Demise of a Hard-Fighting Squad

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 12, 2005

HABAN, Iraq, May 11 -- The explosion enveloped the armored vehicle in flames, sending orange balls of fire bubbling above the trees along the Euphrates River near the Syrian border.

Marines in surrounding vehicles threw open their hatches and took off running across the plowed fields, toward the already blackening metal of the destroyed vehicle. Shouting, they pulled to safety those they could, as the flames ignited the bullets, mortar rounds, flares and grenades inside, rocketing them into the sky and across pastures.

Gunnery Sgt. Chuck Hurley emerged from the smoke and turmoil around the vehicle, circling toward the spot where helicopters would later land to pick up casualties. As he passed one group of Marines, he uttered one sentence: "That was the same squad."

Among the four Marines killed and 10 wounded when an explosive device erupted under their Amtrac on Wednesday were the last battle-ready members of a squad that four days earlier had battled foreign fighters holed up in a house in the town of Ubaydi. In that fight, two squad members were killed and five were wounded.

In 96 hours of fighting and ambushes in far western Iraq, the squad had ceased to be.

Every member of the squad -- one of three that make up the 1st Platoon of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment -- had been killed or wounded, Marines here said. All told, the 1st Platoon -- which Hurley commands -- had sustained 60 percent casualties, demolishing it as a fighting force.

"They used to call it Lucky Lima," said Maj. Steve Lawson, commander of the company. "That turned around and bit us."

Wednesday was the fourth day of fighting in far western Iraq, as the U.S. military continued an assault that has sent more than 1,000 Marines down the ungoverned north bank of the Euphrates River in search of foreign fighters crossing the border from Syria. Of seven Marines killed so far in the operation, six came come from Lima Company's 1st Platoon.

Lima Company drew Marine reservists from across Ohio into the conflict in Iraq. Some were still too young to be bothered much by shaving, or even stubble.

They rode to war on a Marine Amtrac, an armored vehicle that travels on tank-like treads. Marines in Iraq typically crowd thigh to thigh in the Amtrac, with one or two men perched on cardboard boxes of rations. Only the gunners manning the top hatches of Amtracs have any view of the passing scenery. Those inside find out what their field of combat is when the rear ramp comes down and they run out with weapons ready.

Marines typically pass travel time in the Amtrac by extracting favorite bits from ration packets, mercilessly ribbing a usual victim for eating or sleeping too much, or sleeping themselves.

On Monday, when the Marine assault on foreign fighters formally began, the young Marines of the squad from the 1st Platoon were already exhausted. Their encounter at the house in Ubaydi that morning and the previous night had been the unintended first clash of the operation, pitting them against insurgents who fired armor-piercing bullets up through the floor. It took 12 hours and five assaults by the squad -- plus grenades, bombing by an F/A-18 attack plane, tank rounds and rockets at 20 yards -- to kill the insurgents and permit recovery of the dead Marines' bodies.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company