After 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,” 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.
Sgt Jason Arellano telephone interview, 3/10/08.
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