Wages of War
OPERATION MATADOR was conceived in response to intelligence gathered over several months. That intelligence confirmed Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters were using the greater Ramana area for training, equipping and directing insurgent personnel and actions.
Multinational forces had not prosecuted actions in this region for some time, and anti-Iraqi and anti-Coalition forces had been intimidating the local populace and hindering any hint of stability or progress. Because of Ramana’s proximity to the Syrian border, the city became an operational concern with strategic implications. Quelling the insurgent stronghold of Ramana could be a decisive victory in the fight for peace and stability in Iraq.
As the public affairs officer for Regimental Combat Team 2, I was responsible for ensuring that civilian media embedded with smaller units during the operation were linked with their battlefield points of contact. Our helicopter would eventually land at the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in Al Qaim, Iraq, where it would deposit the forward command element of the soon-to-begin operation.
Two reporters and I were dropped off at Camp Wolf, a remote, spartan Marine operations base at one of a multitude of Saddam-era ammunition supply points throughout the Al Anbar province. We arrived at noon. In the heat of the midday sun, we scrambled to find any measure of shade as we waited to depart for the first mission objective: a predetermined point on the Euphrates River, from which the Marines and sailors of Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT-2) would launch their assault. Initially, we would be traveling with Bridge Company, 20th Engineer Brigade, an Army unit whose mission was to create and sustain a bridge capable of moving foot troops, amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs, also called amtracks), Humvees, seven-ton trucks and tanks across the river.
At 8:30 p.m., we boarded our assigned vehicles, behemoth flatbed trucks loaded with floating bridge sections and motorized metal-hulled boats that maneuvered those sections once they were in the water. Soon after, and with limited night-vision devices, we departed Camp Wolf and began the slow and dangerous movement to the bridging site.
SUNDAY, MAY 8
At about 6 a.m.—after what seemed like endless hours of driving, recovery of one or two overturned vehicles and numerous route corrections—we arrived at our objective: the command post for Task Force 3/2, where I escorted the reporters to the command area.
In planning for Operation Matador, the timeline for bridge completion was a short one. However, because of the softness of the banks on both sides of the river, the bridge was not complete even 16 hours after we arrived. In the interim, significant small-arms fire directed against our perimeter security elements erupted numerous times from the small town of Ubaydi, to our north. As that activity intensified, and after our position was hit by two large-caliber mortars that impacted less than 50 meters to our front and rear, the task force commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Mundy, decided to seek out and mitigate the threat.
“Let’s go to Ubaydi,” he ordered. We caught up with Captain Christopher Ieva, the company commander for Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, and I turned over to his capable hands the Chicago Tribune reporter, James Janega, I was escorting. They immediately pushed out to a hasty attack position in preparation to clear Ubaydi.
As I watched from the battalion command post, AAVs, mobile assault platoons and light armored vehicles assaulted the city, seeking out and destroying any opposing forces. Augmented by close air support from AH-1W Cobra and UH-1N Huey gunships and cannon fire from F/A-18 Hornets, the infantry Marines methodically swept through the city, hunting down and killing the enemy.
This action would not be without cost. As evening drew near, the casualties from the fighting in Ubaydi began to arrive in amtracks. One of the first Marines to arrive was dead, his body wrapped in a green government-issue blanket. Others had various gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
Soon, another AAV arrived with more wounded. This particular vehicle belonged to 1st Platoon, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, an activated reserve infantry battalion based in Brook Park, Ohio. It was one of three battalions under the command of RCT-2, one of my reporter’s destination units. This AAV would take the Washington Post’s Ellen Knickmeyer to 3/25, so I pushed her onto the vehicle. “I’m going with her, sir,” I shouted to Mundy as I boarded the amtrack.
“Okay,” he replied. “Be safe, Lieutenant.” Hastily embedded with Lima Company, I escorted Knickmeyer to ensure she made contact with Major Steven A. Lawson, Lima’s commanding officer.
As we sped into Ubaydi, clouds began to fill the sky, and darkness approached. We stopped several times. My heart pounded furiously. Having never been in combat, I was terrified, and my mind began conjuring up a multitude of worst-case scenarios. What if we get stuck and receive RPG fire from the rear? What if there is enemy on the rooftops? What if they roll grenades into this vehicle? Acting in spite of these thoughts, I maintained security for the rear of the AAV, hastily shifting my eyes back and forth in an effort to see the enemy who was surely trying to kill me. My goal was to kill him first.
Later in the evening, we paused by a house that had given the Marines particular trouble that day. We watched as a main battle tank fired several 120mm high-explosive rounds into the house, in which an unknown number of insurgents were holed up. Just hours earlier, enemy fire from that same house had claimed the lives of two Marines and injured several more from 1st Platoon, L/3/25. Only after the tank rounds, two attempted 500-pound bombs from fixed-wing air support and a man-portable rocket had been fired at the house would the Marines ascertain the reality of the threat they had been facing.
