10-Years After Fallujah By Jim Spiri
(March 1, 2014…Camp Pendleton, California)…This past month I had told my wife that I had to go out to California and meet up with some Marines that were getting together at a bar in San Clemente.  She said, “I know.  They are the ones that were in Fallujah first in 2004.  Go.  Do not miss this gathering”.  Once in a while I listen to her.  This time was one of those times.  Ten years ago, I was working in Balad, Iraq on the flight line.  I worked the night shift, 7-days a week, 12-hours a day, for over two years.  It was during the most intense times of the war in Iraq.  Most every night, from about 2300 hrs (11:00 PM) to 0300 hrs (3:00 AM) I assisted in the loading of wounded Americans onto C-141 medical transport aircraft enroute to Ramstein, Germany.  I saw everything that anyone could ever imagine when it came to horrific injuries done to a human body.  Each time I lent a hand lifting a stretcher bearing a wounded American, I felt it I was there for a reason.  In April of 2004, I helped lift a lot of stretchers.  Too many to count.  They just kept coming and coming and coming.  Most of them were Marines.  They were coming mostly from a place called Fallujah. In March of 2004, Anbar province was a mess.  Four American private contractors from Blackwater were killed and their bodies were subsequently strung up on a bridge for all the world to see.  This was the catalyst for the military operation that would come to be known as, “Vigilant Resolve”. It would change the lives of many people forever.  Among those changed would be the members of one particular Marine unit.  Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, would be among the tip of the spear for this operation.  One of their wounded would cross my path in May of 2004 in Balad.  His name is Carlos Gomez-Perez.  We would remain friends from afar over the next ten years.  He is the reason I learned first-hand about Fallujah and what was going on there. It is the reason I eventually went to Fallujah in 2007 as a combat photographer embedded with Marines. “Gomez”, as he is known to me, was severely wounded on April 26, 2004.  He pretty much had his right shoulder blown apart by weapons fire during close quarters combat in Fallujah.  For his actions under heavy fire that day, Gomez would three years later be awarded the Silver Star, our nations’ 3rd highest award for valor. Gomez, who came to this country illegally from Mexico at the age of nine, would subsequently earn his American citizenship after serving his adopted country in war. Ten years later, I met up with Gomez at his invitation in San Clemente, California to meet members of his unit that saw heavy action in Fallujah.  It was a rewarding weekend, one that I shall never forget.  I listened a lot this past weekend. I remember Gomez as young Marine, stern, and very mad that he could not go back to Fallujah.  His shoulder was really a mess but he thought it would be fine.  His thinking at the time was to just bandage him up really well and let him get on a helicopter and go back to Fallujah to be with his Marines.  He was so determined that he somehow was concocting a scheme to remain in Iraq at the make-shift hospital in Balad instead of being transported to Germany.  He did manage to buy himself a few days delay but his shoulder was in dire need of further medical attention.  I remember escorting Gomez onto the plane in May of 2004 bound for Germany.  He refused to get on a litter and insisted on walking onto the medevac.  I have that photo and have kept it all these years.  Over the past ten years, Gomez and I have had numerous phone conversations, email contact and more recently facebook chats.  We’ve talked about all kinds of things as both our lives take noted twists and turns.  Both of us have had trials and tribulations to deal with and both of us continually adapt, improvise and overcome.  He has followed my travels and I have kept abreast of his own personal battles. I used some air miles to fly out to LA on Friday morning and rented a car.  By the time I landed in Los Angeles the rain was torrential.  After negotiating the maze of roads in LA and dealing with unbelievable weather conditions, I somehow managed to arrive in San Clemente.  I found a room at the same place Gomez was staying at and secured the same discounted rate that was extended to him.  Once in the room I contacted another member of E-2/1 named George Hruby who was up in Temecula, CA, which is about an hour and a half away.  I had met George in 2007 in Fallujah while I was transitioning into the city from Camp Fallujah.  At the time, George was on his third deployment and had been assigned to escort me around while I was on the camp.  In our subsequent conversations I had mentioned that I knew Gomez.  George then informed me that he and Gomez had been in the same unit in 2004.  I quickly realized that George was not just any escort.  He had “been there and done that” in a serious manner. I have nick-named him, “the hidden one”.   George and I became good friends and have also remained in contact over the years. George agreed to split the cost of the hotel with me which worked out perfectly.  I had a suite at a great rate and George needed a place to stay.  He too has had his battles and I would come to realize once again that I was in the right place at the right time for a reason.  That night at around 7:00 PM, George and I went to a bar called, “Big Helyn’s Saloon” within walking distance of the hotel we were staying at.  By the time we got there the place was completely packed with patrons all of whom seemed to be about in their 30’s.  