Exactly a decade ago, I was getting ready to invade the city of Fallujah.
I was with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and we had moved out of the staging area into the position where we would start clearing the city of Fallujah as part of Operation Phantom Fury. Our battalion had prepared us for a bitter fight against insurgents bedded down in the city, forces we now know were the precursor insurgency forces to the brutal militants who make up the Islamic State, but what were then called Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In my ruckpack, I carried a massive, hand-stitched American flag — a gift from my grandfather. Spanning more than 9 feet by 5 feet, it was made by the Valley Forge Flag Company in Pennsylvania. My grandfather bought it at a gun show and gave it to me before my first deployment to Iraq.
“My grandson needs to have that flag,” he told me.
Now, on the doorstep of a major battle, we were motivated. We had been fed good food; the 1st Marine Division generals and commanders had given us speeches; and our own company-level commanders, and higher up enlisted leaders were coming around shaking hands, looking us in the eye, and wishing us well.
I remember the somber feeling in the air. They did not lie to us, they let us know we were in for a fight. They let us know that there would be casualties and it was up to our intensity level to control the tempo and tone of the battle. This is what we all joined the Marine Corps to do: to get the opportunity to go head-to-head with our nation’s enemies, to prove that we are the dominant force on the battlefield. Deep down, we were all eager to prove ourselves and carry on the proud legacy of Marine Corps history in combat. We all had in the back of our minds those Marines who went before us, who made history in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Now it was our turn. So, we mentally prepared for the fight of our lives and focused on what we could control, which was relying on our training, experience of the previous months in country, and the man on the left and the right.
On the evening before we were set to invade the city, one of my senior Marines, Cpl. Theodore Bowling, came to me and asked if I still had my grandfather’s flag. Bowling knew about the flag because I hung it up at Forward Operating Base Abu-Gharib in the infamous prison. Bowling asked me if he could carry it with him in the invasion. I was reluctant to say yes at first, but I trusted him so much and respected him so much, like everyone else did in our platoon, I gave him a motivated, “Yes, corporal!” and handed the flag folded properly over to him.
He looked at me and said, “Tomorrow, when we take the city, I am going to climb high and hang this flag up where everyone can see it. This is our time in history to have our flag raised.”
The idea of this made my patriotic heart burst with excitement. As Marines, we all have the images of the flag raising at Iwo Jima in World War II seared in our brains. It’s an iconic image most Americans know. But with all the logistics and planning mixed with anxiety, excitement, and fear that night, my thoughts of the flag faded as I just tried to focus on my job that I needed to do to make it out alive and get my Marines out alive.
Under the cover of darkness, we approached the Fallujah train station. As we crept closer in the dark, we took contact from enemy rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire. Our machine gunners immediately opened up and returned fire from our platoon’s trucks and our squads dismounted and took cover from behind the large railroad berms.
With line charges, we blew three causeways across the railroad berms, then Israeli armored bulldozers pushed the dirt out of our way. Now the operation was fully underway. After we started sustaining casualties in the first few blocks, I heard over my radio that we lost three Marines, two of whom I knew personally.
One of our senior Marines, Lance Cpl. Sunshine Yubeta came on the net and said, “This just got fucking real, boys; keep your shit tight!”
From then on it was full on war — taking fire, returning fire, Marines yelling, “Corpsman up!” punctuating the sounds of cracks of gunfire flying past our heads, and the explosions of tank fire, the exchanges of rocket fire from them and us — just total all-out war.
We systematically carried out our mission, clearing house-to-house. At the end of each day, we heard the word of who was killed or wounded in action. It was consistently guys who I knew, guys who I came to 3/1 with. It was incredibly sad news, and each night, I wondered if tomorrow was my day to die.
After a few days, Bowling’s squad pushed up to a building and got pinned down in a huge firefight on the rooftop. The firefight was so intense, they were calling on the radio for more ammo. Our platoon gathered more magazines full of ammo and handed them over for re-supply. Then they took a few casualties as the firefight ensued and the radio became chaotic with the screams of “Corpsman up!” punching through sounds blazing over the radio. It was the worst sound I have ever heard on any radio.
Bowling was shot in the neck, killed in action that day leading his Marines in a brutal firefight with the enemy. It was the lowest point for our platoon, I think, in the whole invasion because of how much we all respected our corporal. At this point, my grandfather’s flag was not even in my mind. We had a long way to go to finish clearing the city, and there was still a lot of work to do. We kept going, fighting, pushing our way across alleys, fighting at every break. Enemy fighters kept trying to immobilize our trucks with rocket-propelled grenades, but they never got one. We took some casualties in those alleys, but we kept going until eventually we made our objectives happen.