In all the houses in Iraq that Marines have cleared over the years, the existence of basements has been an extreme rarity. Consequently, nobody expects to take fire from below in a one-story home. That is, however, exactly what happened here. Underneath the concrete floor, insurgents had dug out a crawl space barely large enough for them to lie on their backs. From there, they had been firing armor- piercing rounds, from some sort of high-caliber machine gun, through the concrete floor and into the Marines that ventured into the building. It was a tactic these Marines had not seen until then—and will never forget henceforth.
Tired emotionally as well as physically, the Marines bedded down late that night in a nearby school. Security and perimeter watches were posted, and the war-weary Marines feigned sleep as they mourned their lost comrades.
MONDAY, MAY 9
At 7 a.m., the bridge was complete. RCT-2 quickly crossed the bridge and began to sweep through greater Ramana in an effort to cleanse the area of enemy fighters. For the next few days, 1st Platoon was to be a supporting effort while they attempted to cope with their losses, refit and reorganize back to combat effectiveness. After what seemed like endless travel in the dusty hull of the AAV, we halted and bivouacked for the night. It was just before dusk. Knickmeyer, the Washington Post reporter, was not satisfied with 1st Squad’s lack of participation in the action, so she departed the squad’s company and hooked up with the company gunnery sergeant, with whom she would travel the next day.
Ignoring explosions in nearby towns, the Marines of 1st Platoon tried to make sense of the previous day’s realities while preparing for another day of mortal combat.
TUESDAY, MAY 10
We boarded our AAVs and moved out before dawn. We traveled at length again, our movement terminating at a rustic cluster of houses. Small patches of grass colored the otherwise barren and brown landscape. Cows, chickens, rabbits and other farm animals ranged the area. Amid rocks, concertina wire and signs in Arabic that read “STOP. COALITION CHECKPOINT,” we set up security and blocking positions and waited for further orders.
In this hamlet, some of the Marines bought fresh bread from the locals. Gunnery Sergeant Charles E. Hagans Jr. purchased a turkey from a local woman for $15 in American cash.
“She said that would feed her family for several weeks,” he said. Sometime that same day, Staff Sergeant Kendall H. Ivy II arrived. The regimental command had sent Ivy to 1st Platoon, Lima Company, to replace Staff Sergeant Anthony L. Goodwin who, along with Corporal Dustin A. Durga, was killed two days prior. “I’m Staff Sergeant Ivy,” he said to the Marines of 1st Squad. “I’ve been with [1/8, 3/8,] school of infantry, and up at the regiment. I’m really approachable, so please feel free to talk to me about whatever. I know you guys have lost some guys lately, and Staff Sergeant Goodwin was a good man and a great Marine. I am honored to be serving with you all,” he concluded, and walked out.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 11
Morning broke, ushering in another day. We boarded our amtrack to move out to our next objective, but the order was rescinded before we moved. Having done the “hurry up and wait” drill thousands of times, the Marines of 1st Squad, 1st Platoon piled out of the AAV and back into the house they had been occupying.
“Here’s the thing,” said Sergeant Samuel E. Balla, squad leader for 1st Squad, 1st Platoon. “We need to come up with a way to breach a door from a distance, without physically kicking in the door.” And so a creative and technical discussion began on how to effectively kick in a door without having Marines right in front of it.
With no conclusion reached, the Marines again boarded their AAV. Once we were firmly en route, Balla quickly explained the mission. “Okay. We’re here,” he said, pointing to an invisible map on the AAV ramp. “When we get up here, [2nd and 3rd Platoons] are going to clear this group of buildings on the right. We’ll clear the group on the left, and then we’ll get back in our vehicle and move around the bend and set up a blocking position for the rest of the company. Got it?”
He was met with affirmative nods, and everyone settled back down for another bumpy, dusty ride. After roughly 20 minutes, we stopped again. Ivy, Balla and the other squad leaders mustered with Gunnery Sergeant Charles J. Hurley, platoon commander of 1st Platoon, Company L, to quickly go over the plan for the next actions. Balla returned and took his seat at the rear right of the amtrack, and Ivy took his position in the tactical control hatch in front. We began rolling again and hadn’t gone more than 100 meters when— BOOM!
The inside of the AAV turned orange and filled with thick, black smoke. The vehicle leapt into the air, violently throwing us about. Everyone was flung upward. I came down hard on my right side. Grabbing my helmet, I tore off my Wiley-X goggles. They had probably saved my vision, but the smoke and heat was so intense inside the goggles, I had to get them off.
I looked to the front of the troop cabin. All I saw was a wall of flames licking the silhouettes of still figures within those flames. The Marines in front most certainly were killed by the blast.
The troop cabin was engulfed in flames. Smoke filled the cabin and billowed out, rolling into the afternoon air. As in a foundry, the intense heat was immediately upon us. I knew I had to get out of the vehicle. We had been traveling with the left top hatch open. I scrambled toward the hatch and attempted to pull myself up and out of the burning vehicle.
