Page: http://blog.richardslowry.com/ Richard's Blog
Feb 19th, 2012 by Richard Lowry
An unbalanced world

Sgt Oscar Canon

An active-duty Marine major who is currently serving in Afghanistan just sent me this message. It speaks for itself:

Where is the outrage with our media and with the consumers of that media? Where are the priorities of our countrymen? A hero dies and receives not one ounce of media coverage. A drug addict dies, and flags are lowered to half-mast while receiving untold amounts of media attention. Maybe this is the way it is supposed to be.

On Valentine’s Day, former Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Oscar Canon, a Marine that I had the honor of serving with in 2004 when I commanded Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, succumbed to a staff infection. That staff infection appears to have been directly tied to the 87 surgeries on his leg that stem from injuries he sustained on September 23, 2004.

I first met then Corporal (Cpl) Canon immediately after taking command of Company K in June 2004. He was impressive, competent, hard working, and eager. He absolutely loved his wife Jennie and talked about her all the time. During the initial invasion of Iraq he was referred to as “Contact Canon” because he was continuously engaged with the enemy. When we first met he was the mortar section leader in our company and had a competently trained section–not bad for an organization that is supposed to be led by a much more senior Marine wearing the rank of Staff Sergeant. During our final work ups prior to deployment a Sergeant reported in to take charge of the section, so Cpl Canon stepped down and filled the role of Gunner/Mortar Squad Leader. On Sep 23, 2004, on our last day of relief in place w/ Company E, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, driving down the same road that E 2/1 had driven down countless times, less than 500 meters and in plain view of the observation post along Main Supply Route Mobile where Cpl Canon was to stand duty, the 7-ton in which Cpl Canon was riding struck an improvised explosive device (IED), wounding Cpl Canon and others. The IED initiated a complex ambush. Many Marines fought with valor to break the enemy’s will and save Cpl Canon.

Cpl Canon was medevac’d back to the States. He and his wife divorced and he underwent 87 surgeries on his wounded leg in an attempt to recover to normalcy. I know at one point he ran Marine Corps Marathon with a senior officer while he was still in uniform. I just learned that Canon donated his kidneys and his liver to 3 people and will be buried in Arlington in a few weeks.

Attached is a link to an NPR article written about Canon in 2005, when he had a mere 33 surgeries under his belt.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4867889

Through it all one must wonder why Canon and others like him receive no attention and why the consumers of media care about drug addicts instead of heroes that gave all defending their country. Where is the outrage?

SF
Drew

Richard S. Lowry has been writing about the Marine Corps for many years. To learn more about his writing and how to purchase his latest book, visit www.richardslowry.com.

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Dec 8th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Deadly Gunfight

Blazer's HouseAfter five weeks of fighting in Fallujah, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines ran into a pocket of diehard insurgents holed up in the center of the city. Here is the story of the costliest firefight of Operation Phantom Fury as described in New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah.

With winter approaching, the Fallujah nights had turned bitter cold. As Lieutenant Todd Moulder and the 3/5 Kilo Company XO, Lieutenant Ben Diaz, worked to set up defenses at an abandoned school on December 12th, 2004, Sergeant Jason Arellano’s squad left the school to join in the search for blankets. Third Squad moved into the houses just south of the school and east of the 915 block in search of anything that could help keep them warm during the approaching winter night. Arellano stayed behind on the school roof with his platoon commander.

Back on the long, skinny 915 Block, Arellano’s good friend Corporal Jason Clairday led his squad into the eleventh northern house. Sergeant Jeffery Kirk split his 3rd Squad Marines: some entered the eleventh and twelfth southern houses; others moved to a building in the Janabi Hospital complex across the street to provide overwatch for the foraging Marines.

Corporals Ian Stewart and David Cisneros, along with Lance Corporal Chad Pioske, entered the eleventh southern house. Cisneros and Pioske cleared the bottom floor while Stewart went up the stairs to clear the second floor. But as Stewart moved to enter an upstairs bedroom, shots rang out: he had encountered the first group of a platoon-sized enemy force. Stewart went down in the open doorway, mortally wounded. He called for help, and Cisneros and Pioske charged for the stairs to get to their friend. But gunfire and grenades rained down on them from a dozen insurgents holed up in the second-floor bedrooms, and Cisneros and Pioske were forced to fall back, unable to reach Stewart.

