FALLUJAH, Iraq—11.8.04, Monday.
Capt. Sean Sims watched artillery shells fall and explode in a blast of sand and rubble, close enough to hear but too far to see what they hit. It was Sims' first daylight look at the rebel-held city of Fallujah on Monday afternoon, just hours before he would lead his men deep into its heart.
A Marine Harrier jet screamed overhead. A Mark-19 automatic grenade launcher nearby let loose—bomb-boom-boom—sending grenades to burst in the distance.
As commander of Alpha Company, of the 1st Infantry Division's Task Force 2-2, Sims drew a mission the U.S. military had sought to avoid since the start of the Iraq war: house-to-house fighting in an urban landscape that gave rebels many places to hide, significantly offsetting the superior firepower of U.S. troops while risking civilian casualties and vast property destruction. It would be the most intense urban combat for U.S. troops since the 1968 battle for Hue, in Vietnam.
Sims' men would win the battle, yet no one would feel like celebrating. Killing the enemy, they learned, was sobering. More so was the loss of friends.
Sims would not come back.
Before his men left the Forward Operating Base near Fallujah that morning, battalion commander, Lt. Col. Pete Newell, gathered them in a circle. "This is as pure a fight of good versus evil as we will probably face in our lifetime," he said.
Alpha Company was heading to the city's eastern corridor, the Askari neighborhood, from where they would turn south into industrial districts and finally hook back to the west, running for six bleary days with almost no sleep.
Although most of the city's 300,000 residents had fled, intelligence briefings suggested the Askari neighborhood—home to many former officers in Saddam Hussein's army—had been turned into one big bunker, with car bombs, booby traps and snipers' nests.
None of the young American men had ever set foot in the town, shared a cup of tea with a resident or seen the ornate blue domes that topped the mosques.
After Sims took in the view, soldiers of Alpha Company scrambled to a road overlooking Fallujah. Then sniper fire began and the battle was joined. Some soldiers emptied their M-16 clips, some yelling, others laughing as return sniper fire pinged off the Bradleys and pavement around them.
"Lord, I have to say a special prayer now," the 32-year-old Sims said in the soft-spoken accent of his hometown of Eddy, Texas.
He hustled up a berm to the road to link up with the Task Force 2-2 reconnaissance team.
Crouched down on his right knee, Sims watched the insurgents' mortar rounds land, and a minute or two later he heard the retort of U.S. artillery. A few hundred yards away, the outskirts of Fallujah rose out of the desert in a warren of sand-colored houses.
Satellite images after recent airstrikes showed dozens of ensuing explosions that probably resulted from roadside bombs.
"Everybody realizes that it's something that will affect the rest of our lives, in terms of seeing that type of combat," Sims had said a few days earlier. "When the first bullet impacts, you know the eyes of the world are going to be on you."
Near Sims, a sniper lay on his belly with a rifle scope pressed against his eyes. A five-man insurgent team was scampering in and out of the buildings of Askari. One rebel appeared to be carrying mortars.
More bullets flew by, and the mortar rounds grew closer. Capt. Kirk Mayfield, of the recon team, yelled, "Everyone behind the truck."
Standing next to his Humvee, Mayfield screamed for U.S. mortar strikes on the five-man team. After the ensuing rumble, a voice called over the radio: "Can I get a battle damage assessment?"
"An assessment?" the reply came. "There is no more building."
Sims laughed to himself.
Sniper shots zipped by, pinging off the Humvee.
"Where is that sniper? Here it is," Mayfield barked, turning to a gunner behind an automatic grenade launcher. "Blow him away."
The red-hot streak of another bullet whizzed past. The gunner shot round after round, with explosions echoing across the town, then pulled a pair of binoculars to his face and announced, "He is not there anymore."
Sims called over to his men, "Let's go," and they went scrambling back down the dirt berm.
At about 7 p.m., he lined up his vehicle behind his First and Third platoons as they braced for the fight.
Sitting in the back of Sims' Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Corp. Travis Barreto, from Brooklyn, leaned over and tried to get a glimpse through one of the small rectangle windows at the back of the truck.
A truck pulled up carrying a rocket with about 350 feet of cord attached to it and 5-pound blocks of C4 plastic explosives spaced out every foot down the line. With a small whoosh, the rocket flew forward and a wall of flame shot up. Roadside bombs planted by rebels exploded, one after the other.
"You know we're going to destroy this town," said Barreto, 22.
"I hope so," replied the soldier sitting next to him.
Phosphorous shells came next, releasing bouncing white orbs of smoke. The gunner on top of the Bradley began firing 25 mm high explosive rounds, filling the cabin of the Bradley with an ammonia-like smell. Barreto looked outside the window again and could see only smoke and flashes of light.
The U.S. artillery shells were coming in "Danger Close"—the thin line between uncomfortably near and death.
Insurgent AK-47 fire rang off the sides of the Bradley. Explosions sounded to the rear, but it was impossible to tell which belonged to roadside bombs and which were rocket-propelled grenades.
As the hours passed, soldiers tried to grab a few minutes of sleep, slumping their heads on the next shoulder. Each time they began to drift off another explosion would jolt them awake.
Large concrete barriers and parked cars blocked the road in some places. The big M1A1 Abrams tanks lined up and pounded the obstacles with 120 mm shells, shaking the air.
