Monday, May 17, 2004


Chicago Tribune
May 16, 2004

Marines who liberated Baghdad back in the thick of Iraq fighting


FALLUJAH, Iraq - They were the poster boys - literally - for the swift invasion of Iraq: the U.S. Marines who helped tug down a statue of Saddam Hussein in an instantly iconic image of the fall of Baghdad.

None of them could have predicted where they would end up a year later.

After nine months away from Iraq, the 3rd Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment returned in February for what its members thought would be a low-key tour of security and reconstruction duty. But within weeks, the troops were urgently reassigned to help quell the uprising in Fallujah, Iraq's most rebellious city, and found themselves in tougher combat than many faced on the road to Baghdad.

"In many ways, this was the fight that we expected last year," said battalion commander Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy. "We were working civil-military operations, handing out candy and kissing babies," when the battalion was ordered to Fallujah, he said.

Their return to combat is a testament to a conflict that still flares with brutal intensity, demanding more troops and heavier armor than expected more than a year after the declared end of major fighting.

The military has already rotated more than 100,000 soldiers into Iraq since January, but the unyielding pace and toll of the conflict has prompted military planners to put off the goal of reducing troop levels by the end of this month.

Two-thirds of the roughly 800 Marines in the 3rd Battalion were in Iraq last year, making them one of the most battle-tested infantry units now in Iraq. The troops played a key role in the invasion, seizing parts of downtown Baghdad on April 9 of last year.

After arriving in Fallujah on April 7, they found themselves in round-the-clock clashes with rebels and responded with a full range of combat power, from mortars to fighter jets.

Since April 5, fighting in this Sunni-dominated city 35 miles west of Baghdad has killed hundreds of local residents and dozens of Marines.

The violence has eased up since Marines and civic leaders reached an agreement to form a local security force to police the city, allowing U.S. troops to pull back.

"It's extremely tough because you try to help these people and in the process of doing that some of our people are getting killed," said Sgt. Cornelius Blyther, 30, a father of three from Springfield, Mass.

Cpl. Tom Conroy occasionally sees himself in pictures on postcards or Web sites that commemorate that heady moment in Baghdad last year. That's Conroy, in a helmet and flak jacket, looking surprised at the foot of the falling iron statue of the ousted dictator. Last month, he was among a company of 180 Marines who weathered an ambush and a 14-hour gunfight in the town of Karmah, near Fallujah. Three Marines were wounded; commanders estimated they killed more than 100 suspected insurgents.

"We knew we were coming back but we didn't know it would be that soon," he said.

The battalion members say they are honored by the confidence shown in them and the opportunity to apply what they know. But they don't hide the confusion and uncertainty that surrounds a conflict that lies somewhere between war and peace.

"It is hard explaining to my family why I came back here again," said Lance Cpl. Zac Garland, 21, a Humvee driver with a starburst left by enemy fire a few weeks ago on the bullet-proof windshield in front of his face. "The way I say it to them is that I am here to fight so that my kids grow up exactly as I did."

Nobody ignores the strains that the time away has placed on families, but commanders say they worked hard while at home to prepare wives and children for the months ahead.

"We told them before we left, and told them that the world is watching them and that the terrorists want to see the families be fed up and all we ask them is to support us, be patient, and to share the courage," McCoy said.

After weeks in Baghdad and the southern town of Hillah, the battalion returned last year to its home base in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., at the end of May. Six months later, they left to train in Okinawa, Japan. By the third week of February, they were back in Iraq.

The battalion's troops were assigned to security and support operations in the northwestern town of Haditha, visiting schools, chatting with residents, enjoying a riverside barracks with bunk beds and a cool breeze. But when Fallujah erupted in violence last month, they were summoned to help. Mortarmen and others who had been given peacetime jobs regrouped into combat teams.

Now the battalion, after five weeks in Fallujah, has been ordered to return to Haditha. There the Marines will wait for the next trip into downtown Fallujah or the next weapons-hunting expedition in the desert.


McCoy's Marines, Chapters 1-6...


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