Arellano hadn’t been at the school for more than five minutes when the gunfire erupted. “That’s our Marines in contact,”[1] Arellano exclaimed.  He turned and sprinted down the stairs, taking two, three, four at a time. He ran out into the street, where he could see his squad running west across the street toward the fight; Arellano ran toward the fight too. As he ran past the gun trucks and AMTRACs, he pointed and yelled for them to turn around. More Marines poured out of the school and rushed to the sound of the gunfire.

Sergeant Jeffrey Kirk and Staff Sergeant Melvin Blazer were in the house next door when Stewart was gunned down. Kirk had just returned to duty after having been wounded on November 10th. He had given the medical staff such a hard time that they finally relented and let him check out to return to Kilo Company. Kirk moved outside and started looking for another way to get to the enemy on the second floor. He moved west and found a narrow alley between the enemy’s stronghold and the next house. When he turned to enter the alley, he was shot in the head. Did Kirk know that he would not return home when he framed one of his poems and gave it to his mother?

Just as Kirk went down, Arellano reached the house where Stewart was still trapped. Cisneros, Pioske and others tried repeatedly but in vain to rush back into the building and up the stairs to Stewart’s aid; each time they were met by a hail of gunfire and grenades that forced them to fall back. Marines to Arellano’s north were shooting down from their rooftop positions. Arellano, heart pounding, shouted at the top of his lungs, “Where are they at, Clairday?” Clairday pointed downward and continued to fire onto the rooftop and into the alley below.

Still not knowing Corporal Stewart’s fate, Corporal David Cisneros and Lance Corporal Phillip Miska repeatedly tried to re-enter the building where Stewart was trapped. They kept the enemy pinned for fifteen minutes, preventing them from fleeing or attacking other Marines downstairs. On Cisneros’ third attempt, he too was wounded, peppered with shrapnel from one of a dozen enemy grenades.

The enemy fought ferociously, firing automatic weapons and lobbing grenades down the stairs. “Grenade!” yelled Corporal David Hawley, as another hand grenade rained down on the Marines. Hawley turned and pushed two Marines down the stairs. BOOM! The explosion hurled a golf ball-sized chunk of metal into his thigh, knocking him down the stairs. Hawley continued to fire his M16 until his friends dragged him out of the house.

Then Miska noticed an RPG pointed over the half-wall at the top of the stairs. He repeatedly fired at the metal projectile, hoping to detonate the grenade. His volley forced the grenadier to fire without aiming. The grenade missed the Marines in the stairwell, but the explosion knocked them back down the stairs. Undaunted, Miska and the other Marines regrouped and tried once again to fight their way up the stairs.

Private First Class Renaldo Leal repeatedly rushed back into the fight, pulling three wounded Marines to safety. The casualties were mounting; several Marines were now huddled at a casualty collection point, waiting for medical evacuation.

Frustrated by his inability to get to Stewart, Pioske moved to a second-floor patio in the next building, and from his new position obtained a clear shot. He exchanged protracted fire with the enemy, eventually killing five insurgents. All the while Kilo Company Marines were swarming into all of the adjacent buildings, sealing the enemy’s fate.

The Kilo Marines continued to attack. Arellano ran out of one courtyard into the street. He quickly moved along the wall in search of the next gate and approached a narrow alley. He saw a Marine lying on the ground, and wondered why there was no corpsman helping him. Then he realized that another hero had fallen: Sergeant Kirk was dead. Arellano would remember this sight for the rest of his life, but there was no time to mourn now; he had to keep his head clear, he had to stay in the fight, he had to keep his other Marines from the same fate, he had to get to the trapped Marine. Arellano jumped over Kirk’s body and continued his search for the next gate.

Two doors down to the east, Staff Sergeant Melvin Blazer, Jr., a seasoned, seventeen-year veteran of the Corps, had moved into the next house with a group of Marines; they were trying to find a way across the roof to get to Stewart’s house. Blazer headed up the stairs for the roof. When he reached the landing, three insurgents cut him down in a hail of gunfire. Corporal Mason Fischer rushed to the top of the stairwell, protecting Blazer’s body, while Lance Corporal William Vorheis ran for reinforcements.

Vorheis ran into Stewart’s house. “Staff Sergeant Blazer’s been hit and is trapped on the second deck!” he announced between breaths. First Sergeant Steve Knox, Leal and the other Marines rushed to Blazer’s aid in the building where Corporal Fisher was holding the enemy at bay. Without pause Leal charged up the stairs, jumped into the enemy line of fire, and emptied an entire drum of 5.56 from his SAW. Fisher reached underneath the torrent of outgoing lead and dragged Blazer’s lifeless body out of the line of fire and down the stairs. Leal followed Blazer and Fisher, miraculously unscathed.

