t go to Fallujah to fight, he went to save lives. Yet, he was in the thick of many horrendous firefights and was nearly killed himself while trying to save the lives of Marines and soldiers in his charge.

He braved enemy gunfire many times to treat the wounded. He frantically worked alone to keep soldiers and Marines alive long enough to get them to surgical care. In his last firefight, Juan suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury and is now retired on 100% disability. The Silver Star sitting on his mantle is not enough. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his selfless dedication to the Marines, the Navy, our nation and those in his care. We also owe our heartfelt thanks to all the young men and women who have gone off to fight our enemies in distant lands. They have risked everything for us.

Some fell at the hands of a hidden sniper; others died entering darkened rooms, and more gave their lives while trying to save their comrades. Still more American servicemen were wounded in the fight; some suffered superficial wounds while others were terribly disfigured. Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Popaditch was one of the first Marines wounded in the fight in Fallujah. The Marine Corps was his home – his career. He was a Marine tanker, and a damn good one. Popaditch had fought in Desert Storm and had led the Marines into Baghdad in 2003. Then, on April 5, 2004, Popaditch and his wingman were in the first Marine tanks to attack into Fallujah.

After nearly twenty-four hours of fighting off repeated attacks, Popaditch was hit in the head with an RPG. The glancing blow knocked his helmet off and the explosion slammed him to the floor of his tank. His world went black. One of his eyes had been blown out of his head and the other mangled terribly. Popaditch’s gunner assumed command of the tank and rushed his Gunny out of the city to get him to medical attention.

Miraculously, the doctors were able to repair the mangled eye. Gunny “Pop” was out of the fight and his Marine Corps career was over, but the fight to free Fallujah was just beginning. The fight would be left to nearly ten-thousand soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and the vast majority of those servicemen simply did their duty. They fought a treacherous enemy and slogged their way from the northern edge of Fallujah to the southern suburbs, putting their lives at risk every step of the way. Many of those soldiers, sailors and Marines returned with emotional scars that they will carry for the rest of their lives. We owe them all a debt of gratitude.

All American veterans have a common bond. They have been willing to lay down their lives in defense of our nation. Today’s generation of young men and women are no different. They are the best trained, best equipped, most highly motivated fighting force on the face of this earth. These remarkable men and women are no different than the millions who went off to war in Europe, the South Pacific, Korea or Vietnam. They do not seek riches. They do not seek notoriety. They do their job for our country and the person standing on their right and left. On this Memorial Day, search out a veteran and shake his or her hand. Thank them for their service to our nation. Let them know that you know that Freedom is not free.

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Since 9/11, Richard S. Lowry’s mission has been to tell as many of these stories as is possible. He has strived to tell the stories of decorated heroes and of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, as well as just plain ordinary men and women who are serving their nation in these turbulent times. He has recorded the story of Operation Desert Storm and the 2003 battle of Nasiriyah in three published books. Now, he is about to release his most compelling book yet. New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah. It tells the story of America’s sons and daughters at war in the 21st Century. It tells the story of the largest fight of the war in Iraq. It is the first book to tell the entire story of Operation Phantom Fury and it honors many of the men and women who fought to free Fallujah. Their sacrifices turned the tide of the war in Iraq.

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May 11th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Courage on the homefront

Jason was a Marine infantryman, and a damn good one at that. Jason knew Lindsey was special the moment he met her at his cousin’s wedding. This was a girl he wanted to be around. By the summer of 2004, Jason began to think that Lindsey might be the woman that he wanted to marry. Lindsey kept reminding herself that Jason was a Marine and that he would soon have to go back to war. But that did not seem to make a difference, Lindsey was smitten too. She couldn’t help herself from falling in love.

Lindsey Woods

Lindsey Woods

Jason flew back to Iraq on September 11, 2004. Difficult as it was, Lindsey knew that Jason had a job to do and Jason was eager to get back into the fight. But this deployment was different. This time Jason couldn’t wait to get back home and ask Lindsey to be his wife.

