November 7 marks the second anniversary of Operation Phantom Fury, the battle to liberate the Iraqi city of Fallujah. When the history of Operation Iraqi Freedom is written, this effort to liberate the insurgent stronghold and the headquarters of infamous butcher Al Zarqawi, the former head of al Qaeda in Iraq, will probably be seen as the iconic battle of the war.
Fallujah had become a magnet for foreign jihadists and there were several thousand in the city who had come to make martyrs of themselves, to die while killing as many Americans as possible.
The jihadists were fearless, vicious fighters, many of them high on drugs such as cocaine and liquid adrenaline that made them impervious to pain. Most of the civilian population of Fallujah had abandoned the city in advance of the attacks, leaving it to the jihadists.
There were 39,000 buildings and 400,000 rooms in Fallujah, and the grim task of the American Marines and soldiers was to root out and kill the jihadists block by block, house by house, room by room, advancing through streets booby-trapped with mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
The assignment to defeat the jihadists was given to two armored battalions and four infantry battalions of Marines and Army under the command of Maj. Gen. James Mattis, USMC.
The battle plan called for a cordon to be established around the city to prevent the jihadists from escaping. The two armored battalions were then to advance North to South down the city’s two major streets, while the four infantry battalions systematically cleared the buildings, driving the insurgents into a kill zone in the Southern end of the city.
The firestorm ignited by John Kerry’s denigrating remark about our troops in Iraq has had the positive effect of putting the spotlight on those troops. It’s about time. Amid the daily reports of sectarian violence and Iraqi and American casualty counts, the sacrifice and achievements and dedication of our troops has largely been ignored.
The condescending implication of Kerry’s statement—that our troops are poor and uneducated—is solidly refuted by the facts. Studies show that the education level of our military personnel is higher than the average of their civilian peers and the same is true of their financial background. Many enlisted personnel are taking college courses as they serve in uniform and almost all officers have college degrees—many of then have advanced degrees.
But more important is the question of character. Despite the dangerous and alien environment in which our troops operate in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have preformed with great resolve and courage. They are as fine a fighting force as any fielded in the history of our country. Morale remains high as do re-enlistment rates. And they don’t do it for the money. They do it for their country.
One hundred fifty-one U.S. troops were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in the two weeks of almost non-stop fighting to take Fallujah. As was the case in many of the storied battles in American history, courage, self sacrifice and heroism were all commonplace in the Battle of Fallujah. This account tells the stories of only a few of the many heroes of Operation Phantom Fury.
Staff Sgt. James Matteson, U.S. Army
A scout with the 1st Army Division, the famous “Big Red One,” Staff Sgt. James Matteson was in the vanguard of the drive to capture Fallujah.
On Nov. 11, 2004, under the cover of darkness, three of Matteson’s fellow scouts attacked an insurgent-held structure at a site called “Objective Lion.” Upon entering the building, all three scouts were hit by gunfire. Matteson immediately threw a smoke grenade to provide concealment as he directed the evacuation of the scouts for medical treatment.
Matteson then supplied suppression fire allowing his men to launch a counter-attack on the building. The attack collapsed the structure, killing all of the insurgents inside.
The next morning Matteson was riding atop his MRK-19 grenade launcher, leading his task force, when insurgents ambushed the unit. Matteson jumped from his vehicle and again provided suppression fire, allowing the Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Abrams tanks to take positions and engage the enemy.
From his exposed position, Matteson continued firing his machine gun until an insurgent rocket cut him down.
Many of his fellow soldiers who had witnessed the action spoke movingly about Matteson’s courage under fire.
For his valor demonstrated in battle, Matteson was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
In Matteson’s home town of Jamestown, N.Y., his father commissioned a memorial statue honoring the heroism of his son and other fallen heroes in the War on Terror.
Navy Corpsman Joe Dan ‘Doc’ Worley
While riding on patrol with men of the 1st Marine regiment, Navy Corpsman Joe Dan “Doc” Worley heard an explosion nearby. An enemy IED had blown up a Humvee, killing a Marine and his Iraqi interpreter.
Worley immediately grabbed his medical bag and ran in the direction of the explosion. Just then a second IED exploded a few feet away, ripping off the corpsman’s left leg just below the knee.
