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|| News Item: Posted 2004-07-28

Battle In Fallouja
'Just being in this country as a journalist is an elevated risk ... And here I was feeling more exposed to danger than at any point in my career.'

By Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Fallouja, Iraq--U.S. Marine PFC J.T. Sleight bows his head as he places a candle on a mound of dirt after a memorial service held after U.S. Marines came under attack from insurgents in Fallouja after they went on a house-clearing mission.
I finally tried to wash the Marine's bloodstains from my pants the other day. It had been nine days since the battle and a daily dose of dirt and dust had all but masked what I knew lay beneath.

From the relative comfort of "Dreamland", a reasonably secure U.S. base of operations just outside Fallouja, I swirled my pants around in square metal pan containing four inches of precious water. With each spin around the pan, the water turned a deeper brown. And as the stains of Sgt. Josue Magana's blood became more apparent, I thought back to the day he was shot.

At zero five A.M, just before dawn on April 26th, the Marines of Echo Company was ordered to take two homes on the northwestern edge of Fallouja. For the prior three weeks, since Marines had first moved to cordon off city, there had been constant exchanges of gunfire between U.S. forces and insurgents in the area known as the Jolan Heights. After all, this was Fallouja, heart of the notorious Sunni Triangle, home to the root of U.S. occupation resistance.

The Marines had hoped that theirs would be a 'hearts and minds' mission leading up to the June 30 deadline to hand power over to Iraqis. It turned sour after four American contractors were gruesomely killed on March 31st. Insurgents hung two of their burned and mutilated bodies from a bridge that crosses the Euphrates River. And now the Marines found themselves in the position of battling Iraqi bodies instead of winning over Iraqi hearts and minds.

In their initial push into Fallouja, Marines fought to gain a toe hold in the city, and for Echo Company this consisted of three homes and a school, all within 300 meters of each other. This was now Echo Company's base from which to do battle, and the company hoped to engage insurgents known to be operating in this city of 300,000.

Having gained their toehold, they worked to fortify their positions using sandbags, 24-hour a day watch posts, concertina wire and sniper positions. By the time I arrived to be embedded on the 22nd of April, the neighborhood around them was a ghost town. Most residents had fled the fighting, save for one blind Iraqi man next door whom was dutifully being fed by a Kurdish translator working for the Marines.

In the houses and school, Marines had parked themselves and their gear in every room. M-16 rifles delicately perched against the glass doors of a cupboard holding the family's finest dishware. The luckiest Marines claimed the couches; the rest sprawled out on the floors each night.

Walls that once separated neighbors were broken down to allow easy house-to-house access. Doors were taken off their hinges and laid down to bridge the gaps between the roofs of the houses.

On the roof there were gun positions for M-240 machine guns, a larger .50 caliber machine gun and a Mark 19 grenade launcher. Shoulder fired rockets were also stored on the roof for times of need. Small 'mouse holes' were pounded out of the roof retaining wall allowing snipers to cover key positions as well, with the ability to pick off targets at great distances.

Through one such hole is a clear view down 'sniper alley.' The remnants of battle are apparent. A bullet-riddled car abandoned in the middle of the street. Deep craters where parts of the road used to be. Massive chunks of asphalt strewn everywhere and downed power lines sagging across the roadway. The homes on either side were broken and battered by gunfire. The stench of rotting cows and dogs, who met their deaths in a crossfire, could be detected if the breeze was just right. Nothing stirred on this street anymore.

Also in view from the sniper's nests, just across the cemetery, were objectives A and B, the targets of that tragic morning's raid. The two homes, known as A and B, had been in view for weeks, and it was from there that Marine commanders perceived a daily threat.

* * *

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Fallouja, Iraq--Lance Cpl. Robert Christmon, 20, of Oklahoma City, Ok., carries a wounded Sgt. Josue Magana, of Oceanside, Ca., out of a house in Fallouja while under fire from attacking insurgents.
One reinforced platoon of Marines crept through the darkened streets, lining both sides. Only a wail could be heard breaking the silence in the distance - it was time for the Muslim call to prayer. Useless with my camera in the darkness, I fumbled to record the ominous sound with a digital recorder. It was too dark to see the buttons so I gave up - the sum of me nothing but a complete liability at this point.

Up ahead, two squads of men were breaching the homes, breaking down doors to clear the buildings, which were directly across the street from each other. Suspected of being used by insurgents, they approached with caution but discovered they were empty. Marines poured inside objectives A and B, taking up defensive positions and on every floor, a set of eyes on guard from nearly every window. Dawn had come and the cobalt blue sky began to brighten.

