MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – As the country reflects on the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the ground war in Iraq, one battle stands alone.
The battle that drew first blood against the untested Marines and sailors of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines;
The battle where 18 Marines gave everything for their country and for the Corps;
The battle that set the stage for a war not only against uniformed soldiers, but against militant insurgents concealed within an innocent populace:
The battle for An Nasiriyah.
Ten years have passed and yet Miami native, Capt. Matthew Martin, then the Alpha Company executive officer of 1/2, speaks with a solemn tone, painting a lucid image of controlled chaos and Marines many fighting for the first time side-by-side.
“That was the first time I had been in combat,” said Martin. “My initial reaction, well, have you ever heard of flight or fight? It was fight. When we were fighting there were no other thoughts but to protect that Marine to our left and our right, keep it tight and repel the enemy, and that’s exactly what we did.”
The days prior to the battle on March 23, 2003, the Marines of 1/2 assembled anxiously at the border, waiting for the President to give the word to commence Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“When we were in Kuwait, staged south of the line of departure you could see a lot of Marines were thinking about what lay ahead of them,” said Brooklyn, N.Y. native, Lt. Col. David Sosa, the current battalion commander. “Once we crossed the line it was a very busy time for the Marines and sailors and I think they were very focused on the job at hand,” he said as he reminisced of his time as the battalion’s operations officer.
Their two-day journey from the border left little time for sleep, yet the beleaguered battalion moved quickly toward their objective on orders to secure and protect the bridges surrounding the city. Marines are always able to adjust fire and adapt to developing situations, but in war, rarely does anything go as planned.
“They say ‘don’t fall in love with your plan,’ and we definitely didn’t,” said Martin, then a 1st lieutenant. “That’s when the plan started changing.”
Reports started rolling in that an Army unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, to include Pfc. Jessica Lynch, had taken a wrong turn in the city and been ambushed. Several soldiers had been killed and captured and were under heavy fire. Alpha Company and other lead elements of the battalion rushed toward the units’ smoldering vehicles in an effort to rescue the remaining soldiers. Once the soldiers were recovered, the battalion continued toward their objective.
“When we punched into the city, Alpha took the first bridge just as expected, taking fire the entire time,” Martin said. “The other companies punched in and executed their courses of action just as planned, initially.”
Officers with 1/2 were instructed to be ready to accept the surrender of the Iraqi Military elements located within the city of more than 300,000 residents. That however, was not the case. Bolstered by their successful assault against the unprepared 507th, the defending Sadaam Fedayeen, Republican Guard, and Iraqi Army Regular soldiers relentlessly assaulted the Marine forces.
“One of our untold tasks was to break that – break their will to fight and get them to surrender,” said Martin.
And the Marines aimed to do just that. With the Euphrates Bridge being held securely by Alpha, Charlie and Bravo Companies pushed forward into the fray intending to take the northern bridge. The forward progress Bravo was making came to a near immediate halt as thick mud and higher than anticipated water levels entrapped their tracked vehicles. Split in two, Bravo defended against small arms, machine gun and rocket propelled-grenade fire while simultaneously recovering their vehicles.
Charlie Company, blocked by Bravo’s stuck vehicles, adjusted course and moved through the city along a road commonly known as Ambush Alley. Charlie trekked four kilometers under heavy fire from buildings on both sides of the road to reach the Sadaam Canal Bridge.
Once there, they began to engage the enemy in force. With tensions rising and inconsistent communications plaguing the battalion, Charlie came under intense accurate mortar and artillery fire.
Sustaining heavy casualties, the company requested immediate air support only to be mistaken as an Iraqi mechanized unit by an A-10 Thunderbolt overhead. The friendly fire mixed with the Iraqi assault prompted the Alpha Company commander to push through Ambush Alley to support Charlie.
“Everybody knew everybody, it [was] a very tight unit,” remembered Martin. “As Charlie began taking casualties, these weren’t just Marines from another unit or another company; these were Marines that we all knew. It definitely had an effect on every one of us – no Marines like to lose their brothers.”
Soon, Bravo followed, consolidating the battalion in an effort to repel the enemy attack and expedite casualty evacuations.
“One of the things that absolutely impressed me was that this was their first combat – my first combat – and you could see that [the Marines] were doing just what they were trained to do,” Sosa mentioned. “It was good to see the effect of months and years of training and I was very proud of every single one of them that day. The Marines did what you would expect of them, they continued to stay focused on the mission. They got the job done.”
By the end of the day, the battalion had repositioned two km north of the Sadaam Canal and established a defensive position for the night. Altogether, 18 Marines made the ultimate sacrifice in a successful effort to open up a route for I Marine Expeditionary Force to push toward Baghdad.
“One of the things we want to do for the battalion is to keep the history alive and [provide] an understanding for all of our Marines and sailors of what their battalion has done throughout the years.” said Sosa. “This gives us an opportunity to highlight a significant element of the battalion’s history in the war we are still fighting and the incredible things the young Marines and sailors are able to accomplish.”
Today, a memorial lies outside of the 1/2 headquarters building engraved with the names of the service members lost in support of the War on Terror. The first 18 belong to those who valiantly fell during the push through An Nasiriyah. Their rust-touched dog tags hang restlessly, having weathered the decade of war, and freshly-cut flowers lay in solemn remembrance of their sacrifice.
“It’s an incredible honor,” said Sosa. “I’m very thankful that I’ve had this opportunity and that I cannot only commemorate the history of the battalion, but remember and share the history with the Marines.”