This month marks the 10-year anniversary of some of the fiercest and deadliest fighting of the entire war in Iraq. Throughout the month of August in 2004, American forces battled Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's Jaish Al Mahdi militia throughout the buildings, streets, and world's largest cemetery of An Najaf before finally coming to a cease fire outside of the Imam Ali mosque. At the time, I was a young private first class on my first deployment with 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, the primary fighting unit on the ground at that time as 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Battalion Landing Team.
On August 5, militia fighters who had been using the cemetery as a weapons and ammunition storage point crossed the street and attacked an Iraqi police station. After the initial attacks, a quick reaction force from the 11th MEU was called in to help protect the police station. At approximately 11 a.m., the Mahdi militia attacked the police station again, this time meeting fierce resistance from the Marines. A slugfest ensued.
As the Marines chased the Mahdi fighters back into the cemetery, they quickly realized they were outnumbered and called for backup from MEU headquarters. Sometime during the first day of fighting, a Marine UH-1N Huey helicopter was shot down and an immediate rescue mission was called to locate the pilot and co-pilot. It was a race against time as both militia and U.S. units had watched the helicopter get shot down while it was providing critical close-air support above the cemetery. It was at around this time that my company, Alpha, received the call to load up and head into the fight.
I had just come off my duty shift training the Iraqi army troops. I was tired and had decided to take some “Ripped-Fuel”, which is a workout stimulant, so I could go get some quality gym time in before I got too tired to move. I had never taken it before and didn't know how powerful it was. Just as my heart started to race from the effects, my platoon sergeant came up and told us we were headed into Najaf to assist units under heavy fire. Helicopters were taking off and racing overhead and there were reports that our base may come under immediate attack as the whole city was getting ready to blow.
I remember trying to calm my head and filling my daypack with ammunition, grenades, batteries, water, and a couple of MREs. I was so amped that I went around head-butting guys who had their Kevlar helmets on and yelling “Fuck yeah!!! Let's get some!!!” There was so much adrenaline in the air you could feel it. I remember briefly scribbling a letter to my dad which I had started a couple of days ago, mentioning that we were headed into the fight. He still has that letter somewhere and I read it this past Christmas for the first time; it gave me a unique perspective on what the war looked like to our families at home. Here he was worried about me in Iraq and I'm writing about how excited I am to finally go do my job and get into real combat.
A lot of the emotions of heading into the fight are still as mixed now as they were a decade ago. As we loaded into trucks and rolled out the gate that evening, I remember being a little scared but not wanting to show it. A couple of other platoons had headed up before us and I believe we were the last ones up, after having just dealt with an assault on our own local police station. I remember envisioning what it would look like once we were taking fire. I vividly remember sitting in the back of the truck and thinking about how weird it would be to actually shoot someone. I convinced myself that I was going to be meaner and more aggressive than the enemy himself; that I was the face of the enemy to the militia. It still crosses my mind often as one of those self-revelations that change the game. I remember wondering whether or not I would do well in combat, if I would remember all that I had learned and trained for, and most importantly wondering if I would have the courage and strength that my teammates needed from me. It's easy to envision yourself racing out under machine gun fire and explosions to save one of your brothers… It's a whole different matter to have the balls to pull that off under real circumstances.
Over the next few days, the Marines and soldiers fought through the cemetery killing hundreds of enemy fighters and losing four of our own. The fighting was up close and intense because the cemetery was a maze of tombstones with an underground tunnel network and was flanked on it's sides by tall hotels used by enemy snipers. In the military, they tell you about the threat of a 3-dimensional battlefield with threats from above, on level, and below. This was a perfect example. The fighting was so intense it was later compared to the legendary battle for Hue City in Vietnam. We had numerous guys who received medals at the end of the fighting for doing crazy heroic things which none of us even realized while we were doing it. Marines crossing open terrain under heavy fire, throwing a hand grenade into an open window while running, and then breaching the door and eliminating machine-gun teams or sniper positions or Marines running back into the fight to rescue the body of a mortally wounded comrade against the intense AK-47 fire and rocket attacks of enemy fighters. Gunships roaring overhead on “rockets and guns” runs, destroying enemy positions dangerously close, which we could barely see from the ground due to the jumble of mausoleums and tombstones. The dust and sand and 120-degree heat and constant threat of the enemy in literally every direction caused us to fight two steps forward and one step back for three intense days before headquarters decided to pull us out and resort to targeted raids on our own terms hitting the enemy in their storage facilities, safe houses, and strongholds under the cover of night.
It's now been a decade. Some of the memories are fuzzy at best. Others are clear as day. All still hold more emotion than I ever imagined they would while we were just out there together fighting for or lives. War is an interesting thing. And now, watching ISIS take back the country and behead hundreds or thousands of innocent citizens and the soldiers we fought alongside leaves me… Speechless. Unsurprised, but speechless.
Dave Smith is a former Marine infantryman and a graduate of UC Berkeley. He is currently on an 11-month missions trip around the world. Follow his adventure here.