My dad was with the navy for twenty years. He met my mom at Subic Bay in the Philippines. My brother and sister and I were all born in the Philippines. We moved to the States when I was a year old. My dad was stationed all up and down the East Coast, so every four years he'd reenlist and we'd move. I've lived everywhere from Georgia to Canada. I must have gone to seven different schools, maybe more. His last duty station was the Naval Air Station in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. Then he retired and we moved to Maine. I finished high school in Winslow.
I kind of got scared before graduation. The guidance counselor was getting together information for a flyer with every graduate's name and what they were planning to do next. I didn't know. I remmeber one buddy of mine, his name was Maxwell, said, "Man, if I could, I'd go right into the Marines." I looked at him and said, "Yeah, you know, Max, that's not a bad idea." Most people going into the Marines jump right into it. Other people sit around and think about it. I'm one of those who jumped right into it.
Basic training was in Parris Island, South Carolina. I really didn't know what to expect. We were finally introduced to our four drill instructors, and our senior drill instructor said, "You're on my time now." Pretty much all hell broke loose. Basic training was real hard physically, and mentally, too. The yelling was constant. These were kids, teens taking it to heart, and they were crying a lot. I told them, "You know, these guys don't know you. Just have a thick skin. If the drill instructor says, 'Hey, are you and idiot?' just tell them what they want to hear and they'll leave you alone." Really, any Joe on the street could complete it, no problem, as long as he could stick it out mentally.
After I left basic training, I had ten days on leave before reporting to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for all my infantry training. This was going to be my job for four years. When I was talking to my buddy, I said, "If I'm going to be in the Marines, I'm not going into anything else but the infantry." I wanted to do the hardest job. I wanted to be on the front line.
I reported to California for a six- or seven-month training cycle. We started hearing rumors about making our way to the Middle East. I said to myself, well this is what we get paid to do.
I'd say I was 90 percent scared and 10 percent excited. Or it may have been 90 percent excited and 10 percent scared. By that time I'd been in the Marines for barely over a year, but I felt I was trained and ready to go. I was over in Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom twice.
The first time we pushed through from Kuwait to Iraq we were riding in assault vehicles. There were a bunch of reporters with us. Most of the time the Iraqi forces really didn't put up a fight. We would point a weapon at them; they'd throw down their weapons and throw up their hands. They had been out of food and water for a couple of weeks. We captured quite a few, well over four hundred prisoners, on the first day. We treated them fine. We kept pushing forward to the city of An Nasiriyah, and believe it or not, I still hadn't fired my weapon once. The enemy didn't want to fight.
We were the reaction force. Wherever the military wanted us, that was where we went. We didn't get a whole lot of resistance. I think the Iraqi soldiers were happy to surrender because they knew we were going to give them food and water if we captured them.
My best memory from that tour was of this elderly man walking with his son over to us. The son was translating what his father was saying: "Thank you. i've been waiting for seventy years to be free and now I'm free."
We got the order that they didn't need us anymore so we hopped on a C-130 cargo plane. We were back in the States for eight months and then we were called back overseas again.
We got our orders to go to Fallujah next. I did my research, and it was described as hell on earth. The soldiers in the 101st Airborne were saying that it wasn't a matter of if you'd get a Purple Heart, it was a matter of when. I'd torn the ACL in my right leg and had reconstructive surgery, so I didn't have to go to Fallujah. In fact, the doctor on the transport ship recommended that I not go. On my own wishes, I went back into battle. The doctor made me sign a waiver. That pretty much set the tone for everybody else: I hurt my leg and I'm fighting. The message was: you guys need to suck it up.
We had a tight-knit unit, a bunch of comedians. We were like brothers. If I've got five bucks in my pocket, you've got five bucks in your pocket. I'd give you the shirt off my back and you'd do the same for me. Carlos Gomez- Perez was a rifleman in our group. He was originally from Mexico City, Mexico, and now he's from El Cajon, California. He's a natural born leader. He's an animal. He's so smart and he knows so much and then he puts it to use.
We were all sitting around in Kuwait for a week and then we started to convoy up. It took us about thirteen hours to get from the border of Kuwait to Fallujah. We were lucky because we didn't see one roadside bomb the whole way. Then we reached Camp Fallujah. I remember the guys from the 101st Airborne telling us that if we did foot patrols in Fallujah, we were crazy. It was something that had always been done on mounted patrol. When we finally took over for them, we didn't know what to expect. I remember hearing these, thud, thud, thuds, and I thought, What the hell is that? We were getting mortared and rocketed every single day. For the first three days, we were running around, grabbing our helmets and body armor, but the army guys were doing nothing. They told us, "Don't worry, you'll get used to it."
