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With the Marines in Western Iraq

Death, Duty in Forgotten Corner of War

Remembering Gunny and the Kid, a Hard-Hit Unit Goes Back on Patrol

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page A01

QAIM, Iraq -- Word spread fast. It was Gunny. And the young kid, Nice.

The news was passed in low voices, quiet conversations. No one wanted to say it loudly. The Marines heard it and looked away. They squinted at the heavy sun, kicked their boots in the dust. Their faces hardened. They spat their dip and shifted the guns on their shoulders. They swore. What else was there to say but goddammit.

In the village of Sadah, Marines detain men while searching a house where they suspected something was hidden. Nothing was found; the men were released. (Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Marines on Patrol: Marines on patrol in western Iraq are far from the headline cities of Najaf and Baghdad, but each day brings significant danger and sacrifice.
Map: Qaim

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Gunnery Sgt. Elia Fontecchio, 30, was killed by a roadside bomb, set off by someone who was watching a U.S. Marine foot patrol finish its work on Wednesday, Aug. 4. A half-hour later, Lance Cpl. Joseph Nice, 19, was stringing concertina wire across a road when a single sniper bullet passed through his body.

They were deaths 14 and 15 for the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment since it arrived in February. With 156 Purple Hearts as well, the casualty count for this battalion is higher than that of any other unit in Iraq, save for fellow Marines in turbulent Fallujah.

But to the men here, this is a forgotten war. They are at the western edge of Iraq, the last stop before Syria. The world hears what happens here only in a faint whisper. They are far from the headline cities -- Najaf, Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi -- where every spasm is seen by a thousand eyes.

Isolated at this far-flung outpost, the men live packed bunk to bunk, they guard one another's backs, they depend on the group to help ward off fear and loneliness. And they face losses in their own searingly personal way. When one man is killed, the rest are asked to go back where he died, to face the same danger, in the name of duty. They do it, they say, for their comrades, for themselves and for a country that expects it of them.

Fontecchio didn't have to go out. His duties taking care of the company meant he was usually busy at the camp, with no time to patrol. Gunnery sergeants, always called "Gunny," occupy a special place in the Marine Corps. Part supply officer, part morale booster, part problem solver, the gunnery sergeant is responsible for the well-being of the unit. He ranks high enough to get things done, but not so high that he doesn't work and play with the enlisted men.

Fontecchio was ideal for the job. He led with humor, which made him popular. When the company commander, Capt. Trent Gibson, gave him his most recent evaluation, the two men smoked cigars as Gibson told Fontecchio his only fault was he sometimes was too nice. Glowing reviews had moved Fontecchio up the ranks quickly; to be a gunnery sergeant after 12 years in the Corps was impressive.

So was his physique. A weight lifter, he kept a detailed calendar by his bed of his near-daily workouts, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding," with pages marked by Post-its. "He was what you think all Marines are supposed to look like," said the assistant operations officer, Capt. Rory Quinn, 29, of the Bronx. "He was a physical stud."

He also did not like to stay in camp too long. As his comrades recalled the events in interviews, that Wednesday Fontecchio joined a patrol.

At an Iraqi police station, they were told that Checkpoint 43, a two-room cinder-block police shelter, had been bombed. The checkpoint is in a lush fringe of the Euphrates River, where the desert suddenly yields to green fields of corn, okra, peppers and tomatoes. It is a pretty spot. And low: Small cliffs nearby offer a clear view of the road below. Four vehicles -- with about 25 men -- went to investigate.

As trained, the Marines dismounted and dispersed, scouting for clues or other bombs. After about 25 minutes, they started to pull back. The men walked toward their Humvees. Someone -- perhaps on the cliffs above, perhaps hidden in a field, maybe passing on a nearby road -- decided this was the moment to explode the foot-long, 155mm artillery shell that had been buried near Fontecchio's vehicle.

"You don't hear the blast. It doesn't register," said Staff Sgt. Shelby Lasater, 32, of Plano, Tex., who was about 150 feet away. "It happens so fast. You see a ball of fire, black smoke, then shrapnel, dirt, trees and branches flying. You feel the heat."

Lasater followed his sprinting medical corpsman toward the center of the blast and found Gunny. "I asked him how old was his son. He told me. I said, 'You're going to see him.' "

Within minutes, one of two attack helicopters that were supporting the patrol dropped onto the road. Marines shoved in Fontecchio's litter and loaded two of the wounded into seats. The "golden hour" so critical for survival of trauma victims was barely 20 minutes old when Gunny arrived at Camp Qaim. The Marines who unloaded him said he was talking. He would be all right, they believed.

The patrol resumed its hunt. A half-hour later, the men heard the blast of another roadside bomb about a mile away, near the police station. A patrol from W Company was closest and began to block off the area. Lance Cpl. Nice pulled off a roll of the razor-sharp concertina wire strapped to the hood of one of the Humvees. With heavy gloves, he unfurled the coil of wire, dragging it across one of the roads to stop traffic.

Like all the Marines, Nice wore a heavy vest with hardened plates in the front and back, the body armor that has saved many lives in this war. But as he turned to grapple with the wire, a single shot rang out. It pierced his side, under his raised arm, where the vest has only canvas webbing to allow flexibility. The bullet passed through his lungs and heart and exited the other side. He dropped on his back in the dust.

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