CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – About 500 Marines gathered here Friday from across the country to remember one of the Corps' deadliest battles in Iraq.
Exactly 10 years earlier, they were all in the same place as well, but for a very different reason — they were just outside of Fallujah, Iraq, waiting to take the city insurgents had made their stronghold.
The reunion was organized for 1st Marine Division's leadership, one of the units that contributed heavily to the fight in Fallujah. Marines ranging from privates to general officers were invited to attend. The event brought back intense memories for some as they considered where they stood a decade ago.
It was the first time many of the Marines had seen each other in years. Some were in uniforms, others in jeans. Some let their hair and beards grow well beyond the Marine Corps' strict appearance regulations.
They were here for an official ceremony to mark the battles that served as turning points during the war in Iraq. But they also gathered for camaraderie and catharsis — to see old buddies, and honor those who didn't make it back.
"To my brothers, be proud of what you did 10 years ago in Fallujah," retired Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of 1st Marine Division during the battle, told the Marines here. "You contributed to the legacy of our Corps and the history of our nation. Never forget, and never let others forget the sacrifices that were made in the city."
No matter their exact job, in November 2004, the Marines in Fallujah were on the cusp of one of the most intense fights in the war in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Corps' biggest urban battle in decades. The work of Marines, sailors and soldiers helped kill and flush out terrorists and win support from Iraqi tribal leaders. Eventually, Fallujah and al Anbar province were able to hold elections along with the rest of Iraq.
Today, troubling news of the Islamic State group taking swaths of land in the province has some wondering if their sacrifices there were worth it. But the reunion served as a reminder that Marines can't control anything outside what was asked for them when they deployed to fight the country's war.
"I don't know what's going to happen and I'm not too concerned about it," said veteran Sgt. Noah Price, a rifleman who served with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. "I'm here to see my buddies."
In November 2004, Marines were preparing to take Fallujah during the second major battle there in just six months.
Some waited in fighting holes, watching attack aircraft take out targets, making it possible for them to sweep their way through the city. Others were in tracked vehicles, ready to ride in. Snipers were gearing up to climb to the tops of apartment buildings to provide cover. Those in communications fields were manning equipment so commanders could direct the first volley of munitions to their targets.
Veteran Cpl. Josh Somerville, a machine gunner with Lima Company, 3/1, was one of the Marines who awaited further orders from a fighting hole.
"It rained on us all night. It was kind of miserable," he said. They had their ponchos over their rifles in an attempt to keep dry.
There was chatter for weeks that the Marines were going to go into Fallujah, but it was a matter of which units and when.
"We were pretty amped," said Alex Aviles, a former rifleman with 1/8. "I was waiting to go in. Air prepped our way in and we were waiting in the tracks ... We had raided a bunch of cities before but we didn't know what would happen."
Once they were in, it was a blur, Aviles said. The days were action packed and ran together. Looking back, he said it's tough to recall details or divide the operation into phases.
"It's like watching a movie on fast forward," he said. "You know what's happening but you lose context."
Sommerville said they worked in small teams and pressed down the city streets, clearing buildings as they moved from one side to the other. They worked faster than anyone predicted, and at times were ahead of schedule and had to slow down to get back on the planned pace.
Veteran Sgt. Horston Bowen was a data network specialist who helped keep computer systems online. He went into Iraq when the war started, but said they were getting peppered with mortars and rockets, and felt a sense of the unknown as they entered the city.
"We were scared," he said. "There were a lot of rounds coming in."
Sometimes those rounds hit, and the ceremony was, in part, designed to honor the fallen. A handful of Gold Star families attended.
Those casualties brought more emotions into the fight, said veteran Cpl. Dat Ngo, a rifleman who served with 1/8.
"It was actually real when you started losing people," he said.
Winning the battles
Many of the attendees left the Corps as lance corporals, corporals and sergeants a few years after the intense fighting in Fallujah. It was junior Marines and noncommissioned officers who made the battles in Fallujah successful, said Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, now the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division.
A decade ago Nicholson was a colonel leading the 1st Marine Regiment. But at the start of the fight, undergoing surgery and recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland after he was hurt in a rocket attack that killed his communication officer, Maj. Kevin Shea. Nicholson returned to Iraq just as the battle was ending, and one thing was clear: Junior Marines had turned things around in Fallujah.
"They answered the bell every time," Nicholson said. "When I think of Fallujah, it's not the generals and the colonels. ... Young lance corporals and corporals and sergeants were leading fire teams and squads and doing incredibly heroic things. That's what won that battle."
Some of the Marines returned to Pendleton with their wives, girlfriends and children. Others, like A.J. Pasciuti, came with a stack of chevrons on his arm — he's now a gunnery sergeant. Ten years ago, he was a sniper with India Company, 3/5, and provided cover for other infantrymen from his perch on an apartment building as they moved from house to house.
For him, the reunion was a chance to see Marines he hasn't seen in a long time.
"I was excited for this day as I was my own wedding," Pasciuti said.
It was a chance not only to catch up, but to grieve about the tough things that happened in Fallujah. Getting Marines in one place helps them to figure out how to handle problems in their lives, he said, using the wisdom they've developed over the past 10 years.
The Marines have changed a lot since those fights in Fallujah, Pasciuti said.
"The last time we saw each other we were just kids with guns," he said.