We started out doing mounted patrols in Fallujah, just getting situated. The next thing we knew, a roadside bomb blew up and Marines died. Colonel Olsen said that we weren't going to have that, and that we should get ourselves ready to go into the city. This was the first foot patrol ever done by the military in Fallujah. At the time we got our orders, we were watching the story of the three American contractors who were captured inside the city and were burned and hanged from the bridge.
The first day we patrolled for eight hours and we ran out of water by the end of the day. We were all dehydrated because the temperature was pushing ninety-five degrees. We recived a couple of pot-shots, RPGs, and there was a car bomb detonated near one of the other platoons. We returned to the observation post and let the people who lived in Fallujah know that we were coming into the city and that they should leave. We got our orders to push into the city. You could see this fairly intense firefight going on. We were driving in our Humvee getting shot at by snipers, and mortar rounds were impacting next to us. I was thinking, this ain't good.
We had orders to link up with the rest of the company. Our first mission was to take this old schoolhouse, a big two-story building with an open courtyard. We took a lot of casualties, mean I've known since I checked into the unit. I thought, Wow, this is war.
We didn't want to keep our platoon there so we ended up changing places with the Third Platoon on the ring, the outskirts of the city. We were in a house near a cemetery and the mosque. We were receiving potshots and mortar rounds, but nothing too intense. We stood on the roof and could see the insurgents running around the streets, darting from house to house and hugging eight-foot walls that surrounded every home.
I remember being on watch with Lance Corporal Sanchez from Inglewood, California. I said, "Hey, I got a bad feeling." Everybody else had that same feeling. About four thirty a.m., it was still dark out and we really couldn't see, so we were all wearing night-vision goggles. We got tapped to go to a house on the north side of a T intersection. We patrolled the nearby cemetery and then scaled the wall with a makeshift ladder. We moved through so quietly you couldn't tell we were there. There was no activity whatsoever.
I was on the downstairs floor just waiting, watching for anything going on. Our mission was to locate the enemy and take them out. At eight a.m. one of the other teams took a mortar round to the house they were in. No one was hurt, but the enemy knew we were there. We got orders to leave half our squad inside the house and the other half would go and clear out this big mosque. It was eight stories, straight up in the air. We cleared it out and didn't find anything. We pushed back to our friendly lines and rested for twenty minutes.
Then we heard six or seven loud explosions on top of our roof. We had been so worried about looking down the street and trying to find sniper positions that we forgot about the houses right next to us. There were insurgents on the roof of the house next door launching grenades. The next thing I knew, Lance Corporal Fincannon ran down the stairs missing half his left arm. The insurgents had thrown a grenade and Fincannon was trying to use his body to protect his machine gun. He's a machine gunner and he didn't want anything to happen to his weapon.
Corporal Gomez ran upstairs to help bring the wounded down. We got on the handset and told them we needed medevacs. Instantly, we ran outside. I was shooting my M16 through a window right across from where I was standing. About the closest target was fifteen meters away. I was shooting fast and burned through two magazines like they were nothing. I saw insurgents with turbans, beards, and AK-47s running back and forth. I was just amazed; they were in the building right next to us. If I had wanted to, I could have jumped from one rooftop to the next where they were. We fought and fought, and then I went back in to reload a magazine into my M16. A grenade went off in the courtyard. Lance Corporal Valencia took shrapnel to the left leg. Our assault gunner fell to the ground too. A machine-gun crew picked up his machine gun, I went out there shooting my M16. We had some impressive fire going on. While this was happening in the courtyard, there was still this crazy battle going on upstairs on the roof.
Gomez was readying to go back up on the rooftop because we had to retrieve Buchanan's M240G machine gun. Gomez looked at me and said, "Hey, you got grenades?" I took out my two grenades and gave them to Gomez, one of which he then gave to Austin. They went to the third-floor roof for the machine gun, a radio, and a sniper rifle. As soon as they got up there, they were just blasting away from the rooftop. Austin took his grenade out, pulled the pin, and threw. As he did, he got hit. The shot spun him around 360 degrees. The bullet came right inside his body armor where there is no plate and came out his back. Gomez threw his grenade onto the enemy's rooftop and grabbed Austin. As he was pulling him to safety his body armor got caught. Gomez got shot in the lft shoulder. If he had been a normal person, like myself, the bullet would have ripped his arm clear off. But Gomez, he's a beast. The exit wound was the size of my fist, but Gomez kept going, doing CPR on Austin, beating on his chest, trying to get a heartbeat out of him. They took him downstairs, where the medic, Dan, gave him a tracheotomy to get him breathing again.
