When Marine veteran Ozzie Martinez Jr. thinks about the amphibious assault ship that will be named after Fallujah, he thinks, in part, about Lance Cpl. Mathew Puckett.
On April 13, 2004, days into the first of the two battles in the Iraqi city that year, the 19-year-old Puckett was in an amphibious assault vehicle that came under heavy fire from machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. His crew chief, Cpl. Kevin Kolm, 23, was mortally wounded. The rifle platoon leader had also been seriously injured. Then the vehicle caught fire.
Puckett risked his life to drive his wounded comrades back to safety and extract them from the wreckage, according to the citation for the Bronze Star with valor he earned for his actions that day.
But Martinez, who was a lance corporal at the time, remembers Puckett not only for his bravery but also for his friendship.
“That happened April 13, and Puckett was still the same amazing person after that,” Martinez said. “He was still smiling, he was still living, and happy.”
The two Marines in the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, part of 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, would hang out every day, Martinez said. Sometimes they would watch “Smallville” or “The Sopranos” in a trailer on Camp Fallujah. Other times they would sit and talk about nothing, or about everything — just not about April 13.
The last photo Martinez has of Puckett, from Aug. 12, shows him beaming. Puckett was killed one month later, on Sept. 13.
Four other Marines from Martinez’s unit also died in the first battle of Fallujah: Kolm; 1st Lt. Alex Wetherbee, 27; Cpl. Jaygee Meluat, 24; and Cpl. Adrian Soltau, 21.
Martinez, like many other GWOT combatants, said he had long wondered whether he would get the closure that some World War II and Vietnam veterans have found by returning to the scenes of battle in a time of peace.
“I think that the naming of a ship like this is going to bring, not closure, but it’s going to bring some sort of honor and homage to what was lost there and what was done there, considering that a lot of us feel that we don’t even know if we did it for the right reasons or not,” he said.
“All these guys deserve this ship,” Martinez added, referring to those who died in Fallujah. “They deserve much more.”
The announcement of the name “Fallujah” for a forthcoming landing helicopter assault ship came on Dec. 13 from Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, who said it would honor the 100-plus Marines, sailors and other coalition forces who were killed during the two battles. The Fallujah is set to be the first Navy ship named for a battle in the Global War on Terror.
American troops launched the month-long First Battle of Fallujah on April 1, 2004, following the killing and mutilation of four American contractors at the hands of Iraqi insurgents. U.S. troops withdrew in May and handed over operations to the Iraqi Fallujah Brigade, which ultimately dissolved, giving its U.S.-made weapons to insurgents.
U.S. troops recaptured the city from the insurgents during Operation Phantom Fury, the second battle that lasted from Nov. 7 to Dec. 23 of the same year. It was the bloodiest battle of the U.S. war in Iraq, and has since been a source of psychological scars for many who returned home.
Naming a ship for the battles has drawn support from the top ranks of the Marine Corps. The sponsor of the “Fallujah” is Donna Berger, the wife of Commandant Gen. David Berger. Traditionally, a female civilian christens a ship and serves as its ceremonial sponsor.
But the name has already proven controversial. In an unscientific poll on the Marine Corps Times website, 52% of more than 1,900 respondents as of Monday said they liked the ship name, while 48% said they didn’t.
Among the name’s opponents, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, has called on the U.S. Navy to rename the forthcoming vessel, citing the hundreds of civilian casualties that resulted from the battle as well as the long-term physical ailments that stemmed from the military’s use of white phosphorus artillery projectiles.
Marine Corps Times also received dozens of emails from readers who offered a variety of criticisms of the name. The battles were too tragic. The civilian death toll was too great. The tactics were too controversial. An amphibious ship shouldn’t be named after a landlocked city, let alone one bearing an Iraqi name.
Other readers, however, defended the ship name as a way to honor the service members who died there. Some suggested naming it after a Medal of Honor recipient or the operation, Phantom Fury.
Navy reservist Lt. Cmdr. Amy Forsythe, who was a Marine staff sergeant serving as a combat correspondent in Fallujah in 2006 and again in 2008, said the ship’s name left her scratching her head.
“My first thought was, having served two tours there, the name Fallujah just brings back memories of sadness and sorrow because of the loss of life,” she said, adding that she is still uncertain whether Fallujah can be counted as a win or a loss for coalition forces.
Forsythe emphasized that she was speaking personally and was not questioning those who chose the name.
The top enlisted Marine, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black, said he remembers Fallujah for the bravery and kindness of its citizens and for the fighting prowess of Marines who battled insurgents there.
Then a company gunnery sergeant with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, Black was deployed to Fallujah during the first battle. He said he was “ecstatic” about the naming of the amphibious ship, which he called “a great first step” in recognizing American troops who served in the GWOT.
Responding to the criticism of the ship name, Black noted that the Navy has faced 26 naming controversies throughout its history.
“Let me ask a rhetorical question: What were the complaints about the USS Iwo Jima? The USS Tarawa?” he asked, referring to two of the bloodiest battles fought by the Marine Corps during World War II.
As part of that analogy, Black added that the Battle of Iwo Jima claimed the lives of approximately 20,000 members of the Imperial Japanese Army — not, he stressed, the Japanese people who are today allies and partners of the United States.
“The Battle of Fallujah was a win in a counterinsurgency against an oppressive adversary who was maiming, raping, murdering their own people,” he said. “The USS Fallujah also highlights the bravery of the citizens of the city of Fallujah who rose up against the rape, the murder, the mistreatment that was put on them by the insurgents.”
Echoing Black’s sentiments, CWO5 Matthew Anderson told Marine Corps Times that the name of the ship made him reflect on his pride in the Marines he served with during the Second Battle of Fallujah. At the time, Anderson was a platoon sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines — the unit that picked up where Sgt. Maj. Black’s left off.
“When I think about the naming of the USS Fallujah, I think it’s symbolic not only of these battles, but of all the sacrifices made by the Marines and [other service members] that contributed to the war in Iraq,” Anderson said.
One of those sacrifices was that of Lance Cpl. Victor Lu, a gunner in Anderson’s platoon who was the first to enter a room that an enemy fighter had set up to ambush Marines. Lu sustained multiple gunshot wounds and died. The rest of his squad later killed the enemy fighter and took over the building.
Eighteen years after the conclusion of the Second Battle of Fallujah, Anderson still wears a killed-in-action bracelet bearing Lu’s name.
“I feel a sense of pride,” he told Marine Corps Times, “to have fought side-by-side [with] countless other men and women willing to make the same sacrifice.”
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.