By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
On March 31, 2004, a private contractor’s convoy was traveling through Fallujah when it was ambushed by heavily armed insurgents. Safeguarding the convoy were four Blackwater USA employees – Scott Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona, and Michael Teague. The four were killed by machine gunfire and a grenade thrown through a window of their SUVs. Their charred bodies were dragged from the burning wreckage of their vehicles by a mob, mutilated, dragged through the streets, and two were hung on display from a bridge over the Euphrates river as the crowd celebrated below.
The public display of the beaten and burned bodies of the four security contractors triggered worldwide outrage. In response to the gruesome slaughter of the private security guards, a U.S.-led operation to retake Fallujah began on April 4, 2004 – only four days after the macabre incident.
Within a week, a third of the city had been retaken, but due to the considerable destruction of the city and heavy civilian deaths by U.S. airstrikes, the interim Iraqi government pressured the American forces to withdraw from the city on May 1, 2004. The U.S. then turned over military operations to 1,100-man Fallujah Brigade, led by Muhammed Latif, a former Ba’athist general, but when the brigade folded in September, American weapons and equipment fell into the hand of the insurgents, foreign fighters, and criminals. The Marine command vowed to return and establish some semblance of peacefulness in Fallujah.
The U.S. suffered 27 deaths in the campaign; some 200 insurgents were killed and approximate 600 Iraqi civilians; 300 of them believed to be women and children.
By the early fall of 2004, the chief objective of the American campaign was to eliminate burgeoning insurgency in safe havens in advance of Iraq’s first parliamentary elections after the American invasion. The legitimacy of the interim government, and the upcoming elections appeared to hang in the balance. Fallujah, a city of 250,000 less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, was the mother of all safe havens and was among the cities to be retaken.
This metropolis on the edge of the desert had a well-earned reputation as a home for former Ba’athist party enforcers and other criminal elements. It was a squalid, unattractive place, unfriendly to strangers – a city, writes military historian Bing West, “comprised of two thousand blocks of courtyard walls, tenements, two-story concrete houses, and squalid alleyways. Half-completed houses, garbage heaps, and wrecks of old cars cluttered every neighborhood.”
The Corps couldn’t wait to assault the city and mix it up with a colorful mÃ©lange of al Qaeda, freelance Islamist extremists from across the Middle East, and several Sunni militia groups.
That chance came in November and December 2004 with the Second Battle of Fallujah – code-named Operation Al-Fajr and Operation Phantom Fury – as part of a joint American, Iraqi, and British offensive. It turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War and is notable for being the first major engagement of the war fought solely against insurgents rather than the force of the former Ba’athist Iraqi government, which was toppled in 2003.
Unlike the recent struggle to take the city back from ISIS, the outcome of the fall 2004 encounter was never really in doubt. Superior numbers, training, and an immense advantage in firepower ensured that the Fallujah would fall to the Americans. The critical questions were, how much blood and treasure would it take to wrest the city from the enemy? Would the city have to be destroyed to be saved? And most importantly, would victory in Fallujah reverse the momentum of an insurgency steadily growing in both numbers and intensity across much of the country?
Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the top commander of Marines in Iraq, had the luxury of several months to prepare their plan of attack, which proved to be a very successful plan. A preliminary feint from the southwest 24 hours before the main assault would draw off considerable numbers of jihadists from the northern sector of the city, the direction from which the main attack would proceed. A U.S. Army armored brigade had thrown a tight cordon around the entire city, preventing reinforcements or resupplies from reaching the enemy.
Crucially, the Iraqi government and the Americans had managed to persuade/cajole well over 90 percent of the city’s populace to evacuate their homes, so if the American infantry ran into exceedingly tough resistance, they could employ the full range of their lethal supporting arms – Abrams tanks, the steel rain of 105-mm shells from circling C-130 gunships, jet fighter-bombers, and of course, artillery fire – without fear of causing large numbers of civilian casualties.
During this time, it was clear that an assault on the city was imminent and the insurgents prepared a variety of defenses and strong points. The attack on the city was assigned to Lt. Gen. Sattler’s I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MED).
With the city cordoned off, efforts were made to suggest that the Coalition attack would come from the south and southeast as had occurred in April during the Firsts Battle of Fallujah. Instead, I MEF intended to assault the city from the north across its entire breadth. On November 6, Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT-1), consisting of the 3rd Battalion/1st Marines, 3rd Battalion/5th Marines, and the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion/7th Cavalry, moved into position to assault the western half of Fallujah from the north.