I was trying to provide suppressive fire with my M16, which wasn't working at all. I picked up the machine gun and ran outside and started blasting away. When I first got the machine gun, my adrenaline was pumping. For some reason the gun wasn't firing, so I grabbed the barrel, which red hot, just glowing and melting. I burnt my hand instantly, third- degree burns before I had evens started shooting. I emptied a whole drum of two hundred rounds. I went back in for more ammo. The only way I could effectively engage the enemy was from a totally exposed area. Lance Corporal Bell did the same thing. Bell had an M203, a rifle with a grenade launcher underneath it. He fired a grenade right through the window, and when he did, this face popped up, an insurgent. We were ten to fifteen meters away from this house. All I remember was Bell hitting the trigger and then hearing this little blink sound as the grenade launched and then the explosion when it hit. The grenade armed itself and blew up in the guy's face. We said, "Whoa, yea!" Everyone was getting pumped up.
I was firing from an exposed position in the courtyard. I was shooting so much that the barrel seized up on me. I got that barrel off and threw another one on. A Humvee pulled up with Sergeant Major Skiles, who was trying to assess the situation and get the wounded out. They were going to need cover fire. I said, "I got it." I was out there shooting away into these windows. Insurgents were running by the house shooting back at us. Cruz was out there with the machine gun and he saw this object get thrown over his left shoulder. I remember because it was like slow motion: I looked at the object and then back at Cruz, and we looked at each other at the same time and yelled, "Grenade!" I was like an old World War II pineapple grenade with red striping on it, sitting right there on the ground. We tried to run back into the house where everybody else was, but it was just a regular sized doorway. Cruz and I managed to barge in and we heard the grenade go off. Lance Corporal Bell was the only one hit because he couldn't manage to get through the door fast enough. He got a dime-sized fragment in his hip. He walked in the house and saw that there were some hurt worse than he was, so he said, "Well, I'd better go back."
The whole time I was shooting, I noticed this tree sticking out. I remmeber thinking as I was firing, Why are all these leaves falling to the ground? They were just falling and falling. little did I know that we were taking sniper fire from the mosque that we had cleared out. I fired and fired. It felt wrong not to pull the trigger. If I didn't pull the trigger, the insurgents were going to overwhelm us. The after-action report said that they had 360 degrees on us. We were being attacked by fifty insurgents who were being reinforced by 150 more. These guys were coming up the street in a regular public transportation bus, just like they were going to work. It was crazy. Their reinforcements were never-ending.
At one point I remember seeing this petty officer running along a wall near me. I could see the impact of the bullets chasing him. It looked like every bullet was getting closer and closer. Every step was just a little bit faster than the bullet impacts. He slid into the house. I was providing cover fire for everybody. I had tunnel vision. My adrenaline was pumping. I didn't think twice about getting hit by a bullet. I thought, I'm not going to die in this country.
I was the only cover for the people getting the wounded out of there. It was me. Otherwise they had no cover whatsoever. They were all saying thank you, even the wounded. I didn't realize how many people were going past to get to the Humvee. I think we had eight major casualties that day. There might have been ten minor ones. Just my hands were hurt. I started to blister up from burning them. I looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
I remember saying, "We gotta get out of here, there's an air strike coming." We were the last to go, myselft and Corporal Gomez. This kid was so hard-core he was trying to change magazines with one hand. I told him his arm wound was huge and he said, "Really?" We were the last ones to leave. I said, "Gomez, I'll pop out and shoot and you go," and he said, "No way." We were arguing back and forth about who was going to go first. Finally, I said, "Shut up and go," and he did. We made it back to safety. We got there and they called in an air strike on our two buildings. That ended the firefight. The first sergeant told me afterward that the enemy had been so close there was an empty magazine from an AK on top of the hood of our Humvee.
A couple of days afterward, I picked up a machine gun like the one I used. It had a full drum of ammo on it and I put it to my shoulder. I thought, There's no way, this thing is way too heavy to be firing from my shoulder. The gun weighs something like twenty-three pounds. I had been shooting a twenty-three-pound machine gun from my shoulder and hip. Everybody was cheering me on and calling me a crazy man. I was going completely nuts. The adrenaline was kicking in so much that it didn't even faze me. Sometimes I look back and think that there's no way I could've done it. No way it's true. When it was all happening, it was like a bad nightmare.
People tell me, "Wow, that's impressive what you've done." I was just doing my job The United States asked us to be there and to help the Iraqi people. That's what we're there to do. I don't think we're going to leave until the job is done. Maybe there are a lot of sacrifices that people have to make so other people can have a better life. I know that when a soldier, a sailor, and airman, or a marine goes overseas, they're going to do the best job they can to help those people. And they're going to get it done.
When I first got my Silver Star, I gave it to my parents. I figured it was more for them than for me.