View Full Version : Trio face enemy fire in battle for Baghdad

11-10-06, 07:35 AM
Trio face enemy fire in battle for Baghdad <br />
Updated 11/9/2006 9:30 PM ET <br />
By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY <br />
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The battle for Baghdad in April 2003 ended with the collapse of the Iraqi government...

11-10-06, 07:42 AM
Battle for Fallujah forged many heroes
Updated 11/9/2006 9:14 PM ET
By Oren Dorell and Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY

The battle for Fallujah was one of the most intense of the Iraq war. In the spring of 2004, U.S. forces lost an attempt to gain control of the city. In the fall they did not.

A year after the Iraq invasion the city of Fallujah had become a safe haven for thousands of insurgents who had escaped capture. In April 2004 U.S. and other coalition forces were ordered in to oust them.

On April 7, Capt. Brent Morel and Sgt. Willie Copeland were with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, leading a convoy to a base southeast of Fallujah when their lead humvee was blasted by an RPG.

Everyone inside was bleeding from shrapnel. Some were hurt bad. One Marine was missing both arms.

Morel pulled his humvee in front of the damaged one to protect it. Insurgents moved on the humvee and hit it with mortars and small arms fire.

"He decided the only way to survive was to assault the insurgents," Morel's mother, Molly, of Martin, Tenn., says. "He led a group of Marines across the berms."

As many as 60 insurgents were blasting at the convoy from well fortified positions. Morel and Copeland left their vehicles and led an assault across open terrain. Morel ran up a 10-foot berm and shot several insurgents at close range. The insurgents he did not get fled.

Copeland then led five Marines out of the heaviest fire, across an open field and a deep, muddy canal. Ten insurgents lay dead and the others had retreated but had not gone.

Morel turned to raise his arm to give a command. A rifle shot hit him in the armpit, where there was no armor.

"It pierced both his lungs," Molly Morel says, relaying what she was told by her son's commanders.

Morel fell. Copeland crouched down to shield him. He gave him some quick medical treatment and took him to safe ground. He tossed hand grenades to cover his fellow Marines while they withdrew. It was too late.

Morel, 27, died on the way to the hospital.

His mother says she was told that "by his action he broke up the momentum of the enemy," and that Marines would use the battle as a lesson plan for teaching maneuvers.

Copeland was promoted to staff seargent and is stationed with Marine special operations in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Morel was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. Copeland received a Navy Cross.

Two and a half weeks after the fight, another fight was brewing in the city.


Master Sgt. Don Hollenbaugh and Staff Sgt. Dan Briggs, a medic, were traveling in Fallujah in April as members of the Army's elite Delta Force, developing new weapons and tactics for troops in action.

On April 26, 2004, as Marines had ringed the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, their group was asked to bring their new munitions to the front.

Hollenbaugh, Briggs, a Delta operator named Sgt. Maj. Larry Boivin and a few others joined a Marine contingent of about 35 men who walked into the city and occupied two houses north and south of an intersection to use as observation posts.

After a few hours of sporadic sniper fire they were suddenly in the middle of a barrage.

The Iraqis "really believed this was the full-on invasion of Fallujah," Hollenbaugh says. "There were supposedly truckloads and busloads of people coming to meet us and here we're just a 35 man outfit."

Marines in the north house got hit. Briggs ran across the street under fire to treat them. He ran into a stairwell to reach more wounded. He help evacuate the injured too, all the while under enemy fire.

"Dan exposed himself I think no less than six times to enemy fire," Hollenbaugh says.

Back in the south house, Hollenbaugh, Boivin and two Marines on the rooftop fought to hold off the attackers. Both Marines were badly injured by grenades. Boivin was bleeding badly from behind the ear. Hollenbaugh evacuated the Marines, treated his buddy, and kept shooting, taking up each of his comrades' positions long enough to fire a few shots and move on. Mostly he was shooting at people he knew were there but that he couldn't see.

"I started putting rounds into the building just to the east of the north house, to the right. Skipping bullets in off the floors and the walls," Hollenbaugh says.

He shot at insurgents creeping up an alley between the houses. He ducked a grenade that landed on the roof. He threw two grenades along his building's eastern wall. And when he noticed a heavy machine gun shooting from a high window in the direction of the Marines' evacuation route, he started shooting at that too.

"I got him to shut up," he said.

After about an hour Hollenbaugh was still shooting, alone. He was down to one magazine of ammunition and a shoulder-fire missle. The heavy machine gun had started back up, firing at the retreating Marines.

Hollenbaugh was still firing when Marine Capt. D.A. Zembeic came up the stairs and said "Hey Don, it's time to go."

Hollenbaugh shot a missle at the big gun and silenced it for good.

It wasn't until they went downstairs that Hollenbaugh realized that the house "had been empty for a while," he says. All the Marines, wounded and healthy, were gone. There was nothing to stop the enemy from walking in and killing Hollenbaugh.

