In early November, 2004, Pfc. Christopher Adlesperger held a Bible reading for some of the other Marines in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, Fifth Marines. The Second Battle of Fallujah had just kicked off, and 3/5 was preparing to clear one of the city’s most volatile sectors, the Jolan neighborhood. Adlesperger was well aware of the dangers that lay ahead. In the days leading up to the start of the operation, he had asked friends and family back home to pray for him and his fellow Marines.

On Nov. 10, the day Kilo Company’s part in Operation Phantom Fury began, Adlesperger proved to be one of the unit’s most lethal assets, distinguishing himself as a fearless and determined warrior during a brutal firefight that lasted 30 minutes and was waged at extremely close range. The 20-year-old Albuquerque native survived that battle, where he earned the nation’s second-highest award for valor in combat, but tragically did not make it home from Iraq alive.  

“He was one tough bastard,” Col. Patrick Malay, the battalion commander, later recalled.

(second from the right) Marine Sgt. Alexander Munoz, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, lines up with the 5th Marines, as the platoon sergeant gives them orders to clear a building in the second push during Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004 Photo via DVIDS
(second from the right) Marine Sgt. Alexander Munoz, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, lines up with the 5th Marines, as the platoon sergeant gives them orders to clear a building in the second push during Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004

In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, people who knew Adlesperger described him as a quiet and religious kid who had never given the Marine Corps much thought until he enlisted soon after his 19th birthday. And by most accounts, he didn’t fit the typical Marine mold. According to members of his family, Adlesperger loved art and poetry, and had once cringed at the thought of killing birds during a hunting trip. However, the heroism Adlesperger displayed in Fallujah put to rest any questions of whether he was cut out for a profession he had chosen seemingly out of the blue. Adlesperger was, it turned out, a Marine through and through.

In Fallujah, Kilo Company, like most of the other units that took part in Operation Phantom Fury, was tasked with sweeping their assigned sector for insurgents, who had adopted a tactic of hunkering down in buildings and ambushing American troops at close range as they moved house-to-house. The mission began just after dawn on Nov. 10.

“We had cleared buildings all day, hundreds of them, but on that 101st house, that’s the one that gets you, and that’s what happened,” Gunnery Sgt. Paul Starner, Adlesperger’s platoon sergeant, told the LA Times.

The 101st house turned out to be an insurgent command-and-control center. Surrounded by a wall and manned by dozens of well-armed insurgents, it was a virtual fortress. Adlesperger’s friend, Lance Cpl. Erick Hodges, was first into the courtyard. He was killed immediately by a barrage of machine gun fire. As the Marines rushed in, two more were shot — one in the stomach, the other in the leg — and the insurgents started throwing grenades. Adlesperger and the remainder of the team fought back. The enemy was no more than 20 feet away.

The battle escalated as enemy rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire reigned from multiple positions, and insurgents pursued Adlesperger as he assisted the two wounded Marines up an outside stairway. By the time the Marines made it to the roof of the compound, Adlesperger was bleeding from shrapnel wounds to his face. Meanwhile, Hodges’ lifeless body remained in the courtyard, still drawing enemy fire. At one point, an insurgent attempted to seize Hodges’ weapon. Adlesperger killed him with a single shot.

The enemy machine gun, which was firing from a concealed location within the house, was keeping Marines gathered on the perimeter of the compound from launching an assault. Unable to get a clear view, Adlesperger used his grenade launcher to blow holes in the building and expose the enemy. Then he sprayed the insurgents with his M-16, killing four of them as they fled.

Marines soon joined Adlesperger on the rooftop and the wounded were prepared for evacuation. Once the preparations were made and Hodges’ body was removed, the Marines breached one side of the building with an amphibious assault vehicle. Adlesperger volunteered to be the first man in. According to his medal citation, Adlesperger encountered one more insurgent in the courtyard, whom he shot and killed at close range.

By the time the dust had settled, Adlesperger had killed a total of 11 insurgents; although, according to the LA Times, the number might have been higher.  

For his actions on the ground that day, Adlesperger was promoted to lance corporal and awarded both a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross. But several weeks later, in early December, Adlesperger was shot multiple times while running point during a raid on another house in Fallujah. As he approached the house, a surprise burst of enemy rounds struck Adlesperger’s body armor, spinning him around and exposing his side, at which point he was shot in the heart and died immediately. His death was deeply felt throughout the unit.

“This is to you and your family, a sincere thank-you for letting all of us come home and live and love,” a member of Kilo Company later wrote in an online tribute to Adlesperger. “But most importantly, showing us what sacrifice and being a true man is all about.”

More than 500 people attended Adlesperger’s funeral in Sante Fe.