Chris Sheppard

Fallujah Peninsula: The battle before the war

One Marine’s experience in Fallujah opens his eyes to the largest battle of all—and the stunning realization of what the Iraq War meant back home

By Chris Sheppard

Continued from page 1

Photo op

For two days, my company’s engineer detachment worked nonstop to build fighting positions for the Bradleys. But by late afternoon on November 9, the dozers had become stuck in deep mud along the banks of the Euphrates. The organic goop proved to be too much for the 25-ton monsters, and their tracks became hopelessly mired in the muck. Deprived of their tools, the engineers became infantry—shooting at snipers, raiding farmhouses, taking prisoners.

The engineer detachment had parked its humvee next to a cinderblock wall along a road about 100 yards from Fallujah’s South Bridge over the Euphrates. With the dozers stuck and the battle at a lull, First Lieutenant Robert Gerbracht and his Marines seized the opportunity to take a group picture.

Sergeant Chet Bennetts saw some movement—a blurry streak—and tensed up, bracing for impact. A mortar hit the saturated ground 10 yards away, embedding into the gummy earth, leaving only the fins visible. Another mortar struck the ground 15 yards away, bounced up into the air, and wobbled end over end like a punted football. The Marines gawked in disbelief as it slowly sailed over their heads, landed on the other side of the cinderblock wall, and exploded with a loud crack. Within seconds, another mortar hit 40 yards across the street and exploded with a thunderclap. The concussion knocked several of the Marines to the ground, flinging mud and muck all over them and their humvee.

Several seconds of dazed silence passed. Then Lance Corporal Thomas Norby—a skinny marine from Phoenix with Coke-bottle glasses, glanced at Lieutenant Gerbracht and deadpanned, “Sir, somebody has got to get a handle on this situation.”

Running the gauntlet

Chet Bennetts
Entering and clearing houses is risky as they could be booby-trapped.

At three in the afternoon on November 10, the Marine Corp’s birthday, our convoy snaked through our company’s home base, Camp Taqaddum. Taqaddum was a sprawling coalition logistics facility and airfield nine miles west of Fallujah. The convoy, guns bristling from a dozen turrets, looked like a row of wheeled warships. While Marines all over the world were celebrating at formal military balls—wearing their dress blues and entertaining dinner dates—we were riding into battle.

The day was brilliant. Along the northern edge of the base, six Palladian self propelled howitzers pounded targets in Fallujah. As the guns fired rocket assisted projectiles, elegant orange plumes billowed from their barrels. Residual flames from the shells’ propellant licked the muzzles for several seconds after firing. Ninety-eight pound shells—steel rain—arched into the stratosphere, eventually falling in the city as Marines advanced block by block behind it.

Early that morning at the Rock ASP, we had received an urgent call over the radio from Lieutenant Gerbracht on the Fallujah peninsula. He said all three of the engineer detachment’s armored bulldozers were stuck in deep mud along the banks of the Euphrates. They needed an M-88 tank retriever—a tank used for towing other tanks—to free them and complete their mission.

I organized a convoy to deliver the tank retriever to the Fallujah peninsula, but the mission quickly grew in scope. Taskforce Wolfpack’s logistics staff needed to get supplies to their troops: tank ammunition, food, and water. Getting to the peninsula would not be easy. Over the last two days, insurgents had mined our primary road, Route Boston, with dozens of improvised explosive devices, rendering it impassable.

We decided to use our alternate road—Route Michigan. It was a four-lane highway running past Camp Taqaddum’s front gate. Route Michigan meandered west onto the Fallujah peninsula, across the South Bridge, and into the city. We had convoyed from the Rock ASP to Camp Taqaddum, to pick up some final supplies and leave through the base’s front gate for the Fallujah Peninsula.

Chris Sheppard
“Hobo” humvees provide Marines little protection.

Our brief stop at Camp Taqaddum was an education. As the convoy pulled into our company’s motor pool, something remarkable was sitting in the parking lot—three brand-new, up-armored humvees. My Marines stared at them in angry disbelief. After repeatedly requesting them for months, they magically arrived on November 9. The irony was not lost on us that they had arrived a day after Ries and Zapp were killed. Both Marines would probably still be alive if the humvees had been delivered four days earlier. Even more disheartening, we couldn’t even use them for our convoy to the Fallujah peninsula. They lacked radios, antennas, and Blue Force Tracker computers—essential equipment for leaving the base—and we didn’t have the time, personnel, or equipment to prep them.