Marines with 1st Marine Division patrol the streets of Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. James J. Vooris
Once we did this, we still had to go back, clear houses, and make sure we had our areas secured. This was because we began to encounter random pop shots that were being taken at us by shithead insurgents. These insurgents had slipped through tunnels they dug between courtyards and houses behind us. They were hellbent on killing Marines. So, we went and killed them first. Things finally calmed down. The city of Fallujah was virtually demolished, war torn with the smell of dead bodies everywhere, munitions laying in the streets, empty bullet casings that in some areas covered the entire street. Dead bodies were all over the place and stray dogs and cats feasted on enemy dead.
It was in this time of relative quiet that I began to think about the flag. I wondered if it was lost. I began to search for it frantically, as much as I could, and whenever I could. My attachment to this flag was much more intense after knowing Bowling carried it on the invasion with the intention of hanging it up high over the streets of Fallujah. I searched everywhere, even asking the members of his squad if they knew its whereabouts; no one did. It was nowhere to be found, and I was crushed.
One day we made our way back to the battalion aid station at the train station, where Marines received medical care, and I asked one Corpsman if I could get into where they were holding all of the battlefield-issued gear for the Marines who were killed in action. I told him the story of my flag and its meaning to me. He understood and let me in. It was a memory that will be seared into my head forever. I dug through all the KIA’s gear and found my fallen corporal’s rucksack. With excitement, I prayed for the flag to be there; it was not. My heart sunk. I began to settle with the reality that it, like my corporal and friend, was a combat loss. I was so disappointed in myself.
More than a month later, my company had control over the flour factory in Fallujah near the bridge where four Blackwater contractors were killed, burned, and hanged earlier that year. We had begun guard duties and patrolling operations in the city. Our deployment was coming to an end, and I was still having trouble getting over the fact that I lost the flag. I felt a lot of shame that burned inside me just about every day. One day, after standing a post at the flour factory, just days before I was set to return home, I was talking with one of the machine gunners, Lance Cpl. Chance Bowman, who was attached to our platoon and a random thought popped into my head about where the flag might be.
I turned to Bowman and asked, “Hey man, do you know what truck Bowling was in when we invaded?”
He said, “Yeah, I think he was in that one right there.” He pointed into the flour factory courtyard where the trucks were staged and I ran down to the passenger seat, since Bowling was the passenger in that truck on the day of the invasion. I thought to look behind the green kevlar armor that was in the trucks during those times, and pulled the armor back, where there was a small hollow space. I saw a black trash bag tied up with something inside of it, filling in the space perfectly. I ripped open the trash bag and the flag was staged perfectly inside. I immediately felt an incredible mix of pride and sadness fall over me. This flag was an incredible embodiment of the journey I had been on through Fallujah. However, I kept the story of the flag to myself as we returned home.
I ended up doing two more tours with 3/1 to Iraq after the Fallujah deployment. With each, I took the flag with me and hung it up wherever we were. I told only a few Marines its story so those who needed it could see it as a sign of hope and reminder of what we fought for every day we went outside the wire. The flag hung at Haditha Dam, various combat outposts, and forward operating bases during the surge.
The flag did two more Marine Corps deployments than I did. One of my best friends from high school, Kevin Houser, carried it with him on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with Marine combat engineers, clearing improvised explosive devices. I told him the significance of the flag and he was honored to carry it on multiple missions. But he and I lost touch after I separated from active duty and he still had the flag. I once again grew worried about its whereabouts.
A few months ago, a package showed up in the mail. I opened it and stared at the flag. As I held it, my emotions overtook me. I sat down and thought about where the flag had traveled, about the Marines who had been in contact with it, both living and dead. Days later, I found myself at a chamber of commerce meeting for patriotic business owners in my small town in Oregon.They were not expecting me to talk about the flag that day, but about what I do for business. Instead, I used my time to talk about Bowling and passed a picture of him around the room. I didn't make it a quarter of the way through the story before my chin started quivering and tears started rolling down my cheeks. I was so proud to share the story not just for Bowling, but for all of the Marines who had made sacrifices for the flag.
The author at a recent memorial commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the Battle of Fallujah, with a Marine brother, Jeremy Johnson, under one arm and the flag under the other.Photo courtesy of Chad Russell
I recently took the flag with me on our memorial hike at the reunion to honor the 10th anniversary of the Battle for Fallujah. I got to tell this story to my fellow Lima Company brothers, and proudly took out the flag to honor it and its journey through the war. Bowling made that same hike with us before we deployed, and I believe his spirit was with us that weekend. The flag had made a full 10-year circle back to its rightful home. I am so thankful to have it, not only as a piece of American history, but as a part of our 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines warrior culture.
We need to tell these stories to give pride and hope to future generations of Marines, and young Americans who will one day shoulder the burdens of our future wars. Someone has to tell them these stories. I feel lucky to have served in a unit filled with heroes like Bowling. They are the men of the post-9/11 generation that; as Col. Willard Buhl, 3/1’s former commander, pointed out at our reunion: “Have shouldered the load in America’s longest war to date.”