View Full Version : One very 'resolute Marine'

09-30-07, 05:23 PM
By Steve Liewer
San Diego Union Tribune (http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20061110/news_lz1n10marine.html)
November 10, 2006

Lance Cpl. Carlos Gomez-Perez dashed up the exposed staircase, dancing past enemy bullets as they pinged off the concrete steps.

His Marine Corps platoon had searched for insurgents in the Jolan neighborhood of Fallujah, Iraq, on April 26, 2004. Not encountering any problems by mid-morning, the unit regrouped in two adjacent houses that were empty.

Minutes later, as many as 150 insurgents opened up on Gomez-Perez and his fellow Marines. They shot grenades onto the roofs and riddled the houses' thin walls with automatic-rifle fire.

“We hadn't found anything, but there we were – taking fire from three sides,” said Gomez-Perez, 24.

The battle lasted three hours and turned into the fiercest fight of his unit's seven-month tour in Fallujah, a volatile city in what was then known as the Sunni triangle.

Gomez-Perez and two other Marines in his squad earned Silver Stars, the military's third-highest award for courage under fire. At least 10 other members of the platoon received Bronze Stars or Navy Commendation medals for valor.

“He was a huge asset,” said Capt. Ben Wagner, 29, of Chula Vista, who commanded Gomez-Perez's unit that day. “He was strong, he was loud, he was smart, and he was mature – exactly what you're looking for in a leader.”

Gomez-Perez lived in Mexico City until he and his family entered the United States illegally when he was 9. The household eventually settled in El Cajon.

He played football and wrestled at Grossmont High School on the weekdays, then joined his dad as a day laborer on the weekends. He graduated a year early, with a 3.5 grade-point average.

After becoming a legal U.S. resident, Gomez-Perez wanted to become a police officer but couldn't afford college. So he signed up for the Marine Corps in early 2001.

“They told me it was the hardest service,” Gomez-Perez said. “I love a challenge.”

He was scheduled to start basic training in San Diego on Oct. 9, 2001. But in late September, his girlfriend learned – much to her surprise – that she was eight months pregnant.

Gomez-Perez decided to enter boot camp. By then, however, he was married with a newborn son, and the nation was at war in Afghanistan.

He wound up with an infantry unit at Camp Pendleton and joined the first wave of Marines invading Iraq in March 2003. His platoon ended its deployment in July.

Nearly a year later, Gomez-Perez returned to Iraq and, he said, sensed an entirely different vibe.

“The first time around, people were giving us thumbs up and saying, 'Go Bush! Go Bush!'” Gomez-Perez said. “The second time around, people were spitting in our faces.”

Assigned to patrol Fallujah, he met the four U.S. contractors who later were killed in an ambush, their bodies burned and mutilated and dragged through the streets.

President Bush ordered an attack on the city to root out insurgents. That's how Gomez-Perez and his platoon landed in the two Jolan houses on April 26, 2004.

In the house where Gomez-Perez was holed up, he heard two explosions from upstairs and some screams from the roof. Four Marines scrambled downstairs, one of them with an arm mangled and bloody.

“It was nothing but shredded meat,” Gomez-Perez said.

He raced up to the roof and hunkered down next to Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin, who was with two machine-gunners. Low concrete walls on the sides of the roof offered them little protection.

Austin stood up to hurl a grenade onto a nearby roof. As the grenade left his hand, a burst of enemy gunfire spun him around. Austin became unconscious and fell, with his upper torso exposed in the open staircase.

By the time Gomez-Perez lifted Austin back to the relative safety of the roof, a bullet had ripped a deep gash in Gomez-Perez's right shoulder and another had nicked his cheek.

Despite the injuries, Gomez-Perez hurled grenades and fired dozens of rounds of ammunition with his M-16 rifle. Then using his good arm, he provided first aid to Austin, who was turning white as blood spurted from his chest. Gomez-Perez performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until two medics could take over.

The medics dragged Austin downstairs, and Gomez-Perez followed to provide security. Gomez-Perez hid his shoulder wound from his commander until the battle died down and the platoon pulled back to a nearby school.

“I (refused) medical attention until I absolutely had to,” Gomez-Perez said.

He got his first surgery that afternoon, then recuperated at military hospitals in Iraq for a month despite doctors' recommendations that he be flown to Germany for further treatment. Gomez-Perez didn't want to leave his buddies, especially after hearing that Austin had died from his injuries. He would have felt “like a traitor,” he said.

Gomez-Perez took months to mend physically after returning to El Cajon. He was medically retired from the Marine Corps last year, though he has recovered the viselike grip of his right arm.
“It's like shaking hands with a stone statue,” said Maj. Douglas Zembiec, a former commander of Echo Company. “He's a very resolute Marine. I joined the Corps to serve with men like him.”

The mental rehabilitation has been tougher for Gomez-Perez. Dreams of shootings and decapitations plague his sleep. Combat trauma, he added, has robbed him of all emotion except anger. His quick temper has made it hard for him to keep a job.

"My wife said if she met me the way I am now, she wouldn't have married me,” Gomez-Perez said.

He has two visible reminders of the Jolan battle: a two-inch gouge created by the bullet that went through his right shoulder and the Silver Star. Even the medal gives him pain, reminding him of Austin.

"I don't know how I should feel,” Gomez-Perez said. “I'm getting the Silver Star because I couldn't bring somebody out alive.”

He shares his story because he fears civilians neither know nor care about the sacrifices of Iraq war veterans.

“I want them to hurt,” Gomez-Perez said. “Not because I want to punish them, but because I want them to experience what we go through.”