Remembering Gunny and the Kid, a Hard-Hit Unit Goes Back on Patrol
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page A01
QAIM, Iraq — Word spread fast. It was Gunny. And the young kid, Nice.
The news was passed in low voices, quiet conversations. No one wanted to say it loudly. The Marines heard it and looked away. They squinted at the heavy sun, kicked their boots in the dust. Their faces hardened. They spat their dip and shifted the guns on their shoulders. They swore. What else was there to say but goddammit.
Gunnery Sgt. Elia Fontecchio, 30, was killed by a roadside bomb, set off by someone who was watching a U.S. Marine foot patrol finish its work on Wednesday, Aug. 4. A half-hour later, Lance Cpl. Joseph Nice, 19, was stringing concertina wire across a road when a single sniper bullet passed through his body.
They were deaths 14 and 15 for the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment since it arrived in February. With 156 Purple Hearts as well, the casualty count for this battalion is higher than that of any other unit in Iraq, save for fellow Marines in turbulent Fallujah.
But to the men here, this is a forgotten war. They are at the western edge of Iraq, the last stop before Syria. The world hears what happens here only in a faint whisper. They are far from the headline cities — Najaf, Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi — where every spasm is seen by a thousand eyes.
Isolated at this far-flung outpost, the men live packed bunk to bunk, they guard one another’s backs, they depend on the group to help ward off fear and loneliness. And they face losses in their own searingly personal way. When one man is killed, the rest are asked to go back where he died, to face the same danger, in the name of duty. They do it, they say, for their comrades, for themselves and for a country that expects it of them.
Fontecchio didn’t have to go out. His duties taking care of the company meant he was usually busy at the camp, with no time to patrol. Gunnery sergeants, always called “Gunny,” occupy a special place in the Marine Corps. Part supply officer, part morale booster, part problem solver, the gunnery sergeant is responsible for the well-being of the unit. He ranks high enough to get things done, but not so high that he doesn’t work and play with the enlisted men.
Fontecchio was ideal for the job. He led with humor, which made him popular. When the company commander, Capt. Trent Gibson, gave him his most recent evaluation, the two men smoked cigars as Gibson told Fontecchio his only fault was he sometimes was too nice. Glowing reviews had moved Fontecchio up the ranks quickly; to be a gunnery sergeant after 12 years in the Corps was impressive.
So was his physique. A weight lifter, he kept a detailed calendar by his bed of his near-daily workouts, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,” with pages marked by Post-its. “He was what you think all Marines are supposed to look like,” said the assistant operations officer, Capt. Rory Quinn, 29, of the Bronx. “He was a physical stud.”
He also did not like to stay in camp too long. As his comrades recalled the events in interviews, that Wednesday Fontecchio joined a patrol.
At an Iraqi police station, they were told that Checkpoint 43, a two-room cinder-block police shelter, had been bombed. The checkpoint is in a lush fringe of the Euphrates River, where the desert suddenly yields to green fields of corn, okra, peppers and tomatoes. It is a pretty spot. And low: Small cliffs nearby offer a clear view of the road below. Four vehicles — with about 25 men — went to investigate.
As trained, the Marines dismounted and dispersed, scouting for clues or other bombs. After about 25 minutes, they started to pull back. The men walked toward their Humvees. Someone — perhaps on the cliffs above, perhaps hidden in a field, maybe passing on a nearby road — decided this was the moment to explode the foot-long, 155mm artillery shell that had been buried near Fontecchio’s vehicle.
“You don’t hear the blast. It doesn’t register,” said Staff Sgt. Shelby Lasater, 32, of Plano, Tex., who was about 150 feet away. “It happens so fast. You see a ball of fire, black smoke, then shrapnel, dirt, trees and branches flying. You feel the heat.”
Lasater followed his sprinting medical corpsman toward the center of the blast and found Gunny. “I asked him how old was his son. He told me. I said, ‘You’re going to see him.’ ”
Within minutes, one of two attack helicopters that were supporting the patrol dropped onto the road. Marines shoved in Fontecchio’s litter and loaded two of the wounded into seats. The “golden hour” so critical for survival of trauma victims was barely 20 minutes old when Gunny arrived at Camp Qaim. The Marines who unloaded him said he was talking. He would be all right, they believed.
