View Full Version : Two Ridgefield Marines recall life in Iraq

11-03-06, 06:11 AM
THE WAR: Two Ridgefield Marines recall life in Iraq
Nov 3, 2006

It’s an unforgetable sound.
Five times a day, the first around 5 a.m. as the dawn sun presages the heat of the coming day, the sound echoes across the city from loud speakers dangling from every minaret.
“Allah u akbar! Allah u akbar! Hayya la-s-saleah! Hayya la-s-saleah!”
“God is great! God is great! Hasten now to prayer! Hasten now to prayer!”
It’s the call of the muezzin to all Muslims to pray, which the faithful must do five times a day from dawn until dusk. It also signaled the start of another day for the Marines of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment.
“I will never forget that sound. I think I heard it this morning,” said 20-year-old Jon Olbrych. “I think there were times when they were competing to see who was loudest.”

Patrolling Fallujah

The call of the muezzin is just one memory Mr. Olbrych, along with Lance Corp. Erick Lohse, 19, Lance Corp. Juan Ocampos, 21 and Corp. Anthony Ippoliti, 22, brought back from a seven-month combat tour in Iraq. The four Ridgefield High graduates served in the weapons platoon of Company C, but spent their tour as infantry, patrolling the often dangerous streets of Fallujah.
“We never know what to expect,” said Mr. Lohse. “We were ready to execute any mission. We would stop anything we thought looked suspicious and check it out.”
The Marines’ battalion is a Reserve unit out of Plainville, Conn. The part-time Marines said walking the streets of Fallujah, which is in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, was often as much a test of nerves as it was ability.
“There was definitely an ‘Oh-(crap) factor,” Mr. Lohse said. “Once the first round comes in, it’s a split second when you say ‘Oh (crap).’ Then you’re training takes over and you do what you have to do.”
The Marines spent six days a week on patrol, running raids or simply acting as bait for insurgents. Those patrols, part of “sweep and clear” missions, were often the most harrowing.
“There were some ridiculous situations,” Mr. Olbrych said. “At first we had some tough rules of engagement. The ROE said safety of civilians had to come first and they really made sure we knew about the tough punishments you could get.”
Rules of engagement dictate how much force the Marines could use in any situation. Mr. Olbrych said once higher command relaxed those rules, allowing the Marines to immediately return fire rather than pinpoint its exact location, morale went up as did his unit’s operational capacity.
“We stopped playing their game a little bit, I think,” Mr. Olbrych said. “We weren’t just reacting all the time to where they were.”

Three-block war

The four Ridgefield Marines also quickly learned the latest concept in military thinking: the three-block war. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., said the idea is Marines may face three vastly different situations within any three-block area of a city. The first is a humanitarian disaster, the second is a cheering populace and the third is the worst kind of street fighting. Mr. Olbrych said he and his unit saw each up close.
“We couldn’t go 10 feet without having kids coming around us saying ‘Mister, mister chocolate’ or ‘water’ or ‘money,’” he said. “We could also see parents hitting their kids when they cheered for us or came near us. We knew in those zones we had to be even more alert.”
Then there was the combat. Charlie Company suffered 11 killed in action in its tour, including a young Marine Mr. Lohse calls his “best friend,” Cpl. Kurt Dechen of Springfield, Vt. For Mr. Lohse, having three friends from Ridgefield made his buddy’s death a little easier to take.
“Definitely,” Mr. Lohse said. “I always felt like those guys had my back. I knew I could talk to them whenever I wanted and that was a big help.”
The day the sniper killed Cpl. Dechen, Mr. Lohse said he and the other Marines went through a range of emotions.
“We got the rest of the day off, but the next day we right back out there,” he said. “We didn’t get a lot of time to think about it. I know I was also angry. We weren’t going to let that stop us and we wanted to take it to them the best we can.”
Mr. Olbrych said Cpl. Dechen’s death also brought out anger, but said the Marines tempered it with the belief they would eventually get the sniper.
“It wasn’t that same day, maybe two weeks that we heard our intel(ligence) guys brought in a sniper from a raid,” he said. “They got a tip from the Iraqi police and found all his equipment. It was in the same area where Kurt was shot so we felt pretty happy about that.

Brotherhood of war

The four young Marines also learned something the original members of their unit quickly found out in 1945 when they landed on Iwo Jima: When the bullets fly, there is only one group on whom they could depend.
“Us,” said Mr. Lohse. “We really bonded as Marines. All the Ridgefield guys were in the same platoon and I was in Cpl. Ippoliti’s squad so that was definitely reassuring. We’d share stories and just talk to each other about anything expect where we were. It helped out a lot.”
“There is a Ridgefield mentality,” Mr. Olbrych said. “We would talk about things back home – do you remember this girl or when this happened. It helped out a lot.”
The fact Charlie Company is a Reserve unit in many ways contributed to how close the Marines became. As part-time Marines, the unit members brought civilian skills, ranging from electricians to police officer, with them to Iraq.
“We didn’t have to go outside the unit for a lot of things,” Mr. Olbrych said. “If an air conditioner broke down, we had guys that were electricians who could fix it. The cops in the unit were really big helps in teaching us how to spot things and how to treat people. I think it made us even better than some of the active duty units.”

Welcome home

While they take pride in the job they did in Iraq, the Marines said nothing could top the reception they received on coming home Oct. 25.
“It was just overwhelming,” Mr. Lohse said. “When I was driving through town, I couldn’t believe the effort people put in to making all the signs and the flags. I still like to drive through town to see it all. It’s really incredible.”
The four Marines – and the rest of their unit – are technically on leave until Dec. 1 when their active duty officially ends. Until then, Mr. Lohse and Mr. Olbrych said they plan to take things easy and prepare to return to school in January. Mr. Olbrych is a freshman at Florida Southern University while Mr. Lohse plans to go to school in state to study medicine. Both said returning home in the fall should help lessen another enduring memory.
“The heat,” Mr. Lohse said. “We would see the temperature and it was 130, 140 degrees and all I could think was,‘We have to go out and walk around in this.’ I can’t wait until it snows. I’m going to stand outside in short sleeves.”
Mr. Olbrych said his first thought was how nice it smelled when he got home.
“Fallujah smells – pretty bad,” he said. “There’s trash and open sewers and the smells of the guys that cook food along the roads. Here it smells like New England – the leaves and the grass. In Fallujah, you had to hold your breathe walking in some places.”
Mr. Olbrych, like Mr. Lohse, also said the homecoming the town gave the Marines made him proud of his service.
“It makes me feel ike we did something special, like we accomplished something good,” he said. “No matter what someone’s politics, having that support while we were there and when we came back was really just overwhelming.”