Although in excruciating pain, Worley applied a tourniquet above the knee and hobbled off to help the injured Marines nearby.
In mind-numbing pain and out in the open, Worley drew enemy fire with five 7.62MM rounds ripping into his right leg. Still, the badly wounded corpsman refused to stop. Reaching the other wounded Marines, Worley gave instructions for treating the wounded until the Marines killed the attacking insurgents and evacuated the wounded, including Worley.
Following 19 months of surgeries and rehabilitation at Bethesda and Walter Reed hospitals in Washington, Worley retired from the Navy. He is a strong supporter of the U.S. effort to liberate Iraq and Afghanistan and is an active member of Vets for Freedom, an organization that supports the U.S. mission in those two countries.
Marine Sgt. Jarrett A. Kraft
Although major combat operations ended in Fallujah on November 13, sporadic fighting continued in and around the city. On Dec. 23, 2004, Marine Sgt. Jarrett A. Kraft was involved in a firefight in which his courageous action gained him the Navy Cross, the military’s second highest award for valor. The Navy Cross citation reads in part:
“As numerically superior insurgent forces attacked Sgt. Kraft and the Marines in Al Fallujah, Iraq, he quickly organized and fearlessly led three assault forces on three separate attacks to repel the insurgents and ensure the successful advance of the battalion. With complete disregard for his own life, he placed himself between intense enemy fire and the men during each attack, providing suppressive fire and leadership to sustain the fight and eliminate the enemy. Although grenades thrown by the insurgents rendered him momentarily unconscious during one assault, this did not dampen his spirit or determination. Undeterred, Sgt. Kraft continued to lead from the front, despite being wounded himself. On two more occasions, he was knocked down stairwells by enemy grenade blasts and finally, while emplacing a sniper in a critical location, Sgt. Kraft was knocked down by the blast from a friendly M1A1 tank main gun. He demonstrated courageous leadership with a complete disregard for his own safety during this despe
rate two-hour battle, as he personally braved multiple enemy small-arms kill zones to render assistance and guidance to his Marines. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire and utmost devotion to duty, Sgt. Kraft reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
Marine Corp. Timothy Connors
Massachusetts native Timothy Connors comes from a family with a long military tradition. Both grandfathers served in the Marine Corps, one in Korea and one in World War II where he saw the flag-raising on Iwo Jima close-up. An uncle served in Vietnam and a cousin is in the reserves. After graduating from high school in 2001, Tim Connors decided to follow suit and he has done his family’s traditions proud.
In November 2004, Connors was serving in Iraq as a squad leader with the 1st Marine Division when the division was ordered to help in the liberation of Fallujah.
For the next two weeks, the 21-year-old Connors was in almost constant combat. He participated in numerous firefights against the insurgents and was involved in 12 house fights to clear entrenched insurgents out of buildings—a record.
In one effort to clear a house, one of Connors’ men, Lance Corp. Travis Desiato, plunged through the door and was instantly killed by a hail of bullets fired by the insurgents inside. The insurgents kept firing at Desiato’s dead body, riddling it with bullet holes.
Fearing a repeat of the battle of Mogadishu when a Somali mob dragged the naked, mutilated body of a dead Marine through the streets, Connors was determined to retrieve the Marine’s body.
Connors slowly edged into the foyer of the house when a burst of AK fire whizzed by his face.
Connors yelled for a SAW, and grabbing the weapon, sprayed the hallway and back room with a hail of bullets. When no returning fire was forthcoming, Connors pulled the pin on a grenade and “milked” it, waiting until the last second to throw it. Looking around the corner as he hurled the grenade, Connors saw a man with a full beard and bushy black hair, his arm cocked back to also throw a grenade. As the two grenades crossed paths, Connors pushed the platoon mate with him, Lance Corp. Matthew Brown, into the room on his left as both grenades went off, filling the room with smoke and dust.
The two Marines stumbled out into the courtyard just as Corp. Camillio Aargon fired at an insurgent crawling on the roof, killing him instantly.
Connors crabbed sideways down an alley next to the house. Reaching a window, he stuck the barrel of his rifle in the window and sprayed the room with a burst of bullets. When insurgents inside answered with a withering volley of AK fire, Connors grabbed a stick of C-4 explosive and hurled it down the hallway of the house and then ran into the courtyard.
