Three years ago today select Marine and Army battalions surrounded and entered the city of Fallujah to sweep out insurgent fighters. Operation Phantom Fury aimed to clear what had been a city of 250,000. The Department of Defense later called Operation Phantom Fury the “heaviest urban combat Marines have been involved in since Hue City in Vietnam in 1968.”
A couple months ago I wrote a story honoring Cpl. Sean Stokes, a Marine who fought in Operation Phantom Fury in 2004 and was killed in Al Anbar Province July 2007. While researching Stokes’ service I really wanted to understand the sacrifice he and his comrades made during that epic battle. But for civilians it’s difficult to even grasp- far less understand as the soldiers do — the taste, the feel, the sounds, the fears and the courage — the experience of combat.
I came across a news story that mentioned a book about Operation Phantom Fury called We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder With the Marines Who Took Fallujah. The book’s author, Patrick O’Donnell, was embedded in Fallujah with Cpl. Stokes and the Marines of Lima Company’s 1st Platoon (part of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment). These men were among the first to fight in Fallujah. O’Donnell’s book tells their story.
Reading the book in just a few days — devouring page after page — I was inspired by the courage and character of the men and women serving our country and shocked by the urban combat details of O’Donnell’s boots on the ground perspective.
O’Donnell told HUMAN EVENTS not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about the time he spent with Lima Company. He calls our troops the next “greatest generation.”
“They are all volunteers, and these guys do extraordinary things and don’t get recognized. From the privates all the way up to the officers — I was really blown away by this generation and I think this is the great untold story of the war… the next greatest generation. No one knows… all this stuff is clouded and shrouded in politics; no one really focuses in on the day to day.”
O’Donnell said that the process of writing We Were One was similar to a giant group therapy session. “We digested every single small unit action in the platoon, ambushes and everything. I had group interviews where we had a little white board and we mapped out where everyone one was… that’s why We Were One is super accurate, because the interviews were done in the battle or literally a day or two after. It has an incredible immediacy.”
Excerpt from We Were One:
“At the same time 2nd Squad was being ambushed, Sergeant Bennie Conner’s 3rd Squad was drawn into an ambush on the opposite side of the buildings. I was accompanying 3rd Squad.
Conner recalled how it happened:
“I went walking up to this southern wall of the house. There were a couple bricks missing that I could get through, so I pushed the wall in and Hanks follows me. At this point, I’m not sure where the rest of the squad was at. The next thing I came up to was a window, and I came face-to-face with a fighter. This son of a bitch looks like Yasser Arafat in his younger days. He had a red towel on his head. He had a dirty, dark-green coat on. I raised my weapon to shoot him through the window, but the ground was at a slope and you know I’m only 5’3”. I didn’t have a good shot. If I pulled the trigger, I would have shot the ceiling. I was going around to the door to get a better shot. I guess this guy heard me. He just spun around and pulled the trigger on his RPK. I dropped to the ground. It felt like someone socked me in the arm, and I spun around. I remember talking to myself and wondering if I was dead. I backed up and looked down at my arm and saw some red — I didn’t realize how bad it was until later.” Conner had at least one bullet in his upper arm and a fragment in his forearm.
“Hanks, watch out! I’m hit, I’m hit!”
Hanks yelled back, “Conner’s hit!”
“The whole time, he is watching my back, so I come around the door and there is nobody in there,” recalled Conner. “I’m so pissed off, I empty a magazine in the room. As I was doing this, I noticed the guy I was fighting had a weapons cache. He had two RPGs, an SKS, and a couple of AKs. It wasn’t enough for an army, but it was enough for one or two men to wreak some havoc.”
Conner called out to Hanks, “I’m hit dude, I got to come by this window, so cover me.”
The mujahedeen that occupied the buildings were in most cases drug-dosed making them resistant to pain and harder to kill. They hid and made arsenals in mosques and schools and disguised themselves as civilians using the U.S. military’s rules of engagement against them. One hundred fifty-one U.S. troops were killed during Operation Phantom Fury and more than 1,000 were injured.
“It changed me for sure,” said O’Donnell “the hardest part was coming home and telling the parents of those who died what happened to their sons. It was confrontational at times — it was really hard. Facing insurgents was actually easier sometimes that sitting down with the people that had just lost their child.”
O’Donnell said that a large core of these men who fought in Fallujah are coming back on November 16 from Iraq, there are six that have died since that battle. They will be honored at camp Pendleton on December 7.
O’Donnell has rededicated We Were One to Stokes who is scheduled to be awarded the Silver Star posthumously on Dec. 7.
Today we should all be proud. Remember those protecting you from all enemies foreign and domestic, remember the inspiring young men who voluntarily put their life on the line for their brothers in arms and country. Operation Phantom Fury was, truly, an iconic battle, symbolic of these sacrifices.