The patrol resumed its hunt. A half-hour later, the men heard the blast of another roadside bomb about a mile away, near the police station. A patrol from W Company was closest and began to block off the area. Lance Cpl. Nice pulled off a roll of the razor-sharp concertina wire strapped to the hood of one of the Humvees. With heavy gloves, he unfurled the coil of wire, dragging it across one of the roads to stop traffic.
Like all the Marines, Nice wore a heavy vest with hardened plates in the front and back, the body armor that has saved many lives in this war. But as he turned to grapple with the wire, a single shot rang out. It pierced his side, under his raised arm, where the vest has only canvas webbing to allow flexibility. The bullet passed through his lungs and heart and exited the other side. He dropped on his back in the dust.
Staff Sgt. Chris Bengison, 31, heard the “crisp, clear pop” and calculated that the shot came from a cluster of two-story buildings in the distance. He and others laid down withering fire with their M-16 automatic rifles and a machine gun. Cpl. Jason Lemcke, 23, a squad leader, raced his Humvee toward the fallen Marine. Just as he opened the door, a shot crashed into the side mirror, just missing Lemcke’s head. He fell back.
Another Humvee pulled beside Nice, and Cpl. Robert Wells dragged him with one hand, firing an M-16 with the other. They raced toward the open area where Fontecchio had been airlifted. A Black Hawk helicopter was on the way.
As they waited, corpsmen Adam Clarke and John Patrick Crate began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. For each breath they gave, they got a mouthful of blood. They took turns, vomiting between their efforts. Nice’s eyes were glazed, his heart stopped, the life drained from the gaping wounds in his sides. He was dead before the helicopter landed.
The Marines assaulted the buildings. The sniper was gone.
‘The Wild West’
Anbar province, where the Marines are responsible for security, is larger than Virginia. It is a creased desert with hills and wadis — dry riverbeds this time of year — cut by the Euphrates River. Towns and clay-house villages follow the river south.
The 3rd Battalion is split between Qaim and Husaybah, which sits on the border with Syria. The men deal with the same shadowy enemies found elsewhere in Iraq: ex-army officers and Baath Party functionaries who saw their power evaporate with the fall of Saddam Hussein; Muslim zealots who slipped into Iraq; and Iraqis willing to fight for anyone who pays them. Added to the mix is a long tradition of smuggling and lawlessness.
“This is the Wild West, the frontier,” said Capt. Dominique Neal, a Naval Academy graduate whose Lima Company is in Husaybah. Neal, 29, became the company commander April 17 when Capt. Richard Gannon was killed in a gunfight along with four other Marines. When he got the news on the radio, Neal, the executive officer, followed procedure and took the call sign of the commander: “Lima 5 is now Lima 6,” he transmitted.
“It was the hardest message I ever sent,” he said. Their base is now named Camp Gannon.
A Tough Loss
The helicopter that whisked Fontecchio toward Camp Qaim settled onto a concrete landing pad 150 feet from the tents of FRSS — the Forward Resuscitative Surgical System. This is the modern version of the M*A*S*H unit, where surgeons operate as close to the action as they can get. There are only three such units in Iraq; Qaim’s casualty rate merits one of them.
Marines sprinted from the helicopter with a litter bearing the gunnery sergeant. “He was in very bad shape,” said Navy Capt. H. Don Elshire, 53, a surgeon who left a private practice in Orange County, Calif., to come to Iraq. “He was 15 feet from a high-explosive shell designed to destroy a tank. He should have come in here in pieces. It’s probably only because he was in such good shape that we even got him at all.”
Gunny was talking, trying to sit up, but he was pale, his heart was racing, and he had almost no pulse in his extremities. To the doctors, these were the neon-bright signs of shock; they meant massive loss of blood, somewhere. When Gunny’s uniform was cut away, it was clear the blood was not going out the wounds in his legs. But his belly was horribly distended, filled with internal bleeding.
Navy Capt. Kermit Booher, 60, an orthopedic surgeon, would assist in the surgery. When he saw the patient, he was startled to recognize a man he had met a day or two before, in the gym, who had been gregarious and friendly.