By now Captain McNulty, Lieutenant Moulder and the Kilo Company command group had moved to the second-floor balcony of the house between the houses where Stewart and Blazer had been shot; they had enemy insurgents barricaded on either side of them. Arellano moved to the patio to link up with his platoon commander. Moulder ordered him into the house next door where Blazer had just been killed. Arellano’s mind was racing. He scanned the scene, looking for men from his squad.

Moulder pointed and repeated, “Get into that house.”

Not seeing any of his own squad, Arellano turned and pointed at Marines near him. “You, you, you and you, come with me,” he ordered.

Lieutenant Moulder ordered Sergeant Coduto to clear the building below and to find a way into Stewart’s building. He told Corporal Herren to return to Stewart’s building and secure the ground floor.

While Coduto’s squad secured the center building, Sergeant Arellano and his shanghaied squad hurried down the stairs to assault the neighboring house. One of Kilo Company’s gun trucks was parked in the street. Arellano checked to make sure that no Marines were inside the house, then ordered the gun truck gunner to pepper the house with 40mm grenades. The gunner opened fire with his MK-19 automatic grenade launcher. Thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, the grenades slammed into the building and exploded in rapid succession; BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Now two separate assaults were ongoing: Arellano and his Marines followed the grenades into the courtyard, while Corporal Clairday and his squad moved roof-to-roof, north-to-south to Stewart’s house. One after the other Clairday, Yeager, Lance Corporals Travis Icard and Hilario Lopez each jumped the four-foot gap between the buildings.  Once on the roof Clairday moved to the front of the stack. Simultaneously Arellano and his newly-formed squad prepared to enter Blazer’s house. Arellano charged in and lobbed grenades into the interior rooms. When Clairday, Arellano’s close friend, moved to enter the second-floor room, an AK-47 rattled, hitting him in the arms and legs. Lance Corporal Yeager laid down a spray of bullets while Clairday crawled out of the line of fire. Clairday refused medical treatment and returned to the front of the stack. Arellano and another Marine headed toward the bottom of the stairs.

The Marines could see Corporal Stewart’s boots just inside and to the right of the patio door. Yeager tossed two grenades into the house. Clairday and Lopez charged in and moved left while Gonzalez and Icard charged right. Sergeant Gonzalez sprayed the wall lockers with bullets as another Marine retrieved Stewart’s body. One of the bullet-riddled cupboard doors swung open and out stumbled an insurgent; Gonzalez instantly cut him down. Across the house Clairday led more Marines into the last room. As Clairday, Yeager and Lopez were assaulting the enemy, Miska and his squad leader charged the stairway one last time. Gunfire rang out and Clairday fell, this time mortally wounded. Lopez jumped into the doorway and began firing while Yeager pulled Clairday’s body from harm’s way. The enemy opened fire on Lopez, at point-blank range, killing him too.

Once Yeager had retrieved Clairday he and Icard returned to the fight, attacking the enemy’s last stronghold. Yeager killed another Muj, but more remained. Icard and Yeager began firing into the door jamb. The insurgents responded by lobbing a grenade onto the landing. Yeager and Icard tried to melt into the walls, hoping to protect themselves from the impending blast, but luckily the grenade failed to explode. Yeager, Miska and Icard resumed their attack and didn’t let up until the last two insurgents were dead.

Meanwhile, two houses down, Arellano moved toward the stairwell on which Melvin Blazer, husband and father of two, had just been mortally wounded.  His M16 pointed up, Arellano began to climb the first flight of stairs—backwards—keeping his weapon trained on the second floor. Another Marine followed and threw a grenade up onto the second floor. As soon as that grenade went off, Arellano and the trailing Marine charged up the remaining stairs. They quickly moved past the room into which Leal had emptied his SAW and ran straight toward the adjacent bedroom.

Smoke from the previous grenades filled the house. Enemy rounds were chipping at the walls all around them. Like Gonzalez, Arellano shot at areas where the insurgents could be hiding as he charged into the bedroom. His bullets ripped into each corner, through a bed, and splintered a row of standup wooden dressers.

Arellano shouted “Clear left! Clear right! Room clear! Nada!”

