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10-20-06, 05:37 AM #1
Marines face perils in Anbar province
Friday, October 20, 2006
Marines face perils in Anbar province
Unit operating in the heart of the Sunni insurgency hopes to calm things so Iraqis can take over security.
By JAY PRICE
CAMP HABBANIYAH, Iraq – It was 9 a.m. and the start of another day of Lt. Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers' hands-on approach to counterinsurgency.
Most days go well, at least by the perilous standards of Marines operating in al-Anbar province, the heart of Iraq's Sunni Muslim insurgency. This day, however, would not.
By the end of Wednesday, one Marine would lie badly injured from a sniper's bullet and another would be startled from a close call that struck the goggles perched atop his helmet.
Attention has been focused in recent weeks on U.S. patrols in Baghdad, where American and Iraqi soldiers are trying to seize control of neighborhoods from Sunni insurgents and Shiite Muslim militiamen responsible for dozens of deaths daily.
But fighting hasn't slowed in Anbar, where most U.S. casualties in the war have come, and commanders here have acknowledged they don't have enough troops to beat the insurgents with sheer force.
So Desgrosseilliers, the lean, soft-spoken commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, from Camp Lejeune, N.C., is hoping to persuade the enemy to quit.
"I want them to stop fighting," he said. "We fight their strategy, we don't fight them."
That makes it crucial to avoid hurting or killing innocent civilians, and the men in Desgrosseilliers' battalion are counseled not to return fire unless they're certain of their target, no matter how bad the incoming fire.
"It takes a lot of individual courage on the part of these Marines," Desgrosseilliers said. "But if we do that, if we show the locals that we are willing to put ourselves at risk for their security, they will respect us."
Desgrosseilliers' personal detachment of 15 Marines, known as the battalion jump team, began its day with a briefing from its fast-talking platoon commander, Lt. Jon Mueller, 29, of Denver. Then the Marines strapped body armor over their fire-resistant jumpsuits, pulled on their Kevlar helmets and flame-resistant gloves, and climbed into their armored Humvees.
The mission was typical: Drive west from Camp Habbaniyah toward Ramadi, checking in with several of the 15 small outposts where Marines are scattered along a stretch of road between Fallujah and Ramadi.
The Marines' goal is to build a string of outposts all the way to Ramadi so that stretches of road now closed to civilians can reopen, Desgrosseilliers said. Then they'll hand over the area to Iraqi forces.
On the way to the third stop, a burly Marine who was traveling with the jump team but wasn't a member of it reminded a visitor to keep moving when outside the Humvee. The patrol was in an area where a sniper had been active, he said.
Two minutes later, when the patrol stopped so Desgrosseilliers could check in with a team of Marines with tanks, the burly Marine stepped out of his Humvee and walked about 15 yards toward the tanks. The flat snap of a shot rang out from about 150 yards away in the direction of a mosque, houses and shops.
The bullet hit just under the left side of the Marine's jaw and passed through his mouth, knocking out some teeth and exiting through his right cheek. He fell to the pavement, and a pool of blood began spreading around his head.
The shooting continued.
Cpl. Mario Huerta, 22, of Dallas, was standing outside his Humvee when he heard the first shot and looked back. A bullet whirred just above him, then another smacked into the goggles on his Kevlar helmet, rocking his head and denting the goggles but not hurting him.
"Son of a *****!" said the turret gunner in Desgrosseilliers' truck, ducking and peering through the bulletproof glass.
Desgrosseilliers turned when he heard the initial shot, saw that the burly Marine was down and sprinted nearly 100 yards, ignoring the bullets zipping past his head.
Joined by Navy corpsman George Grant, 25, of Brooklyn, N.Y., Desgrosseilliers ordered the Humvees drawn into a circle to block the shots. Then he and Grant ran a breathing tube up the wounded man's nose so he wouldn't drown in his own blood.
The closest field hospital was about four miles back, down a road where improvised bombs are common. Desgrosseilliers' Humvee took the lead, its siren blaring to clear the road.
Another unit began surrounding the area where the shots had come from and going door to door.
Within eight minutes, the jump team slid to a stop in front of the surgical unit at an air base near Camp Habbaniyah. Desgrosseilliers joined several jump-team Marines and orderlies in carrying the wounded man inside on a stretcher.
After a few minutes, Grant came out, blood all over his jumpsuit, and sat on the ground, wordless.
Later, a doctor came out and told Navy corpsman George Grant it looked as if the Marine would live, that he'd been stabilized and would be flown to a larger hospital.
Desgrosseilliers emerged and stood silent as Mueller gathered the members of the jump team in a circle and told them that they'd done a good job and he was glad they were safe.
Earlier in the war, maybe, or under a different commander, the Marines might have returned heavy fire in the general direction of the sniper to make him stop.
This time, they hadn't fired, not even once. No one could see exactly where the shots were coming from, and a stream of bullets into the town could have hit innocent civilians and seriously damaged Desgrosseilliers' plan to calm the area.
Back in camp, he said he was proud of his men for being so disciplined.
"I think the insurgency is trying to get us off our message by getting us to return fire and maybe kill some innocent people," Desgrosseilliers said. "But it's just not going to work."
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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