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Remembering The Battle Of Fallujah

As U.S. airstrikes target ISIS in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, it’s worth noting that 10 years ago this month American troops were on the ground in that city fighting to clear insurgents and explosives. For Americans, this was the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War, with nearly 100 men killed. It was a particularly costly battle for Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment. That unit lost 28 men. At Camp Pendleton in Southern California last weekend, veterans of the battle from the 3rd Battalion held a reunion to mark the anniversary and remember the fall. Here & Now’s Alex Ashlock was there and has this report.

One of the first Marines I met at Camp Pendleton last Friday didn’t fight in the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. Roy Cratty, who’s 82 years old, fought in Korea. Cratty was a private in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. He lost his leg and part of his hand when he stepped on a land mine in 1952. But he came to the base for the reunion of the Marines who made the assault on the Iraqi City 10 years ago to demonstrate the bond between generations of Marines, especially those from “the Thundering Third,” the nickname for the battalion.

“I mean we all have problems,” Cratty told me. “We’ve all been in combat and when you’re in combat you have a problem, and the only people you can talk to is the guy who’s been there. He knows what you’re saying. And that’s what helps us.”

Vietnam veteran Jim Keely also represented that Marine bond. He came to draw the line between his service in Vietnam to the men who fought in Iraq. “When we had our memorial ceremonies they came for us too,” he said. “It’s a bond that will never be broken.” Keely said his battalion lost 564 Marines and sailors during the five years it served in Vietnam.

The Thundering Third lost 28 men during the Battle of Fallujah. It was a ferocious house-to-house fight to clear insurgents and explosives from the city, which is about 40 miles west of Baghdad. Chad Russell, who joined the Marines after growing up in Bend, Oregon, said the reunion to mark the 10th anniversary of the battle offered a chance to heal. “It’s really cool to see all the people kind of fellow-shipping with their brothers and their families, and it’s really special to have the families of a lot of our fallen brothers here too.”

One of the high points of the reunion was a hike to the top of a ridge line on the base. It was a hike the Marines took in 2004 before they deployed to Iraq; 29 men who were on the hike that day 10 years did not come home. During the recent hike, the men carried a huge American flag to the top of the ridge. The flag belongs to Chad Russell. His grandfather gave it to him before Chad’s first tour of duty.

And the journey it has taken is incredible.

Another Marine, Cpl. Theodore Bowling, asked Russell if he could carry the flag into the battle of Fallujah, and Russell gave it to him. But Bowling was killed in the assault and and Russell could not find the flag. He thought it was gone forever. But as the Marines were about to leave Fallujah, Russell found the truck Bowling had been riding in before he was killed.

The flag was there behind the seat, folded perfectly in a trash bag.

That flag later flew on each deployment Chad Russell did with the Marines. He even gave it to a friend who was also a Marine who took it to Afghanistan on his deployment.

At Camp Pendleton last Friday, it came back home just like the men of the Thundering Third did.

Correction Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment that died in the battle. The 3/1 lost 33 men during the Fallujah deployment, 28 during the actual battle. The 57 number stated in the audio and earlier version of the story refers to the number of Marines from the 3/1 who have been killed since 9/11. We regret the error.

Reporter

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Col. William Buhl and Sgt. Major Edward Sax at the Regimental Memorial Ceremony. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
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Col. William Buhl and Sgt. Major Edward Sax at the Regimental Memorial Ceremony. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
Cpl. Theodore Bowling posing with the flag he carried during the Battle of Fallujah. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
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Cpl. Theodore Bowling posing with the flag he carried during the Battle of Fallujah. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
Col. William Buhl, who led the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment during the assault on Fallujah, deliver remarks to the reunion participants after a hike to remember the Marines killed in the battle. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
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Col. William Buhl, who led the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment during the assault on Fallujah, deliver remarks to the reunion participants after a hike to remember the Marines killed in the battle. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
Participants in the reunion of Marines who fought in Fallujah on a memorial hike to remember the Marines who were killed in the battle. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
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Participants in the reunion of Marines who fought in Fallujah on a memorial hike to remember the Marines who were killed in the battle. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
Participants in the reunion of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment Marines to mark the 10th anniversary of the Battle of Fallujah. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)
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Participants in the reunion of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment Marines to mark the 10th anniversary of the Battle of Fallujah. (Courtesy of Chad Russell)