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Photographing Fallujah
Leatherneck | JoAnna M. McDonald | March 14, 2006
Without Marine combat correspondents and combat camera, the true and heroic stories of our Marines might not be seen and remembered by history. These men and women enliven our collective memory, offering us the opportunity to comprehend and honor the sacrifice and commitment of our Marines and their families, “lest we forget,” as Abraham Lincoln warned.

Sergeant Joel A. Chaverri is one such Marine historian.

In October of last year during San Diego's Fleet Week, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego Command Museum was privileged to display photographs taken by Sgt Chaverri, a distinguished Marine combat journalist. Chaverri graduated from MCRD, San Diego and fought in the November 2004 Battle of Fallujah. On the first day of the battle he took 40 to 50 photographs, eventually producing more than 500 photos of the campaign.

Sgt Chaverri visited the museum to provide insight into his personal experience, revealing in more detail the significant events that occurred on that first and fateful day.

D-day, Nov. 9, 2004, Fallujah: “Mount up, check your gear and move out,” was the order shouted to 2d Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment. Then-Corporal Chaverri, a 20-year-old combat correspondent, had just joined the company. This was his baptism by fire. Sweat dripped slowly down his forehead. He checked his camera: camera on, film secured, M16 locked and loaded. He was ready. Chaverri had known since he was in his teens that he wanted to be a Marine. Now, it was on.

He grew up in Texas, graduated as valedictorian from Victory Christian Academy in Lancaster, Texas, in 2001 and joined the Marine Corps in 2002. Why the Marines? He always wanted to be the best, and several of his friends had joined the Corps. Successfully graduating from MCRD, Chaverri next attended the School of Infantry, West at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he learned more about the old saying, “Every Marine a rifleman.”

After combat training, he was sent to Defense Information School, Fort Meade, Md., for an intensive three-month combat-correspondent training program. He learned the art of photography and journalism and earned his certificate in military journalism. He returned home and remained on Reserve duty for a year and a half with Marine Aircraft Group 41 at Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base, Fort Worth, Texas.

While on vacation in June 2004 with his buddies, the call came. “You sitting down?” the voice on the other end of the line questioned. “Get ready; you are going to Iraq.” This was what Cpl Chaverri had trained for as a Marine. He had volunteered and was excited to finally receive the call.

By Aug. 13, 2004, Chaverri, along with 50 other Marine reservists from Fort Worth, had joined the Third Marine Aircraft Wing and landed in al Asad, Iraq. Chaverri spent the first two months in Iraq writing articles and photographing the typical “grip and grin” shots. He had prepared for combat, but to date he had not been assigned to a combat team.

The First Marine Division, Iraqi Security Forces and Army elements were making preparations to retake Fallujah. On Nov. 1, 2004, Chaverri got his chance as a combat correspondent when he was attached to Co B.

When he arrived at the company, he realized he was an outsider. These Marines had been through countless firefights and seen battle together. Chaverri was a writer -- a cameraman -- holding a rifle. He knew he had to prove his dedication.

For the first week, Chaverri put his camera aside to train with his fellow leathernecks, lugging gear, preparing for the big push.

During pre-operation training with the company, one of the Marines on a communications headset was calling around to find Chaverri, but could not recall his name. He substituted instead, “You know, the Marine, ‘Kodak'?” Thus, Chaverri received his nickname: “Kodak.”

With just a week's preparation, H-hour, D-Day arrived -- 0600, Nov. 9. The morning dew still glistened on the pavement; the ground was still muddy. Fallujah had become a town of thieves, murderers and foreign terrorists who wanted to kill as many Marines as possible. The terrorists could buy any type of weapon, including every type of explosive imaginable, and the town was notorious as the place where American contractors had been murdered and hanged the previous spring. Terrorists had regrouped and returned to the city. This time the Marines and supporting elements from Iraqi and U.S. Army units were going to take them all out.

Chaverri's group moved into the city with lightning speed. Dismounting from their amphibious tractors, they immediately began to take fire. Bullets zipped by. It was Cpl Chaverri's habit to follow a Marine sniper to the rooftops and capture the historic events as they unfolded before him. This time, the sniper's spotter took a round in the elbow. Chaverri grabbed the spotter's pack along with his own gear. His willingness to take on more of a load was obvious to his fellow Marines.

“Sniper sighted,” Chaverri heard a squad leader shout. He put down his camera and picked up his rifle.

The leathernecks of Co B continued to move house to house; a terrorist could have been behind any door or corner. Orders came down for a squad to cross one of the main streets. In single file, the squad pushed forward. Sgt Lonny D. Wells brought up the rear of the squad. An insurgent sniper spotted the Marine, and a bullet smashed into Wells' leg. Gunnery Sergeant Ryan P. Shane turned and saw Wells down. He threw his rifle to Chaverri so he could better carry Wells and rushed out into the street and into the sights of the enemy sniper.

Enemy sniper fire continued. Cpl Chaverri photographed those first fateful moments as Shane moved to help Wells. Bullets peppered the street; GySgt Shane then went down with a leg wound. Only one Navy corpsman had been assigned to the company, but, due to heavy fire, he temporarily had to leave the Marines where they lay.

“Sniper sighted,” Chaverri heard a squad leader shout. He put down his camera and picked up his rifle. Every Marine fired at the building where the sniper lay hidden. Meanwhile, the corpsman and several other Marines ran back to Wells and Shane and pulled them out of the street. Because he was laying down covering fire as a rifleman, Chaverri did not capture that rescue effort on film.

Everyone in the company thought they had lost their sergeant and “gunny.” Only later did they discover that GySgt Shane survived his wound. Sgt Wells had been killed instantly, having been hit in the femoral artery. Wells' death and the heroic efforts of GySgt Shane will be remembered forever in Chaverri's photographs.

Although the company had lost two Marines, it continued fighting through the streets of Fallujah.

Now a sergeant, Chaverri believes the most powerful of his photos is the one of Lance Corporal Joshua E. Lucero, age 19, on the first day of the battle. Lucero, a combat engineer originally from Tucson, Ariz., had just witnessed Sgt Wells get hit. Although in Chaverri's photograph Lucero is leaning against a pole, awaiting orders for the next move, one can see clearly the stress and anxiety in his eyes. Lucero survived the first day's battle, but he was killed on Nov. 27 during the fighting in Fallujah.

Sgt Chaverri's historic work has not gone unrecognized. In addition to the Command Museum at San Diego, his photographs have been displayed in exhibits at Fort Worth. The photograph of GySgt Shane, Sgt Wells and the corpsman received Leatherneck magazine's 2005 Lou Lowery Award for best photograph by an enlisted Marine and the Department of Defense 2004 Thomas Jefferson Award for photojournalism.

Again on Reserve status in Texas, Chaverri is attending school, but stands ready to be called back to service for his country.

Editor's note: Ms. McDonald graduated from Shippensburg University and the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, Pa. She has published 10 books (eight on the Civil War and two on World War II) and is currently the Education Specialist for MCRD Command Museum, San Diego.

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