He returned to the bedroom door and grabbed a grenade to throw into the room the two men had just run past. He could see a group of Marines stacked on the stairs waiting to charge onto the second floor, so he shouted to them that he was about to frag the room. But they had their own plan, and one of the Marines broke from the stack on the stairs and ran toward Arellano. Grenade in hand, pin pulled, Arellano made way for the Marine charging toward his room. The Marine who rushed past threw his grenade into the uncleared room.

“Frag out!” the Marine yelled.

There stood Arellano, holding a live grenade. He wasn’t about to try to put the pin back in, so he tossed his grenade into the room, too.

Arellano shouted, “Frag out,” only seconds after the first exclamation.

The first grenade had not yet exploded. Arellano feared that the Marines below would not realize that two grenades were cooking off.  Arellano’s mind raced as he scrambled for cover. He knew that his Marines were trained to rush a room the instant their grenade detonated, so as to take advantage of the stun effect of the explosion; he feared the Marines would charge up the stairs as soon as the first grenade blew. Arellano had to take action, and would only have a split second after the first explosion.

BOOM! As soon as the first grenade went off, the Marines below did just what Arellano had feared: they started up the stairs. Sergeant Arellano ran to the doorway to stop them. Glancing over, he saw his grenade in the room.

How could this be? Jason thought. Did the insurgents toss my grenade back toward the door? Did it bounce off something in the room, or did the first explosion blow my grenade into the open? No time now to wonder.

Arellano yelled, “Get back! There’s another grena…” BOOM!

Arellano’s life turned to slow motion. He saw everything clearly: the curtains rose in the room; smoke came through each crevice in the bricks, joined by sparks from the flesh-eating fragmentation coming through the mud-brick wall. The force of the explosion spun Arellano onto his hands and knees. The loud boom continued to echo in his ears; he was certain he was deaf.

His world collapsed down into a narrow focus. Had he saved his Marines? Had he kept them from the door?

As the world closed in, another thought filled his consciousness. “I’m hit, I’m hit!”

A distant voice tried to encourage Arellano. “You’re okay.”

Arellano tried to move around, but his palms slipped in a pool of his own blood. Dazed, breathing hard, and feeling weak, Arellano asked the Marine, “What do you mean I’m good?! Can’t you see I’m bleeding to death?”

Arellano felt the blood streaming from his neck, shredded by shrapnel. More metal fragments had ripped into his leg, only millimeters from his femoral artery. When others rushed to try to help him to his feet, he crumpled like a rag doll. It felt as if he were being electrocuted; the pain was excruciating. But he tried to remain as calm as possible, and tried to help as Marines removed his flak jacket.

Kilo Company Marines quickly cleared the house and hoisted their wounded sergeant to carry him to safety. He was dead weight; Arellano couldn’t do much to help as he was dragged down the stairs, head bouncing on each level. Moaning in pain, Arellano watched the wall, then the ceiling, then more Marines rushing into the house, and finally the dingy grey sky. He could still hear gunfire. Now he was lying in the street with the mounting numbers of other wounded, a corpsman cutting away his uniform. It was beautiful to be outside.

Lance Corporal Lenard had finally found his friend and squad leader. He rushed to Arellano’s side and reached down and grabbed his hand. Arellano squeezed Lenard’s hand as the corpsmen worked furiously to stop the bleeding.

“They are going to have to put a tourniquet on your neck,” Lenard joked.

“They better make it tight.” Arellano replied. Then he pointed to his crotch. “How am I down there?”

Smiling, “It’s gone, bro’!” Lenard quipped.

As he was rushed to the waiting AMTRAC, a cold chill engulfed Arellano’s body. Marines hurriedly placed him on the center bench, the back ramp was quickly raised, and the vehicle lurched forward, racing to get Arellano to Bravo Surgical in Camp Fallujah before he really did bleed to death. “Stop giving me morphine,” he told First Sergeant Knox. “I want to feel the pain so I don’t slip away.” Arellano reached to his chest and grabbed the cross dangling from his dogtag chain. He wondered if he would die, and tried to picture his family and Lindsey’s beautiful face. Would he ever see her again? Arellano would fight for his life to the end; he couldn’t leave Lindsey behind.

The other wounded Marines moaned and groaned with every bump in the road on a journey which seemed to take forever. Finally the casevac ground to a stop, the ramp dropped, and Arellano was whisked into the trauma unit.

