Line of the Night - Dennis Miller On Sandy Berger
Voting With Your Wallet

Thundering Third - Marines Fight On Through Tragedy To Victory

This is a must read letter from Iraq.

I have been graced with the privilege to be included in the group that receives emails from the Thundering Third Commander, LtCol Willy Buhl. Over the next few months, we'll have a record from news reports and emails from the Marines about their experiences in Iraq. Previous Thundering Third Posts are here (June 24) and here (July 3).

Unfortunately, the Thundering Third was hit with a staggering loss. Even so, they continue to mount successful mission after successful mission. The Thundering Third Rocks!

It's a long letter. So sit down, grab a cup of coffee and read about what our Marines are doing in Iraq.

Dear Family and Friends of the Thundering Third,

This is my second letter to you in the first month of our deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. I deeply regret to inform you that we have lost four of the Battalion's finest men in a tragic accident on 10 July. SSgt Trevor Spink, our Motor Transport Platoon Chief, Sgt Krisna Nachampassak our Battalion night vision goggle instructor, Cpl Terry Holmes Vehicle Operations NCO, and PFC Chris Reed, a vehicle operator and promising young Marine who checked into the Battalion this year. These men lost their lives in a tragic nighttime accident when their HMMWV drove off the road into a canal near India Company's firm base. Sadly, even the superhuman efforts of the Marines and Sailors of India Company, other members of our Battalion Aid Station, and the 1st Force Service Support Group's Bravo Surgical Company could not save them.

As you can imagine, this loss devastated our 3/1 Family here as well as the families at home in America. On the evening of July 13th we held a very emotional and dignified memorial service for these heroes. The service was attended by all available Marines in the Battalion as well as our Regimental Commander, Col John Toolan, our Regimental Sergeant Major, SgtMajor Eduardo Leardo, and our Regimental Chaplain, CDR Stephen Pike. The large room was packed to capacity and there were a number of poignant scripture readings and many fond recollections by brother Marines about each of our lost men. This service was one of the most beautiful and touching that I have been privileged to be a part of in my lifetime - I know that there wasn't a dry eye in the room that night, especially during 1stSgt Tim Ruff's roll call and taps. All who spoke professed that our Marines' lives were not given in vain. All swore to continue to honor them in our memories and by our deeds, and to continue the mission we started together, for our families back home, and for the Iraqi people here. We will never forget our brothers who gave their lives serving their country in a time of war overseas... we continue to grieve their loss.

As you may recall, my first letter to you was very upbeat as our Battalion experienced early success executing a very effective cordon and search operation with Lima, Kilo, H&S and Wpns/George Companies, that captured a significant terrorist cell operating in our sector and a large number of sophisticated improvised explosive device (IED) materials, special weapons, and a large amount of ordnance that included (51) 107mm rockets otherwise intended for Coalition bases. We've continued to build on this tactical success and have captured a number of bomb makers in the City of Kharma, a smaller satellite city in our zone just east of Fallujah. One of these individuals had a sophisticated factory in his home that included a small electronic repair shop, and an observation post on his roof with a work table and restroom facilities nearby so that he could observe traffic while building bombs. This man also had a large amount of ordnance, weapons and explosives, as well sophisticated devices in his home of a classified nature. Suffice it to say, he was a bad individual who was undoubtedly responsible for many attacks in the past... he is now behind bars.

Mail has started to flow steadily and many of you should be in contact with your loved ones by phone or email. Your Marines and Sailors have been very active in our sector patrolling day and night on foot and in vehicles, standing posts at their firm bases and out on observation posts in the countryside. There are many things happening each day to keep this incredible organization going and keep the enemy on the run. Logistics runs to company firm bases and Baghdad International Airport, liaison duties with headquarters, sick call in the Battalion Aid Station, chow, mail call, armor kit installations on our HMMWVs, repairs of every kind, civil affairs operations to improve the lives of the people in our sector, meetings with local city councils, Sheiks, police, contractors and Iraqi National Guard Soldiers, etc. The days are full and seem to be passing quickly for most. Our Marines and Sailors have worked hard to improve their billeting spaces with respect to security and comfort. Except when on patrol, every Marine has a roof over his head and access to showers and communications back home at least once a week. Some members of the Battalion are living better than others, but all who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 agree that we have it much better than our first visit to Iraq. Sergeant Major Ed Sax and I get around the Battalion every day and visit our Marines across our sector to check on their welfare. Today we walked a 90 minute foot patrol with
the Marines of Capt Tim Jent and 1stSgt Alan Miller's Kilo Company. Temperatures were around 118F and the patrol departed friendly lines at 1215 in the midday heat. I can tell you first hand that our Marines and Sailors are doing a magnificent job performing in conditions like this daily. The Marines were alert, professional, and friendly when engaging the locals, especially children. Still, we are in a dangerous place, and we've had men wounded in action from IEDs and indirect fire attacks which can occur without warning.