It was all starting to seem too easy when an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) smacked the front of the house with a thunderous crash. The walls trembled. If the Marines had started to relax, it put them on alert that someone knew where they were. The Marines returned fire with their M-16's and then there was silence.

Once they knew their presence had been discovered, the men further prepared their defensive postures. Mattresses were upturned to cover windows, bags of rice stacked on top of one another to slow speeding bullets headed into open doors. Holes were sledge hammered through the walls at strategic points to make sniper positions. Then, nothing. Sitting. Waiting . Resting. Drinking. Eating. Nothing. No shots. No enemy sightings. Nothing.

Five hours had passed since the start of the mission and Marines were sprawled out on the floor, catching sleep when they could. I visited the roof briefly to eye the sniper positions. Then down to the bottom floor, looking in on sleeping Marines. Returning to the second floor, I spent many minutes trying to perfectly capture on camera the reflection of a Marine in a bullet -riddled mirror. I too, was bored.

The sleeping Marines stirred a bit as shots rang off in the distance. I sneaked a peek out the window, looking across the graveyard toward the mosque. Nothing. There were reports of seven insurgents, scratch that, six insurgents (one was reported over the radio to have been shot by a U.S. sniper) in the area of the mosque. An incoming mortar round hit the house adjacent to the one we are in and a fire starts to burn from within.

The Marine commanders decided that one squad, about 12 men, should respond to the mosque to the shooting from the mosque area and engage the remaining insurgents. So out of the houses and into the graveyard they flooded, keeping space between them as they slowly moved toward the minaret and the mosque on the other side of the cemetery. The minaret loomed high above, offering an unobstructed view and perfect firing position for a sniper to shoot down on approaching Marines. Short bursts of running, two or three men at a time, edged them closer to the mosque. They stopped for a time to take cover behind headstones, their eyes darted between the windows of the mosque and the minaret overlooking them.

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Fallouja, Iraq--Two U.S. Marines engage fighters from a second floor window that was hit by at least two rocket-propelled grenades during the firefight which killed one Marine and injured several others.
There was no movement or firing as they made their approach. It was bright and hot and quiet. Marines quickly moved in to secure the mosque and the minaret, searching hopelessly for the reported insurgents. Curious, I looked around myself but found no shell casings left behind; no blood and no body. There was only a partially damaged mosque, curtains moving in the breeze that was coming through blown out windows. I began to wonder if anyone had ever been there.

Nonetheless, the complex was thoroughly searched and the men trod back through the cemetery and made their way back to the two houses they had taken in the pre-dawn hours. Things were still quiet at the houses and I felt much less exposed than in the moments prior as I had trailed Marines around and over graves at an accelerated pace. Running thorough a cemetery seems a violation of those lying beneath. I was glad to be back in the house.

It was about the moment I felt the most secure and had the least suspicion that the mission would get any more dangerous when all hell broke loose. The Marines were under a coordinated, full-scale attack. Insurgents had crawled and snuck into positions covering about three hundred degrees on all sides. They let loose a continuous barrage on the house. Marines scrambled to their feet to fight back the ambush. "Roger, we are taking heavy fire. You need to orient to east, over the mosque complex," the confident company commander Capt. Douglas Zembiec barked into the radio without a hint of panic in his voice.

The sound was deafening at times. The rumble of machine guns and the returning loud crack of AK-47 rounds flying toward the building pounded in my eardrums. In the next room a Marine fired his machine gun from the second story window. I was watching the seriousness on his face as he fought the onslaught. At that moment a flash of fiery orange enveloped the room. An RPG had scored a direct hit at head level of the Marine I was photographing. So sudden and violent it was, I only have a blurry frame to serve as a reminder. Only the wall of the home saved him from certain death. He was shocked however, screaming as he was knocked to the ground, stunned from the concussion and deafening roar of the grenade.

He took only a moment to regain composure and assess his emotions. He was clearly pissed. He stood back in the window and began firing with more determination than before. It wasn't long until another RPG crashed into the same position. Insurgent forces were well aware of the Marine's position and were determined to score a kill. The barrels of two M-240 machine guns became so hot from the rapid succession of fire that they melted and seized.

On the roof, another battle was raging. Marines on the roof were in such close contact with the insurgents that the two were lobbing hand grenades back and forth. Shrapnel was shooting all over the roof tearing into Marines fighting there. At least one pickup truck full of 15 to 20 fighters was seen heading into the fight.

At this time, another Marine who had rushed out to a second floor balcony moments earlier yelled, "I'm hit." One of several thousands of rounds fired in the opening 30 minutes of the battle had found its target. He gave an agonizing scream and yelled again that he was hit, hoping someone would rescue him.

