CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Angel Hernandez came from New Jersey. Michael Blake came from New York. Aaron Westlund came from Minnesota. Ben Finnell came from Utah.
And retired Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski came from Virginia, returning to his “home” at 1st Marine Division to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Marine Corps’ largest urban battle since Hue City in 1968.
On Nov. 8, 2004, the 1st Marine Division — supported by U.S. Army units, other Marine units, British forces and the Iraqi army — launched the second battle of Fallujah, Operation Al Fajr. Though time has passed, Natonski said, the battle is still fresh in the minds of those who fought it.
The troops moved house by house, block by block, through a city full of entrenched enemy, intent on killing Americans, said Natonski, who commanded 1st Marine Division at the time. Many of the enemy fighters were high on amphetamines, or wearing rubber ties on their limbs so they could continue fighting even if gravely injured, he said.
The troops dropped more than 300 bombs on the city and fired more than 6,000 rounds of artillery during the battle, which lasted until Dec. 23, Natonski said. Nine U.S. troops received the Navy Cross for their actions in Operation Al Fajr, and several more received the Silver Star.
In an interview with Stars and Stripes, Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the current commander of 1st Marine Division, called the fight “the most iconic battle of the last decade.”
On Sept. 14, 2004 — the day he took command of 1st Marine Regiment — a rocket hit his command post, killing his communication officer, Maj. Kevin Shea, and badly wounding him.
Nicholson was medevaced to the United States and had several surgeries to repair his back and shoulder. He returned to Iraq on Christmas Eve, the day after the battle ended.
“I missed the fight,” he said, but he saw the long lines of people waiting for food and money, filtering back into what was by then a “pretty secure city.”
The battle really came down to decisions made by some of the most junior Marines, he said.
“It’s very, very challenging for young Marines to go through house after house, block after block. And this wasn’t done within large formations. This was done at squad and fire-team level,” he said. “I think it’s a great study in small-unit leadership, under the most challenging of circumstances of urban terrain.”
During the six-week battle, there were “so many incredible stories and accounts of heroism and bravery by young Marines and soldiers. I think you’ve got to remember a fight like that, because they don’t come along very often. That was a tough one.”
At the ceremony Friday, Natonski related anecdotes from the battle, such as when he heard Marines discussing who would play them in “Fallujah, the movie,” and when a regiment of Marines took an Army psychological operations vehicle into the city and played the Marines’ Hymn as loud as they could, in honor of the Marine Corps’ birthday.
“Believe me, it got quite a reception,” Natonski said.
Hundreds of current and former Marines, soldiers and sailors traveled to southern California for the ceremony and other memorial activities. Hernandez and Blake, who served in Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines during the battle, said they wanted to pay their respects to those who died and to see some of their old friends.
“It was a very important part of our lives,” Blake said.
Finnell, who served as a corpsman with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, said he was hoping to remember. Because of severe post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, two and a half or three years of his life are a blank.
“Coming here is a way to reconnect,” he said.
Though officials made a point of focusing the ceremony on what happened in 2004, Natonski did address the fact that the city fell to the Islamic State early this year. And on Friday, the Pentagon announced that more U.S. troops would be sent back to Iraq as advisers, including to Anbar province.
It’s “very disheartening and disappointing to those who were there 10 years ago,” he said, but the Marines in 2004 accomplished their mission “and more.”
Nicholson said that what is happening in Iraq now doesn’t change what the team did.
“We can’t control what’s going on now. What we could control was in 2004, and we did that very well,” he said. “That’s the message we want to give our guys: We did our job, we did it damn well.’”