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11-30-05, 02:57 PM
A real survivor
The Daily Inter Lake

Whitefish Marine tells story of being wounded in Iraq

Sgt. Caleb Pleasants watched a bullet ricochet off a ledge, then hit a wall and fall to the ground in a desert town near the Syrian border.

He leaned over and picked up the bullet as a souvenir of Operation Steel Curtain.

“I thought that’s the closest a bullet’s ever going to come to me,” Pleasants said Tuesday as he displayed the squashed bullet in a small plastic bag.

The Marine squad leader couldn’t have been more wrong, however.

He was wounded just a few days later, during a fierce firefight with cornered insurgents in the Iraqi town of Ubaydi. Some memories are vivid, some are obscure, but Pleasants tells the story calmly and clearly as he recounts the battle from the home of his parents, Steven and Lori Pleasants, in Whitefish, where he is recuperating.

He chooses his words carefully, never revealing Marine fighting strategy, position or troop strength. Pleasants exhibits a poise and maturity that belies his 22 years, and it is easy to see why the young Marine had earlier earned a place guarding the president at Camp David.

He has seen and accomplished much since graduating from Flathead Christian School in 2001.

Pleasants said he was inspired to join the Marines by his uncle Paul Yuzapavik. He signed up for the delayed entry program when he was a senior in high school and headed off to basic training in February 2002. His marksmanship and other qualities soon got noticed in high places.

“I was selected to go into presidential security,” Pleasants said.

To qualify, he went through a series of interviews, tests and then an eight-month background check for a top security clearance. It led to two years service at Camp David about which he reveals very little.

“I can’t get any information either,” his mother Lori said with laugh.

She showed pictures of her son with President Bush in the Oval Office and with the first lady and the president at Camp David at Christmas time.

Pleasants will say simply that he guarded the president for two years and that he got an up-close look at President Bush as a real person and saw the burden of responsibility he deals with daily.

“He’s a real nice guy,” Pleasants said.

After two years, he rotated out of Camp David to Fleet Marine Force, a combined command of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. In preparation for service with ground troops, he trained for five months at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, then in Australia, the Philippines and Egypt.

Compared to the rigors of Camp David, it was like a vacation.

“I got to relax more,” he said.

Pleasants served in the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“Anywhere in the world at anytime, the Marines have forward-deployed units,” he said.

As a member of the 13th MEU, Pleasants was stationed aboard the USS Cleveland, awaiting orders to one of the world’s hot spots. The call came from the hottest of all, the insurgent-infested area of Iraq in the Al-Anbar province that borders Syria.

Pleasants said once he was in the battle zone, he lost track of time.

“I didn’t even know what day it was half the time,” he said with a laugh. “We were there a couple of months.”

Operation Steel Curtain began on Nov. 5, and according to Pleasants, his training prepared him well for combat. About 2,000 Americans and 1,000 Iraqi soldiers made the sweep through the province, which involved fighting in and out of closely clustered houses with courtyard entries that provided lots of hiding places for the enemy.

Pleasants was part of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, First Marine Division, which was deployed to clear the cities of Husayba and Karabila of insurgents and terrorists. The Marine said civilians were warned to get out of the towns, but many didn’t heed the warning.

“The toughest part was telling the civilians apart from the fighters,” Pleasants said. “But we did a good job.”

During the searches, the Marines left the families in their houses, and the civilians showed no hostility toward the Americans.

Instead, Pleasants said, the civilians considered the insurgents gangsters who bullied and robbed them with no concern for their safety during fighting. The regular citizens welcomed coalition forces ridding their cities of the bad guys they call “Ali Baba.”

“Sometimes we would stay with them (civilians) and they would cook food for us,” Pleasants said.

He recalled a man who had a hole in his water tank. Pleasants came up with a fix, using rubber from an old shoe as a patch and super glue, a commodity unknown to these citizens

“He was real happy,” Pleasants said with a smile. “He cooked us a lamb.”

The Marines encountered sporadic firefights and improvised explosive devices as they pushed through the first two cities.

“I was surprised that I stayed calm,” Pleasants said of his first combat experience.

As a squad leader, Pleasants’ job was to orient and control his men, making sure, “they’re shooting at the right thing.”

In the town of Ubaydi, the battalion encountered a group of insurgents that was cornered, waiting to make a last stand.

The Marines, equipped with night-vision goggles, advanced in the pitch black of night to gain the element of surprise. Pleasants vividly recalled the deadly explosion that lit up the night as one of the Marines stepped on a mine about 50 meters away. The Marines picked up their dead and wounded, then continued their advance in a three-column sweep of the city.

“We pushed through a third of the city,” he said. “It was pretty much a firefight the whole time.”

Pleasant said he and six other Marines had advanced inside a courtyard and were about to enter a house when one or more insurgents began firing through a window.

The first Marine took a direct hit to the chest, three bullets in the leg and one to his thumb. Miraculously, he survived.

“His plate (bullet-proof vest) stopped the bullet completely,” Pleasants said.

The next Marine went down with a bullet in the leg and the foot, and Pleasants got hit next when a bullet penetrated four inches into his right thigh.

After two of his Marines braved the gunfire to secure the wounded back behind the wall, Pleasants waved in a tank to suppress the enemy fire.

“It pretty much obliterated the house,” he said.

Pleasants and the other wounded were rushed away aboard armored Humvees to a less hostile area where helicopters took them to the nearest field hospital.

He eloquently recalls the pain of the bullet tearing into his leg.

“It felt like getting smashed with a baseball bat and it stung you like a bee,” he said.

But the adrenaline of battle kept it from the forefront of his mind until he got his first pain medication at a field hospital. He was later transferred to a larger facility in Baghdad, and from there he flew to Germany for more treatment and medication.

His X-ray revealed the bullet entered and broke into several pieces that lodged in his leg. Pleasants avoided surgery because the medical staff decided that extracting the pieces would cause more damage than leaving them intact.

He left Iraq, landing first at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., where a surprise awaited.

“Somehow, my fiancee found out,” he said. “She surprised me there with her family.”

His fiancee, Karin Davis, works as a nurse in Maryland. The couple plans to be married July 8.

The Marine Corps then flew Pleasants back to Camp Pendleton, where his parents picked him up and brought him back to Whitefish Saturday. As they drove in the driveway, they found hundreds of yellow ribbons tied to trees around their home.

Patients from his father’s chiropractic practice were mostly responsible for the welcome home decorations.

Pleasants now has 45 days of leave and expects to make a full recovery from his wounds.

“It’s getting better every day,” he said.

His mother said that Pleasants would receive a purple heart. But he was more interested in talking about nominating two of his men for awards for valor for retrieving the wounded under fire.

After his leave, Pleasants will return to Camp Pendleton to serve out his four-year hitch that ends in April. Then, he will join his uncle, Paul Yuzapavik, in a security firm, American OPSEC, which provides top-flight security for gated communities.

“We’ve been working on it for most of two years,” he said.

Although he will eventually leave the Marine Corps behind, Pleasants believes completely in the mission in Iraq. He said the Iraqi Army grows by the day in size and professionalism.

“They’re motivated, they have a good cause and they’re patriots for their country,” he said.

Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at cchase@dailyinterlake.com.