Sgt. Nunez threw open the door and rushed out, returning moments later dragging Sgt. Magana across the floor by the grab handle on the back of his flak jacket. Confusion ensued. He was eventually dragged into the room where I was hunkered down. He had been shot through the back and was in severe pain.

While corpsman were concentrating on his injury, I could see that he was beginning to fade. His eyes were empty and began to close. He was mumbling about a letter from his daughter and I'm sure he began to concede that his life could end right there on the floor.

I was compelled to grab his hand and assured him that he would see his daughter once again. I looked him straight in his eye, telling him to look back at me, then squeeze my hand so I knew he was still with me. It was all I knew to do.

I felt caught between being an objective journalist and responding as a human being. I apologized to a news crew that was sharing this horror with , "I have to be a human first," I heard myself saying awkwardly. It was a lesson I had learned early on from a photo professor that had a profound effect on my life.

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Fallouja, Iraq--Explosions from munitions launched from an AC-130 gunship light up the night sky after a series of rounds were shot into the city during the second night in a row that the planes launched an attacks into the city.
I shot only a few frames to depict the scene; some right as he was being dragged into the room and then some after he began to stabilize. I felt satisfied that I had both done my job and also done what was right in a potentially life and death situation.

Rounds were cracking off all sides of the building and now a second wounded person made his way to the same doorway. Everything seemed to be unraveling. Here were a group of men, 37 of them in all, that I viewed as courageous warriors, well-trained and well- equipped, and they seemed to be falling one by one right in front of me. I began to wonder: is this it? What if, by sheer numbers and the great desire of those opposed to them, these Marines and myself were about to be gunned down, right here. The stairway to the bottom floor was unguarded from my view. I wondered if all the Marines on the bottom floor were fighting to their last bullets.

For an instant, I imagined the following scenario. As I peered from the doorway, insurgents with AK's are rushing up the stairs, firing at those working on the wounded Sgt. Magana as he lay there in a lifeless state. Three easy kills for the insurgents. What would I do? Would I cower onto the ground, scream "sahafi, sahafi", meaning "journalist, journalist," and hope that at that instant I could separate myself from the Marines. Would I find myself, the barrel of a gun pushing into my skin, begging for my life? Would I be killed instantly, no distinction made, in a hail of gunfire. Or would I pick up a weapon myself and fight for my own life and for the rest of those around me.

These decisions are guttural, instinctive. Every move seems to be analyzed in some split second thought process. When the fight was raging, I was making decisions, based on saving my life and doing my job - in that order.

But at that moment I knew that photographing a gunfight can be like photographing a triple play in baseball. While it's certainly a dramatic moment - a photograph sometimes can't serve to capture the essence of the drama you are witnessing. The pictures of the men shooting out of the window in the next room conveyed little of the life and death intensity of the moment, the sound of gunfire, the smell, the gulping sense of mortality. They could have just as well been during a moment when they were shooting at tin cans in the alleyway.

I knew the bullets were aimed at people who were in turn shooting back at them. But my photographs did not depict the intensity that ultimate sense of risk. But was I going to make a target of myself when at least two men were already shot and RPG's were bouncing off the walls as fast as the men shooting them could reload.

The short answer was no, I would not risk it all for one frame. At this moment I thought of my mom, and how shattered she would be getting that phone call that no mother wants. It would be early morning, in a tiny northern Michigan town, the phone ringing as my mom prepared for work that day. Someone I don't even know would probably deliver the call. No one frame was not worth it.

Just being in this country as a journalist is an elevated risk, I thought to myself. And here I was feeling more exposed to danger than at any point in my career.

A momentary series of thoughts, contemplating the immediate future for myself and those around me, and I was snapped back to the reality of the moment I was already in.

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Fallouja, Iraq--Hundreds of spent shell casings from a M-240 machine gun litter the ground around a shooting position where Marines fell back to after being ambushed by insurgents while on a mission inside the city.
The house was still taking a serious pounding, there were wounded in both the buildings and the insurgents were still bringing a vicious attack. Then I heard a familiar and welcoming sound----two tanks rumbling up the alley. I peered out the only window in that second floor room to photograph them. They were our ride out. But something was terribly wrong. The main gun on one of the tanks was pointed right toward our window. For a split second I thought, "Oh shit, they think WE are the insurgents and they are going to fire on us!"

