B-Day, err, Baby D-Day
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Showdown Part 8 - Uncommon Valor as a Common Virtue

    "Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue" - Admiral Nimitz, March 16, 1945, referring to the Marines victory on Iwo Jima.
    "Everyone said Doc Duty was faster than bullets that day" - Marine Lance Corporal John Flores, July 31, 2004, referring to the heroics of the Corpsman for Echo 2/1
NELVIN CEPEDA / Union-Tribune
    After braving enemy fire four times to evacuate wounded Marines, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason "Doc" Duty received a medal nomination that reads, "As bullets impacted within inches of his head, Duty remained resolute in his mission."

Below is an article about the Marines and Sailors (Corpsmen) in Fallujah. If you read one article today, let it be this one. These men are incredible heroes and deserve more recognition than we can every give. (Note: The boldface type is my emphasis).

Valor defined
Marines confront, overcome the crucible of Fallujah
By Rick Rogers - STAFF WRITER (July 31, 2004)

FALLUJAH, Iraq – The citations for valor read like scenes from a movie, and it's only through cinematic comparisons that Cpl. Howard Lee Hampton Jr. can describe the combat his Camp Pendleton unit saw here in April.

"It was beyond anything in 'Black Hawk Down,' " said Hampton, 21, referring to the movie about the actual downing of two U.S. helicopters in 1993 Somalia and the harrowing rescue operation in which the lives of 18 American soldiers were lost.

"I remember going into the city in the (amphibious assault vehicle) and hearing the bullets hit off the sides.

"When the door opened, I thought about the scene in "Saving Private Ryan" when they were coming up to the beach and that guy got hit right in the head before he ever got to the beach," Hampton said, this time conjuring up the movie account of D-Day during World War II.

"Once we got in the city, we had hundreds and hundreds of people trying to kill us," said the native of El Paso, Tex., recalling how the cascade of enemy shell casings from windows above the Marines sounded like a never-ending slot machine payout.

"We survived in Fallujah because everyone put the Marine next to him ahead of themselves," said Hampton, an infantryman with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. "Everyone did so much more than they had to."

More than 50 Marines from Echo Company have been recognized for valor between March 18 and April 26, when they went into Fallujah to root out insurgents after four civilian contract workers were murdered and two of the bodies hanged from a bridge.

The battalion's Fox Company has recommended about 20 Marines for medals.

"My boys are superheroes," said Capt. D.A. Zembiec, the Echo company commander who climbed atop a tank while under fire to guide it to where his men were pinned down. "I got guys with two Purple Hearts still out here working."

Echo Company's role in the battle for Fallujah began April 6, when two platoons – about 80 men – were ordered into the northwest section of the city, launching a month of street-by-street fighting that would claim the lives of several hundred insurgents and an estimated 600 civilians.

As word of the violence spread, the media gathered for a closer look.

"One reporter said, 'It can't be that bad,' " recalled 1st Sgt. William Skiles, Echo Company's top enlisted man.

"Well," Skiles recalled, "the Armored Assault Vehicle had just stopped to let the media off when the first (assault rifle) rounds flew overhead. Then came the (rocket propelled grenades). There weren't a whole lot of stories filed that day because the reporters were face down in the dirt."

During the encounter, journalists often asked Skiles, 43, of San Juan Capistrano, for information for their reports about the fighting, but he thought they were missing something.

"I kept thinking: What about valor? Why weren't any of the reporters interested in the valor of our Marines?

"All anyone wants to write about is our dead and wounded," he said, thumbing through military papers that included nominations for Silver and Bronze stars.

Although only a few of the medal nominations have been approved so far, The San Diego Union-Tribune was allowed to review the submissions on condition that no detailed information be revealed.

All of the top medal nominations arose from a single day's action April 26.

It was also Echo Company's last day of heavy fighting in Fallujah before the Marines pulled out under a cease-fire that has created the current stalemate: Insurgents control the city, the Marines control the surrounding countryside.

The day started routinely when Marines searched a mosque that gunmen had been using to direct fire on the Americans.

Finding only shell-casings below the minaret windows overlooking their position, the Marines left the mosque and moved deeper into the city and occupied a few houses.

All was quiet until about 11 a.m., when insurgents killed one Marine and wounded 10 othersin a coordinated attack that lasted three hours.

"The minaret that we had just cleared suddenly came alive with sniper fire," Skiles said. At the same time, the Marines in the houses were hit by grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire from the roofs of adjoining houses.

Within minutes, 100 to 150 heavily armed insurgents attacked in waves. At times, the Marines and the enemy were only 25 yards apart.

The hardest hit Marines were on a rooftop where they were swarmed from three directions by insurgents throwing scores of grenades and firing at least 30 RPGs within the first 15 minutes of fighting. Thousands of bullets peppered the area.

Nine of the Marines were wounded almost immediately.

Aaron C. Austin and Carlos Gomez-Perez, both lance corporals, were on that rooftop and have been nominated for high honors, Austin posthumously.

After the initial barrage, Austin, a machine gunner, evacuated the wounded and then rallied the Marines to counter-attack.

