Marines who fought one of the toughest battles in the Iraq War were close enough to hear the Iraqis retake Ramadi from the Islamic State group, evoking strong emotions as leathernecks rooted to see the city where they lost friends retaken from the terror group.
Col. William McCollough, who led the Marine Corps' crisis response force for the Middle East through, credits his troops with helping the Iraqi army retake Ramadi during their six-month deployment to five countries in the region. He had advise and assist teams on the ground in Iraq, pilots dropping bombs on ISIS targets, and Marines prepping allies to fight the terror group.
"It's great to be able to tell the Marines and sailors as we come back, 'Listen, you were there during such an important time — the Iraq army retook Ramadi while we were there,'" McCollough said Thursday during a media roundtable at the Pentagon. "...Those were our advisers, our support helped them do that."
There were 2,300 Marines deployed with the third rotation of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force—Crisis Response—Central Command, which wrapped up its deployment last month. It included members of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines; Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 165; and Combat Logistics Battalion 7. They were recently replaced by members of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines; 2nd and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wings; and Combat Logistics Battalion 5. Those Marines will complete an extended nine-month deployment.
Sgt. Josh Greathouse, a team leader with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, scans the perimeter during a patrol in Al Taqaddum, Iraq, in March.
Photo Credit: Sgt. Ricardo Hurtado/Marine Corps
Several of McCollough's Marines operating at Al Taqaddum Air Base had deployed to Ramadi a decade prior. While seeing the capital city of Anbar province fall to ISIS in 2014 was heartbreaking to many Marines, McCollough said they can take pride in being there to see it won back.
"For some, it was very poignant to have ... the Iraqi army at one point losing Ramadi — you have emotions associated with that," he said. "You have equally good emotions when you see the Iraqi army take Ramadi back."
The Marines at Al Taqaddum were getting daily updates on the Iraqi's months-long fight to retake Ramadi. When they arrived in October, the Iraqis had surrounded the city, but the real fight hadn't yet begun.
There were also Marines about 100 miles away at Al Asad, advising more troops there. The Marines also provided logistics, communications, intelligence and air support in Iraq, he said.
"We helped them do their plans, prepare for the battle, and then obviously air support as they are in the fight," McCollough said.
Aviators deployed with the unit with the unit's air combat element logged more than 4,100 combat hours while flying about 570 sorties, he said. The Marines dropped 667 bombs on more than 500 ISIS targets, he said. They logged more than 4,100 combat hours while flying roughly 570 sorties.pieces of ordnance and destroyed 512 targets.
Even though the Iraqi forces were able to retake Ramadi in December after a seven-month slog with ISIS, it didn't come without cost. The city was completely leveled, and more than 50,000 Iraqi civilians were displaced.
The fight is also far from over, too, as the Iraqi military shifts its focus toward retaking the northern city of Mosul, which is at least four times the size of Ramadi.
McCollough said the Iraqis are up for the fight though — they gained a lot of confidence after crushing ISIS in Ramadi.
"You can tell, looking at [an Iraqi] soldier, one that has had a success on the battlefield: tThey look taller, they act taller," he said. "We’ve seen a reversal: [ISIS] at one point was 10 feet tall, now the Iraqi soldiers are 10 ten feet tall."
Matthew L. Schehl covers training and education, recruiting, West Coast Marines, MARSOC, and operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Marine Corps Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Marine colonel who just got back from the Middle East says the Iraqi army is brimming with confidence since its success at Ramadi and ready to carry on the fight against the Islamic State group.
Col. William McCollough, who led the third rotation of the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force—Crisis Response—Central Command over a six-month deployment to the region, was tasked with supporting the Iraqi's fight against the ISIS.
Over the deployment, which ended April 21, his Marines and sailors got to see their help to the Iraqis pay off when the Iraqi military recaptured Ramadi in December.
The Iraqis certainly did so with American assistance and advice, but at the end of the day the victory was all theirs with an immediate impact on their morale, McCollough told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
"You can tell, looking at [an Iraqi] soldier, one that has had a success on the battlefield: they look taller, they act taller," he said. "We've seen a reversal: [ISIS] at one point was 10 feet tall, now the Iraqi soldiers are ten feet tall."
Being in such close proximity to Ramadi was bittersweet for many of the Marines.
Many of them had been on the ground during the bitter fighting for the city a decade ago, McCollough noted.
"For some it was very poignant to have gone through the Iraqi army at one point losing Ramadi, and you have emotions associated with that," he said. "You have equally good emotions when you see the Iraqi army take Ramadi back."
After the Iraqi forces' seven-month slog with ISIS to retake Ramadi, which completely leveled the city and displaced 54,000 civilians, Iraqi they consolidated and launched a new offensive in March to retake Mosul.
The Iraqis will need their new-found confidence now: the advance on Mosul, four times larger than Ramadi and further from support bases, immediately stalled in the face of fierce ISIS resistance.
However, McCollough believes the 2,300 Marines of his SP-MAGTF-CR-CC rotation set the conditions for their success.
From bases at Al Taqaddum, Al Asad and undisclosed locations spread out over five countries, they quietly worked side-by-side with Iraqis, though never directly engaged in the fight.
They trained their soldiers and provided their leadership with guidance, accurate intelligence and air support. They stood watch over the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and remote military outposts, and kept a 24/7 stand-by to recover downed aircraft and pilots.
The various squadrons of its air combat element logged 4,102 combat hours of flight over 571 sorties, dropped 667 pieces of ordnance and destroyed 512 targets.
Beyond advising, assisting the Iraqi forces meant having a robust group of logistics, communications and intelligence specialists forward-deployed to give them the best support they could, McCollough said.
"We helped them do their plans, help them prepare for the battle, and then obviously air support as they are in the fight," he said.
Supporting the Iraqis through Operation Inherent Resolve, which McCollough estimated consumed about 80 percent of the MAGTF's effort, wasn't all they did, though.
They also conducted multiple training missions with America's allies in the region to bolster their efforts in the fight against ISIS, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
His Marines worked side-by-side training Jordan's elite 77th Marine Reconnaissance Battalion, recently turned into a quick-reaction force to secure the country's volatile borders.
"We like to say we worked to prevent a crisis before it begins," McCollough said.