After three failed attempts, I noticed the small rear hatch was open. Apparently, Sergeant Dennis R. Woullard, the AAV communications operator, had managed to open it. In his efforts, he fell out of the hatch and onto the ground behind the vehicle. Balla toppled out on top of him. I dove through the rear hatch and searched for cover. As I ran, I looked down and noticed I had no skin on my forearms—they were the color of raw chicken. My face tingled slightly, but I took no further notice of it, either, as loads of adrenaline rushed through my body.
Ammunition of all types was being ignited by the heat inside the AAV. Explosions that sounded like enemy fire rang out mercilessly. Not knowing whether I was being shot at, I tried desperately to remain calm and assess the situation.
Lance Corporal Aaron P. Mankin, a videographer I had requested from II Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallujah, had been standing up in the AAV and filming through the open bay door on the top left of the vehicle. Now, the uniform and gear he was wearing were in flames as he exited the burning amtrack.
“Put him out! Put him out!” Woullard yelled as he and Balla rolled Mankin back and forth in the dirt, extinguishing the flames.
I made it to a trough in the earth, and drew my service pistol from its holster as I flopped down for cover. “Sir! Help me, sir!” a voice said behind me. I looked back and met the burned and bloodied face of a staggering and disoriented Private First Class Michael J. Strahle. “You’re gonna be fine, Strahle. You’re doing just fine. You look real good, devildog,” I said, running to him and yanking him to the ground and into a trough.
I began stripping away his gear and clothing so I could get a good look at his injuries. I had just pulled out a pressure bandage from his individual first-aid kit and applied it to him when a corpsman arrived on the scene.
“Get him away from that ’trac!” the corpsman yelled. We grabbed Strahle and pulled him behind another AAV, clear of deadly shrapnel and rounds flying from the blazing vehicle.
“Sir, can you hold pressure here? Use your right hand and switch sides with me,” the corpsman instructed. I did so, and we moved Strahle to the casualty collection point, where he was further treated and then medevaced away on an Army Blackhawk helicopter.
“Sir! Sir! You’re hurt. You need to sit down, sir!” the corpsman yelled at me after treating Strahle. Reluctantly, I sat down, and the corpsman applied a field dressing to my wounds.
As I sat being treated for first- and second- degree burns on my arms and face, a crew of Marines and sailors brought Mankin in a stretcher over to the casualty collection point.
“Mankin! You’re good to go,” I yelled as I gave the thumbs-up to him. Wearily, he looked over, saw me and gave a weak thumbs-up back. “I’ll see you on the bird,” I yelled.
At about the same time, corpsmen and Marines helped Private First Class Terrence T. Bullock, our driver, to the casualty collection point. The shock of the blast had catapulted his head forward and smashed his mouth into the console in front of him. Bleeding from the mouth and missing several teeth, Bullock was nonetheless walking and cognizant, a condition not prevalent among the explosion victims.
As Bullock and I leaned up against the building behind us, we caught each other’s eyes. We gave each other subtle nods of “We’re okay.”
Meanwhile, the Marines, sailors and Army pilots and medics continued their utterly professional treatment in a situation that was hell on Earth. Their efforts made the difference for several Marines that day.
All told, over those fateful four days, 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment attached to 2nd Marine Division and the AAV crew that was supporting them sustained 21 casualties —eight killed and 13 wounded. Private First Class Christopher R. Dixon, Lance Corporals Wesley G. Davids, Jonathan W. Grant, Jourdan L. Grez, Nicholas B. Erdy, Corporal Dustin A. Derga and Staff Sergeants Anthony L. Goodwin and Kendall H. Ivy were killed in action.
As I wrote this piece in a hospital in Balad, Iraq, awaiting medical evacuation to the United States, the remaining members of the unit—Privates First Class Terrence T. Bullock and Michael J. Strahle, Lance Corporals Scott G. Bunker, Mark A. Camp, Aaron P. Mankin, Carl J. Schneider III, Zachary P. Schudrowitz and Collen M. West, Corporals Andrew R. Hildebrand, Ryan G. King and Justin G. Rishel, Sergeants Samuel E. Balla and Dennis R. Woullard —were evacuated from the scene and treated for wounds of varying severity, including burns, shrapnel wounds and broken bones.
At the end of the day, Balla was the last man standing from 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment.
I completed this chronicle of those harrowing days on May 13, 2005. Today, just as strongly as then, I am awed at the professionalism and dedication of all the personnel involved. The Marines, Navy corpsmen, Army medics and Blackhawk pilots acted in keeping with the honor and rich traditions that make their branches of the armed forces the best in the world.
I am also utterly humbled by the mere thought of what the families of those lost and injured—and the L/3/25 family in general —are enduring. My thoughts will always be with them, and I am honored to have served among such men. None will be forgotten.