One Marine, Lance Corpl. Aaron Austin, 19, died while laying down covering fire for wounded Marines.

Hollenbaugh's medal citation said his actions "were directly responsible for preventing enemy insurgent forces from overrunning the United States Force ... (and) in turning the tide of the enemy's ground-force assault on a U.S. Marine Corps platoon."

Hollenbaugh and Briggs received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Seven months later the U.S. forces were back.


On Nov. 13, 2004, five days into a major Marine onslaught on the city, Iraqi insurgents developed a plan to lure as many Marines as possible into a house and kill them.

Their target were Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.

Then 1st. Sgt. Brad Kasal, now 40, was leading a column of men when he saw a wounded Marine stumble out of a building. Others were trapped inside, together with insurgents.

Kasal and Sgt. RJ Mitchell, now 26, gathered a few men each and stormed the house. Inside they found a room surrounded by multiple doorways and rooms. Marines and Iraqi fighters were holed in various rooms, firing at each other. Fighters rained rifle fire and grenades from the stairwell and a skylight beyond.

"It was basically a rescue operation that went bad," says Mitchell, a trained medic who was shot through the arm in fighting the day before.

Mitchell and Kasal split up, each entering a different, smaller room and each getting hit by fragments from an enemy grenade as they moved through the house. Mitchell entered a small room where he found a critically wounded Marine and started putting pressure on his femoral artery in his thigh.

Kasal shot it out with a fighter next door, dropping him. Then "All hell broke loose" said Kasal, as rifle fire and grenades rained down the stairwell.

Kasal was shot several times and a grenade blast raked his lower legs with shrapnel. He crawled into the room, pushing the fighter he had shot out of the way.

Behind him was Pfc. Alex Nicoll, who was caught in the hallway firefight. Kasal crawled back into the hallway and dragged Nicoll into the room. He was shot again, for the seventh time, this time in the buttocks.

Both Kasal and Nicoll were bleeding badly from leg wounds. Between them they only had two pressure dressings. Kasal used one dressing to treat Nicoll's leg, which was nearly severed by rifle fire, and was trying to pull the gear off Nicoll's chest when he heard something hit the ground to his right. A grenade.

"I pushed Nicoll over and rolled on top of him and covered him up," Kasal says.

"The grenade went off. It rang my doorbell. The blast hit me in the leg, back of the arms, buttocks. The flack jacket took a lot of the blast."

That's when Mitchell ran in, his weapon shot to bits. He found Kasal still conscious, holding a 9 mm pistol on the door. Kasal told Mitchell to treat Nicoll first.

According to Mitchell's citation, he was treating Nicoll when he saw the insurgent lying in the room move for a weapon on the floor. Mitchell killed him with his combat knife.

For the next 45 minutes Mitchell helped direct his own rescue. Two Marines came in and helped carry Kasal out, still holding the 9 mm to cover them for safety.

"There were a couple of times I thought it looked bleak," Kasal says. "I thought I'd bleed to death, that's why I rolled over Nicoll to save him from that grenade."

A doctor later told Kasal he should have died. He lost about 60% of his blood.

Nicoll lost his leg and now rooms with Mitchell, Mitchell's wife and their child in Yuma, Az.

Kasal and Mitchell each received the Navy Cross.


On Nov. 25, Cpl. Dominic Esquibel, a scout sniper, moved to a position where he could see five wounded Marine comrades laying in a courtyard. They had just been ambushed.

Esquibel used grenades to silence two machine gun nests. When a U.S. tank breached a wall into the courtyard, Esquibel moved in and dragged one wounded Marine to safety, then a second one. He returned a third time to put out a fire burning another Marine who was mortally wounded and carried him out of the courtyard.

Esquibel was awarded a Navy Cross.


During mopping up operations on Dec. 23, a squad of Marines clearing homes door-to-door stumbled onto about 40 insurgents in the second story of a residence. The place exploded in gunfire.

Marines were pinned down on a landing outside the rooms. Iraqi fighters lobbing grenades and using their automatic weapons killed two Marines on the landing outside the rooms.

Two other Marines who were close friends — Sgt. Jeremiah Workman, then a corporal, and Sgt. Jarrett Kraft, both 23 — fought their way up a stairwell to reach their beseiged friends. Both men were blown back down the stairwell by a grenade, their bodies struck by shrapnel. Shaking off the blast effects, Workman and Kraft went back up the stairs, firing until their ammunition ran out.

"All I could see were muzzle flashes from the (insurgents') AK-47s," says Kraft, who is today a Fresno police cadet. "I had blood on me. But I didn't know whose it was."

Reloading back in the street they once again fought their way up the stairwell.

"We kind of looked at each other and knew we were going to get killed," Kraft says.

The two men were finally ordered to leave the building after the two dead Marines inside had been pulled out from a balcony.

U.S. tanks arrived and fired into the building. Air support was called in and the entire city block was leveled.

The bodies of 47 insurgents were found inside the destroyed structure.

Workman and Kraft each received a Navy Cross.