“He’s laying there, and you think, ‘Why is it the nice guys?’ ”
Fontecchio’s litter was lifted onto the brackets of the portable operating table in the tent. Halogen lights were swung over the patient. With no blood circulating, Fontecchio was already getting cold, so Elshire turned off the tent’s air conditioning. The 118-degree heat quickly nuzzled in.
Elshire slit open Gunny’s belly. “It is kind of like slicing into a water balloon. You can’t see what’s going on. You have to visually imagine where the blood’s coming from, and you have a few precious moments to do it.”
Elshire did the best he could. He found a sliced aorta, the body’s largest artery. He was able to stitch that. Then he found shrapnel that had entered Gunny’s leg and swept through the thin-walled veins in the pelvic region. “It had turned that area to shreds.” With no single wound to stitch, Elshire furiously packed the area to put pressure on the bleeding. As the minutes became an hour, then two, Elshire was sweating, soaked and starting to feel dizzy from the heat. Finally, he closed the incision.
“We had done everything we could,” Elshire said. Already, outside, the blades of a Black Hawk were spinning to take Gunny to the Army hospital in Baghdad. But Elshire and the others knew his odds were bad. They had already pumped nearly eight liters of blood into him — replacing his body’s entire volume.
Booher described it: “All of a sudden everything stopped. His heart stopped beating, the blood stopped oxygenating. He died almost immediately.”
For the doctors, it was a tough loss. In five months, the unit had seen 90 shock-trauma patients and operated on 20 of them. “Every single Marine who has come in here alive has left here alive,” Booher said. “With Gunny, it was more personal because we couldn’t save him. We spent a lot of time thinking about everything we did.
“People say, ‘You did your best. You did everything you could.’ All those platitudes — they are all true. But it still hurts.”
A Different War
Last year, this Marine battalion began the war in Kuwait and fought its way north to Baghdad, without losing a single member in combat. The troops had about five months at their home base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., then returned to Iraq. They came back to a different war.
“I knew it was going to be more deadly. But nothing to this degree,” Gibson, the Kilo Company commander, said over midnight rations of beans and rice. A wiry, intense man with a shaved head, Gibson, 35, said that on their first day out, a roadside bomb went off beside another captain’s vehicles. The next day, Gibson’s vehicle was hit. “I told the men, ‘This is a guerrilla war, an insurgency. Marines are going to die. But we have a duty and we’ll do it.’ ”
The Americans insist the majority of residents want them here to keep peace. Abed Ali Habad, who works for the Marines as an interpreter, disagrees. “People feel they suffered from the dictatorship of the Tikritis,” he said, referring to Hussein’s hometown clan. “Now we suffer from the dictatorship of the mujaheddin and the Americans. We need both to go.”
Lt. Col. Matthew Lopez, commanding officer of the nearly 2,000-man battalion, says he has seen Iraqis’ lives improve since the Marines arrived. Shops have reopened in Husaybah. An Iraqi police force is struggling to its feet. More than 80 schools have been rebuilt, along with water and electrical facilities. Violence, while still fitful, has generally decreased.
“By all accounts, we have been very successful,” he said. “But the success has come at a cost.”
Back at the base, the Kilo Company platoons gathered for a debrief, an exhaustive minute-by-minute rehash of what happened. This is standard — the U.S. military lives by script, rehearsal and review — but this meeting was heavy with loss. The men sat in plastic chairs in a room with filthy walls, their faces still smudged with dust, their eyes downcast, their guns beside them on the linoleum floor.
They debated the moves they had made. They reviewed their positions. They compared their observations. In the end, they concluded, the fatalities did not happen because of something they did wrong.
“We took casualties today,” Staff Sgt. Lasater told the men. “But you did your job.”
Gibson, the company commander, looked ahead: “There’s a sniper out there. We need to find him and kill him.”
Saad Ali, a grizzled Iraqi military veteran now part of a special unit working with the Americans, spoke through an interpreter. “The people of the area, I can read their faces,” he said. “They hate the American forces. Even pregnant women want to give birth earlier to fight you. The respect we show them, they don’t deserve. We should kill from every house one person and not be sad. We should kill from every house one man. The enemy is ruthless. We must be as ruthless.”