Kilo Company’s 915 Block fight was the costliest of the entire operation. Five Darkhorse Marines were killed in the fight and more than a dozen were wounded. Read the entire story of the fight to free Fallujah in New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah. If you don’t see it where you buy your books – ask for it.


[1] Sgt Jason Arellano telephone interview, 3/10/08.

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Aug 31st, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Kandahar is not Fallujah
Sgt Jason Carter - DVIDS

Sgt Jason Carter - DVIDS

While Kandahar and Fallujah are both located at ancient crossroads of civilization, the cities could not be more different. Fallujah lies in the heart of the ancient Assyrian civilization while Kandahar has always skirted two ancient empires. Fallujah is made up of a compact, densely-populated middle-eastern urban center while Kandahar is spread out over many thousands of acres with a central urban center and hundreds of outlying villages, nestled in some of the most rugged terrain on the face of the earth.

If you think it was difficult isolating the Fallujah battlefield, it was easy compared to the challenges of cordoning Kandahar. Clearing Kandahar will be a momentous task. The International Security Assistance Forces and the Afghan Army and Police will have a very difficult time clearing and holding Kandahar.

In the fall of 2004, Coalition Forces isolated Fallujah and evacuated most of the population before sweeping into the city to clear every room of every house. Then, they cordoned the city and only let residents back in. ISAF has no hope of isolating the battlefield of Kandahar, we will have to work to clear the area and we will have to work among the population. The Taliban know this truth. They will continue to use the people as shields and they will try to illicit violence that will cause civilian deaths.

The coming operation to wrest control of Kandahar and its surrounding districts will be tricky. I expect to see a sudden increase in ISAF military presence, followed by an inkwell strategy of expanding the ISAF security zone. There will be no massive sweep through the area like the fight to free Fallujah. Instead, the Taliban will wake up one morning and American, Afghan and Canadian soldiers will be on their doorstep. And, once there – they will stay.

Taliban leaders will be targeted; rounded up or killed. The rank and file Taliban soldiers will be given a choice – fight and die or surrender and re-integrate into the Afghan society. Once the streets of Kandahar City, Zhari, Panjwaii, and Arghandab are secure, the real work will begin.

The people of southern Afghanistan have lived through almost continuing struggles for control of their land for centuries. The only thing that the tribal elders know is struggle and maneuvering for power. They have learned that when their schemes fail, violence rules supreme. It will take more than a generation to change this mindset. Once there is a modicum of security in Kandahar, ISAF will help to set the people on the right track to peace and prosperity. Attempting to impose the Federal government in Kabul on the people of southern Afghanistan will not work. We must build a brand new Afghanistan from the ground up, not from the top-down. Let us all pray that General Petraeus succeeds.

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Jul 22nd, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Fallujah birth defects
apfsds_sabot_falloff

SABOT Round

For months now, I have been reading post after post on the internet about “American war crimes in Fallujah.” I have carefully read many of these articles. Many show photos and videos of horribly disfigured children and now many are citing studies that indicate a higher rate of still births and birth defects than is normal in other parts of the world. These statistics, photographs and videos are disturbing but I have never read one credible connection to the Coalition’s fight to free Fallujah from the grip of murderers, criminals and al Qaeda terrorists.

Many of the people posting point to the United States Military’s use of depleted uranium. As a military historian, I am familiar with the US Army and Marines use of DU weapons. Before the Gulf War in 1991, the American military was preparing for a Soviet Armored assault into Europe. At the time, the Soviets had thousands of tanks. So, in response to this threat, the United States developed many tank-killing weapons.

You have to be able to punch through several inches of high-tech armor in order to disable a tank. So, American engineers searched for a high density coating that was stronger than steel. They developed SABOT tank rounds for the new M1 tank. A SABOT round is a canister filled with a projecting charge that can hurl a high-density dart at supersonic speeds toward its target. That high-density dart is a solid depleted uranium and titanium alloy rod.

The A-10 Thunderbolt was armed with a 30mm cannon that could also shoot DU rounds. Our Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Light Armored vehicles also had the capability to kill tanks with 25mm DU rounds. Our military stockpiled DU ammunition in Europe to repel a massive armored assault.

Then, in 1991, the US Army and Marines faced five Iraqi Republican Guard divisions ladened with Soviet tanks. A-10 aircraft and M1 tanks killed hundreds of Iraqi tanks with DU and SABOT rounds.

