Huddled in an abandoned house last November, Sgt. Jason Arellano gave his platoon a pep talk as they prepared to push deeper into insurgent-occupied Fallujah.
"So they're right here in this area. There are going to be more and more as we push further down," he said. Arellano gave the speech after a Marine on an adjacent street had both his legs blown off by insurgents' grenades. "You don't want other squads giving speeches to their men about one of us, right? I don't want that," he added.
An ABC News crew was embedded with Arellano's company for the assault on Fallujah last fall, and we very quickly realized he was the guy we wanted to stick with. The operation was relatively smooth for Arellano and his men. They secured their slice of the city in eight days and we left.
More than a month later, I got an e-mail from Arellano, sent from a hospital bed in Germany. He'd already had seven operations on shrapnel wounds in his neck and leg and a bullet wound in his groin.
Arellano had been on patrol, still in Fallujah, where he'd spent his 27th birthday. On Dec. 12, he was hit. He became the Marine that squad leaders tell their men about.
A Blast of Shrapnel 'Ripping Through Everything'
"I remember it very vividly. It was, it was slow motion," he told me later. "I remember the blast itself happening, the curtains from the room picking up slowly, smoke pushing through all the bricks and the wall and just the sound of just shrapnel ripping through everything," he said. It felt like he had been electrocuted, he said. When he was being taken to a field hospital, Arellano told the medics to stop giving him morphine so he could feel the pain and know he was still alive.
"It was very, very close. I mean I can honestly say I guess I was in the right place at the right time you know, how my body was postured, everything just it happened for a reason you know," he said while recovering at his mom's house in Taos, N.M. "I was very close to being hit in my jugular, very close to my femoral artery and no bones were broken or punctured by the shrapnel and I guess one could say very quickly that I was lucky, but I believe I was blessed."
Seven other Marines were not so lucky and died that day. Arellano was told the news when he woke up in the field hospital. "I remember laying there just kinda shaking my head like, 'No, like, Who was it? Who could it have been?" he said. "Then when they told us the names it was, it was very hard because two of those guys were in my platoon and they were very good friends of mine and it was pretty hard to hear that."
'Constantly Thinking' About Comrades and the War
Arellano likens the pain of losing comrades to an itch. It's always there and gets worse when you don't have anything else to think about. Back in Taos, he finds himself thinking about the men who have died and thinking about his platoon still in Fallujah. The adjustment to life back home has been hard.
"I was so used to just a couple of hours of sleep, getting up and going about the whole day and now I've come here and to lay in bed for six hours seems like forever," he said. "So I'm, I've had some restless nights and I'm always constantly thinking of what's going on over there."
He doesn't allow himself to think about having to kill in battle, he said. He told me about one insurgent he'd killed in hand-to-hand combat in a house in Fallujah. The man had shot one of Arellano's Marines. "He threw a grenade at us and a miracle that the grenade didn't go off and then we ended up going into the room that was dusted from firing in there, from grenades going off, and we ended up getting in a hand-to-hand scuffle and I'm here today."
But on the day he was wounded, Arellano wasn't so lucky. He was standing on a rooftop being briefed by the lieutenant when insurgents opened fire on Marines who had just walked into a house looking for blankets and pillows to sleep on that night. By the time Arellano got to the fight, dead Marines were already being dragged out of the building. The lieutenant ordered Arellano to take his men and go in after the insurgents. "There's a million things going through your head, you've got a firefight here, you got Marines yelling," he said. "At that point I was just thinking, this is it you know, I could be dead right now in a few minutes or we can come out of this on top."
Once inside, Arellano and another Marine threw grenades into an upstairs bedroom where the insurgents were holed up. After the first blast, Marines began running up the stairs so Arellano had to break cover to stop them. He was shot by the insurgents and hit by shrapnel from the grenade he had thrown.
In Taos, Arellano showed me the laminated photographs of his girlfriend he carried with him in Fallujah. They're now covered in his blood. "I had 'em in my pocket and when I got hit," he said. "And I opted to leave them bloody just for sentimental reasons and just to kind of let my girlfriend know that I had her with me even in the worst of times." He showed them to his girlfriend and says he's not sure whether she was flattered or appalled.
Arellano is considering becoming a police officer. But told me he that if he recovers sufficiently from his wounds, he would like to rejoin his unit in Iraq.
"All my men are still there. I've received messages and e-mails that they're doing all right," he said.
"But again, I know how it was when I was there, and I said we were doing all right. It wasn't always that."