Sims followed his platoons, which moved a few blocks at a time, one in front of the other, before stopping. The rear hatch of the Bradley lowered amid yells of "Dismount! Dismount!" The soldiers, having ridden in a tight, sweaty box through the battle—their knees cramped and aching—ran out, then slammed to their knees and took cover beside a wall. Then came "Go! Go! Go!" and the men busted through the front door of a house and, waving their rifles, cleared rooms before storming upstairs.
Sims parked his vehicle with two others in a blocking position on the road outside before following to the rooftop, where his soldiers set up a lookout.
With bullets whizzing, Sims and his men crouched down with the third platoon and assessed the battle. Barreto, acting as a guard, crouched next to Sims with a dazed look on his face.
"It's weird how we can be looking at the rooftops and there's no one," he said, "and all of a sudden they're shooting at us." An AC-130 airplane flew overhead, shooting its cannons in a low roar.
The third platoon reported that the house next door had a jumble of wires leading to a propane tank. Fearing a booby trap, Sims got on the radio and called for a tank to level the building. The call came back: The road was too narrow. Well, Sims said, blow a hole through a wall and drive through it.
"It's difficult terrain," Sims yelled over the noise around him. "We're having to move deliberately through the rubble."
He took another look around the rooftop, then scurried back downstairs and into his Bradley.
Mortar rounds began to fall, at first far away, then closer and closer as unseen insurgents walked their mortar fire forward a few feet at a time. Sims' Bradley was stuck between two other vehicles, but to veer off the road would risk hitting a mine or bomb. Another mortar fell, and its shrapnel tattooed the side of the Bradley and rattled those sitting inside. "Kill those b-------, kill those mother-------," someone screamed in the darkness.
No one said another word.
Thirteen hours after the push began, Sims and his men looked gray and worn. Dirt was beginning to cover their faces and uniforms. Their ears ached. After two hours of sleep on a concrete floor of an abandoned house, their eyes were dulled.
"At first, last night, when we came in and heard all the AK-47 fire we freaked out," said Sgt. Brandon Bailey, 21, of Big Bear, Calif. "But now as long as it's not coming right at us, we're fine."
Later, Bailey said it felt like the enemy was coming from every direction.
"So we just went ape shit with the cannon, shooting everything," he said.
How many people did they kill? Bailey shrugged his shoulders.
Sims' temporary headquarters was a mostly empty house. It stood on the north side of Fallujah's main road which, like all east-west roads there, was given a woman's name by military planners: Fran. On the other side stood the beginnings of the city's industrial district, where more insurgents lay in wait.
Tanks were parked up and down Fran, and ordnance disposal teams were already identifying the homemade bombs—Improvised Explosive Devices, in military lingo—that lined the road. They were densely packed, but with no one to detonate them, the bombs sat idle as Army trucks rolled by.
Inside the house, the family that fled left handwritten verses of the Quran on the doorways, a tradition intended to keep homes safe. Baby formula was scattered around and a kerosene heater was stored in a utility closet. A painting of Mecca, Islam's holiest city, hung on the wall in the front room.
Bullet holes pocked the walls of the house. Its windows were shattered. Pieces of plaster and concrete were strewn about. A solider defecated in a stairwell, and the stench grew with the morning sun.
Staff Sgt. Jason Ward was sitting outside the house in his M-113 armored truck—a square box on tank tracks used to cart casualties off the battlefield.
Ward, from Midland, Texas, had a deeper accent than Sims, a square jaw and a blank expression. He was chewing on a Slim Jim. Ward said he'd ferried at least 10 injured soldiers the night before.
"It's been very intense," he said. "For a lot of our younger soldiers, it's overwhelming."
He wore a bracelet with the name "Marvin Sprayberry III" etched on it, just above "KIA" and "True Friend."
Sprayberry was Ward's best friend. He was a good man. He was killed on May 3 when the vehicle he was in rolled over during a firefight. That was all Ward had to say on the matter.
Resting in a Humvee nearby, 1st Lt. Edward Iwan was scrolling down a flat blue computer screen, mounted to the dashboard, that showed the location of every Army and Marine unit in Fallujah. Iwan, Alpha company's executive officer, noted that his men were deeper in the city than any other unit.
"It's a fairly complex environment, like we thought it would be," said Iwan, 28, of Albion, Neb. "Cities are where people die. That's where you take most of your casualties."
Iwan looked out through the Humvee's window at a thicket of buildings in every direction.
"There are 8,000 places to hide," he said, shaking his head.
Across the street, a long row of shops, once home to mechanics and carpenters, lay in ruins. Tin cigarette stands leaned on their sides, pocked with bullet holes.
Sims was on the roof of the house, sitting against a wall, his legs crossed at the ankle with a map on his lap. A little past dawn, after an hour or two lull, the shooting started again.
A reporter offered Sims a satellite phone to call his family. No thanks, he said. He wanted to talk with them when he got somewhere quieter. He had an infant son, Colin, whose brown hair and small ears, which poked out on the sides, looked just like his father's.
To read more about Capt. Sean Sims, visit http://texasbug.blogspot.com/
There, they can read Sims's obituary and a tribute to him from his father, a retired army colonel, and view pictures of Sims and his family.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FALLUJAH
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041124 USIRAQ FALLUJAH
ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030318 Harrier, 20040427 USIRAQ Fallujah, 20030314 USIRAQ Abrams, 20030319 Bradley vehicle