Reversals in hard-won Iraqi city vex veterans

Thursday - 1/9/2014, 3:24am EST

ALLEN G. BREED
Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Shirley Parrello knows that her youngest boy believed in his mission in Iraq. But as she watches Iraqi government forces try to retake the hard-won city of Fallujah from al-Qaida-linked fighters, she can't help wondering if it was worth Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Parrello's sacrifice.

"I'm starting to feel that his death was in vain," the West Milford, N.J., woman said of her 19-year-old son, who died in an explosion there on Jan. 1, 2005. "I'm hoping that I'm wrong. But things aren't looking good over there right now."

The 2004 image of two charred American bodies hanging from a bridge as a jubilant crowd pelted them with shoes seared the city's name into the American psyche. The brutal house-to-house battle to tame the Iraqi insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad cemented its place in U.S. military history.

But while many are disheartened at Fallujah's recent fall to Islamist forces, others try to place it in the context of Iraq's history of internal struggle since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. And they don't see the reversal as permanent.

"I'm very disappointed right now, very frustrated," says retired Marine Col. Mike Shupp, who commanded the regimental combat team that secured the city in late 2004. "But this is part of this long war, and this is just another fight, another battle in this long struggle against terrorism and oppression."

Former scout sniper Earl J. Catagnus Jr. fought and bled in the taking of that ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River. Now a military historian, Catagnus feels the battle has taken on an almost disproportionate importance in the American mind.

"If you watch 'NCIS' or anything that has a Marine ... they always say, 'Oh, I was in Fallujah,'" says the Purple Heart recipient, who left the military as a staff sergeant in 2006 and is now an assistant professor of history at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pa. "For the new generation, it's because everybody keeps mentioning it. And that is the battle that really made a warrior a warrior. ...

"It's just for us as Americans, because we've elevated that battle to such high standards ... that it becomes turned into the 'lost cause,' the Vietnam War syndrome."

In the annals of the Marine Corps, the battle for Fallujah looms large.

The fighting there began in April 2004 after four security contractors from Blackwater USA were killed and the desecrated bodies of two were hung from a bridge. The so-called second battle of Fallujah -- code-named Operation Phantom Fury -- came seven months later.

For several bloody weeks, the Marines went house-to-house in what has been called some of the heaviest urban combat involving the Corps since the Battle of Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968. Historian Richard Lowry, who interviewed nearly 200 veterans of the Iraq battle, likens it to "a thousand SWAT teams going through the city, clearing criminals out."

"They entered darkened rooms, kicking down doors, never knowing if they would find an Iraqi family hunkered down in fear or an Islamist terrorist waiting to shoot them and kill them," says Lowry, author of the book "New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah."

About 100 Americans died and another 1,000 were wounded during the major fighting there, Lowry says, adding that it's difficult to overstate Fallujah's importance in the Iraq war.

"Up until that time, the nation was spiraling into anarchy, totally out of control," says Lowry, a Vietnam-era submarine veteran. "The United States Marine Corps -- with help from the Army and from the Iraqis -- went into Fallujah and cleared the entire city and brought security to Anbar Province, allowing the Iraqis to hold their first successful election."

And that is why the al-Qaida takeover is such a bitter disappointment for many.

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Garrett Anderson's unit lost 51 members in the city. When he considers whether the fighting was in vain, it turns his stomach.

"As a war fighter and Marine veteran of that battle, I feel that our job was to destroy our enemy. That was accomplished at the time and is why our dead will never be in vain. We won the day and the battle," said the 28-year-old, who now studies filmmaking in Portland, Ore. "If Marines were in that city today there would be dead Qaida all over the streets again, but the reality is this is only the beginning of something most people who have been paying attention since the war began knew was going to end this way."