In 2003, we faced Iraqi armored divisions again, so A-10s roamed the skies ahead of the American invasion and M1 Abrams tanks probably carried some SABOT rounds (although, I have no personal data describing tank ammunition loads during the initial invasion). The 2003 invasion force stayed far away from Fallujah. Baghdad and Tikrit were the targets.

I spent three years researching the battles for Fallujah. I have spoken to tankers, Light Armored Vehicle Marines and Bradley commanders and I have obtained logistic reports. Nowhere, in all my extensive research, have I found a single piece of data to indicate that SABOT or DU rounds were even carried in the armored vehicles that were used in Fallujah. Furthermore, no A-10s were ever used in Fallujah.

My research not withstanding, it makes no military sense to employ DU munitions in an urban environment. They are tank-killing weapons and the enemy had no armored vehicles in Fallujah. A DU projectile would travel through wall-after-wall, leaving a golf cup size hole. They wouldn’t do much damage and would do little more than scare the enemy. The benefits of using DU would not justify the expense.

So, lets all drop the discussion of DU causing all the birth defects in Fallujah. It is fantasy.

That begs the question. What could have caused this tragedy? Let me refer you all to an article I found many months ago produced by CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/05/world/main4235028.shtml Tuwaitha is less than 50 miles from Fallujah. Is it possible that Saddam wreaked this havoc on his own people?

_________________________________________________

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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Jul 14th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
New Dawn Update

BookTV

A Gold Star Mother recently thanked me for telling her son’s story. She went on to say, “My biggest fear was that he would be forgotten.”

New Dawn tells the stories of our brave young men and women at war half a world away. Ed Iwan, Jason Clairday, Antoine Smith, Chris Adlesperger and Kevin Shea will all live forever in the pages of New Dawn. Please help me to tell their stories to the American people. Go to my facebook page. Post links to my sites. Tell your frineds. Buy a book and then post a review on the site of your choice.

New Dawn tells a story you will never forget.

New Dawn has already been nominated for the 2011 Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s ‘General Wallace M. Greene Award.’ The award is given to non-fiction writers who excel in telling the story of the United States Marine Corps.

In addition, New Dawn has been nominated for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History.

My most honored endorsement recently came from a Marine Sergeant. He called me to tell me, “Your book is friggin awesome.” He went on to say, “I was there and it is ‘spot-on.’”

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Thank you all for your continued support.

Semper Fidelis,

Richard S. Lowry

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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.

_________________________________________________

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

_________________________________________________________________________________

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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Apr 24th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Chapter 1 (Part 2) Fallujah: The Most Dangerous City in Iraq

The Perpetual Problem

The war had never really ended in Fallujah, even though Saddam’s regime was quickly deposed in the spring of 2003. Subsequently the All Americans of the 82nd Airborne Division had been given the onerous mission of securing this restive town thirty miles west of Baghdad. Unfortunately, they never had enough combat power to clear the city of an increasing number of enemy fighters. On April 28, 2003, a protest within the city turned violent and fifteen Iraqis were killed, further inflaming the local population.

The increase in violence throughout the summer and fall of 2003 prompted the American commanders to withdraw their forces to a series of camps outside the city. Fallujah became a safe haven and rallying point for hardened Saddam supporters, former Ba’ath party leaders, Republican Guard members, Iraqi Army diehards and, finally, Islamic fundamentalists. “These were hardcore insurgents who wanted nothing more than to kill Americans,” explained a high ranking officer.

The lightly armed paratroopers developed a “Fort Apache” mentality, only venturing into the city in heavily armed groups. They had not expected so much civilian discontent, but they quickly realized that the people were tied to centuries of local tribe and clan loyalties. Initially, the paratroopers were completely unprepared to deal with the people of Fallujah, but the soldiers worked hard to understand them and their history.

The Euphrates River cuts a swath through the Iraqi wasteland, bringing life-giving water to the Fertile Crescent. Vast barren plains lie to the north, east, and west of Fallujah. The city is an ancient crossroads and Euphrates River crossing connecting Saudi Arabia in the south with Syria and Turkey in the north. The river and roads are lifelines of trade. Fallujah has always been a hub of commerce, both legal and illegal. The main east-west road— Iraq’s oldest and most important commercial artery— is its link to the western world and today known as Highway 10, connecting Baghdad with Amman, Jordan.

