Notes From a War Diary (Fourth in a Series)

TQ AIRBASE, Iraq — Our Fox News team is aboard a U.S. Marine C-130 aircraft, departing Iraq, headed for Kuwait — the eighth time we have left war-torn Mesopotamia this way. It’s exactly 45 months since I first entered Iraq on the night that Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Then, I was aboard a Marine CH-46, and the bird to our left, transporting a squad of Royal Marine Commandos, went down, killing all aboard.

Today’s flight, call sign "Midas 10," is designated as an "Angel Flight." It carries the flag-draped metal coffin containing the body of a young Marine captain killed yesterday by enemy fire. Usually aircraft headed out of country are crammed with dirty, tired, armor-clad warriors celebrating their departure. Today, it’s just the flight crew and us, and all aboard are somber. Everyone is painfully aware that back home, an American family is going to grieve for Christmas.

Outpost Horea: This is, by anyone’s definition, prime real estate in downtown Ramadi, Iraq. The building, a solidly constructed, three-story concrete structure surrounded by a high wall, once served as the city morgue. The heavily sandbagged, camouflage-netted rooftop, one of the tallest in this part of this badly battered city, offers a commanding view and good fields of fire over the entire neighborhood.

The one-time mortuary is now a police station on one of the meanest streets on the planet — manned by Iraqi soldiers, police and U.S. Marines. Mal James, my combat cameraman, and I spent several days here last year covering the Iraqi elections. It wasn’t a peaceful place then, and it isn’t today.

On Friday, shortly after we heard the muezzins calling the faithful to midday prayers, a young Islamic radical, brainwashed by some charismatic leader, drove a dump truck at high speed down the street and tried to smash his way into the courtyard of the police post. When he failed to break through the barricade, the terrorist — or perhaps a "controller" holding a cell-phone — detonated the load of explosives in the back of the truck. Though the explosion created a spectacular fireball, it failed to kill or injure any of the Marines or their Iraqi counterparts. There was nothing left of the perpetrator. We could never determine what family mourned the loss of their son.

Government Center, Ramadi, Iraq: Escorted by a dozen heavily armed Marines and Iraqi policemen, we accompanied local Iraqi contractors to where they were removing rubble from the streets around the government center. When we arrived at the worksite and dismounted from armored Humvees, James immediately set up his camera to document this moment in Ramadi urban renewal. At that point a terrorist sniper decided this was just too tempting a target and "cranked off a round."

Our videotape shows me walking toward the camera and my reaction as the shot passes wide of its mark. By the time the sniper fired a second time, I’m out of the frame and on the ground. Old men can move surprisingly fast when properly motivated.

The moment recalled Sir Winston Churchill’s famous line, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result," but the most impressive response was that of the Marines and Iraqi police accompanying the unarmed contractors. There was no burst of return fire from the Marines, no aimless barrage from the Iraqi cops. Instead, as the camera continued to roll, they hustled the civilians to cover and the Marines can be seen scanning distant windows and rooftops through their ACOG sights. Later, Marine Gunner Bob Tagliabue summed it up best: "We go to the range. The terrorists don’t."

17th Street Police Station: When the call came over the radio, "RPG! Eleven o’clock, Street level!" everyone in the vehicle looked to the left front. An instant later there was a flash as a rocket-propelled grenade was launched — followed by the command, "Engage!" As the projectile detonated in a pile of sand in front of the Humvee, the U.S. Army M-1 tank beside us opened fire — not with the main gun, which would have done enormous damage, but with the coaxial machine gun.

The result: a terrorist who will never again try to kill an American soldier, Marine — or an Iraqi cop. When I asked the young tank commander about the decision to use the lighter weapon on the RPG shooter, the soldier replied, "Yeah, it was the right thing to do. It’s only ‘collateral damage’ when it’s someone else’s house."

Kuwait City International Airport: The sun was setting as six camouflage-clad pallbearers reverently carried the flag-draped coffin down the ramp of the C-130. At the command of the pilot who had flown the Angel Flight, an honor guard of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines drawn up in two ranks on either side of the ramp saluted the fallen Marine captain.

"Where did this detail come from?" I asked Staff Sgt. Kevin Buckley, who had come to pick us up on the tarmac.

"From all over the base, sir," the soldier replied. "We do it for every Angel Flight. The same thing will happen when he arrives in the states, even if it’s Christmas. He’s our brother."

"He’s our brother." What an eloquent statement about those who have fallen in this war. No press, no cameras — just a simple, moving ceremony honoring one of America’s fallen heroes. As Americans celebrate the birth of the Son of God this week, they should pause to thank Him for giving us men and women willing to make such sacrifices. They are America’s greatest Christmas gift.


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