They were joined by Regimental Combat Team 7 (RCT-7), made up of the 1st Battalion/8th Marines, 1st Battalion/3rd Marines and the U.S. Army 2nd Battalion/2nd Infantry which would attack the eastern part of the city. These units were joined by Iraqi as well.
With Fallujah sealed, operations began at 7 pm, November 7, when Task Force Wolfpack moved to take objectives on the west bank of the Euphrates River opposite Fallujah. While Iraqi commandoes captured Fallujah General Hospital, Marines secured the two bridges over the river to cut off any enemy retreat from the city.
A similar blocking mission was undertaken by the British Black Watch Regiment south and east of Fallujah.
During the cold, rainy evening of November 8, the northern rim of the city came under a thunderous and sustained bombardment from artillery and warplanes. Hundreds of 155-mm shells and 500-pound high-explosive bombs shook the earth across a three-mile front, obliterating a train station and a large apartment complex on the outskirts of the city.
An eerie silence followed. Suddenly the two Regimental Combat Teams of Marine infantry and Army armored battalions, about 8,000 men in all, crossed a railroad embankment and began to push south into the city proper. Within seconds, the American advance was met with an avalanche of small arms and mortar fire. Over the earsplitting din of simultaneous fire from thousands of weapons, loudspeakers on Marine Humvees blared Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and insurgent commanders barked orders in Arabic over their own loudspeakers, ensconced in the minarets of several of the city’s 200 mosques.
Thus, began ten straight days of brutal, close-in fighting to sweep through this labyrinth of a city, north to south, and wrest it from the insurgents’ grasp. The jihadists had spent the better part of half a year constructing bunkers, strong points, and laying out avenues of retreat, and ambush sites. Hundreds of rooms and entire houses had been expertly booby-trapped, and IEDs had been liberally planted in the streets and alleys. Road blocks of Jersey barriers and junk cars designed to funnel the attackers down lethal avenues of approach seemed to be around every other corner. As the insurgents came under fire from the advancing American battalions, they tended to react in one of two ways: they either held their ground and fought to the death, or they rapidly retreated down side streets or into alleys, hoping to lure the Marines and soldiers into prepared kill zones.
Dexter Filkins, a New York Times war correspondent who had covered half a dozen wars and was embedded with a Marine rifle company in Fallujah, described the combat there as “a qualitatively different experience, a leap into a different kind of battle.” He was hardly the only veteran reporter to register that reaction. Filkins himself narrowly escaped death at least once in the fighting and saw several of the men with whom he was embedded die as well.
Later Gen. Sattler recalled the battle “was intense, close, and personal, the likes of which have been experienced by U.S. forces on just a few occasions since the battle of Hue City in the Vietnam War. There were no real front lines, because the insurgents would get behind you constantly.”
On November 9, after 16 straight hours of fighting to take a fortified mosque being used as a command post, men in B Company, 8th Marines, saw a car pull up behind them. Out poured six insurgents wielding rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. The Marines sprung in action, killing four in a matter of seconds before the insurgents could get off a single round of fire. The two remaining insurgents dashed for a courtyard, where they were rapidly cornered by several Marines. Suddenly, one of the insurgents pulled a cord on his suicide vest, sending himself and his brother fighter to instant martyrdom. Virtually every infantry company in Fallujah could report at least one such encounter.
Forty-eight hours into the fight, the Marines had advanced methodically through about one-third of the city, and seized the government center, having leveled several hundred enemy strongpoints to rubble with air strikes, tank fire, and armored bulldozers that proved critical in keeping the advance moving. The insurgents were so entrenched that by the end of the fight, the Marines had been forced to level some 10,000 of 50,000 residences – most were rebuilt at American expense.
On the fourth day of the battle, November 12, both Regimental Combat Teams crossed Highway 10, the six-lane, east-west artery that divided the northern half of the city from the grimy industrial southern half. Southern Falluja had been far more heavily fortified than the north. Here the Marines came up against dozens of unyielding defensive pockets and had to fend off a series of suicidal counterattacks that left the streets littered with bloated, stinking corpses. “Almost as soon as the insurgents were dead, the dogs started gnawing on their bones,” recalled a Marine officer. Heavy rains prevented the authorities from burying these bodies for several days.