As we walked into the place, George immediately began seeing people that knew him.  He was immediately embraced by one former Marine after the other.  I would from this point on realize that the weekend ahead of me would be one of watching and listening and observing.  It is the one thing I seem to be getting better at these days. Over the course of the next several hours I watched men who had not seen one another for nearly ten years embrace each other with smiles, tears, yells, hollers, high fives, and a combination of all the above.  Drinks flowed freely and were consumed abundantly.  Yet, what I heard from conversation to conversation was overwhelmingly sobering time and time again.  It went similar to:  “Remember when so and so did this and so and so did that?  Yea man…that was bad ass stuff”.  Followed by, “Yea, he was a good bro.  Damn I miss him.  Let’s have another one on him”.  “Here’s to so and so”. After awhile, I saw Gomez drive up in his vehicle.  He was late and had been texting me for the past hour that the traffic was bad and caused him some delay.  He arrived and immediately he was embraced by many.  He spent some time introducing his wife, Samantha and their two children.  She gave her husband a kiss and took the two children to the hotel for the evening.  Gomez remained at the bar and the “reunion” began in earnest.  Somewhere in between all this, Gomez and I greeted one another and bear-hugged one another. I had not seen him since he walked onto the C-141 ten years earlier.  He had put on a bit of weight, but still had the exact same straight forward countenance that I had remembered.  Nothing had changed in the person. For the rest of the evening, the entire place was abuzz with loud music, laughter, clanking of beer bottles and the sounds of Marines telling one another how life has been since the “sand box”.  I was introduced to each Marine one at a time by Gomez.  He knew each of their names and each of their jobs while in the “field”.  Most of the Marines had noticed me but did not realize why I was there.  As the night wore on the story came out of how I was involved and where I had been.  Some who inquired further would learn that I am the father of a Marine that we lost.  This further welcomed me into the “family”.  The rest of the night I held conversations with many Marines.  Not once did I ever purchase a drink.  But I was never without thirst for the rest of the evening.  The night ended around midnight and we all made it back to our rooms safe and sound.  The next day would take me to Camp Pendleton where all of them began their life as Marines. Saturday morning I awoke to more rain.  In spite of what the song says, it does happen to rain in southern California, so much so that I thought I had seen a guy named Noah building a rather large boat.  After coffee, George and I linked up with Gomez and his family.  We caravanned in two vehicles to Camp Pendleton where a gathering of Marines from E-2/1 would congregate in a gymnasium with family members to hear some words.  This was the ten-year commemoration of the deployment of these Marines to Fallujah which would forever change their lives.  All of them knew this would be a sobering moment along their paths of healing.  People in attendance not only included the Marines themselves that had survived, but also included widows that had lost husbands, mothers and fathers that had lost sons, and friends that had lost friends.  By the time the morning event would be completed, no one would be spared a dry eye.  A lot was spoken by the battalion chaplain who had accompanied the Marines into battle.  He himself had his own struggles to overcome and shared a song titled; “Overcomer” that pretty much captivated the entire group.  And then came a man who spoke who caught my attention immediately. I had heard many men with high rank speak before.  Most of them did not ever really impress me.  However, on this day, this man for sure captured my attention.  His name is Lt. General John A. Toolan.  He is exactly my age, 58, and has been in the USMC for 37-years.  Part of the reason for the gathering this past weekend was to unload burdens that the Marines have been carrying around with them for the past ten years concerning time spent in Fallujah.  At a certain point in time during the Operation Vigilant Resolve, the Marines were put on hold by higher ups.  This action never was explained in detail to myself, and even more importantly to the Marines that were on the ground in the fight.  General Toolan began speaking to the folks present in the gymnasium about what happened in Fallujah, specifically about why after all the blood that was spilled did the higher-ups stop the operation.  What was explained was that politics got involved and that the word was being spread that Marines were raping and pillaging Fallujah, which of course were complete falsehoods.  The region was controlled by the Sunnis and Paul Bremmer had made a serious blunder as to how to reshape Iraq after Saddam Hussein.  While fighting was going on in the streets of Fallujah, politicians were trying to figure out how to put an acceptable spin on a situation that would result in winning the hearts and minds of the people of Fallujah.  So, a halt was put on the operation.  The General explained that he knew that would allow all the “bad guys” to escape.  These would be the same ones that had just killed many Marines.  But politics got in the way.  As the General spoke these words to the crowd, I could hardly believe my ears.  He was not speaking in a way that was excusing anything.  Rather, I saw at that very moment he himself was laying a burden down that he had been carrying for ten years.  