CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – It has been a decade since Marines fought for their lives — and their brothers-in-arms — in Iraq's bloodiest battles, which would spark a turning point in the eight-year war.
Nearly 100 Americans, mostly Marines, would die in the battles of Fallujah during some of the toughest fights in the campaign. Fallujah secured its place in Marine Corps heritage, alongside battles fought during the same era, like that in Sangin, Afghanistan, as well as those of past wars, like Iwo Jima and Tarawa.
On Sept. 14, 2004, Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, then a colonel, was medevaced from the city that had become an al-Qaida stronghold after he was wounded in a rocket attack the day after taking command of 1st Marine Regiment. Back stateside, Nicholson recovered at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, as Operation Al-Fajr, a door-to-door fight in Fallujah, kicked off on Nov. 7.
Within months, Nicholson was back in Iraq, seeing the last moments of the operation and how the city would change for years to come.
"I think Fallujah will always be remembered as that gritty, hard fought, room by room, house-by-house battle where our Marines and soldiers prevailed," Nicholson told Marine Corps Times. "It will always be synonymous with an urban fight where small unit leaders won the fight."
It was Marines and soldiers fighting block-by-block, street-by-street, kicking in doors during the most intense urban warfare the Corps waged since the battle of Hue City in Vietnam in 1968.
Nicholson, now the commanding general of 1st Marine Division, planned a reunion and commemoration here for Marines who fought in the deadly battles in Fallujah. He shared his thoughts about the battles during an interview here on Nov. 5. Excerpts, edited for space and clarity:
Q. What made the battles of Fallujah important, and why will they be studied by recruits and senior officers?
A. I think it was really a turning point in the war there in the sense that no matter what we were trying to do, the largest city in Anbar province was occupied by al-Qaida, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There was no Iraqi government, no police — this was a terrorist stronghold. By the time of the battle, a city of normally 400,000 people was just 10 percent of that, determined to be the elderly, the infirm and the enemy.
It was very challenging for Marines going house to house to house to identify who was left. And of course, many were abandoned, and when you hit a house where the enemy was well-entrenched and well-supplied, there were some incredible fights.
Q. What sorts of changes did you start to see?
A. After the city was cleared, it really began the awakening. Giving that city back to the Iraqi people was critically important. It facilitated elections in Fallujah, and also in Ramadi and all over Anbar province.
When we came back with the 5th Marine Regiment in 2006, we started to see a lot of dramatic change in terms of Iraqis taking responsibility for their own security. We started to see Iraqi tribal leaders turning against al-Qaida.
That really hit full throttle in late 2007. The Sons of Iraq was exploding all over Anbar, all over Iraq. By 2009, it was relatively quiet, and we left and turned Fallujah over to the armed forces of Iraq. None of that would have been possible without taking Fallujah away from the enemy.
Q. What are some of the major accomplishments that stand out when you remember Fallujah?
A. Lance Cpl. Chris Adlesperger's Navy Cross citation is one I'm very familiar with, having known his family. He's one of eight Navy Crosses Marines earned in Fallujah, and what that young Marine did was so far above and beyond any reasonable expectation and is what helped characterize this as an iconic battle. And I'm a beneficiary of it still today.
When I talk about Marines about Fallujah, I think about the individual actions. There weren't great formations of battalions or companies or platoons. We were down to squads and fire teams. The amount of trust and confidence and responsibility put on young lance corporals and corporals was phenomenal. And they answered the bell every time.
When I think of Fallujah, It's not the generals and the colonels. Our job, I think as leaders, is to man, train and equip our young Marines to make them successful in the fight. And if ever there was a validation of that, it occurred in Fallujah, where young lance corporals and corporals and sergeants were leading fire teams and squads and doing incredibly heroic things. That's what won that battle.
Q. You were wounded right after you took over as head of 1st Marine Regiment. What was this like for you, following the battle as you recovered in Bethesda?
A. What a mix of emotions. For me, I went from being very angry I wasn't there to feeling guilty. But you're immensely proud as you're watching and you're glued to this thing. And you're watching what's occurring and you're hearing from old friends and teammates and you're incredibly proud of what your team is accomplishing, even if you can't be a part of it.
And that's not unique to me. Even tremendously, egregiously wounded Marines laying in a bed at hospital without a limb will say, "Sir, I want to get back in the fight." And I'd say, "OK, OK, I get that. But let's take care of you for awhile."
All of us — Marines, sailors, soldiers — we build teams, we train as teams, we deploy as teams and we fight as teams. When you can no longer be part of that team, it's tough, no question.
Q. You also have two sons who were deploying. How did your family take your return to Fallujah?
A. My oldest son was in Fallujah during my second tour, and my youngest son was in Afghanistan during my tour there. I served in combat with both of my sons.
It's really much harder for my wife. She knew what I did for a living when she married me, but I don't think she knew a part of that deal was that my sons would be deploying to combat as well. They're both home now, and I know she's very pleased. From 2004 to 2013, either I or one of my sons was deployed for seven of those nine years.
Q. When you went back, could you tell Fallujah was going to be so pivotal?
A. We knew early on. Of course, there were two battles — there was one in April that didn't end the way we wanted. We knew that there was only one way we were going to dissolve what was happening there, and we were going to have to come in and take this city piece by piece.
Q. Just five years later, the Islamic State group is seizing portions of Anbar province. What do you say to Marines who are wondering whether the fight there was worth it?
A. We did our job and we did it well, despite what's going on there today, or in the past or in the future — there's not much we can do about that. While we were there, we did our job and we did it very well and at a hell of a cost.
I think this was one of those iconic and epic Corps battles; we knew exactly what we had to do. There was no ambiguity in terms of our mission. Our mission was to kill, capture and eject the enemy from Fallujah, and that was accomplished.