Because of Fallujah’s location, control of the city has been contested since antiquity. In the 18th century B.C., Hammurabi expanded his Babylonian empire when he acquired the ancient city of Sippar. During the 1st century A.D., the Romans, Trojans, Arabs, and Persians fought at one time or another for control of what is now known as Fallujah. When the Mongols laid waste to Baghdad in 1258 A.D., Iraq’s economy fell into ruin. Iraq’s civilization lay dormant for centuries until the Iraqi people were conquered by the Ottomans in the 16th century. Control of the Fertile Crescent flipped back and forth between the Ottomans and the Persians for hundreds of years until the Turks reasserted their rule in the early 1800s.

After the Ottoman Empire sided with the Germans in World War I, England fought a series of battles against the Turks along the Euphrates River valley. After the Allied victory in 1918, the British occupied what is now known as Iraq. In 1920 resistance to their occupation increased—and was uncannily similar to what America experienced in the months following the 2003 invasion. Fallujah, the divided city, was one of the flashpoints. The British learned quickly that reconciliation was the key to success in this ancient land. “Fallujah,” explained a regional expert, “had become the symbol of the resistance and had to become the symbol of the reconciliation process.” Thus the British worked to woo the tribal and clan leaders, and Fallujah soon became a model for the nation. As a symbol of national pride, the British selected Fallujah as the site for the coronation of King Faisal, the new pro-British leader, on August 23, 1921.

Throughout the turbulent history of Anbar Province, daily life, business, and government have all revolved around its families, clans, and tribes. The province’s rugged people depend upon one another to survive in an austere environment. Their ancestors learned that the only way to endure through the blistering summers, whimsical shifts in the Euphrates River, and even more whimsical changes in government, was by helping each other. The people are close-knit, fiercely loyal, radically independent, and distrusting of outsiders. They have been ruled by the leaders of their clans and tribes for as long as can be remembered. In 2003, the most prominent tribal leader was Sheik Abdullah Al Janabi, the self-proclaimed leader of the city’s governing Shura Council. Janabi’s tribe was the most hostile to the Americans.

With the ever-shifting political climate, the tribes and clans have had little regard for the country’s artificial international boundaries. To the people of Anbar, smuggling is all in a day’s work, a necessity of commerce. As a result, Fallujah is peppered with trucking industry businesses. Flatbeds and long-haul trucks continually clog the main road. Truck stops, machine shops, and junkyards dominate the industrial area. If you need a tire changed, a chassis welded, a radiator soldered, or a new radio installed, Fallujahans stand ready to provide the service. Once the Americans arrived, the people of Fallujah had the talent, resources, and inclination to smuggle weapons and manufacture IEDs.

Fallujah’s main thoroughfare teemed with BMWs, donkey carts, and long-haul trucks. The road was lined with a mixture of magnificent mansions, majestic mosques, multi-storied concrete buildings, and mudbrick shanties. Throughout the city there were many poor neighborhoods, some middle-class areas, and enclaves with luxurious homes. More large mansions and estates lined the banks of the Euphrates River.

Like most Iraqi cities, Fallujah was built of cinder blocks. Nearly every building was surrounded by a wall. Some walls had been meticulously constructed, the obvious work of a proud stonemason. But many had the look of the repetitive cycle of destruction, repair, more destruction, and hasty reassembly, thrown together in a helter-skelter fashion with blocks stacked upon blocks with little or no mortar, just waiting to be pushed over again. Most houses were small, two- or three-story buildings with concrete slab floors and thick roofs. Others were large, with landscaped courtyards, marble floors, and ornate furnishings.

Fallujah’s homes had been built to shelter their residents from the sweltering heat of the Iraqi summers. They also served to protect their residents from the continuous cycle of senseless violence. Concrete walls and roofs were sometimes three feet thick, with another three feet of dirt piled on the flat roofs. They were veritable bunkers. Most courtyard doors were made of sheet metal with two or three locks. Doors leading into homes were either metal or protected by a locked metal gate.

Because of this, Fallujah could not have been more attractive to the resistance. The population was distrusting of outsiders and naturally rebellious. Its workers provided the wherewithal to smuggle weapons, explosives, and foreign fighters. Its craftsmen provided the talent to build bombs, and every home was a mini-fortress.

As 2003 turned to 2004, the cancer inside Fallujah was growing. Most Fallujahans were unemployed. The insurgents launched attacks on nearby Baghdad and to control commercial traffic. The city was home to gunrunners and smugglers. It seemed as if every storefront had a backroom full of weapons. Everyone knew who specialized in particular items: some sold machine guns, and others provided sophisticated night-vision devices. The local bazaars were crawling with merchants of death.

