Remembering Fallujah Part 3: Urban combat is hell

Remembering Fallujah Part 3: Urban combat is hell

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SGT Brian R. Peterson from Reno, Nevada, a cavalry scout with the 1st Infantry Divisions 3rd Brigade Reconnaissance Troop takes cover in a house in southern Fallujah after receiving sniper fire while conducting clearing operations Nov. 15. The troop was deployed to Fallujah with Task Force 2nd Battalion 2nd Infantry and Operation Al-Fajr.

BAGRAM, Afghanistan, November 15, 2014 – Chaplain Ric Brown recalls it, the coalition was bracing for an 80 percent casualty rate in the battle.

He was going to have a busy week.

When the two-star commander of the attack described the ground force as “the greatest concentration of combat power on the face of the earth,” it might have seemed that Regimental Combat Teams 1 and 7 would roll through the insurgent stronghold easily.

It was an impressive display of conventional military force, to be sure, but Phantom Fury was notable as an intensely vicious urban battle. Urban combat, according to those who have experienced it, is an exquisitely concentrated expression of all the savagery of war.

It can confuse and exhaust Soldiers. In the first days of the battle, most got little sleep, either from want of a comfortable place to rest or from a enemy that gave them none. Fighting in urban terrain also blurs the lines between civilian and military, something that can cause extreme emotional trauma.

Soldiers happened upon the dead haphazardly. According to one account, 25 bodies were found in a single house. Perhaps seeing the victims of war in what is suppose to be the safest of places—a home—is a mental incongruity for which Soldiers are never adequately prepared.

Most glaringly, though, urban warfare is close, meaning that Soldiers often gaze on the faces of those they kill—the fear, the contortion, the desperation, the hate. It is a throwback to an ancient form of combat.

Staff Sgt. David Bellavia, one of Brown’s Soldiers, could feel, hear, and smell the enemy as he fought for his life in small, dark, rooms. He killed an insurgent on the second night of battle with his bare hands, describing it in gruesome detail:

I’ve got to slow him down or he’ll get the upper hand. I punch him in the face; my fist meets gristle. Then I remember my helmet…. With both hands I invert the helmet and crack his face with it. He shrieks with pain. I bring it up again but he swings his head from side to side and I don’t aim my next blow well. The helmet glances of his shoulder and hits the floor…. He screams on. I hear footsteps on the roof. I do not have long….

For a second I think it’s over. He’s going to surrender. Then a ripping pain sears through my arm. He clamped his teeth on the side of my thumb near the knuckle, and now he tears at it, trying to pull meat from bone….

I cuff him across the face with my torn left hand. He rides the blow and somehow breaks my choke hold on him. I bludgeon his face. He tears at mine. I feel my strength ebbing. I don’t have much more….

It takes monumental effort to unhitch the Gerber from my belt. I pounce on him. My body splays over his and I drive the knife right under his collarbone. My first thrust hits solid meat. The blade sinks into him and he wails with terror and pain…. His eyes swim with hate and terror. They’re wide and dark and rimmed with blood. His face is covered with cuts and gouges. His mouth is curled into a grimace…. (From House to House: An Epic Memoir of War.)

The Coalition had conducted a “whisper campaign” prior to Operation Phantom Fury to encourage residents to leave. By the time it launched the offensive, the population of 280,000 had been reduced to some 30,000. The U.S. military believed 10 percent of the population were insurgents holed up and ready for an onslaught.

As the three Iraqi battalions, one U.K. battalion, six U.S. Marine battalions, and three U.S. Army battalions rumbled through the city, they encountered a determined and resilient enemy. Insurgents had dug trenches, booby trapped houses, emplaced road barriers, and daisy-chained explosives in streets and alleyways.

Fallujah comprised 39,000 buildings and nearly 400,000 rooms, all of which had to be perilously and meticulously cleared.

The battle was an intense exercise in stamina and patience. Fires burned throughout the city. Stray dogs and cats on the verge of starvation before the battle feasted on corpses. All the while rockets and bullets flew toward the coalition Soldiers methodically retaking the city.

For all the horrors of fighting an enemy so ruthless, the American-led coalition had distinct advantages. “Basher” gunships lurked overhead ready to pummel confirmed targets. Unmanned aerial vehicles with night optics denied insurgents any hope of hiding. The best weaponry—Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, javelins and tow missiles—were at the disposal of the task force.

And they were wielded by the best Soldiers who ever went into battle.

By mid-November, most of the heavy resistance had been overcome, though the stability was tenuous for the next six weeks.

And Fallujah exacted a price. Ninety-five Americans gave their lives during Phantom Fury, and 560 were wounded.

Brown was there to minister to them. He also remembers being on litter duty and filing casualty reports to the rear. He said that tending to the wounded was not challenging, because he anticipated it. In a way, it was exactly what he was there to do. He did worry about the Soldiers’ families, but caring for the men who bore the brunt of combat fulfilled him. In an odd way, it was easy.

Except in one case:

There was only one casualty that was brought in that may have had any life in him before he died. That was 1st Lt. Edward Iwan. All others were killed on the battlefield and so were already dead when they were brought to the aid station. Cpt. [Sean] Sims and I went out into the city to help recover the wounded from his unit. It also gave me a few moments in the city with my Soldiers there. I believe it did them good to see me out there.”

Iwan was the executive officer of Alpha Company—Brown’s and Bellavia’s unit. Within 24 hours, their company commander, Sims, would die in the same hellish urban battlefield.

This is the second part in a four-part series commemorating the Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in November, 2004. Read Remembering Fallujah Part 2: A Battle Against Evil.

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