Forced to endure a second wartime separation, they turned their attention to their work. Jason worked hard to prepare his Marines for the coming fight and Lindsey dove into her job, working 12-hour days. Jason’s Marines became entangled in the largest urban fight since Vietnam – the fight to free Fallujah – and on December 12th, 2004, Jason ended up in the bloodiest battle of the fight. He found himself on the second floor of an enemy stronghold with a live grenade cooking off at his feet. His first thought was to warn his fellow Marines. “GRENADE!” he shouted, just as he was showered with shrapnel and debris. Jason was thrown to the floor, bleeding badly.

***
It was a crisp cool Sunday half-a-world away in Kansas City. Lindsey’s day began just like every day. Her morning prayer for Jason always renewed her strength, but today, her heart was heavy – she hadn’t heard from Jason in over a week. She hoped she would hear from him today. He almost always called on Sunday. She thought about Jason all day but the call never came and Lindsey fell asleep with her phone at her side.

Monday was a busy day at work. Lindsey kept busy with constant phone calls and chaos. She was so busy that she ignored her cell phone when it first rang. When it kept ringing she looked at the number and didn’t recognize the area code, Lindsey didn’t answer. Then, the phone started ringing again. It was the same area code, but a different telephone number. “What in the world?” Lindsey thought “Who was calling? Maybe they would leave a message.” Lindsey shoved the phone into her desk drawer to muffle the sound and then resumed her typing. Today was just not the day for extra interruptions.

When Lindsey stood to go to the restroom, she felt the dog tags clink around her neck. She gently rested her hand upon them and grinned, wondering where he was today. Then she prayed, “Lord, please be with him today and strengthen him, send your angels to protect him.” She returned to her desk to hear that muffled ring tone again. This was beginning to get a little creepy. Nobody called her this often. The fifth time around panic struck.

Lindsey flung the desk drawer open. She read the name lit up in bright blue letters – Jaime. Suddenly it all made sense. “All this time, how could she have been so ignorant?” Fear slapped her. All of the calls were from New Mexico – Jason’s family. It was the moment she had prayed would never come. Her heart stood still as the realization sank in. Staring at the phone wide eyed, she nervously bit at her fingers. “No. Not now. How could this be happening?”

The fear of the unknown was paralyzing. She didn’t want to know. “This couldn’t happen. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. It was never supposed to happen this way.” But, she needed to know what was going on. She had to know what happened! She grabbed the phone so quickly it slipped and fell to the floor. As she bent to retrieve the telephone, Jason’s tags jingled and she wrapped her fingers around them tightly. She had to know everything, no matter how hard it might be. She dialed as quickly as she could.

Lindsey’s heart raced. Jaime’s voice was calm and collected as she answered the phone with a simple question. “Have you heard?”

The lump crawling up in Lindsey’s throat almost gagged her. “No. Tell me.”

“Jason has been shot” Jamie said. “I don’t know the details; just that he has been shot.”

Lindsey’s heart dropped into her stomach and she lost all composure. Her words were jumbled as she stuttered and stumbled through them before quickly hanging up the phone with the promise to relay important information. Fingers shaking, Lindsey dialed Jason’s mother. Two rings, three rings – no answer. She tried his brother. Three rings, four rings – no answer. “Why weren’t they answering their phones?” “Where were they?” She dialed Jason’s father. Four rings, five rings – no answer. This was not possible. She dialed his brother again. Five rings, six rings – no answer. She couldn’t be left hanging like this. “What was she supposed to do?” She could barely sit still with her knees and hands shaking. She pressed against the tags and tried to breathe. “What was his mother doing?” Lindsey thought. “Why wasn’t she answering?” This was all crazy! She dialed Jason’s mother one more time and there still was no answer.

“Lord, please let someone answer!” Lindsey prayed. She dialed Jason’s father again and decided to leave a message. “Danny, this is Lindsey. I just got a phone call and I would love to talk to you and find out more about what’s going on.” Then, she hung up and sat alone in her small bare office, staring at the wall.

Lindsey sat there in silence and shock. “Was this even real? Was it a dream? How could this be happening? Breathe Lindsey, breathe.” Blood was coursing through her body and heat began to rise up her neck. Small beads of sweat broke on her forehead. There was nothing to do but sit and wait. Her heart began to race faster and faster and it echoed in her ears.