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Apr 18th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Chapter 1 (Part 1) Fallujah: The Most Dangerous City in Iraq

“Fallujah was a festering sore in al Anbar Province.”
Colonel Gareth Brandl, USMC, November 20, 2007

Death to Americans

On the morning of March 31, 2004, three empty flatbed trucks snaked their way out of the heavily guarded north gate at Camp Fallujah. When Wesley Batalona reached the main road, he turned left onto a modern, four lane highway that stretched west toward the heart of the city. Soon Batalona saw freeway signs indicating a large intersection. A modern-day cloverleaf, much like you would find in America, lay directly ahead on the outskirts of the turbulent city. Batalona planned on meeting local Iraqi defense forces at the Cloverleaf. There, they would escort his handful of trucks through Fallujah. The tiny convoy drove under the overpass and rolled to a stop at the Marines’ newly inhabited TCP-1.

Batalona and three other private security contractors traveled in two Mitsubishi SUVs. They had been given the thankless assignment of protecting the flatbeds as they moved to retrieve old kitchen equipment from a base west of Fallujah. Wesley Batalona, a former sergeant in the elite U.S. Army Rangers, was in charge of security. Jerry Zovko, a 38-year-old Croatian-American and fellow former Ranger, rode shotgun in the lead vehicle with Batalona. Scott Helvenston, an ex-Navy SEAL, drove the second SUV behind the three flatbeds, with Michael Teague, a Bronze Star recipient and veteran of the fighting in Panama, Afghanistan, and Grenada, riding as his gunner.

These four American Blackwater contractors provided the only protection for this low-priority mission. Batalona’s team was severely undermanned and under-armed. Before being relieved by the Marines, the U.S. Army would not enter the city with anything less than four heavily armored vehicles bristling with soldiers in full combat gear and weapons. Army and Marine forays into Fallujah were fraught with danger. More often than not the soldiers would withdraw under gunfire. Just a day earlier the Marines had fought a significant firefight in the city. Yet on this day the Iraqi escorts, traveling in two dilapidated pickup trucks, led the four lightly armed civilian security contractors and their ‘thin-skinned’ sport utility vehicles into the most dangerous city in Iraq. Trusting these Iraqis was like leaving the wolves to guard the sheep: their loyalties were, at best, questionable.

Batalona should have realized that he was approaching Hell the minute he entered the city. Unemployed military-aged men loitered on the garbage strewn main thoroughfare. The deeper the convoy drove into the city, the worse things looked. Stares and frowns turned to jeers and hand gestures. As they snaked their way down the congested highway, traffic slowed to a crawl. The streets became eerily quiet. The Iraqi escorts slammed on their brakes, forcing Batalona to grind his vehicles to a stop.

The beleaguered convoy had driven almost two-thirds of the way through the city when all hell broke loose. Gunfire, directed at the rear vehicle, erupted from nearby buildings. Helvenston and Teague never had a chance to respond, as bullets ripped through their SUV. The first bursts of gunfire killed or mortally wounded them.

As soon as the shooting started, the two Iraqi escort vehicles sped away. Batalona made a quick U-turn and slammed his accelerator to the floor, but collided with an Iraqi civilian’s Toyota, his SUV skidding to a stop. Another group of armed men rushed the scene of the collision, spraying his vehicle with automatic weapons gunfire. Batalona and Zovko slumped over, dead in their seats. The shooting stopped as quickly as it had begun, and the attackers
slipped away into the city.

Insurgents with video cameras rushed to the bloody scene to film the carnage—evidence of their latest victory over the infidel. Young boys, teenagers, and old men swarmed the convoy, pouring gasoline on the vehicles. Flames erupted and both SUVs were soon engulfed, with thick black smoke rising from the inferno. The smoke drew an even larger mob to the scene and triggered a macabre frenzy. The cameras were rolling as the fire subsided. Four charred American corpses were pulled from the smoldering ruins. The mob beat the bodies repeatedly with sticks and shoes,
kicking, mutilating, and dragging them through the streets. Two of the Americans were hoisted up on Fallujah’s green steel footbridge and left to hang for the world to see. The celebrations continued until after dark.

Meanwhile, the Marines could only watch in horror the streaming video coming from their UAV. The Marine commanders made the heartbreaking decision to not deploy troops to the ambush site. They knew that the American contractors were already dead, and that further intervention would only lead to more bloodshed. Instead, they decided to let the riot burn itself out.

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