After returning from the patrol, we visited our 81mm Mortar Platoon and elements of Kilo Company at "Delta Base", a small fortress reminiscent of a French Foreign Legion movie, that houses Delta Company of the 505th Iraqi National Guard Battalion. Our 81mm Mortar Platoon is also our Battalion's Combined Action Platoon (CAP). The CAP received special language and cultural training for nearly two months in Camp Pendleton before we departed and is principally responsible for training and integration of Iraqi Security Forces here. Our CAP is led by 1stLt Don Toscano and SSgt Nick Fox who, with their Marines and Sailors, have done an incredible job in one month building upon the work started by our brothers in the 1st Bn., 5th Marines. Many of our young Marines have a good basic command of Arabic, interacting with their Iraqi counterparts on a daily basis. The Iraqis have proved to be willing pupils and our Marines are firm but fair with them and lead by example. I still haven't participated in the acclaimed Iraqi Physical Fitness Training or "Iraqi PT" but have observed training at different intervals and have been impressed with their enthusiasm and growing competence. We all realize that competent Iraqi security forces will enable the Coalition to leave Iraq.

The Thundering Third has also found the enemy in a number of small arms fire engagements, and your Marines from Weapons/George Company have prevailed on two occasions two date, killing terrorists who attacked them. In a recent event, one of our patrols was attacked by an IED and small arms fire on one of the major roads near Abu Ghraib Prison. When the patrol halted to establish security, assess the damage, and attempt to find the perpetrator, a vehicle pulled out from a side road and drove at high speed toward one of our dismounted Marines at the rear of the column. The Marine jumped out of the way to avoid the car while his buddies opened fire with their M-16A4 rifles. The nearest heavy machine gun vehicle could not depress his gun low enough to engage the vehicle, so the Gunner drew his 9mm sidearm and engaged. Meanwhile, the two terrorists in the car began firing AK-47s from their windows while driving toward the column. PFC Urias, manning an M2HB .50 Cal Machine gun in the next HMMWV back in the column had held his fire as the enemy vehicle approached because his brother Marines were in the line of fire. Once the vehicle swerved to avoid the small arms fire from his buddies, Urias was able to engage the enemy with a disciplined, and highly accurate 11 round burst of armor piercing incendiary tracer fire which immediately detonated and destroyed the enemy vehicle. His cool actions under fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Thundering Third and his Commanding Officer, Capt Rob Belknap, and I couldn't be more proud of his judgment and marksmanship. I am sure that there are many back home who will share our pride, especially our Weapons and George Company Families.

Many of you may have seen an newspaper article written about our India Company Marines and Sailors by a British Journalist, Matthew McAllester. Mr. McAllester, while very descriptive and at times complimentary about our Marines and Sailors, portrayed a very defeatist and adverse spin on our mission here. What really upset me, however, was the purported negative attitude of our Marines. In his article he suggested that Marines were angry with the President, that we were being attacked simply because we're in Kharma, etc. The journalist oversimplified the challenges here and didn't consider the fact that we are here to stabilize and train the Iraqi Security Forces so that the new Iraqi Government can govern and secure its own country without Coalition Forces. I was particularly disappointed at Mr. McAllester's tactics of leaving India Company and making an unsolicited and inappropriate visit to Cpl Webb at the hospital in Baghdad,
interviewing him while drugged, tired, and wounded in his hospital bed with questions designed to obtain emotional responses. Our mission here in Iraq is complex and difficult. This is a dangerous place and every Marine and Sailor in the Thundering Third knew that before we deployed and is very aware of it every day here in Iraq. Morale is high across our great Battalion and I want the Families to know that morale at India Company may be the highest in the Battalion, as India's Marines and Sailors are doing great things in Kharma. Progress in this type of warfare is very difficult to gauge, but our men are making a difference every day and Capt Brett Clark and his Marines and Sailors have already re-established the Kharma Police Station, which was unoccupied for some months, have enabled the Kharma City Council to reconvene their meetings in Kharma, have helped to create a Kharma Security Council, integrating local tribal and city leaders, the Iraqi National Guard Company Commander of Kharma and the Police Chief, and others committed to restoring peace to this city. As I described above, Kharma is a smaller version of Fallujah. While we've had an uneasy calm of late, we are still finding IEDs in Kharma and have been fired at with RPGs and small arms fire. We also killed a terrorist who fired at us with his AK-47 last night. I wish all of you could walk through India Company's firm base and see and speak with the Marines as SgtMajor Sax and I do. I wish you could visit the various posts India Company Marines man 24 hours a day and see how alert, professional and ready they are. I wish you could observe the India Company Command Post and listen to reports coming in from the field. India Company is doing a magnificent job and is on the point of the spear for the Thundering Third. Mr. McAllester left his thank you card in the form of an adverse article published long after he departed our area... Mr. McAllester is persona non grata - read "not welcome" at the Thundering Third.