So, my Marines being Marines, they made do with what they had and improvised last-minute modifications to their “hobo” hummers. Kevlar mats were fastened to the outsides of the silhouetted doors and flimsy armored panels with cargo straps. Sandbags were placed on the vehicles’ floors to protect against IED explosions. Humvee seats were lowered to reduce Marines’ profiles, squeezing a few more inches of protection out of the pathetic doors. Tragic experience had taught them that survival was in the details.

“Lube your weapons and check your shit, boys,” Sergeant David Blecman, the convoy’s security chief, said over the radio as we approached Camp Taqaddum’s front gate. “My Spidey-senses tell me we are going to get hit.”

I could sense excitement—even anticipation—under his measured tone.

Marines lubed their machine guns and M-16s. Inspected ammunition links. Hurriedly brushed rifles. Tested magazine springs. Tightened helmet straps. Cinched body armor and Kevlar deltoid protectors tight. Loaded weapons. Adjusted ballistic goggles. Completed the final radio check. Finally, dozens of silent prayers were said as we passed through Camp Taqaddum’s front gate and right onto Route Michigan.

Chris Sheppard
The up-armored HMMWV gives Marines far more protection than the “hobo” version.

The convoy crept along at 20 miles per hour due to the lumbering tank retriever—slow enough to read peoples’ expressions along the road. They looked at us as if we were insane. Several men outside a gas station stared at us with slack-jawed hatred. Two little girls, wearing bright maroon and blue dresses respectively, stood in the doorway of a roadside shack. As we passed, they scowled and gave the thumbs down.

Two hundred yards from a bridge over a railroad trestle, a fireball shot into the air ten yards behind Corporal Reyna’s scout humvee. The concussion tossed Lance Corporal Neal Fryling across the truck’s bed like a rag doll, leaving him dazed but unhurt. Shrapnel embedded in the right rear fender and tires, but humvee kept moving as a small mushroom cloud rose up behind it.

Half a dozen voices talking all at once—issuing orders and asking questions—jammed the radio net. Lieutenant Valle Portillo drowned them out, yelling “Push ahead!”

“Push. Get the convoy out,” Sergeant Blecman calmly told Reyna, the scout vehicle commander. “If something happens, I will pick you up.”

Boom! Watching from the rear of the convoy, I saw a second IED exploded in between the first and second vehicles. A third detonated, then a fourth. In a matter of seconds, I counted seven plumes of smoke and dust rising from the roadside into the clear afternoon sky. Grid coordinates rattled over the radio, marking the IED explosions. My gut churned, not knowing if my men were dead or dying.

Reyna screamed at his driver, Lance Corporal Raphael Cazares, to floor it. The humvee engine whined as they barreled toward the railroad trestle bridge. On reaching the bridge’s crest, Reyna saw two cars—a taxi and a black sedan—sitting in the middle of the road less than 200 yards away.

“Shoot them! Fucking shoot them!” Reyna yelled to the Marines in the humvee bed. Corporal Carrillo, manning the machine gun mounted on the truck bed, fired a couple of shots, but his gun jammed. The other Marines in the back fired their M-16s. Both cars started moving to the right shoulder. The Iraqis inside began shooting back at the Marines. Cazeres wrestled with the steering wheel, jumped the median, and barely avoided a collision.

Sergeant Juan Belmontes, the turret gunner in the humvee behind Reyna’s, saw the weapons and muzzle flashes in the cars’ windows. Belemontes fired several bursts into both cars with his M240G machine gun, peppering their doors and windows. Two Iraqis with weapons jumped out of the black sedan, running from the road and firing wildly on the move.   

Like a chain reaction, Marines from each of the convoy’s passing vehicles fired at the Iraqi cars.

Chris Sheppard
Sergeant Juan Belmontes mans a machine gun.

Past the bridge, Reyna’s scout vehicle entered the village of Qaryat Albu Hatim. He saw a dozen Iraqi men standing next to a blue sedan on the right shoulder of the road. Most of them ran across the road, scattering like a spooked herd as Reyna’s humvee careened toward them. A few produced weapons and began firing from behind the blue car.

Belmontes fired a long burst from his machine gun at the blue car, dropping one of the insurgents.