After all, he himself is a Marine just like every other Marine that morning listening to him.  Everyone had come to lay their burdens down.  The General led the way on this morning to lay his burden down. That afternoon, a climb ensued. I do a lot of hiking in the area behind my home.  I am fortunate to live right on the border of Petroglyph Park, an area of wide open spaces and excellent terrain for hiking 6-9 miles on any given day.  I try to do this several times a week.  The climb this day would be up a very, very steep set of hills right on the base at Camp Pendleton.  At the top of this climb would be two wooden crosses that have been placed there for particular reasons as a special kind of memorial to honor fallen comrades.  The first cross was placed there by the former company commander of E-2/1, the late, Major Doug Zembiec.  Zembiec was known as the “Lion of Fallujah” and has been regarded as the most respected officer in the USMC by all the Marines who served under him.  After the morning events concluded, many decided to make the trek up the hill in the early afternoon commencing at 1400 hrs (2:00 PM).  The weather was rainy all day off and on.  I had expected this to deter most from making the hike. However, once again I had misjudged the fact that I was among “Marines” and family.  The hike was going to happen, period.  This hike was not easy.  It was very steep and the ground was wet in most places.  During dry weather it is still a tough climb but in the wet, it was more difficult.  The top which was the destination was shrouded in mist and clouds.  I had opted not to take my camera for concern of rain damaging it.  It ended up not raining during the hike.  The idea of the hike was to leave something there and take something back, metaphorically speaking.  For example, take your burden up the hill and leave it.  Bring back some strength to continue on in life.  The climb took about 90-minutes up the hill.  It was very difficult and the last bit of the hike found me crawling hands and knees up the hill just to maintain my footing so as not to slip downward.  The pounding of my heart felt good and the step by step approach became a motivation for me to finish.  At one point, I thought that I would not complete the hike.  Once I realized I was nearly at the destination I was ecstatic that I was within striking distance of the goal.  No way would I quit now.  Once at the top, I quickly realized that the decision to finish was the right choice.  The two memorials there were solemn reminders of prices paid for those who remain.  I was now in a mode that made me realize that the reason I had come to California was to experience this part of the journey.  Without my camera in tow, I was able to fully take in the experience.  Sometimes, it is best for me not to take a photograph.  So, words will have to flow to convey the moments of what I was doing on top of a hill at Camp Pendleton, California, home to where men become Marines. The memorials held names of fallen Marines as well as particular mementos, bottles of whiskey, dog tags, and many other things.  All gathered there were now walking from cross to cross and taking in what was before their eyes.  I looked at names and photos and dates.  I would think back to my time in Iraq when I would stand at attention as flag-draped caskets would be carefully loaded onto aircraft containing remains of fallen Marines having paid the ultimate price.  Everyone around me was in similar deep thought and remembrance.  The weather conditions were such that fog and mist was covering the area.  It was cold and damp but no one complained.  It was just a perfect setting for the experience. Soon, a circle was formed once the last person made it up the hill.  Some words began to be spoken beginning with the former Chaplain.  Then one by one former Marines spoke words as burdens exited their being and were laid down.  This place was-is “holy ground”.  This is where warriors come to make sense of what they all had been through in 2004 in a place called Fallujah, Iraq.  Everyone was together and no one was alone.  There were no individuals on top of this hill.  There were just Marines and family. In the end I personally let go of some things that I had been holding onto.  I missed my son, Jesse, the Marine, a lot at that moment.  I had remembered him telling me about pressing on during his own personal training to have become a Marine officer.  Now I knew more of just what that meant.  In 2004, I ended up in Iraq loading wounded Americans on a nightly basis.  I had been afforded this opportunity in a miraculous fashion.  It helped me for two years with my own healing.  This day, at Camp Pendleton, California, among surviving Marines from Echo Company, 2/1, the warriors who conducted “Operation Vigilant Resolve” in April of 2004, I was able to lay a few burdens down at the cross, where they belong. Later that evening, many gathered at a place in San Juan Capistrano for music, drinks, food and conversation.  That night I conducted audio interviews on many warriors who “had been there and done that”.  One by one, I would ask each Marine to speak with me.  Word had spread that I was doing such.  One Marine came up to me and gave me a compliment that I treasure from this day on.  He said to me, “We all appreciate the questions you are asking.  It’s very good you came here to do this. Thank you for coming”.  I am glad I listened to my wife and went to California to meet with some Marines in a bar about events that happened in a place called Fallujah, Iraq, ten years ago.      
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