Silence greeted him as though he had thrown a dead dog on the floor. The Marines looked at one another in amazement at this Hussein-era prescription and rolled their eyes.
After the meeting, the platoon officers and the sergeants lingered to discuss how to handle the losses.
“Hell, I don’t want to get killed,” said Staff Sgt. Chris Bengison, 31, of Frederic, Wis. “But I’ve got a whole platoon that is looking at me. I can’t go soft on them. So you put your uniform on. You put your boots on. You put your flak jacket and helmet on and get back into the vehicle and do it again. That’s the only way you can make it.”
‘He Was a Kid’
Later that night the men were in their barracks, a train depot divided with plywood and hanging tarps to create an illusion of privacy. No one is more than an arm’s reach from the next bunk. The place is decorated with pinups and slogans painted on the wall, and jammed with gear and heaps of clothes and magazines.
“When you are back here, you think, ‘I was standing right next to Nice,’ ” Bengison said. “Why him, and not me? What if the sniper had a little different angle?”
In Marine parlance, Nice was a “boot drop” — someone who had just joined the unit from basic training. He was raised in Ohio, and when his parents divorced, he went to Oklahoma with his mother and grandmother. He got good grades in high school but decided to follow his father and grandfather into the service, as many Marines do.
“Nice was a good kid. That’s what he was — a kid,” Lasater said gently. “He grew up fast being here for six months, but . . . he was a kid. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink.”
“He always had a smile on his face,” added Lt. Chris McManus. “He was one of those guys that you ask to do stuff and it’s already done.” Others in the barracks used him as a “scribe,” to write letters. He was a whiz with a computer and figured out the unit’s complex new electronic tracking system in a day.
“He was the kind of kid his father and mother could be proud of,” Lasater said.
In the officers’ section, a four-foot-wide corridor packed with four cots, 1st Lt. Rudy Salcido, 29, of Tucson, slowly sorted through the items in the empty bunk below his — Fontecchio’s bunk.
The first group from the 3rd Battalion was supposed to begin flying back to Kuwait, and then California, in two weeks. Within a month, the whole battalion, including Fontecchio, would have been on its way home.
“He was going to read these on the plane home,” said Salcido, thumbing through two how-to books on child-rearing. “He talked about his kid all the time. He would sit and chat about how he has been away so long and wanted to make it back to them. He was really devoted to his family.”
The men knew that just about then two Marines in dress uniforms were giving the news to Fontecchio’s wife, Kinney, who was visiting her mother in Virginia Beach with 2-year-old Elia Jr. Two more Marines were at the home of Nice’s mother in Prague, Okla.
1st Sgt. Michael Templeton, 40, was a longtime friend of Fontecchio’s. He shook his head. “I held Gunny’s hand as he came in on the litter. I told him his last lie: ‘You’ll be okay.’ ”
Back on Patrol
The sun rises. The war goes on. Patrols go out. By the next day, the 6 a.m. touch football game had resumed in the parking lot. A squad jogged by in unison, wearing rifles, chanting in cadence. The e-mail blackout imposed after every casualty to stop rumors from flying home was lifted, and within minutes, 26 Marines lined up at the computer tent for their turn to send messages home.
“The first killed-in-action we had, everybody was quiet for a long time,” said Lt. Daniel Casey, 30, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Chicago. “They stood around the hallways here, and nobody even thought of going for chow. It’s sad what you get accustomed to. Unfortunately, now we have a casualty and the routine just goes on. You feel guilty, but that’s how it is.”
Two days later, a Kilo Company patrol rolled out of the gates. The men called it an “H and D” patrol — a search for “hate and discontent.” They would stop anyone who looked suspicious, search any house where their waves were returned by a sullen glare. Maybe they would find some weapons. Maybe someone would react.
“We’re out there trying to draw fire. That’s the only way we can get them, if they come out to fight,” said Cpl. Jack Self.