It sometimes became necessary to slip small units of Marines in behind the enemy-held pockets to clear them out. Marine Capt. Elliot Ackerman’s platoon slipped behind insurgent lines in the middle of the night, and took up residence in a four-story building.
Author Bing West, who was embedded with a company of Marines in the battle, gives this vivid account of what followed in ‘No True Glory’: “At first light, on both sides of their building, insurgents were slipping forward in bands of four and six unaware of the Marines until the M16s opened up, hitting three or four before the others ducked into the surrounding buildings.”
The insurgents scattered for cover, then converged on the platoon. Within minutes the fighting fell into a pattern. The platoon held a stout building with open ground on all sides, which made a frontal assault suicidal. Instead, enemy snipers, RPG teams, and machine-gunners were running from floor to floor and across the roofs of the adjoining buildings looking for angles to shoot down.
The Marines tried to pick out a window or a corner of a building where an insurgent was hiding and smother it with fire. The shooters on both sides were like experienced boxers, jabbing and weaving and never leaving themselves open. The Marines punched mouse holes in the walls and threw up barricades in front of their machine guns, shifting from room to room every ten minutes.
A particularly effective method for reducing stubborn enemy positions within apartment buildings or other large structures was for the American artillery to fire a “shake and bake” mission: First, a battery of cannons fired incendiary white phosphorus smoke rounds into a building to flush the insurgents outside, and then, after a short delay, they bracketed the building with high explosive rounds to kill them as they exited.
After ten days of grinding, close combat, the Americans, supported by two elite Iraqi Army battalions, had captured the city.
The heavy fighting continued for the next several days as Coalition forces went house-to-house eliminating insurgent resistance. The fighting was not as intense as it had been during the clearing phase, but it was still dangerous, exhausting work. More than 20,000 structures were searched and cleared – some as many as three times, as insurgent hangers-on re-infiltrated previously cleared dwellings. If the Marines were forced to withdraw from a house due to heavy fire from inside, they would reduce it to rubble by attaching a patch of C-4 explosive to two propane canisters and throwing them through a window.
By the time it was all over on December 23, U.S. forces had uncovered more than 450 weapons caches, three torture chambers, one of which contained a live prisoner who’d had his leg sawed off, and 24 bomb-making factories. According to a log cited in Bing West’s book, one Marine platoon cleared 70 or more buildings a day for more than a week, during which time they engaged in an average of three firefights a day, and killed 60 insurgents.
The outcome for taking Fallujah was 95 Americans killed in action, and 450 seriously wounded. According to a report from Gen. George Casey Jr., commander of all coalition forces in Iraq, of the 8,400 insurgents killed in 2004, 2,175 had fallen in the Second Battle of Fallujah. Unfortunately, hundreds of Islamist insurgents had either left Fallujah before the battle or slipped through the cordon in small groups and went on to join their brothers to spark new uprisings in Mosul, Ramadi, and East Baghdad.
Even though Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi – the mastermind behind hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and video beheadings in Iraq – was not captured during the operation, the battle severely damaged the momentum of the insurgency. Tactics that were developed in the battles of Fallujah were used on larger scales to capture Ramadi and other surrounding areas afterward. After the Second Battle of Fallujah, the insurgents avoided open battles, but the number of attacks on coalition troops began to rise more. Four years after the bitter fighting, the city was turned over to Iraqi Forces and the Iraqi Provincial Authority.
The Second Battle of Fallujah joins the ranks of Tarawa, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Battle for Hue as one of the Marine Corps’ bitter, hard-won triumphs that unfortunately had little strategic impact on the war of which it was a part.
One veteran of the battle, Col. John Toolan, was hardly the only thoughtful officer to question whether the kind of fighting that had gone on in Fallujah was counterproductive in the long run. “What’s the impact on a ten-year-old kid when he goes back and sees his neighborhood destroyed? And what is he going to do when he is 18 years old?”
Hearts and minds are not won by leveling cities, and by late 2004, the American military was finally waking up to the fact that it was in the middle of a protracted insurgency war, and hearts and minds were what it was all about.
