View Full Version : Misfortune for "Lucky" Marines: Tragedies strike Lima Co. in Iraq

08-29-05, 12:50 PM
Misfortune for "Lucky" Marines: Tragedies strike Lima Co. in Iraq
By Michael Martinez
Chicago Tribune

HADITHA DAM, Iraq A couple of Marines sleep with the lights on. One takes sleeping pills. Another Marine takes them, too, along with antidepressants. Survivor guilt and nightmares are common, they say.

A squad leader who lost 10 of his 11 men, split evenly between killed and seriously wounded in action, has rearranged the beds of the fallen to dispel the ghosts.

When Lima Company returned to base camp here at a towering dam near Haditha, the aftermath of the biggest battle in Iraq this year was evident by the voids.

In one barracks, almost half of the 19 bunks belonging to the 1st Platoon were empty four killed in action and five sent home with severe wounds.

Nine Marines died in this month's operation, fighting an unusually direct battle with insurgents, more known for "shoot and scoot." The fighting along the Euphrates River near the town of Qaim, close to the Syrian border, killed 125 insurgents.

The casualties and the number of U.S. troops deployed about 1,000 made it the biggest battle since a U.S.-led force retook the city of Fallujah in November.

In this month's battle, Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Marines bore the brunt of the U.S. deaths, with eight of the nine killed.

Such misfortune wasn't supposed to happen to "Lucky" Lima, so dubbed because the 200-reservist company had seen few injuries and no deaths in earlier missions ousting insurgents from river towns in Iraq's Wild West, the far western Anbar province.

The 1,000-man battalion that includes Lima Company was the last Marine reservist battalion to be activated after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The troops say the Iraq experience has changed the way they see the world and their place in it. It also has altered their outlook on such U.S. traditions as the approaching Memorial Day holiday.

Pvt. Joe Martin, 21, of Columbus, Ohio, a machine gunner in Lima Company's 1st Platoon, said his grandfather fought in the Korean War, and Memorial Day is important to his grandparents.

"I looked at senior citizens I don't want to stereotype as celebrating it, but now the younger generation takes it just as seriously," he said. On Saturday, the battalion held a memorial service for the eight killed near Qaim, as well as four more Marines killed in an ambush in and around Haditha Hospital and another killed in a mine explosion, all this month.

How the Iraq war will alter the character of today's younger generation has yet to be realized, but the process is as inevitable as the way World War II, Korea and Vietnam shaped their parents and grandparents, officers say.

"Who knows in what way, but I bet you our Middle Eastern policy is going to be more on target, a little more thoughtful," said Capt. John Kasparian, 38, the battalion adjutant. "I don't think anything but war can give you an understanding of how men really are all the good things and all the bad things."

"I used to say we were borrowing our uniforms, living off the history of the uniform," said Maj. Steve White, 34, operations officer. "I think we're earning it. We talk about Iwo Jima, Khe Sahn, Guadalcanal, Tarawa. Now they're talking about the 3/25 and Haqlaniyah, Haditha, Al Qaim," referring to fights in Iraqi towns along the Euphrates.

Sgt. Samuel E. Balla, 29, squad leader in the 1st Platoon of Lima Company, lost 10 of his 11 men during the operation.

Packing the belongings of the five killed and the five wounded Marines took a full day and was done by several Marines, he said. The painstaking chore had moments of levity when one member recalled a funny line or quirky trait of a fallen Marine, Balla said.

He fought back tears as he recalled how one who was killed, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Erdy, 21, seemed a kindred spirit because they shared similar experiences, such as high-school football.

As with others, his storytelling yielded a moment of regret.

During this month's offensive, Balla was the last one to enter an amphibious-assault vehicle, called an "Amtrac," before its boarding ramp was raised. He wanted to make sure he was the one manning the emergency release, but when the Amtrac ran over a bomb or mine, he was temporarily blinded by the blast and unable to do so.

He and another Marine escaped through a smaller hatch. Of the 17 Marines inside the vehicle, six were killed and eight were wounded severely enough to be sent home. Only Balla and two others have returned to duty.

"I don't feel guilty to the point of remorse, but I just wish I would have gotten the thing down," Balla said. "It would have made things a lot easier.

"It was an awakening. It was the first for us," he added.

In the barracks, the furniture was rearranged so that every time a Marine walked past the bunks it wouldn't evoke memories of those killed or wounded. But before that, and before the Marines' possessions were collected, there remained signs of how quickly they had left for their mission.

Some writings of Cpl. Dustin Derga, 24, killed in Obeidi fighting insurgents, lay on his bed next to his shaving kit. His last entry was dated May 3: "When we woke up, we found out we leave tonight for two weeks at the Syrian border. We are supposed to leave at 2100 tonight and go to Al Qaim."

His last sentence began with the word "Around," as if to describe the hour of a turn of events, but it was never finished.