Before the C-4 exploded, however, an insurgent stuck his rifle barrel out of a hole in the roof and raked the wall above Connors’ head with rifle fire.
Connors prepped another grenade and threw it into the hole, where it exploded. A human foot wearing a sneaker flew by the Marines. The rest of the Marines had taken positions in a house about 30 feet away, leaving Connors and his buddy Corp. Eubaldo Lovato out in the open where they came under fire from two directions. Scooping up grenades thrown to them by the Marines, they pulled the pins and threw them while running into the house under heavy cover fire.
Later Connors, leading Corporals Lovato, Aragon, Danaghy and Longnecker, re-entered the house where Desiato’s body lay. Initially they could not find it, but at length noticed that it had been pulled into the back of the house as a lure for the Marines.
Then an insurgent firing an AK-47 ran down the corridor and into the back room. Two Marines lobbed grenades into the room and the firing ceased.
Another insurgent started firing Desiato’s captured SAW gun, getting off a 200-round burst at the Marines. Lovato pulled a pin on a grenade and lobbed it in the direction of the jihadists but the grenade bounced off the wall and rolled back, striking Connors on the foot. Connors threw himself into an adjoining room just as the grenade exploded, knocking the wind out of the Marine, temporarily leaving him unable to see or breathe. He revived, however, and, with Marines providing covering fire, he managed to get out of the house.
Connors later called up a tank, which fired rounds into the concrete house, opening a hole through which the Marines could pass.
Moving inside, they saw an insurgent running and Donaghy dropped the man with a round to the head. Another insurgent started to fire and Longnecker put three rounds into his chest.
Connors, Lovato and Aragon then sprayed the nearby room with rifle fire and, hearing nothing, entered the room where they saw the bodies of six dead jihadists, including the older man with the bushy hair and black beard whom Connors had killed with the grenade.
The battle for the house had lasted five hours.
Following the liberation of Fallujah, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi issued a statement mourning the loss of his trusted lieutenant, Omar Hadid, who he said had martyred himself in Fallujah. The description matched that of the man with bushy hair and black heard Connors had killed.
Marine 1st Lt. Elliot Ackerman
As American troops moved South through Fallujah on day four, they approached Highway 10, the thoroughfare that bisects the city.
The unit that was closest to Highway 10 was the 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 8th Marines commanded by 1st Lt. Elliot Ackerman. The young lieutenant was ordered to cross the highway and take up positions inside an abandoned building.
Ackerman selected a building and had the artillery “prep” it. Unfortunately, when the men of 2nd Platoon arrived at the building, they found it partly caved in and unusable. The unit then moved under cover of darkness to a building 300 meters further South, a convenience store that they dubbed “the candy store.”
When dawn arrived, the Marines observed large numbers of insurgents milling around in the streets unaware of the Americans’ presence. At Ackerman’s command, his men opened fire, killing or wounding a large number of jihadists.
As the morning wore on, however, the insurgents rallied, drawing in enemy forces that soon surrounded the candy store. In the hours-long battle that resulted, Ackerman divided his platoon into three squads, one of which engaged the enemy from the upper floor while the other two squads rested. A sniper wounded three of the Marines before being silenced.
At length, Ackerman received orders to abandon the candy store and join up with forces moving South. Unfortunately there was only one entrance to the building on the West side, and insurgents had it well covered. Had the Marines tried to leave through that door, they would have been cut to shreds.
Ackerman came up with a plan. He had explosives packed at the base of the East wall, while the platoon gathered on the West side. The explosives were detonated, creating a hole in the East wall. The Marines quickly abandoned the building and began running down a side street only to encounter a group of jihadists. A fierce firefight ensued with the Marines’ defeating the enemy forces before joining up with the main American assault force.
Marine Pvt. Sean Stokes and
Marine Lance Corp. Heath Kramer
On November 17, the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment was moving systematically through Fallujah, clearing houses. Pvt. Sean Stokes was point man for his platoon, which meant that on this day he was the man to kick in the door and enter the houses first.
“At each house I said a prayer,” he says. “Please God get me out of this one. When I come out of the house, I thank him, light up a cigarette and move on to the next one.”
