When the reservists of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 23rd Marine Regiment based in Houston got the call, most expected an uneventful tour in Iraq. The marines, drawn mostly from Louisiana and Texas, had anticipated pulling only security duty.
"We figured we wouldn't do much because we were reservists,'' said Staff Sgt. Jesse Noriega, a policeman from San Antonio, Texas. "We've been in the middle of it ever since."
Six months later, the Bravo Company infantrymen are as battle-worn and "salty" as any US unit. They've seen Iraq's dangerous Anbar province. They've fought in Fallujah and Ramadi and worked at the sharp end of the spear in America's most sustained urban combat since Vietnam. They're among the tens of thousands of reservists who have fought in Iraq, a consequence of the country's insurgency and an active-duty military understaffed for long-term occupation. In the process they've become the epitome of the "citizen soldier."
Typically older than active-duty marines and soldiers, they left behind families and civilian jobs to brave Iraq's deserts. At least a dozen in the company no longer had commitments to the Marines and volunteered to go.
Sgt. Brian Heisinger from Aurora, Colo., finished four years as an active-duty marine about four months before Bravo Company was deployed. In debt and working as a security guard, when he heard the unit was going he talked his way back in.
Cpl. Sean McKamie, a father of three from Texarkana, Texas, says his proudest moment in Iraq came after attending a Roman Catholic mass at the Al Asad airbase. When the priest found out what unit Corporal McKamie was from he said, "Oh, you're those reservists that fight."
On Bravo company's last major operation in late February and early March before heading home back to the US, they retook the city of Hit in Anbar Province from insurgents. They faced fierce resistance on their first entry to the city last October, but this time they encountered little resistance. That meant the marines could get some downtime on the roofs of Iraqi homes they stayed in, staring out at the Euphrates and reflecting on their experience.
Many in Bravo said they once foresaw a successful outcome in Iraq. But after six months of hard fighting, in which they saw towns overrun by insurgents and a flaccid response by Iraqi units, most are not optimistic. "I just hope that all that we risked here, the people who have died'' wasn't for nothing, says Sgt. Bob Grandfield, who lives in Boston. "But I'm not leaving with a lot of optimism."
Like almost every man in the company, Cpl. Daniel Benn of Houston has had clear reminders of the fragility of life. Fighting in Fallujah in November - when Bravo helped take a bridge where the bodies of two security contractors working for Blackwater Security Consulting of North Carolina were hung last April - Corporal Benn's platoon was ambushed. A piece of shrapnel buried itself in a spare rifle cartridge on his flak jacket. Bravo has been fortunate - with none of its 250-odd marines killed during their deployment.
"Definitely I see things differently," Ben says. "Being well off is still important to me, having all the things that I want to have, but not at the expense of not seeing my folks every few months just because I'm too tired to drive two and a half hours north."
Though the marines don't allow themselves to show much fear, such brushes with death have left their mark on all of them. To ease the pressure, the marines spend afternoons bantering and burning off nervous energy - throwing Frisbees or playing with hacky sacks. They tell jokes and laugh about near misses: About Sergeant Burlingame, the gunner on top of a humvee hit by a roadside bomb, for example. Unconscious on a stretcher, a chaplain started to administer last rites as Burlingame came awake and shouted "I'm not dead yet." He was back in the field a few days later.
But the seriousness of their task is always close. On their last foray into Hit, in October, the first platoon of about 60 men was pinned down in a six-hour gun battle with insurgents. The day before, roadside bombs killed US military contractors and rocket-propelled grenades hit a US convoy. US commanders decided a show of force was in order.
All seemed quiet as the first platoon approached.
Then came the call to prayer at about 4:45 p.m. Hundreds of insurgents opened fire from houses and from the palm groves.
"They had everything you could think of, heavy machine guns, AK-47s, propped up on window sills and coming out of houses,'' says Capt. Shayne "Skinny" McGinty of Bossier, La. "They were the most formidable enemy we faced, worse than in Fallujah, pouring fire out of the grove, then maneuvering, then firing again."
A smaller group of marines were pinned down a few hundred yards away, taking what cover they could on river banks and behind struts of a bridge. Sgt. Kris Haines, from Novato, Calif., spent "45 minutes behind a piece of steel" weathering a hail of bullets.
The rest of the marines pulled back. They couldn't fire for fear of hitting their own men and because they wanted to call in bombs on enemy positions. But malfunctioning radios meant they couldn't get the word out. So two young sergeants - Armando Sanchez and Rick Mendoza - volunteered to run up to the position, braving fire.
"They were running forward throwing grenades while shots were coming out from the palm grove - there were guys up there in the trees and we had to shoot them out like squirrels,'' recalls Captain McGinty.
Sanchez and Mendoza make light of what they did. "You just get kind of attached to the guys you're with, you want to make sure that nothing happens to them,'' says Sanchez, a community-college student from San Antonio, Texas.
Sgt. Byron Hancock, a sniper with an easygoing country manner and competence that makes him seem like Bravo's Brett Favre, is another who commands company respect. In Fallujah, Sergeant Hancock, who works as a police sniper in Bryan, Texas, killed two insurgents setting up a mortar station at a distance of 1,050 meters, the longest sniper shot in Iraq.
"It feels good to just play my part, help everybody get back home safe,'' says the father of four, who grew up hunting squirrel and deer in Texas. "A sniper's worst enemy is another sniper, and an enemy sniper can paralyze your operations,'' he says. In Fallujah last April, before Bravo was here, two Chechen snipers killed 15 marines in one day.
In Hit, his position came under fire. He spotted the shooter moving through distant buildings. "He had his egress planned, his routes laid out, he knew what he was doing," he says.
After staying up all night looking for him, Hancock expected the man wouldn't take another shot till late in the day, with the sun behind him. But he didn't wait. "We saw the sun glinting off his scopes - that was his mistake," he says.
Hancock grabbed his rifle, took a deep breath, and hit the man before he could fire. Though Hancock has the adulation of his comrades, he shrugs it off as "doing my job."
"My wife, Kristi, deserves more recognition in this whole thing than I do,'' he says. "She's home, she sees kids with their fathers around, whole families. That's tough. The one thing I've learned here is to appreciate my family even more."