Friendly fire is a sad fact of warfare and I never believed it possible until I saw it with my own eyes during the march up from Kuwait just 13 months earlier. I wondered if the tanks had been talked onto the right spot, if they knew that those were 'friendlies' staring at them from the window above. I stepped back into the depth of the room, away from the window. A useless move as a main gun tank round would surely obliterate us all no matter where we were standing.

"OK, we are punching out of here now, and we are punching out hard! We are getting everybody out of here ASAP!" yelled one of the commanders standing on the second floor. The tanks were giving us the time and firepower needed to run back down the same alley we had crept through in the pre-dawn hours earlier that day.

The call was made to bring everyone and everything from the top floors down to the first floor. At the same time, the wounded from the building to the north were filtering into our courtyard. Four Marines carried the limp body of Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin into the courtyard. He would be listed as "killed in action" from the fight that day. His heroics would earn him official recognition for his actions - albeit posthumously. Austin, an only son, was shot multiple times in the chest as he attempted to throw a hand grenade from one rooftop to another. Making that throw was the last effort in his life.

Sgt. Magana was already lying on a broken door in the second floor bedroom. The others used it as a litter to carry him downstairs. It was creaking to the point of breaking but made the trip to the bottom floor. Everyone else cleared the rooms and the roof and began to gather in the foyer.

It was a bloody mess. Magana was lying on the door, a look of fear now appearing in his eyes. And Lance Cpl. Lucas Sielstad, merely 18, a wiry but tough Marine by all accounts, had bandages on his right arm soaked through with blood. His pants were ripped by medical sheers from the waist down to treat a shrapnel wound on his leg and he was bleeding from his lip. He looked tired and stunned, but there he was, still standing.

Another Marine came down from the roof with a haphazardly tied rag wrapped around his bleeding head. He was suffering from wounds in at least a couple other places. Still, he was calm and alert, and oddly a bit saddened by not being able to finish the fight.

The move to evacuate called for us to trace our steps back the same way we came. One by one, we hustled through the door into the courtyard. For a moment, I felt like a skydiver taking his first leap out the door of the plane. I felt so vulnerable out there, wishing for the cover of darkness that had offered some protection earlier that morning.

The courtyard was hemmed in by walls 7 feet-high shrouding us from view to anyone on the streets outside. But the Marines were an easy target for gunmen on the second story or rooftops of any of the surrounding houses.

Crouching low and near the wall, my instinct was to run for it. To break free and run, not wait behind all the Marines in front of me exiting in some sort of formation. We were all bunched up in the courtyard and it felt like time was of the essence for getting out of this.

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Fallouja, Iraq--Lance Cpl. Chris Hankins, 19, of Kansas City, Mo, bows his head at a makeshift memorial for three Marines with Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment that were killed in Fallouja.
What seemed like hours passed before my turn to exit was in reality probably less than two minutes. One by one we filed out and hustled down the street. I did not know exactly from what direction the firing was coming from - or how much was incoming or outgoing. I just knew it was heavy and I wanted to get back to a place of relative comfort.

My gear seemed so heavy and awkward as I approached the gate leading to the street. And in addition, I was also asked to carry several 203-grenade rounds in a blood-soaked pouch that was taken off a wounded Marine. But when the two Marines in front of me finally moved, I bolted out behind them.

Along the wall we ran beside, about halfway down the block there was a 4-foot gap that offered anyone in the houses to the west a clear shot at us. Any sniper would have to anticipate when a Marine might pass this gap but it made me worry. A scene from the movie "Enemy at the Gates" popped into my head, which depicted celebrated WWII Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev popping off targets at will. Why a movie scene found its way to the front of my head I don't know.

What I do know is that when it was my turn to expose myself for that half second, I hesitated my step so as not to pass with exact same frequency as the Marines ahead of me. The well-trained and well-disciplined sniper waiting for the perfect shot was a figment of my imagination. But the rest of the gunfire all around was real.

We were almost home free, as we had successfully run the gauntlet down the entire block. I could see the school in my view, less than two hundred meters away. When I crossed the street there were three Marines struggling to carry a wounded comrade the rest of the way to the school. One of them motioned me over as I approached their position, slowing my run. He asked me to help carry him the wounded man. For a split second I thought, "Are you crazy, my job right now is to run like hell so I can live to do the job another day."

The split second happened about the time I was grabbing the injured Marine by his right shoulder and arm. Along with three others we ran him to the schoolhouse, a fairly fortified structure. His legs were inside the door two steps up, and I tried to ease him in but he was being pulled too fast from the other end. He escaped my grasp and the grasp of the Marine carrying his other arm. His limp head hit the concrete step with a thud, the least of his problems at the moment.