Reyna then spotted a dirt obstacle covering both of the right-hand lanes. Fearing IEDs, Reyna commanded Cazeres to jump the median. Cazeres turned hard, jerking the humvee over the concrete divider. The Marines in the back held on for their lives as the humvee bucked.

Now they were driving down the wrong side of the road against oncoming traffic. Iraqi cars swerved wildly, their occupants’ eyes wide with panic.

Past the dirt obstacle, Reyna screamed at Cazeres to jump the median once again. The rest of the convoy mirrored their movements as if they were playing follow the leader.

The convoy had split into two sections. The first eight vehicles sped up, trying to get out of the kill zone as fast as they could. The last four vehicles plodded along behind the tank retriever. The two sections became separated by more than a minute. Like a rattled hornets’ nest, the insurgents in the village regrouped and counterattacked against the rear section. 

When Blecman—in the convoy’s last vehicle—reached the village, he spotted a man in black clothing running from the front of a two-story building and around the corner.

“Betterley, bring your gun to 11 o’clock,” Blecman said.

Corporal Benjamin Betterley, Blecman’s 240G machine gunner, was a stocky redhead from Michigan and a surgeon with a machine gun.

Insurgents inside the building opened fire. Betterley stood exposed on the humvee bed, behind his gun, and coolly fired back. He swiveled the gun, pivoting behind it and firing until the building was at his 7 o’clock.

Blecman spotted several muzzle flashes from a palm grove to the right.

“Betterley, 2 o’clock.”

As Betterley swung around, Blecman coolly fired his M-16 left handed out the humvee window at insurgents in the palm grove. With his right hand, he worked the radio’s receiver and gave firing directions to the humvee in front of him—my humvee.

Chris Sheppard
Sergeant David Blecman, a Harley-riding cowboy from Arizona, remained calm during the firefight.

Blecman sounded as calm as a 911 operator. He said that our humvee’s turret gunner—Gunnery Sergeant Hoskins—had his gun facing the wrong direction. I grabbed part of Hoskins’s turret and yanked on it, swiveling him and his gun towards the palm grove. Hot brass fell on me as his machine gun rattled angrily. I ignored the pain, focusing instead on Gunny Hoskins standing in the turret, firing away. I lustfully hoped he was mowing down the people firing the bullets that were ricocheting off of our humvee’s armor.

“Eriguchi and Reynalds get down!” Betterley shouted to two other Marines on the humvee bed with him. They ducked as Betterley shot over them, firing 150 rounds into the palm grove and emptying his ammo box.

Bullets continued pinging off of my up-armored humvee. The situation was far more precarious for Blecman’s hobo humvee. Bullets zipped in between Betterley’s legs as he stood on the humvee’s bed firing away. Several penetrated his humvee’s Kevlar mats and armor, missing Marines by inches.

Meanwhile, Reyna’s humvee rapidly approached Taskforce Wolfpack’s traffic control point at the base of the Fallujah peninsula. Spooked, one Marine at the checkpoint asked, “Holy shit! Are you guys OK?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Reyna said, looking at the wild-eyed but unhurt Marines in his humvee. “But it’s still going on back there.”

And it was.

Betterley exchanged fire with insurgents until his humvee caught up with the rest of the convoy. Finally, relative silence. The firing and explosions had muffled my hearing. For several seconds, I could only feel the rattle of the diesel engine and the thumping of my adrenaline-soaked heart.

Lieutenant Valle Portillo called for a status report. No one had been killed or injured. Every vehicle made it. A cheer erupted throughout the convoy. I felt triumphant—I had cheated death. It was the most exhilarating feeling I have ever experienced.

Blecman broke over the radio and exclaimed, “Happy mother-fuckin’ Marine Corps birthday Marines!”

The long road home

Our convoy got stuck on the Fallujah peninsula for two days because insurgent activity made both Route Boston and Route Michigan impassable. We dodged RPGs, captured insurgents, and loaded helicopters in a hot landing zone. Mortars hit close, raining shrapnel on our heads. The security situation for the roads became so dire that Taskforce Wolfpack sent an entire company of Marines—with an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team (EOD)—to reclaim Route Boston from the enemy. It had become a minefield. The EOD team found more than 20 improvised explosive devices along the road. Grunts went house to house, kicking in doors, confiscating weapons and bomb-making materials.

