My little piece of Fallujah and Operation Phantom Fury is just one of a hundred thousand.
Note: All of these pictures were taken in and around Fallujah in November of 2004. All the terrible photos were taken by the author or his compatriots. All of the good photos were taken by embedded reporters. Though I do not know all of their names, I know for certain Luis Sinco of the LA Times took many of them. Several of the Marines pictured were killed or wounded during Operation Phantom Fury and more still later down the line.
Operation Phantom Fury: Ten Years Ago In Fallujah
Mad Duo Merrill
Ten years ago today, Operation Phantom Fury started. It was the most projected attack in American military history. The jihadi safe haven of the Sunni Triangle, Fallujah, was going to be taken.
Many books, articles and videos detail the actual chessboard of events, describing the movement of proverbial green army men across a terrain model. A few personal accounts have been published as well. Dan Carlin, noted political and news commentator and huge history nerd, once said something like, “Every battle consists of a hundred thousand little stories by individuals, that all come together to make up the narrative of the entire battle.”
My little piece is just one of a hundred thousand.
I’m not going to pretend that this subject is always easy for me to write about. There’s no doubt that others with me that day have recollections different from my own. I’ve experienced that myself, when I read someone else’s writing about a specific firefight I was in.
As I wrote this, I looked at old photos from Fallujah. The first thing that struck me is how young we all were. The very next was how ridiculous and haphazard some of our equipment looks. Armor carriers in old woodland patterns combined with digital desert camouflage. Already outdated PVS-7B NVGs mixed in with the newer PVS-14s. Carry handles bolted onto the hand guards of our M16A4’s so we wouldn’t lose them. Old Alice 782 gear chopped and modified to fit our interceptor rigs.
Of course it was raining – not a crazy downpour, just enough of a fine mist to be annoying. It was the morning of November 7th. After weeks of anticipation, training, briefs, estimations, worn nerves and even a speech by the venerable General Mattis, the time had come. George W. had just been reelected for his second term and it was finally going to happen.
We climbed into the back of an armored 7-ton truck in the gaunt drizzle of the morning and made the trip to our staging area, north of the shitty Iraqi city of Fallujah. When we arrived, we dug in. One of my friends walked up with his face covered in a ludicrous amount of green and black paint, which wouldn’t help much in the sandy city.
“I made all my guys cammie up,” he said with a shit-eating grin. “Make em’ feel good. Like Rambo. You want to do it too?” I declined, and he shot me that grin again.
People deal with stress in different ways. His method, and mine, was humor. I briefly flashed back to OIF 1 when we all defused stress by getting super-moto horseshoe haircuts, to look even more capital-M Marine. They made us look stupid, but we weren’t there to pick up women anyway.
Soon we were sweat-drenched and dirty from digging. Airstrikes and artillery were hitting the city and kept hitting all day. We had a great vantage point, and protection. The shallow ditches we scraped would provide us some cover if the jihadis decided to try their luck and dump mortars on us.
It was a waiting game. We smoked cigarettes, checked our weapons and went over the plan in our heads ad nauseum. On paper it was pretty simple: head through, north to south, checking every building and shooting every enemy along the way.
Instead of the standard prayer calls, the minaret speakers were full of shouting Arabic. Presumably the jihadis were ramping themselves up and getting their shit together. PSYOP was on hand to counter that chorus. AC/DC blared from humvees so full of speakers they’d make even the most grandiose South Central gangster jealous. I listened to Hell’s Bells while watching a fast-mover make bombing runs.
As darkness fell, the real work began. Amphibious Assault Vehicles, what Marines call Amtracs or AAVs, moved into place and awaited their payload of Marines to start the assault. The artillery strikes quickened and “shake and bake” (white phosphorous) did its magic. It looked like the Fourth of July, except the fireworks were directed toward the ground. How could anyone survive that? I wondered. As fate would have it, either due to a mistaken command by the artillery controller or a misfired mission, I would find out exactly what it was like to be on the receiving end a couple short days later.
Secondary explosions erupted on the surface level of the city. IEDs painstakingly hidden by bad guys popped harmlessly across the city. Later I would see UAV videos showing entire daisy chains going off along the main drag.
As we watched, a quiet voice beside me asked, “Merrill, do you have any cigarettes?”
“Gunny, I thought you said you only smoked after having five or six beers,” I replied, with a bit of a smartass tone.
“Of all the things I taught you, that’s what you remember? Really?”
I passed him a pack of Craven A’s, my preferred “local” brand. They were purported to be made from the finest blend of Virginian and British tobacco. Years later I learned they were actually manufactured in North Korea.
We waited for the line charges to blow. A line charge is used to clear an area of mines. Basically it’s a rocket that shoots out, trailing a line of explosives, and clears a corridor. We heard the roars of the rocket engines followed by explosions that shook the earth. The sudden change in air pressure resonated through our chests. We didn’t know it at the time, but one of the line charges failed to detonate. A Combat Engineer with great big brass ones ran out and set the fuse by hand.
Time to go. We crammed into the AAV backwards, so we’d be facing out when the doors dropped. Crammed in nut-to-butt, standing weary but switched on, we began to creak forward. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, but I didn’t anticipate making it through whole. What followed was to shape and shade me for the rest of my life.
But I’m a US Marine. With an M16A4 and an ACOG. I have a good zero. I’m surrounded by my best friends. And I just learned how to say, “Your mom fucks dogs” in Arabic.
Let’s do some work.
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!
Emergency: Activate firefly, deploy green (or brown) star cluster, get your wank sock out of your ruck and stand by ’til we come get you.
About the Author: A combat veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Dave “Mad Duo Merrill” is a former urban warfare and foreign weapons instructor for Coalition fighting men. An occasional competitive shooter, he has a strange Kalashnikov fetish the rest of the minions try to ignore. Merrill, who has superb taste in hats, has been published in a number of places, the most awesome of which is, of course, here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He loves tacos, is kind of a dick and married way, way above his pay grade. You can contact him at Merrill(at)BreachBangClear.com and follow him on Instagram here (@dave_fm).