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What The Military Learned From The Battle For Fallujah


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin, and this is For The Record. The U.S. military is good at dissecting a battle - lessons learned, they call it. What worked? What didn't? But bigger questions - why the battle was waged, and at what cost? That is uncomfortable territory.

Even so that's exactly where some Iraq veterans found themselves this past week as they remembered one of the bloodiest battles of the war - the second battle of Fallujah. U.S. troops took back the city from al-Qaida-backed insurgents in 2004. Now Fallujah is again in the hands of militants. This time, it's the group that calls itself the Islamic State. When 2004 began, the American public had never heard of ISIS. Then in June the group takes over the city of Mosul in northern Iraq.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Reports say Iraqi troops cut and ran after militants stormed the city in makeshift pickups mounted with automatic guns.

MARTIN: A couple months later, ISIS ramps up attacks on a religious minority group called Yazidis, and the U.S. launches airstrikes to prevent a possible genocide. The strikes continue. In September, President Obama pledges no U.S. boots on the ground.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As your Commander-in-Chief I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.

MARTIN: And just a couple of days ago, the Pentagon announces it will deploy 1,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq. Military officials insist they're only there to help advise and train Iraqi forces as they try to push ISIS back. It's a tough thing for some in the U.S. military to watch. Close to 100 American troops died in Fallujah a decade ago. And those who survived now struggle to make sense of a victory reversed. For The Record today, remembering the second battle of Fallujah.

MAJOR D.J. SKELTON: My name is D.J. Skelton, and I'm a major in the Army, active duty and have been serving since 1997.

MARTIN: D.J. Skelton arrived in Iraq on his very first deployment in September of 2004.

SKELTON: We were still acclimating to being in Iraq - the weather, the operation tempo, if you will, and not knowing what this thing called combat was going to be like. And then on top of that to have your first mission out of the gate was the second battle of Fallujah.

MARTIN: A couple of days before U.S. forces launched the attack on Fallujah, Skelton and his platoon were ordered to the outskirts of the city. They were guarding an overpass used to move troops and supplies. It was close to midnight on November 6. Skelton saw a small car approach.

SKELTON: It looks like there's guys that are opening the trunk, and they're taking some stuff out of the trunk. So I made a decision to maneuver my infantry platoon. And as I began to bound my squads forward, the enemy opened up. What we didn't know at the time was there was a couple enemy dug in. And everything showered in from small arms, AK-47 rounds to mortar rounds to grenades that were being launched in as well. So we did 0 to 60 in about two seconds.

And as the mortar rounds came in, you could just feel the ground shake to the point where it's like a mini earthquake. So I remember calling back to my first Sergeant to bring more reinforcements. And the next thing I know I'm completely blind, and I feel like I'm kind of floating. But I can hear the battlefield all around me so I can hear my soldiers screaming and yelling. And I can hear the bullets, and then all of a sudden I just felt the most excruciating pain I had ever felt in my life. And that was when my soldiers were dragging me away from my location. I had been hit with a small arms, AK-47 rounds, shrapnel. I lost - the left eye was an exit wound, lost the use of my left arm, and I had a huge hole that went through my right leg.

MARTIN: All of that happened before the battle of Fallujah even began. But then, on November 8, it did.

CORPORAL MICHAEL HIBBARD: The Air Force AC-130s in the sky 20,000 feet up, tanks on one side, machine gunners, Rocketeers. It was just amazing, and awesome is the only way I can describe it.

MARTIN: This is Corporal Michael Hibbard.

HIBBARD: I was with 3rd Battalion, 5th marines, Lima Company, 3rd platoon.

MARTIN: Hibbard and the other Marines and soldiers there cleared the city house by house. The firefights went on for days. I asked Mike Hibbard if he had lost anyone he knew well in that battle.

HIBBARD: Absolutely. I don't think there was a single Marine there that didn't lose a personal friend.

MARTIN: Was it worth it? Do you let yourself ask that question? Is that an appropriate question to ask?

HIBBARD: No, it's not appropriate to ask just because for guys like me and the guys that fought alongside me, that's never what it's about. It's literally about the guy to the left and your right of you. And I know that's become some sort of a cliche these days. But I mean that's really all that matters. I didn't care about the Iraqi people. I just wanted to do my job and go home and see my family on Christmas.

MARTIN: And he did only after he helped the U.S. win a battle that would become a turning point in the war. Now 10 years later, both men reflect on that experience differently. This is how Mike Hibbard answered the question. How do you, 10 years later, think about that time now?

HIBBARD: With great respect and a yearning that I'll never be that cool again. That's my number one struggle with trying to find the purposes. I only have this one thing that I care about. I look to myself like, hey, I've peaked now. And I'm, you know, how am I ever going to amount to this? And there is that old-school warrior mentality. You know, that tribal fighter that would go and protect his family, and he was celebrated when he came home from the battle. You know, that's not a sick and twisted thing. That's just a real-life warrior in the flesh. And in our modern society, sometimes it's hard to fit in when you have that feeling inside you.

MARTIN: And D.J. Skelton - today he is blind in one eye, and he can't use his left hand. His feelings about Fallujah then and now are complicated.

SKELTON: Watching a part of the world continue to decay and all the hard work that our soldiers put into that has just been dismantled. That's hard. But I'm OK with that because that's the hard relationship between our policymakers and those that are enforcing these policies. But I think what's most important is that we never forget that the decision to send us to war zones and conflict zones as severe as the second battle of Fallujah - that those decisions aren't made lightly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.