The ring briefly stopped her heart. It was Jason’s stepmother, Trudy. She verified Jaime’s news. Jason had in fact been shot, probably in the leg. Nobody knew if he was alive, dead, or dying. Lindsey could only imagine the graphic details. Snapping the phone shut, she tossed it onto her desk and dropped her head into her hands. Tears erupted from the depths of her soul and flooded her flushed face. Lindsey’s mind raced. “How? Where? When? Would he survive? Would he lose any limbs? Would he be paralyzed? Was he being taken care of? Was he in pain? Was he conscious?” Minutes went by. Lindsey sat there barely breathing – sobbing and crying.
The ring of her cell phone startled her again. The voice on the other end brought more grief. “We just found out he wasn’t shot. He was actually hit with a grenade. They are taking him to Germany and that is all that I know.”

In complete shock, Lindsey tossed her phone into her purse, grabbed her keys and left her office. Her large dark sunglasses couldn’t hide the black streaks running down her cheeks and neck. She jumped into her car and began driving, with tears and mascara clouding her sight. She raced around the corner into the Hy-Vee grocery store parking lot and threw the car into park. All alone and with nobody in sight, she wept. The truth was just too much to handle.

Jason and Lindsey both knew that there was a good possibility of injury or death and still nothing could have prepared her for today’s news. Their last face-to-face conversation had been in the airport terminal, three days before Jason had to leave for Iraq. He had embraced her with tears in his eyes and had drawn her in close. “Whatever happens over there, just know that I will always be with you, watching over you.” Jason whispered.

Jason’s words replayed in her mind and she hit the steering wheel. Overcome with grief she sat alone in her car and cried out to God at the top of her lungs, “Jesus!” “Lord we need you!” All else was silent above her gasps for breath. “Lord God, Please!” Her head dropped to the steering wheel as her burdened heart grew weak. It was just too much to take in at once. “Jesus!”

An hour went by and still no word. Rolling the windows down, the cool December air felt fresh on her red hot face. She needed to start a prayer chain. When there was a need there was one person she knew to call. Quickly she dialed the phone.

“Mom.”

Her mother immediately recognized the panic in Lindsey’s voice. “What?”

“I need you to pray.” Tears exploded again and the words seemed jumbled. “It’s Jason…He’s been hit with a grenade.” They prayed together and as always Lindsey was buoyed by her mother’s faith. Lindsey kept trying all evening to get in touch with Jason’s family and around 10 P.M. she finally spoke with his mother. The two cried together and promised to pray and stay in touch. There still had been no word. Exhausted and emotionally drained, Lindsey fell asleep just after midnight.

At 6:00 A.M. the phone startled her into consciousness. She knew the call had to be important. Good or bad, she had to know. She flipped the light on… “Hello?” It was the sweetest sound she could have possibly imagined. Somehow from the other side of the world Jason whispered back, “Hello.”

A wave of relief swept over Lindsey. He was alive. That was all that mattered. He was alive and he was able to talk and she immediately thanked the Lord.

It would be three weeks, several surgeries and many plane flights before the two would see each other. Jason had been hit by a grenade and had received shrapnel wounds throughout his body; some had barely missed his jugular vein. He had also been shot in the groin. The bullet barely missed his femoral artery, bones and joints. He is often told how lucky he was to have survived, Jason is quick to say that luck had nothing to do with it, he is blessed. The Lord really does work in mysterious ways.

Having bravely served his country and having brought his entire squad through the fight in Fallujah, Jason left the Marine Corps and married Lindsey. The Lord has more plans for Jason. Today Jason and Lindsey have two beautiful children and are living happily ever after.

Jason and Lindsey Arellano

Jason and Lindsey Arellano

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Jason was wounded in the bloodiest fight of Operation Phantom Fury. Five Marines were killed in, and around, the house where he was seriously wounded. Jason’s story, along with many other heroes who fought in Fallujah, is told in Richard S. Lowry’s newest book – New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah – available in bookstores in May, 2010.