"We've got to get back on the roof and get on that gun," Austin, from Sunray, Tex., is reported to have said, referring to a Marine machine gun.

The Marines returned fire, but as Austin started to throw a grenade, he was hit several times in the chest by machine gun fire.

Although mortally wounded, Austin threw his grenade, which hit the enemy and halted their attack.

A memorial to him – a cement bench – sits outside the Echo Company barracks at Camp Baharia. Austin was 21.

Gomez-Perez was hit in the cheek and shoulder by machine gun fire while dragging a wounded comrade to safety.

"Ignoring his serious injuries . . . Gomez-Perez, in direct exposure to enemy fire, continued to throw grenades and fire four magazines from his M-16 rifle. Still under fire and with his injured arm, he and another Marine gave CPR (to Austin) and continued to fire on the enemy,"read his medal nomination.

Gomez-Perez is recuperating stateside. His age and hometown weren't immediately available.

Marines at another house were also under heavy attack, and four were wounded.

Lance Cpl. John Flores, 21, from Temple City, held a key position outside the house protecting the left flank.

"Around 11 a.m., I heard explosions and I remember a Marine scream," he recalled. "It was a scream I'll never forget, and I hope I never hear again. I had heard the scream before. It was the scream that someone was messed up. It scared me."

Flores said he traded fire with insurgents 20 yards away. When a Humvee arrived to get the wounded, Flores laid down hundreds of rounds of protective fire during a deafening exchange.

"As one of the corpsman ran to the house, bullets hit right behind him against a wall. Everyone said Doc Duty was faster than bullets that day," said Flores, who was twice wounded by shrapnel during the action.

"Doc" is Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Duty, a 20-year-old Navy corpsman from New Concord, Ohio.

"Despite extreme personal danger from small arms fire and exploding ordnance, Flores remained in his tenuous position, delivering devastating fire on enemy forces as they attempted to reinforce their attack," his nomination stated.

When the Marines pulled back to a safer position later that day, Flores could have left the city to get medical treatment, but he didn't have the heart to leave his fellow Marines.

He doesn't like to think about Fallujah, though he is proud of what Echo Company did there.

"I think I did real good that day, but a lot of people did real good. I was scared, but I just did it," Flores said. "I think about what happened in the city and the people wounded and killed. We think about them a lot. No one from this company will ever forget what we did out here."

Lance Cpl. Craig Bell got mad when he was nearly killed by an enemy grenade. And then he got even.

"You know when they say that things slow down?" asked Bell, 20, from Del City, Okla. "That's what happened when I saw the grenade.

"It was a pineapple grenade with a cherry-red tip," Bell said. "I didn't think they even made grenades like that anymore. It was like something from a World War II movie."

Bell ducked behind a pigeon coop for cover.

He "heard explosions and shooting in real time" while he seemed to drift into space. "I watched the grenade for what seemed like forever until it went off . . . but I talked to Marines later and they said it all happened in a split second."

The blast wounded Bell in the right side and jump-started the clock.

"I thought, 'That's it!" said Bell, a grenadier. "I thought about my wife and daughter and not doing anything stupid. But I was just so angry that he had thrown a grenade at me that I didn't care. I was going to take someone out."

He grabbed ammunition for his grenade launcher and started blowing up rooms from which insurgents were firing, estimating he launched 100 rounds in about an hour.

Despite his wounds, Bell "expertly placed high-explosive around through the windows of adjacent buildings," reads his medal recommendation. "Without his brave actions, 2nd platoon would have been hard-pressed to hold their position and evacuate wounded Marines."

"I was proud to be a part of something so brave and so strong," Bell said. "I know what I did. I saved someone's life, and I know that what other people did saved me."

Not all of the heroics focused on the enemy.

The corpsman, Duty, and Sgt. Skiles were recognized for evacuating wounded Marines while exposed to unrelenting fire.

Duty braved enemy fire four times to load Marines into a Humvee driven by Skiles, who coordinated the rescue.

"I do remember thinking I was in trouble about the third trip because that's when the volume of fire increased a lot," Duty said.

"When we were loading the last guy, they chucked a hand grenade at our Humvee and it hit the hood. It rolled off and didn't explode. I think they were trying to throw it in the back where the wounded were being loaded."

Duty's medal nomination reads: "As bullets impacted within inches of his head, Duty remained resolute in his mission."

Skiles was lauded for evacuating the Marines and for his leadership in combat.

Part of his lengthy medal nomination states:

"Without his courage, his company would not have been able to evacuate his wounded in the expeditious manner – and more Marines would have been exposed to danger longer.

"Skiles' combat leadership is the metal weld that holds his company together during times of adversity."

It will be weeks, perhaps months, before the Marine Corps approves any decorations, especially the higher ones. By then, the Echo Company Marines probably will be back at Camp Pendleton.

And Hampton will be left with only his memories of what Echo Company did because as he'll tell you:

"They honestly cannot make a movie about what we went through. Every Marine did so much more than what they had to do, from the littlest private first class to the commanding officer. Everyone did so much more."

Showdown (Marines in Fallujah) Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven