U.S. may have won the battle of Fallujah, but at a great personal cost

Knight Ridder NewspapersNovember 24, 2004 

— FALLUJAH, Iraq—Capt. Sean Sims wondered aloud if the bullets flying by his perch on a rooftop in the rebel-infested Askari district of Fallujah were aimed at him. During the next couple minutes, several ricocheted off the roof near him.

"OK, that's a sniper right there," he said with a small grin as his men grabbed their guns and crouched so only the tops of their heads showed above the roofline.

Just the night before, Monday, Nov. 8, Sims had led his men, Alpha Company of the 1st Infantry Division's Task Force 2-2, deep into the eastern district of the city as part of a U.S. and Iraqi military effort to reclaim the city from insurgents.

Sims picked up the radio and called in an artillery strike to "soften" the sniper positions. His call sign was Terminator Six.

Corp. Travis Barreto, from Brooklyn, moved his rifle slowly, scanning the cluster of houses nearby. "He's somewhere from my 11 o'clock to my 3 o'clock," he muttered.

Spc. Luis Lopez, 21, was too short to rest his M14 sniper rifle on the roof, so he created a step from a metal box containing a child's Snoopy sneaker.

The company radio squawked with sightings of snipers and everyone adjusted their aim: a circle window to the southwest, a rooftop to the southeast, a crevice in the wall to the southwest. With every new location, the men clenched their triggers and shell casings flew up in the air. The sniper rounds stopped. And then, they began again.

"He shot right at me," yelled Barreto, ducking. "He shot right AT me."

Those soldiers who weren't on sniper rotation sat on the roof with their brown Meal Ready to Eat packets, finding the main meal—bean burrito, country captain chicken, beef teriyaki—and dunking it with water in the cooking pouch, which smelled of cardboard and chemicals.

They talked about Steve Faulkenburg, the battalion sergeant major, shot in the head the night before. What the h--- was he doing out there, they asked. Directing traffic, trying to get a truckload of Iraqi National Guardsmen out of the line of fire. The tough 45-year-old was from Huntingburg, a small town in southern Indiana where there are cornfields and a population of about 5,500. There's a Victorian-style downtown district there with brick-lined sidewalks and streets named Chestnut and Washington. Thousands of miles from home, he'd fallen dead, in the dark, on a street with no name.

"Friendlies coming up, friendlies coming up," other soldiers yelled as they climbed the stairs to the roof.

A building a few blocks away quaked with fresh explosions that sent ashes falling like snowflakes. Flames shot into the sky.

The radio squawked: "OK, I've got an injury to sergeant ... and I'm unaware if it is a gunshot wound to the groin or a shrapnel wound to the groin."

Another report came in: A second sergeant had been shot. The soldiers on the rooftop with Sims paused, shook their heads, then turned back to the fight.

When they got bored or scared of being on the rooftop, some of the men—young and with an awkward day's stubble on their upper lips—went outside and around the corner to see the Fat Man. "Hey dude, we're going to see the Fat Man, wanna come?" they said.

Their boots crunched hurriedly across the rubble outside the house and then slid down a muddy hill of trash and feces.

The Fat Man lay in his own blood. He was an Iraqi insurgent who'd hidden in an alley next to a garbage dump waiting for the Army to come by. A couple 25 mm high explosive rounds, shot from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, blew off his left leg, leaving a stump of bone, and, from the looks of it, punched a hole through his midsection. Two or three others died with him. A group of insurgents managed to drag the others away, but the Fat Man was too big. His arms were still splayed back from where his comrades tried to pull him through the narrow alley.

Some of his guts—perhaps an intestinal tract—were splattered on the wall. His eyes were open, peering out from his dirty face and scraggly beard, staring at the heavens. A traditional red-and-white checked Arab keffiyah headdress was wrapped around his waist, and a bag with slots for RPG rounds—all empty—lay on the ground next to him.

The Fat Man was the first dead person that many soldiers had seen. They grew solemn as they leaned over his body and peered into his eyes, but never too close, never close enough to touch his skin or take in too deep a whiff of death.

11.10.04, Wednesday

Joshua Franqui, a big kid with a tooth missing from the bottom of his smile, grew up in Augusta, Ga., and had never been farther than Louisiana before he signed up with the Army.

His uniform was stiff with sweat and dirt, and he'd become quiet over the past few days. No one asked why. Maybe it was all the noise from the gun he manned from his Bradley's gunner seat: the M242 25 mm "Bushmaster," a weapon capable of shooting 200 high explosive rounds a minute.

Maybe it was seeing what his "25 mike-mike" did to human bodies.

A buddy walked up and asked, "Hey, Franqui, how many kills you got?"

Franqui looked down, the smile slipping off his face.

"I don't know, man," he said. "Sometimes they sort of vaporize when we hit `em."

Franqui was standing in the front room of the house where he and his First Platoon mates had been catching off hours of sleep for the past couple days. They'd urinated in the corners and defecated on the floor.

Many of the men wore skull and crossbones patches sewn onto their vests.

But Fallujah was not the place for bravado. It was constant, pounding violence, the sort that left the heat of passing bullets on a young soldier's face, and the crack and boom of rocket-propelled grenades ringing in his head.

On Tuesday, about eight men from the platoon had been trapped on the roof of a schoolhouse, with RPGs thudding into the walls and bullets coming down on them. A Bradley shot smoke rounds, and the soldiers jumped off the roof to escape slaughter.

Soldiers didn't discuss it when sitting around and sharing cigarettes.

Resting against his SAW machine gun—a large gun with a tripod that weighs more than 16 pounds—Spc. Sheldon Howard, 20, listened as his platoon commander gave orders to move out in a few minutes. Dark rings formed below his eyes. Dirt showed in thick bands across his forehead when he took off his helmet.

Howard, who wore glasses and had a round face, grew up near a Navajo reservation outside of Farmington, N.M., and usually didn't speak much.

"I'm tired and I don't want to be here," Howard said. "I don't want to take all of this back with me, but I probably will."

Picking through a box of MREs, Sgt. Scott Bentley, 22, said he didn't mind killing insurgents in Fallujah because it would keep them from coming up to his base north of Baghdad. "I'm tired of my buddies dying," he said.

Bentley, of Philadelphia, allowed that the past few days had been rough.

"Every place we take a roof, the RPGs come flying," he said. At times, he said, he and his men were "just kind of spraying and praying."

The lieutenant walked in and said it was time to go. Howard hefted up his weapon and jogged outside to his Bradley, the one with the number "16" written on an orange tarp hanging off the back of the turret.

The vehicle began taking fire almost immediately. Its 25 mm gun roared.

A group of fighters darted from one house to the next, launching RPGs, which were exploding all around.

Spc. Arthur Wright watched out of the porthole-like windows of the Bradley.

"They killed somebody," he yelled. "There's body parts all over the streets. Yes! Yes!"

The back of the Bradley lurched open, and the men scrambled toward a house where insurgents had fled.

A shotgun blasted the front door, a kick and then another shotgun blast. Smoke filled the house.

"Don't touch anything," said Sgt. Isaac Ward. "They may have deliberately broken contact to lure us in."

M-16 fire rang through the next room. Howard ran that way, only to find soldiers staring at an open back door.

The soldiers went through the door and down an alleyway, scanning the roofline for movement. Gunfire started a couple blocks away.

Ward wiped sweat from his eyes.

"They've got this shit figured out," he said. "They're running around the back of a house as we bust in through the gate."

Outside, the bodies Wright had seen were lying in the street.

One of them had been run over by a Bradley, leaving a mound of meat and bones in the sunlight. A large green bag lay next to the remains.

Howard took out a camera and clicked a few pictures.

Bentley ran over to grab the bag. He gave it a yank, and an arm rose out of the pile, but the strap would not give. With his friends looking on, Bentley pulled harder and harder, and the arm flapped in the air. Another soldier joined in the tug of war, and the arm leapt up, disgorged from its body, and Bentley fell back a little, bag in hand.

"F------ Hajji," he muttered, using grunt slang for Iraqis.

Inside, a stack of $100 and $20 bills was covered with gore. Bentley flipped through quickly and counted about $800 in all.

Back in the Bradley, Wright asked if Bentley would get to keep the money. No, said Sgt. Randy Laird. It was being put in a plastic bag and handed over to an intelligence officer. Laird, a 24-year-old from Lake Charles, La., with dirty blond hair, paused.

Besides, he said, who would want cash with all that blood on it?

Sgt. Dave Bowden laughed.

"It's just a little bit of Hajji blood," he said. "What's the problem?"

11.11.04, Thursday

Despite heavy gunfire outside, Laird popped open the Bradley's rear hatch a few inches for fresh air. Alpha Company was pushing through southern Fallujah, a maze of factories and empty buildings they called Queens. Hardcore insurgents were rallying there, some of them swimming across the Euphrates river to join the fight.

A pack of Marlboro Reds, one of the last good packs of cigarettes left in the platoon, was passed around. There was no moon in the sky, the crescent having disappeared a few nights before.

The battle had pushed 72 hours straight, and the soldiers had gotten, maybe, seven hours sleep.

Wright began to talk about his past in a jumble. He'd joined the Army after the state of New Jersey sentenced him to probation for marijuana possession. His mom was an administrative assistant at a hospital in Harlem.

The Army made him a supply clerk. He hated it—passing out notebooks and pencils while others went out on field exercises. So he'd asked Sims if he could switch with a guy who was leaving the infantry unit. He got his wish. The two were close—when Sims heard Wright wasn't getting care packages, Sims called his own wife, a school teacher, who got a class to adopt him. Wright would walk into the captain's room, sit down and talk about "girls and what I want to do with my life."

Touching his hand to his gaunt face, Wright's voice softened.

"I've gotten so skinny since I've been in Iraq," he said. "I mighta lost 30 pounds."

In the glow of his night-vision goggles, hanging off his helmet, the high cheekbone of his ebony face glistened with sweat.

Throughout the week, most of the soldiers had moments of confession—in the back of a Bradley, lying on the ground just before closing their eyes, taking a break between firefights. Their voices came out of the darkness, tired and usually directed at no one in particular. Some were sweet. The men missed their girlfriends and wives, and they took their pictures out of notebooks to look at them one more time. Some stories were hard. One guy talked about guard duty in Kosovo one day and getting angry about being there, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of nothing. He saw a mentally ill child who always came to the gate, asking for candy. The soldier told him to come over, and then he punched him as hard as he could, over and over, just to see if the kid would come back the next day. When he did, the soldier beat him again, laughing.

After that story, Laird told the soldier he was a coward and an a--.

———

To read more about Capt. Sean Sims, visit http://texasbug.blogspot.com/

There, read Sims's obituary and a tribute to him from his father, a retired army colonel, and view pictures of Sims and his family.

———

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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