Twelve years later, the Marines have left Iraq, the insurgents remain, and the country finds itself deeply mired in civil war. But Fallujah has at last been retaken, and the Islamic State is clearly on the defensive – at least in Iraq. And that’s good news for Iraq, for the United States, and for the American Marines and soldiers who fought the good fight for Fallujah in 2004.
Unfortunately, even today, more than a decade later, much of Iraq and the Middle East is still beset by violence.
MCPOCG Vince Patton
U.S. Coast Guard (Ret)
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE COAST GUARD?
Ever since I was ten years old, joining the service was a rather easy decision for me to make. My oldest brother, who is 8 years older than I, joined the Navy. I always looked up to him (even now actually) and wanted to be just like him. So for at least seven years all I kept talking about was joining the Navy to be like my brother Greg (he eventually stayed in for 34 years, retiring as a CAPT/O-6). I even became a member of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps (NSCC) during my high school years.
However, at age 17, when I was old enough to sign up for the delayed entry program, I chose the Coast Guard. That’s an even longer story … but the short answer is I actually walked in to the wrong recruiting office, thinking I was going to see a Navy recruiter.
Back in 1971 at the time, the Coast Guard uniform was the same as the Navy’s, with the exception of the ‘Treasury Shield’ on the right sleeve, and the hats for enlisted were different (we used to wear the old ‘Donald Duck’ hats). After realizing I walked into the wrong office, I was too embarrassed to walk out, so I decided to wait until the recruiter finished talking to me, and then go join the Navy. However, not ever knowing anything about the Coast Guard at the time, I became really interested in their mission, and the fact it is a small service. So, after seven years of telling everyone from my parents, my brother, friends and teachers at school about going in the Navy to be like my brother, I enlisted in the Coast Guard’s delayed entry program in January 1972, and shipped off to boot camp in June 1972 just three days after I graduated from high school.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
After finishing boot camp in August 1972, I went off to Radioman (RM) ‘A’ School at Coast Guard Training Center, Petaluma, CA (about 70 miles north of San Francisco). I went ‘RM’ mainly because I had some experience in radio communications and knew Morse Code from my merit badge earnings in the Boy Scouts. I initially wanted to be a Hospital Corpsman, but the school was too long of a wait, so I went RM. It wasn’t a bad choice at the time.
After RM School, I reported to the USCGC DALLAS out of Governors Island, NY, after two years there, I moved on to Coast Guard Group/Air Station Detroit (my hometown). In 1976 I reenlisted, then reported to Coast Guard Recruiting Office Chicago, IL. After my tour of duty as a recruiter was up in 1978, I decided to change my occupational specialty rating from RM to Yeoman (YN).
After my tour in Chicago, I moved on to the Ninth District Office in Cleveland, OH, where I worked in the personnel office, then later became the district’s career information specialist. While I was in the Coast Guard up to that time, I continued on with taking college courses through the Service member Opportunity College Program (SOC), earning up to my Master’s Degree in 1979. In 1981 I became the first Coast Guard enlisted member to be selected for postgraduate school program, where I was transferred to Washington, DC to attend The American University, working on my Doctorate in Education. My dissertation was based on the development and implementation of the Coast Guard Enlisted Evaluation System, which was the purpose of my selection for the postgraduate program. After graduating from American University in 1984, I remained on the Headquarters staff involved with the implementation of the new evaluation system.
In 1985, I then went back to sea to the USCGC BOUTWELL, when it was then home ported out of Seattle, WA. After a three year tour on BOUTWELL, I returned to Washington, DC (the Coast Guard wanted to get their money’s worth out of me for that doctorate degree), and served as the first enlisted training manager for the Coast Guard’s enlisted training programs. These billets were previously done by officers and civilians.
In 1993, I was advanced to Master Chief, served on a six month special assignment with the DOD Task Force, and afterwards elevated to the ‘Command Master Chief’ status and transferred to the Coast Guard Atlantic Area, first out of New York, then Portsmouth, VA.
