Every infantry unit has ghosts. They are conduits to the heartbreak of war, reminders of the brutal individual sacrifice often required so that others might live. The infantry is a guild. So what happens when there are no knights to emulate? Tears of anger dry, days pass, and the ghosts—and war itself—become mythical.
Before arriving in Fallujah this February, the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion had produced no ghosts since the storied days of Vietnam, when recon Marines operating in small teams had clashed with entire North Vietnamese battalions. In 1974, the fallen were not mythical creatures but fathers and husbands and sons and friends. Alongside emulation came bugles and flags and sobs. Thirty years later, their achievements stood tall. But their collective sacrifice had dimmed.
On April 7, 2004, the ghosts returned. One gave his hands. One gave his legs. One gave his arm. And one gave his soul. Those men are no longer in-country, but Marine units are like giant families, and families do not dismiss tragedy. They embrace it. There's a sweet-and-sour mix of pride and despair that accompanies the memory of bravery under fire.
Capt. Brent Morel had missed Iraqi Freedom I. Not that the men in his platoon really cared. Yes, most of them had seen combat, but they valued decisiveness as much as experience. And Morel had plenty of pluck. If inexperience made him a bit eager on the battlefield, that was just fine with them.
The recon platoon was traveling in the first five Humvees of a convoy, each man watching a sector of landscape. The terrain was perfect ambush territory—the road was elevated and exposed, it was paralleled by a series of chest-high berms, and there was even a canal that could act like a moat if the insurgents picked a fight. Some of the Marines hoped they would. A week earlier, Fallujah had erupted when four American contractors were murdered. The desire for contact was not driven by revenge, however. It was something innate that was swelling even as Fallujah deteriorated, a mix of adrenaline sprinkled with just enough dread to make it confusing. There was going to be a big fight. Might as well start today.
The lead vehicle was hit first. A rocket-propelled grenade sailed over a berm and slammed into the machine gun Corp. Eddie Wright had mounted on his door. "Grenade" is really the wrong term for this weapon; its warhead is the size of a football. When it exploded, all five men in the lead vehicle were wounded. Wright lost both hands. Shawn Talbert, standing behind the machine gun on the roof, was raked with metal below the knees. Something broke Eric Kocher's arm. The other two men took minor injuries—"minor" for Marines meaning bits of tumbling steel burrowing into the skin like hornets. Concussions, blown eardrums, and non-arterial blood flow. Minor.
The enemy—insurgents, mujahideen, Syrians, Fedayeen, who cares?—opened fire with machine guns and rifles from the safety of the berms, 100 to 150 meters away. In Marine infantry school, this is known as a close ambush. And the only way to escape a close ambush is to attack it. The last part always elicits a few chuckles: Who would be crazy enough to charge a machine gun?
Capt. Morel was in the second vehicle. "Stop and dismount," he said, already running toward the enemy position. Those other Marines in the bullet-swept column that could follow him did so, racing toward the berms before their brains caught up with their legs.
Sgt. Michael Mendoza was one of them. He hadn't seen combat in the first war either. Now bullets were sailing all around his head, cracking like whips as they snapped through the sound barrier. When he reached the first berm (alive!) he took cover, pumping some rifle grenades into the enemy position. That's when he noticed the guys were moving again. Hell, he thought, I'd better go too.
Morel had practically hurdled the first berm and was now scrambling across the second. Sgts. Dan Lalota and Willie Copeland wondered if he was ever going to stop. They were providing cover fire, then sprinting to catch up. The incoming fire was thick now. It was a big ambush. Maybe 50 people. All five Marines followed Morel into the canal and started to wade across. It was chest deep and had a sinkhole bottom. None were aware that a second element of the platoon was rolling up the right flank.
Seeing the first three vehicles in the kill zone, Gunnery Sgt. Dan Griego had turned the last two platoon Humvees and rumbled up a road to provide a flanking element. When they crested the hill, the Marines saw dozens of Iraqis scrambling around behind the ambushers. They opened fire, killing a few Iraqis and disabling two vehicles that looked to be shuttling soldiers into the ambush and taking bodies out. The Iraqis shifted their attention and fired on them with a machine gun, but the Marines kept pouring it on.
Across the canal, the band of attacking Marines paused behind the final berm. "Cover me. We're assaulting through," was all Morel said.
"You want to assault through?" asked Lalota.
Brent Morel crested the hill and shuffled down into the open ground. He was struck by a bullet that penetrated his arm and disappeared under his armpit. The exit wound was found on his lower back. It was likely an armor piercing round.
Lance Cpl. Maurice Scott was the first to reach Morel. He dragged him across the open ground into a small culvert, 18 inches deep. Other Marines piled in to help, terribly exposed to fire, shocked that their leader had fallen. By some miracle, no Marines were shot as they gently stripped their captain's gear free and applied battle dressings. Maybe it was Griego's crew pounding the ambush position. Maybe one brave Marine—and another's hands, and another's legs, and 30 Iraqi lives—was all the war required that day.
A press release would be drafted reading: "Captain Brent Morel was killed while conducting security operations in the Al Anbar Province, Iraq." It would be sent after the personal notification of his wife by the casualty assistance team.
"I thought about Capt. Morel a lot," says Michael Mendoza, who was sent spinning by a rocket-propelled grenade that exploded at his feet as he crested the final berm. "What we could have done differently. Could he still be alive if we said, 'Sir! Stop!'? Maybe others wouldn't be. I don't know."