BLT's 81's key to defense in Mosul firefight

Squad leader awarded the Purple Heart Medal

Capt James D. Jarvis

26th MEU (SOC) Public Affairs Officer

May 3, 2003

MEDITERRANEAN SEA -- It was shortly after 4:30 a.m., April 21, in the northwest corner of the airfield in Mosul, Iraq when shots rang out just south of their position. The Marines and Sailors of the 81mm Mortar Platoon looked up from their fighting positions in the direction of the small firefight as the Marines to their south returned well-aimed fire upon their attackers.

The rapid collapse of Iraqi military forces in the North required the Marines to overcome personnel shortages not normally encountered in their training.

"Ordinarily 81's would not be manning a sector in the defense," said Capt. Dave Fallon, Weapons Company Commander, Battalion Landing Team 1/8, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). "But when you only have 700 guys to defend a 9,000 ft. runway, you find a way to accomplish the mission," said the Boston native.

First Lieutenant Christopher S. Conner, 81mm Mortar Platoon Commander and native of Gastonia, N.C., was in the fire direction center (FDC) behind his platoon's positions as he heard the shots to the south. Minutes later, his platoon began receiving fire from four sides as the enemy honed in on his Marines.

Conner saw that the enemy had established at least two firing positions to the north and northeast. A M240G machine gun team at observation post 2 (OP 2) was receiving the most fire, so he left the FDC and ran to that position where he found Cpl. Thomas L. VanSickle and Lance Cpl. Daniel J. Fuzell actively engaged with the enemy. All six of his machine gun teams were returning fire until they suddenly stopped, as his Marines no longer had any identifiable targets.

After gathering a quick casualty and ammunition report, Conner ran back to the FDC to inform the battalion of the current situation. While under attack, they received a 'fire mission' for illumination.

Gunnery Sgt. Barry Dennis, the platoon sergeant, and Staff Sgt. John E. Collins, a gun section leader, sprinted to gun positions 2 and 3 to prepare those tubes to fire.

"Then, all hell broke loose!" Conner said. His platoon was blanketed with a sea of red tracer fire as four enemy positions, including a heavy machine gun, opened up with a heavy barrage. Every position was receiving fire, but none more than OP 1 where Lance Cpl. Christopher B. May, 20, a M240G machine gunner from Sidney, Ohio, fiercely returned fire.

"I've often heard it said that once that first round zips by your head, all you want to do is hunker down as every inborn instinct says for you to stay put," Conner said. "But, as I saw the blanket of fire, I knew where I had to be. I saw that Lance Cpl. May's position was under the most fire, so I sprinted the 50-70 meters to encourage him."

As Conner arrived at May's position, May was firing heavily into a building while Dennis and three Marines feverishly attempted to get Gun 2 ready to fire. Just then, Collins lit up the early morning sky with the first illumination round.

Rounds were impacting all around May and he kept on firing until he ran out of ammunition. He then picked up his rifle and kept firing until his assistant gunner, Pfc. Josh Hunter, could reload the machine gun allowing him to continue the suppressive fire, Conner said.

"I began receiving gunfire from the northeast, between my position and OP 2," May said. He engaged the enemy firing from a nearby rooftop and then shifted to another roof where two more attackers were firing. Just then, Conner jumped into his hole to aid in the fight. "That really meant a lot to me," said the former wrestling and basketball star and 2001 Sidney High School graduate.

And then, everything suddenly stopped again. "As soon as the shooting stopped that second time, an icy shiver shot up my spine as I heard someone yell out, 'Corpsman Up!' from my right," Conner said. He jumped up and ran toward the cry and got to the first position where he knew he would find the 1st Squad leader, Sgt. Deryck L. Gallegos.

"Who's hit?" Conner asked Gallegos.

"Me, Sir," replied Gallegos, holding his injured right arm.

Conner jumped into the fighting hole with Gallegos, a powerfully built 23-year-old native of Rupert, Ind. Conner echoed the call for a corpsman as he helped Gallegos remove his flak jacket to reach his pressure bandage stashed inside an inner pocket. Hospitalman Third Class Wade L. Oddy, the platoon corpsman, jumped into the already crowded fighting hole and immediately began assessing the wound. Gallegos' arm was broken and the bullet(s) had entered both his upper and lower arm.

"I asked Sgt. Gallegos if he could walk," Conner said.

"I think so, sir," Gallegos replied.

"Good, because you're too damn big for me to carry you," Conner said, trying to lift the Marine's spirits as he helped him up back to the FDC. Conner called for a priority medical evacuation and then checked on the rest of his platoon, he said.

Elsewhere Sgt. Paul S. Fuller, 22, a squad leader for 3rd Squad, heard Sgt. Gallegos' yell, "Corpsman Up!" from a fighting hole directly in front of him.

A few minutes later, he remembers seeing Conner and Gallegos run past his position with Gallegos holding his right arm. Fuller's instinct to protect his fellow Marine overtook him.

"I grabbed my rifle so that I could run up and get a clear shot at someone, something, anything. At that point, Staff Sgt. Collins told me to get down and I took a knee [still ready to charge]. He placed a hand on my shoulder and pulled me back into the hole and then said while laughing and smiling at me, 'Calm down, relax. Whatcha gonna shoot at?' illustrating the point that I didn't have a clear field of fire," Fuller said.

Seconds after Collins pulled Fuller back into the hole, enemy rounds struck the ground where Fuller intended to run. "He saved my life that morning," said the 1998 Granada High School graduate.

Now safely aboard the USS Iwo Jima, the Marines and Sailors of the 81mm platoon can now pause to reflect upon their experience on that tense morning in Mosul. "It made me feel very proud of all of them," said Dennis. "For their first time in combat, I think that these kids did exactly what we expect of them from firing illumination to laying down suppressive fire to manning their positions on the line," said the St. Louis, Mo. native.

"All I know of heroes is what I have read about in books or seen in the movies, but I had a whole platoon of heroes that night," Conner said.

For Gallegos, April 21 will always be a special day for as he was being wounded in a deadly firefight in Northern Iraq, his wife, Andrea was giving birth to a little boy named Gabriel in a Michigan hospital.

On Friday, May 2, while Gallegos was receiving treatment for his wounds at the Camp Lejeune, N.C., Naval Hospital, Andrea and Gabriel were by his side for a ceremony in which Sgt. Deryck L. Gallegos was presented with the Purple Heart Medal for his unwavering courage and sacrifice.

26MEU Public Affairs Office, 2003