In 1998 I was selected as the Eighth Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG), and retired in 2002.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
I served as the senior enlisted adviser to Joint Task Force 160 during 1994 as part of ‘Operation Support Democracy’ which was an intervention designed to remove the military regime installed by the 1991 Haitian coup d’état that overthrew the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
It was the largest alien migration operation in history, where I worked in both Port-au-Prince Haiti and Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The assignment was a temporary detailed position while I was the Command Master Chief for the Coast Guard Atlantic Area command.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
There’s two actually; first was when I was assigned to Joint Task Force 160, where I got an up close look at seeing literally hundreds of people from Cuba and Haiti defying all odds to try to get to the United States. They came in just about anything that floated. I remember seeing a giant door from a church that served as a raft with six people on board that traveled just about 50 or so miles before we were able to stop them. Bad weather was looming and they certainly would not have made it the rest of the way. Then there are the hundreds of young children, mostly malnourished with a look of desperation and hunger that just wanted to be taken care of. It was an operation that really worked on the psyche.
Many of the service members involved in this operation were touched by the desperation that these people had in doing whatever it took to try to reach the U.S. in hope for a better life. It was a horrifying experience, and as I think of the earthquake in Haiti today, I can’t help but think about seeing the faces on the people who spent days just floundering in the Caribbean Sea trying to reach land. Unfortunately I remember the large number of bodies from capsized makeshift vessels we came upon as well.
The other is during the events of ‘9-11’. Most noteworthy was my walk along all three of the “Ground Zero” locations in NY, PA and the Pentagon, and seeing the huge destruction caused from the terrorist acts. That too was a sobering moment, but with it came a time of seeing people rise to the occasion in helping one another. I also recall my visit to the Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from where the World Trade Center towers stood. While there was complete destruction all around the area, that tiny little church on Rector Street, which also had a small graveyard with the remains of some of our founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton (the Father of the Coast Guard), the place was pretty much untouched, with exception of debris from the destruction all around. It was an amazing sight to see, where the only damage on the church was a broken window, but on either side as well as in front and in back of the church the buildings were completely destroyed from the crashing of the airliners.
It’s a sight that will forever be etched in my memory and one that sticks out of truly understanding the power of spirituality.
IF YOU RECEIVED ANY MEDALS FOR VALOR OR AWARDS FOR SIGNIFICANT ACHIEVEMENT, PLEASE DESCRIBE HOW THESE WERE EARNED.
I was awarded the DSM principally for my performance of duty as Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, where I was actively involved with the Coast Guard operations around ‘9-11,’ as well as the responsibilities I executed during my tenure as MCPOCG.
OF ALL THE MEDALS, AWARDS, QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICE YOU RECEIVED, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE ONE(S) MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
The most meaningful award to me was receiving my Cutterman’s pin, which is recognition for at least five years of sea duty. Being in a seagoing service like the Coast Guard – to me, this is what it was all about. I didn’t earn my Cutterman’s pin until towards the end of my Coast Guard career. Prior to my selection as Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, I had accumulated 4 yrs, 11, 19 days of sea time – just a mere 21 days short of the required 5 years. I could have remained on my last ship (BOUTWELL) to get the 5 year minimum, however I actually thought I had it, but my sea service time was miscalculated. It wasn’t corrected until after my departure. So, in 2001, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, ADM Loy allowed me to take a 30 day PCS-administrative assignment from my duties as MCPOCG, to report to USCGC MAKO (home ported out of Cape May, NJ) to fulfill my required sea time, which also included having to meet underway and in port qualifications.
The requirements for the Cutterman’s pin also meant you had to be in a permanent change of station assignment for at least 30 days. Even with the award of the Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal, the highest peacetime award … the Cutterman’s Pin is my most prized and valued award. Going to sea is what being in the Coast Guard is all about!
WHICH INDIVIDUAL(S) FROM YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY STAND OUT AS HAVING THE MOST POSITIVE IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
There were two people that I must mention here. The first one was Hollis Stephens, who served as the Third Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard. I worked for Master Chief Stephens when I was assigned to Coast Guard Group Detroit. I’ll never forget what he did for me in encouraging me to pursue my education while I was on active duty. He was the catalyst for me to want to pursue to become the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard someday, rather than become an officer.
The other person is Admiral James Loy, who was Commandant during my tenure as Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, but I also worked for him as his command master chief in Atlantic Area. The admiral believed in me, and just let me do my thing, knowing that I truly was there to support him. It’s refreshing to know that your boss really trusts you in everything. He gave me the hard jobs knowing that I could handle it, and showed me just what the true meaning of leadership is all about. Just about anyone who knows or has served with him from his days in Vietnam all through his illustrious career would probably say the same thing about him as I am. He’s the kind of guy that you would literally “walk through fire” without question if he asked you to.
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