Their work space was a hot, jammed vehicle covered inside and out with dust. The interior was crowded with metal ammo boxes, a rocket launcher, grenades, boxes of water, radios sprouting plugs and cords. In their vehicle, a gunner stood in the swiveling turret with a 7.62mm machine gun and a TOW missile launcher. The other men rode with their M-16 rifles at the ready.
They said little as the Humvees rolled, turning off the main highway and prowling the dirt roads of the village of Sadah. Children poured out of the houses to watch. Some waved and clapped. One little girl put her thumbs in her ears and wagged her hands, sticking out her tongue. In the back seat, Lance Cpl. Christopher Blissard, 21, of Brandon, Miss., shrugged.
The insurgents’ rocket launchers and roadside bombs are often ingeniously made, so the patrol stopped at a machine shop in the village. The Marines rousted eight workers, standing them in a line, checking their identity papers. One door was locked. A Marine with a hammer broke the padlock, revealing a small shop stocked with candy and ice cream.
The patrol moved on, their trail of dust drifting over the surrounding houses. They passed heaps of garbage, trucks and tractors in disrepair, vegetable gardens and sheep.
The village seemed placid, pastoral. The residents sleep at midday, awaiting the relative cool of evening. But it is not always calm here, the Marines said. There have been six roadside bombings at a spot near where Gunny was killed. And see that alley? It was rocket alley a few weeks ago, when an American patrol was met by a volley of rocket-propelled grenades.
As they climbed a bumpy street, one Marine said he saw a young man hastily throw something over a low wall. The Marines surrounded a house and brought out seven young men. The Americans ordered them to lie on the ground facedown, with their hands behind their heads. Other Marines searched behind the low stone wall and went through the house, room by room. Four children, two women and an old man sat on the porch, apprehensive and silent.
The Marines found nothing and left. The young men got up, dusting off their clothes and glancing sidelong at the departing Humvees.
House after house was like this. Young men lined up sullenly when ordered. Only the old women were fearless, scolding the Americans in loud Arabic. “Shut up,” a Marine snapped in English.
The Marines returned to their Humvees. In the heat, rivulets of sweat appeared from under Kevlar helmets, mingled with dust and disappeared under armored vests. The discomfort added to the tension of being exposed to attack.
“Having a sniper out there scares the hell out of me,” confided one Marine. “He’s a pretty good one, too. Only three shots, and he got one of ours — Nice. And he almost got Lemcke.”
Four hours after leaving, the patrol returned to base. The Marines had found no weapons, made no arrests. Some were disappointed.
“It’s always nice to get a bad guy,” said Cpl. Travis Struecker, 21, of Algona, Iowa. “It’s pretty frustrating when we can’t find them. A lot of the guys were pretty pissed after Gunny’s death. They wanted to kick some ass.”
The men of the 3rd Battalion formed up Saturday morning in crisp, straight lines. The first notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” brought them rigid, their arms cocked in salutes. In front of the formation, 1st Sgt. Templeton called roll three times. At the names Fontecchio and Nice, the only answer was the snapping of the American and Marine Corps flags.
An honor guard stabbed the absent Marines’ rifles, bayonets down, into sandbags on the parking lot. Their helmets were placed on the rifle stocks. Empty boots in front. “The more of these we do, the harder it gets,” said Lopez, the battalion commander. “And the harder we get.”
The officers said a few words. Gibson, the company commander, acknowledged Fontecchio’s priorities: “He was a father first and foremost. And he was a Marine.” Nice, he said, “never said much, but you always knew he was there, taking care of your back.”
Templeton added: “If there’s a gym in heaven, Gunny’s there.”
Fontecchio was never much for sermons. At the last ceremony, the chaplain’s words didn’t capture what was important to the men, he thought. So he wrote out detailed instructions for his own ceremony — just in case. No sermons. He added a few words of goodbye:
“I loved every one of you. You will forever be my brothers in arms.”
The Marines broke ranks and filed past the upended rifles, each man touching the helmets in farewell. They were slumped. A few shed tears. Salcido crossed himself. Lopez, the last before the honor guard broke, saluted each rifle.
Slowly, the men drifted back to their bunks. Those on duty picked up their helmets and shrugged on their heavy flak jackets.
Sixteen minutes later, the next patrol headed out the gate, trailing a plume of dust in the desert.