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May 5th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Chapter 1 (Part 3) Fallujah: The Most Dangerous City in Iraq

The Marines’ Initial Response

Within hours of the Blackwater ambush on the last day of March 2004, the Marines moved to cordon off the entire city. Inside, the enemy prepared for the inevitable assault. Major General James Mattis and Lieutenant General James Conway, however, recommended restraint. The Assistant Division Commander, Brigadier General John Kelly, sought to temper America’s response in the Division’s daily report:

As we review the actions in Fallujah yesterday, the murder of four private security personnel in the most brutal way, we are convinced that this act was spontaneous mob action. Under the wrong circumstances this could have taken place in any city in Iraq. We must avoid the temptation to strike out in retribution. In the only 10 days we have been here we have engaged the “good” and the bad in Fallujah everyday, and have casualties to show for our efforts. We must remember that the citizens and officials of Fallujah were already gathering up and delivering what was left of three victims before asked to do so, and continue in their efforts to collect up what they can of the dismembered remnants of the fourth.

We have a well thought out campaign plan that considers the Fallujah problem across its very complicated spectrum. This plan most certainly includes kinetic action, but going overly kinetic at this juncture plays into the hands of the opposition in exactly the way they assume we will. This is why they shoot and throw hand grenades out of crowds, to bait us into overreaction. The insurgents did not plan this crime, it dropped into their lap.

We should not fall victim to their hopes for a vengeful response. To react to this provocation, as heinous as it is, will likely negate the efforts of the 82nd Airborne Division paid for in blood, and complicate our campaign plan, which we have not yet been given the opportunity to implement. Counterinsurgency forces have learned many times in the past that the desire to demonstrate force and resolve has long term and generally negative implications, and destabilize rather than stabilize the environment.

The Marine commanders did not want to further disenfranchise the people of Fallujah. They told their corps commander, U. S. Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, that they could find the perpetrators of the ambush and bring them to justice within two weeks. Sanchez passed on the Marines’ recommendation. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, however, was not impressed with the suggestion for a tempered response and ordered the Marines to attack. Conway and Mattis had delivered their recommendation as to how they thought they should respond, but when they received their orders, they—like any good Marines—unflinchingly obeyed
them.

The Fight Begins: Operation Vigilant Resolve

On April 5, 2004, U.S. Marines charged into the city, destroying enemy positions and killing every enemy combatant who stood in their path. One of the Marines driving into Fallujah was Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Popaditch. Angered by the heinous murders of the Blackwater contractors and the insurgents’ claims that Fallujah was the graveyard of Americans, “Gunny Pop” couldn’t wait to get into the fight. His tank platoon was one of only two armor platoons deployed around Fallujah. Popaditch’s First Platoon was attached to Lieutenant Colonel Gregg Olson’s Marines. With so few tanks, Captain Michael Skaggs, the 1st Tank Battalion’s Charlie Company Commander, was forced to split up his platoons. His Second Platoon, under First Lieutenant Troy Sayler, was assigned to Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne’s 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. The Marine tanks would operate in sections of two tanks each, and would be sent out to support the infantry companies as they were needed.

Olson’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, moved into attack positions in the northwest corner of the city on April 5, 2004, and Byrne’s Marines manned the cordon across town in the southeast corner of the city. On April 6, Captain Kyle Stoddard, 2/1’s Fox Company Commander, sent a small squad-sized patrol into the northern edge of the city to assess enemy strength. The squad was attacked within the first few blocks, and one of the Marines was wounded in the initial bursts of gunfire. Outgunned and
outnumbered, the squad called for reinforcements and a medevac. As soon as Stoddard heard the call for help, he ordered, “Roll the QRT.”

Gunny Pop, Charlie Company’s First Platoon Sergeant, was sitting in his tank under the railroad overpass in the northwest corner of the city, waiting as part of the QRT. Popaditch had been in Marine tanks his entire career. He had fought in southern Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm and had led the charge to Baghdad in 2003, where his tanks surrounded Firdos Square and toppled the large statue of Saddam. Straining at his leash, Popaditch asked Stoddard for permission to enter the city.

“Roll the tanks,” ordered Stoddard.

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