In one house that Stokes entered first, followed by his squad, to the left of the front door there was a closed metal door.
“I got the chills,” he says. “I said, ‘We’ll open that one last.’”
Then, “the guy behind me started firing at the door next to me. He told me he had seen an AK-47 barrel sticking out of the door about knee-high pointing at my back.”
The insurgent then tossed a grenade into the room and slammed the door.
“We all took some shrapnel,” Stokes says, but nobody was badly injured.”
For Stokes’ squad it was the second time in two days that they had taken shrapnel. They were very lucky.
The Marines then decided to leave the house and call in a tank to demolish it. They began to file out, with Stokes last to leave, when another grenade exploded, knocking Stokes (240 pounds with combat gear) six or seven feet through the air.
Miraculously the young private was not badly hurt.
But he was incredibly dizzy, unable to walk or stand up. Alone in the house and sprawled on the floor, Stokes was nonetheless able to grab his rifle.
As the insurgents emerged one by one from a bedroom firing their weapons, Stokes fired back, cutting down three or four of them.
Soon though, Stokes’ ammunition clip was empty and there was no time to load another one. In desperation, he began to prep a grenade when he heard a tremendous crash and the outside door at his side, which had been padlocked, caved in. Lance Corp. Heath Kramer had gotten a running start, threw his body at the door and tore it off its frame.
A Marine machine gunner rushed in the now-open door to provide suppression fire while Kramer dragged the injured Stokes to safety.
Later, after the house had been completely cleared, the Marines found the bodies of eight Chechnyan jihadists in the ruins. Three days later, Stokes was back with his squad clearing houses. During the battle for Fallujah, Stokes would single handedly kill nine insurgents.
Reflecting on his narrow escapes, Stokes says, “There was something invisible in front of me, protecting me, it was all the people back home praying for me.”
Marine Lance Corp. Christopher Adlesperger
As a high school student, Chris Adlesperger was a popular, soft-spoken, deeply religious kid. Highly competitive and a star athlete, he nevertheless had a gentle nature and wouldn’t go hunting because he hated to wound or kill animals. To the surprise of many friends and family members he joined the Marine Corps, and there he gained widespread admiration as a warrior.
Before the onset of the battle of Fallujah, Adelesperger led his fellow platoon mates in prayer. On November 10, they moved into Fallujah and cleared houses all day without incident.
Late in the day, they reached a structure with a wall around it and an outside stairway leading to the roof. Acting as point man for his four-man squad, Adlesperger tried to knock down a gate. Lance Corp. Erick Hodges, Adlesperger’s close friend, moved ahead and was cut down by a burst of machine gun fire from inside.
Charging the house, Lance Corp. Ryan Sunnerfield was wounded in the leg and Navy Corpsman Alonzo Rogero was hit in the stomach. The insurgents also began throwing grenades. Firing at the machine gun position, Adlesperger ran to the two wounded men and helped them up the outside stair and to the roof. As the insurgents stormed the stairway, Adlesperger killed them, one by one.
From the roof, he could see the jihadists pouring gunfire into Hodges’ dead body, including two shots to the head. One ran from the house to seize Hodges’ weapon and Adlesperger shot him. Meanwhile, the machine gunner inside the house had the gathering Marine assault force pinned down. Unable to get at the jihadists inside, Adlesperger used his grenade launcher to blow holes in the roof and then poured fire on the insurgents below. They returned fire and then ran into the courtyard. Adlesperger killed four of them, each with a single shot to the head.
When the 30-minute firefight was over, he had killed at least 11 jihadists who had manned what later turned out to be an insurgent command-and-control center. Marine Corps commanders theorized that had Adlesperger not put the compound out of action quickly, it could have thrown off the timing of the entire Fallujah assault and resulted in significantly greater American casualties. For his heroism and for rescuing two wounded platoon mates and saving the lives of many Marines pinned down by machine gun fire, Adlesperger was promoted to lance corporal.
One month later, while re-clearing an area of Fallujah, Adlesperger’s unit approached a non-descript building and was met by a hail of gunfire. So many bullets struck Adlesperger’s body armor that he was turned around and a bullet pierced his unprotected side, hitting his heart and killing him instantly.