A harrowing night convoy down Route Boston finally got us back to Camp Taqaddum early in the morning on November 13. Sergeant Blecman, Corporal Reyna, and I walked into the base chow hall—a giant, rigid tent longer than a football field—for our first hot breakfast in more than a week. We were wired, adrenaline still percolating though our nervous systems. Dirty stubble covered our chins. Our cammies were stiff with filth. Greasy sweat and grime had saturated the cotton fibers, producing a ripe, overpowering stench. Reyna’s shrapnel burn festered on his neck.

Our eyes darted around the room, sizing up everyone and everything. The Marines and contractors in the chow hall—almost exclusively support personnel who hadn’t been in the battle—stared at us as if we were wild animals. A tidy buffet line, complete with decorative fruit, sat on an island in the middle of the chow hall. The tables were clean. Condiments were neatly arrayed on plastic table cloths pulled tight and squared. Colorful flags from every state decorated the walls. The Marines in line with us smelled like soap. A smiling Indian food service contractor made us custom omelets.

Neal Fryling
A Marine mourns at a makeshift memorial at the Rock ASP.

As we sat down to eat, a jumbo TV blared Fox News throughout the chow hall. I hadn’t heard any news in ten days, and I wanted to find out how the battle was going. An anchor was squawking like a crow about the Lacy Peterson trial. Then an army of pundits weighed in, analyzing every aspect of the celebrity murder case. This went on for 20 minutes.

Frustrated, I got up and changed the channel to CNN. We were then treated to a ten-minute analysis of Brittany Spears’ latest escapade. Finally, a minute-long news brief flashed a few highlights from the battle, recapping it like a sporting event.

As I stared at the TV over my omelet, I had a moment of clarity. I began to fully realize that my countrymen had no ownership of the war my Marines and I were fighting in. They had no skin in the game. The Iraq War was like a meandering reality show that had already jumped the shark 18 months earlier, when President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier.

There had been no mobilization of the national will, no sense of shared sacrifice demanded. There was no tax increase or war bond drives—the money was borrowed, charged to future generations. There was no conscription. The pain and stress of the war had been outsourced to an all-volunteer military and their families—a small segment of the population.

I began to have a creeping feeling that this was all by design and maintained by inertia. If people were insulated from the costs of war, it would be easy for them to be indifferent about it. It’s easy to be indifferent about the deaths of Palmer, Lam, Ries, and Zapp—if you didn’t know them. It’s easy to be indifferent about Smith’s long and painful rehabilitation—if it’s not your leg that’s been shattered. It’s easy to be indifferent about the war’s destruction and waste—if you’re not a witness. It’s easy to be indifferent about the psychological trauma of war—if it’s not you who can’t fall asleep at night.

I began to feel unequally yoked with my own country.

Chris Sheppard
A memorial honors the four fallen Marines: Ries, Palmer, Zapp and Lam.

Weeks passed, and I silently wrestled with an uncomfortable fact—we didn’t control the condition of victory. Militarily, we could only create the conditions where victory was possible. To win the Iraq War, the Iraqis had to accept our vision of what their future should look like. But if they didn’t cooperate, the war would settle into a self-perpetuating stalemate. And because the American people had no vested interest in the war’s outcome, they would eventually grow disillusioned and demand that it end one way or the other. I found the cold logic of this maddening because it opened the possibility that my Marines had fought and died for nothing.

Where would that leave the men and women who fought? The question had no answer, just a bitter aftertaste.

On an amazingly clear night well after the memorial service for our four Marines, I shared my concerns and frustrations with Master Sergeant Formosa. The old Marine smiled. He lit a cigarette as a twin-rotor CH-46 helicopter thundered invisibly in the darkness, then briefly silhouetted itself against a blood red moon. He said gently, “Captain, you’re an idealist.”

He then shared a lesson that he had learned in Vietnam. He said our job as leaders was to teach young Marines the skills they needed to survive the war so they could go home to fight the real war—the War of Life. The War of Life was about falling in love, getting married, having children and raising them well. It was about creating a legacy—physically, mentally and emotionally. Iraq—like Vietnam—was merely a deadly illusion that needed to be navigated through. We as leaders will have done our job if we deliver our Marines—our family—back home to their parents, spouses and children.

And that was all of it. The war beyond Iraq called us. The enemy—our very nature. Our allies—our families, both biological and extended. The outcome—we’ll see.

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The Cronkite Zine showcases the coursework of individual students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University.