The ferocity of the house-to-house fighting in Fallujah forged a new generation of American combatants. Today the city appears to be firmly in the grip of Islamic militants. Staff writer Scott Peterson, on the ground for that epic fight in 2004, tracked down the platoon of US Marines he knew there. Their lives in the aftermath show a range of recovery.
No man is unchanged. No man has forgotten. Here is the story of the commander of the company; the full cover story about the rest of the men appears in the Nov. 10 issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine and will be posted in full online at csmonitor.com near the Nov. 8 anniversary.
Day 14 in Fallujah, and gunfire erupts nearby. We are clearing houses, and the radio carried on one marine’s back bursts to life: Another platoon has been ambushed, and there are casualties.
My sharpest memory of the company commander, Capt. Gil Juarez, is defined by what happened next. When I race back, he is directing the battle fromthe turret of his “war pig” wearing a helmet, headset, and his look of understated master-of-the-universe determination.
“The fight is over there!” he shouts to me, pointing down a long block and to the left. It’s a typical decrepit Fallujah street, strewn with debris and trash, and lined with low-hanging cables that give it a tunnel effect. Insurgent snipers have been shooting it up.
His belt-fed M240 machine gun is already pointed down the length of the street. Juarez puts his gloved hands up to the weapon.
“I will cover for you, but you must run!” he roars. And as the shooting starts, I run the length of that urban gantlet fast, holding two cameras close, chest heaving under the weight of a bulletproof vest with its two heavy armor plates. Around the corner were wounded marines, and the start of a fierce firefight with four insurgents that would go long into the night and yield more marine casualties – one dead and eight wounded, in all – and a pea-sized piece of shrapnel burned into my arm.
Juarez is the marine’s marine, a commander who at once remains aloof from his men – demanding, receiving, and earning unquestioned loyalty – while also serving as one of the brethren, unafraid of dirt-level war fighting, of the decisions that put them in harm’s way, and unafraid to describe the bond shared by marines as “love.”
So I understand now, a decade later, when one marine says this about Juarez: “I would follow that man to the gates of hell, again.” I heard that sentiment repeatedly, about a man who is still in the US Marines, who has since commanded the entire 1st LAR battalion, and who is today getting a master’s degree at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va.
But the demands of leadership in Fallujah have a particular cost, when your decisions inevitably raise the death toll.
“You always know, in the back of your mind, you’re going to do all you can to take care of your guys. But at the end of the day, the enemy gets a vote, and things don’t always go according to plan,” says now-Lt. Col. Juarez in his apartment across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. “There are surprises, it’s dangerous, and people get killed. And your decisions are the things that drive those people into those situations.”
He is philosophical about the price paid in Fallujah and says he would “do anything” to get back any one of the six marines who died in that deployment under his command. But, he adds: “It’s called war, and it’s called combat for a reason.... I’ve tried never to lose sight of that. Those marines died doing what they volunteered to do. You’ve got to respect that ... because there are always the what ifs, a million what ifs.”
In Fallujah, Juarez was an uncompromising taskmaster, but with a common touch. During one operation, when a slightly wounded marine was escorted back to base, taking him and the one available medic away from the front line, Juarez invoked the memory of a Vietnam-era Medal of Honor winner.
“You’re [expletive] marines. You suck it the [expletive] up,” Juarez admonished. “Do not pull combat power out of the [expletive] fight unless you have to. Like [expletive] John Bobo in Vietnam. [Expletive] leg blown off, he [expletive] sticks his stump in the ground and he mans a machine gun so his platoon can withdraw. That has to be your mind-set. We clear on that?”
Likewise, on Thanksgiving Day, 2-1/2 weeks into the Fallujah offensive, a turkey feast was sent to the frontline house we were occupying. There had not been water or time enough to bathe and until then we’d only had meals ready to eat. Juarez took several steps up a staircase to say grace for all the company. “Some of you might not pray. Some of you might,” he said, using the voice of a reluctant preacher. Many pulled thick hats off buzz cuts and clasped their hands in front of them. Juarez said:
Lord, thank you for keeping us alive....
Keep us strong. Keep us together.
Make us shoot faster than the enemy.
Make us move faster than the enemy.
When he tries to kill us, let us kill him first.
Take care of our families.
And definitely take care of our friends that are gathered here today.
For truly there is no better group of men,
than the men you see here before you.
The risks of the aftermath of Fallujah for Juarez were evident when the unit stopped off in Thailand on the way home. The stories of heavy drinking and debauched celebrations are legend. When it was over, Juarez wanted to set an example. He announced that he was quitting drinking for good – a promise he has kept.
It was a big step for the California native with a tough upbringing, the only one of five siblings to graduate from high school and not get involved with gangs. His older brother is a heroin addict now serving a life sentence in California; he has not seen his sister, addicted to crystal meth, for two decades.
Juarez says he “got lucky” when his family moved to a new neighborhood when he was 14. He had good teachers, ran cross country, and finally channeled being a hell-raiser into the Marine Corps, which he says “saved” his life.
That experience is what shaped his Fallujah after-war. Alcohol is “the medication, it’s the relief, but unfortunately it sucks you in,” he says.
“I told the company: Life now is about not taking a step back. You’ve been through a tremendous event, part of our history now ... but life is hard, and that doesn’t get you much,” Juarez says now. “The world may not know or care to know what happened here. That’s tough, especially for young guys that have been through that.”
When he got home, Juarez says he knew he had “grown impatient and took it out on my family. It took a long time to process that, some anger.”
His wife, Cyndi, stayed with him. “When we were younger, I used to say: ‘We did deployments great, we did reunions very poorly,’ ” she says.
After Fallujah, Juarez was in “project mode,” she recalls. “He took the roof off the house, he tore down the deck – there was nothing wrong with the roof, the roof was fine! He just had to stay busy, kind of engaged.”
Juarez has kept in touch with many of his Fallujah marines and the families of the fallen, ready to guide and support. “It’s hard, because you build a family so tight when you go on a deployment, and when you do go in a fight, you become even closer. Then you come back, and ... the team’s going to get broken up, and you’re going to go different places. You’re not going to have those close buddies with you all the time.
“I just try to get them to be true to themselves, to honor the brothers they lost and the sacrifices they all made,” he says. “[I]t’s all about when you are an old man and you look in the mirror: What are you going to see? What are you going to reflect back on?... That’s more important than anything we did in Fallujah, that they continue to do their best to maintain their honor, to live a good life, to look out for each other, to look out for others. There’s nothing more valuable than that,” he says.
“They love each other That’s really what’s helped these [marines] get through it all,” adds Juarez. “They’ve not lost that. They love each other to death ... they love each other so much it gets in the way of the rest of their life.” ρ