I could continue to write for sometime describing the actions of your Marines and Sailors but will finish with a few thoughts that I hope you will appreciate. One is that the equipment we are being provided to fight this war is good and getting better every day. While some supplies are finite, the system is getting us what we need to do the job and I am especially relieved at the effectiveness of our body and vehicle armor. This protective equipment is saving lives every day in Iraq and has worked for our men on a number of occasions already. We have had a number of men wounded here but most of them have been immediately returned to duty, and those that have had to be medevaced are expected to fully recover from their wounds. Again, this is a dangerous place and all of us here fully realize this. We are trained to treat ourselves and each other and we have the best Corpsmen in the 1st Marine Division at our Battalion Aid Station led by LT Matt Shepherd and Chief Frank Dominguez. The Thundering Third is also blessed to have two surgical units nearby, one at each end of our sector. These surgical units are a short helicopter flight from Baghdad. As noted above, we have great facilities nearby...our men are very fortunate. On the subject of our wounded Marines and Sailors, if any of our Bn Families or Friends would like to visit wounded men in the Camp Pendleton area, please contact Gunnery Sergeant (Select) Ray Ortiz, at the 3/1 Rear CP at (760) [Blackfive Edit: If you are near Pendleton and want to visit the wounded, email me]. He can also be reached by email.

Yes, this environment is challenging in every way. There are dangerous people out there trying to do us harm, but there are many more good people who are relieved by our continued presence. These people constantly reassure that they are behind what we are doing. Many of these people have stepped up to assume leadership positions in the new Iraq at great personal risk to themselves and their families. The majority of the people we see and speak to however, just seem to want to get on with their lives and have the fighting stop. We are working hard by our actions and words to convince this apathetic majority that our intentions are honorable and that we are anxious to go home to our families when security is restored and the new government can operate on its own. Every action we take each day is oriented on this goal. We have done tremendous things in the various cities and towns here to improve the lives of the average Iraqi. Water and electricity projects, gas stations, school renovations, city buildings, police stations, fire departments, libraries, handicapped centers, etc. have been built by Iraqi contractors hired by US Marine Corps Civil Affairs personnel. We are also working hard to empower local police forces, the Iraqi National Guard, and the new Iraqi Army. Our Marines and Sailors are training Iraqi security forces every day and seeing steady improvements in their capabilities. We still have a long way to go but have made significant progress since the Thundering Third hit the deck here in Iraq just one month ago.

As time permits, I will write again soon. I hope that this update has provided you with an insight into the Battalion's accomplishments and progress. In addition to your support for your Marines and Sailors over here, I also respectfully ask that you keep the families of our lost and wounded Marines and Sailors in your thoughts and prayers. The 3d Bn, 1st Marines honors the sacrifice of Staff Sergeant Trevor Spink, Sergeant Krisna Nachampassak, Corporal Terry Holmes, and Private First Class Chris Reed who are gone but never forgotten. John 15:13 "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."

God Bless and Semper Fidelis,
LtCol Willy Buhl
CO, 3d Bn., 1st Marines

As you can see, amid the tragic accident and somewhat adverse media, the Thundering Third continues to exemplify the American Warrior Spirit.

Update: For those interested, here is the story by Matthew McAllester that LtCol Buhl is writing about.