The hundreds of Marines who knew Adlesperger were devastated by his loss. One of them remarked to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, “He had a touch of greatness.”
Adlesperger has been nominated posthumously for the Medal of Honor.
Staff Sgt. David Bellavia, U.S. Army
One of the most amazing stories of heroism to come out of the battle for Fallujah is that of Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia.
On November 10, Bellavia’s platoon was ordered to clear a block of 12 buildings from which jihadists were firing on American forces.
The first nine buildings were unoccupied, but were found to be filled with enemy rockets, grenade launchers and other kinds of weapons. When Bellavia and four others entered the tenth building, they came under fire from insurgents in the house. Other soldiers came to reinforce the squad and a fierce battle at close quarters ensued. Many American soldiers were injured from the gunfire and flying debris.
At this point, Bellavia, armed with a M249 SAW gun, entered the room where the insurgents were located and sprayed the room with gunfire, forcing the jihadists to take cover and allowing the squad to move out into the street.
Jihadists on the roof began firing at the squad, forcing them to take cover in a nearby building. Bellavia then went back to the street and called in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to shell the houses. After this was done, he decided to re-enter the building to determine whether the enemy fighters were still active.
Seeing a jihadist loading an RPG launcher, Bellavia gunned him down. A second jihadist began firing as the soldier ran toward the kitchen and Bellavia fired back, wounding him in the shoulder. A third jihadist began yelling from the second floor.
Bellavia then entered the uncleared master bedroom and emptied gunfire into all the corners, at which point the wounded insurgent entered the room, yelling and firing his weapon. Bellavia fired back, killing the man.
Bellavia then came under fire from the insurgent upstairs and the staff sergeant returned the fire, killing the man. At that point, a jihadist hiding in a wardrobe in a bedroom jumped out, firing wildly around the room and knocking over the wardrobe. As the man leaped over the bed he tripped and Bellavia shot him several times, wounding but not killing him. Another insurgent was yelling from upstairs, and the wounded jihadist escaped the bedroom and ran upstairs.
Bellavia pursued, but slipped on the blood-soaked stairs. The wounded insurgent fired at him but missed. Bellavia followed the bloody tracks up the stairs to a room to the left. Hearing the wounded insurgent inside, he threw a fragmentary grenade into the room, sending the wounded jihadist onto the roof. The insurgent fired his weapon in all directions until he ran out of ammunition. He then started back into the bedroom, which was rapidly filling with smoke.
Hearing two other insurgents screaming from the third story of the building, Bellavia put a choke hold on the wounded insurgent to keep him from giving away their position.
The wounded jihadist then bit Bellavia on the arm and smacked him in the face with the butt of his AK-47. In the wild scuffle that followed, Bellavia took out his knife and slit the jihadist’s throat.
Two other insurgents who were trying to come to their comrade’s rescue, fired at Bellavia, but he had slipped out of the room, which was now full of smoke and fire.
Without warning, another insurgent dropped from the third story to the second-story roof. Bellavia fired at him, hitting him in the back and the legs and causing him to fall off the roof, dead.
At this point, five members of 3rd Platoon entered the house and took control of the first floor. Before they would finish off the remaining jihadists, however, they were ordered to move out of the area because close air support had been called in by a nearby unit.
Bellavia’s superiors believe his actions during that day of combat saved three platoons from possible destruction. For that action and for his courage in single-handedly clearing a house with at least six jidhadists, Bellavia has been nominated for the Medal of Honor.
Now returned to civilian life, Bellavia is not concerned about recognition for himself. He is passionate, however, about the general lack of recognition paid to the sacrifices of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a director of Vets for Freedom, Bellavia says, “My mission is to identify who in our generation is special and to see that they get the recognition they deserve.” Bellavia adds the he is “nauseated” by the fact that more medals for valor have not been awarded—especially to enlisted men. “By my count,” he says, “there should have been at least 11 Medals of Honor awarded by now. To date there is only one.”
Bellavia faults the Department of Defense hierarchy for this problem and the media for their lack of interest in the heroes of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also faults many members of Congress for their failure to seek out and recognize the returning heroes of their states and districts and says, “We should be celebrating our [heroes’] valor and putting it on a pedestal. These young men are the best of our generation.”