Several more Marines piled into the schoolhouse. The machine guns on the roof were already wailing away with everything they had. With all the Marines piled back inside the building their fields of fire were clear and they were engaging everything in sight. Several more RPG's pounded the school, as did small arms fire from AK-47's. It felt much safer in the school, with its two-foot thick walls and sandbagged shooting positions covering every corner.

The scene on the bottom floor was that of pandemonium, resembling an ant nest after it's been disturbed. One Marine was running around barking orders "We need more M-16 rounds on the second floor!" Another was shocked, helmet off and head in his hands. The wounded were piled up until a transport Humvee could get through to get the rest of them out. I took a moment to catch my breath and take stock of everything that had happened up to that point. Pure adrenaline had been pumping through my veins for two hours, and my body needed a break.

The wounded were hauled a kilometer or so away, fifteen in all, to a field hospital, which was nearly overwhelmed with the volume. Commanders started sorting out the chaos in the school, with their main mission being to keep their gun positions humming. Suppressive fire hammering enemy positions kept any insurgent advance at bay.

When the platoon stationed in a house 300 meters away gathered in the doorway of the school to make their run back, I joined them. One last run to safety.

As we approached our position I noticed something was missing from the scene. It had marked my landscape for the week that I had been in Fallouja. The minaret, the same one that loomed overhead as we ran through the graveyard earlier that morning, had completely vanished. I was told later on that is was leveled by a tank round after a sniper was reported to be shooting from it.

Inside the house it was not the same optimistic group of people I had been with the day before. All of them looked exhausted. These men had seen battle, and they wore these looks in their eyes. It had silenced them for the moment and I gathered that it had changed some of them forever. They had seen a young man die that day, one of their own, in a brutal death that left his body torn and bloody. They had watched another of their comrades lose an arm from an enemy hand grenade.

It would be awhile before these men would laugh again. I knew these men to be tough and ready, but this shook them at their foundations. The physical and emotional scars would not be quick to heal.

As word of the battle and its damage spread, a Navy chaplain made a visit to the men of Echo Company that afternoon. The solemn faces of over fifty men crowded the room; at its center was simply a mound of dirt. As the chaplain finished delivering words of encouragement, each Marine pushed a lit candle into place into the mound. Soon the dank room was filled with candlelight and void of people as they withdrew to collect their thoughts. I shot just one frame of the last man placing his candle. He bowed his head in prayer as he did so.

That day I spoke with their Captain, Douglas Zembiec. From a roof overlooking the houses we were in that morning he said, "If is wasn't for the valor of those young Marines we would still be over there. They fought like lions. They kept their cool and evacuated the wounded. I get tears of pride when I think of them fighting like that." I could barely converse with him as two Marine Cobra helicopters fired their 3-barrel 20mm guns into those same houses. The clacking roar of the machine gun and firing of hellfire missiles surely demoralizing as well as demolishing any insurgents who might have been rejoicing about the reclaimed position.. Zembiec later added that, "I've ordered men to their deaths, and that's a cross I have to bare."

I spoke with the mother of Lance Cpl. Austin several days after he died. It took awhile to get the courage up to ring her at her home in New Mexico. There was nothing I could do to bring her son home. Would a phone call from someone in the media infuriate her? All I had to offer her was a photo of her son reading the mail from home that I had shot the day before he died. I thought she might want that as a memory of her son in a place she had perhaps imagined, but would never see.

She received my call and my unpolished speech about her son. "Hello ma'am," I said, "I was with your son on the day he died." She told me how proud she was of him and I started to break down when she told me how if she were there that day she would have carried his limp body out of the house herself. She wanted to have any photo I had, to gather any scrap if information, conversations about him, anything she could hold onto. He was her only son.

A few days later I called Sgt. Magana as he lay in a hospital bed in Bethesda, Maryland. He spoke only in a whisper, and sounded very weak. I was sure he did not remember me holding his hand or talking about his daughter but he seemed appreciative that someone would call him from Iraq. He asked that I tell his comrades he was keeping them in his prayers while they were still on the battlefield. I told him I would.

Those Marines in battle were not the only ones certain to be changed by that day. I liken my desires as a journalist to be similar to the way I like to live my life. I want to get close enough to the edge of the abyss to look in but I don't want to go over. As I knelt over that square pan of water, scrubbing my pants vigorously, the bloodstains of that day did not fade away. They now serve to remind me just how easy it can be to slip over the edge.

(Rick Loomis is a staff photographer with the Los Angeles Times. The 2003 Newspaper Photographer of the Year is one of the featured speakers at the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau 2004. To view more of Rick's work, go to:

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