August 21, 2006

‘They hit the wrong CAAT team’
Leatherneck earns Silver Star for role in ambush fight

By Gidget Fuentes
Staff writer

OCEANSIDE, Calif. — With sunrise on the horizon, the men of Combined Anti-Armor Team 1 rolled along a Fallujah, Iraq, road in their armored Humvees heavy with machine guns and ammunition, their predawn patrol mission complete.

But insurgents had a different plan and, in an ensuing coordinated ambush, the 18 Marines began a fight for their lives.

When it was over more than two hours later on June 19, 2005, more than 30 insurgent fighters lay dead, another two dozen were wounded or on the run, and neither Cpl. Wyatt Waldron nor his 17 men had suffered a scratch.

“In the end state, we did what a Marine force is designed to do,” said Waldron, a machine gunner who left the Corps earlier this year. On July 27, he received a Silver Star for his combat heroism in Iraq last summer as a member of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.

The 22-year-old Waldron, the former CAAT platoon sergeant with Weapons Company, received the award during a ceremony at Camp Wilson, 3/4’s temporary home base during pre-deployment training.

The Silver Star — the nation’s third-highest honor for combat heroism — joins a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with combat “V” and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals with combat “V” that Waldron earned during his previous two tours in Iraq.

The award came as a surprise to Waldron, who earned two meritorious combat promotions and learned of the Silver Star’s approval only a few weeks before the ceremony.

“It wasn’t an individual thing. It was a whole team effort,” he said.

Waldron, who joined the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department after leaving the Corps in February, brought along his parents and several Vietnam veterans, all friends of the family and combat vets like him.

On instinct

Like all combat awards, it is the story behind the medal that will become the fabric of 3/4’s lore.

Waldron, who grew up in the Palmdale-Lancaster desert suburbs north of Los Angeles, is one of the “9/11 Marines,” the young men and women who enlisted in the Corps after the terrorist attacks. On Sept. 12, he left a football scholarship at San Diego State University and made a recruiter’s day. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder was elated to get his dream: machine gunner. “That’s my thing,” he said.

Inside his Humvee on that June day, Waldron noticed that something wasn’t right.

By 6 a.m. in that part of Fallujah, an agricultural area southwest of the central city, local Iraqis normally would be setting up their farm stands and vehicles would crisscross the road. “Nobody was there,” he recalled.

Then, he spotted something: the first 155mm round of a roadside bomb buried and configured as a “daisy chain.” Their convoy of four Humvees stopped. A nearby bomb exploded, and an AK47 round broke a few seconds of silence. Then, “everything opened up,” he said.

Berms and ditches along a half-mile stretch of the road exploded with muzzle flashes from AK47s and rocket-propelled grenades directed at the Humvees, fired by insurgents sitting on their knees in the deep ruts. Heavy machine guns and rockets shot from the west side of the road in what Waldron quickly calculated was an attempt to push the Marines to the east — just where a van loaded with explosives was waiting for them.

Nearly 20 insurgents fired from rooftops of nearby houses, “so they had us about in a 360-degree” attack, he said.

Waldron quickly took it all in and realized it was just the kind of ambush that he said he’d plan.

So Waldron, manning the .50-caliber machine gun atop his Humvee, split off with another vehicle topped by a TOW and an M240G machine gun, ripping lead on rapid-fire, and made a charge toward the machine-gun nests — it was the insurgents’ strong point, he said — as the other pair of vehicles provided covering fire. On the flank, an MK19 took out the insurgents’ “technicals,” pickup trucks mounted with guns or rockets. The men dismounted and made their way toward the fire to kill and throw the fighters — who may have expected the convoy to race through the “kill zone” — off balance.

It was a ferocious fight. At one point, they were nearly five feet from AK-toting insurgents. “We kept on pushing. It was berm after berm after berm pretty much the whole way,” Waldron said.

On their own

For an hour, Waldron’s men fought a heavy fight. At one point, when the main enemy force was quashed, he sent two vehicles to Camp Mercury a few miles away to get more ammunition. By then, and for another hour or so, “we were chasing little pockets” of resistance, he said.

They countered the ambush without help. Fighting elsewhere had flared up that morning and tied up the rest of the battalion and other units.

There was no quick-reaction force. It was engaged in another fight. No mortars.

His call for support was denied, because no mortar section was ready to fire. No air support or unmanned aerial vehicle. The area’s lone UAV had gone off-station an hour earlier.

So it might have been an odd string of good luck that the insurgents ambushed their convoy.

“There’s so much firepower in a CAAT team,” Waldron noted, adding, “I look back on it now — the amount of training that we had was a big factor. I thank God.”

He credits teamwork, aggressiveness and luck with getting them through the ambush unscathed.

“We definitely broke their plan,” he said. “They had certain axis of advance. I guess they hit the wrong CAAT team, the wrong day.”