It was a year ago today that the statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad was toppled, but the Marines of Fox 2/5 Company aren't celebrating.
The 206 members of the company fought their way into the Iraqi capital along with the rest of the 5th Marine Regimental Task Force, battling their way 80 miles up a highway in three days of heavy combat.
Most of the Marines of Fox 2/5 are back home now, either with their unit at Camp Pendleton in southern California, or out of the military altogether.
But they're following the U.S. forces' progress in Iraq, and they learned this week that two of their colleagues from the 5th Marines were among the dozen Marines killed in Iraq in the violence that flared this week. They're in no mood to celebrate, nor am I.
Three-Day Push to Baghdad
I was with Fox 2/5 in Iraq, embedded as a correspondent for ABCNEWS. A former Marine myself (I served in Vietnam with the tank battalion Fox 2/5 was attached to in Iraq), I thought I could handle whatever they'd go through.
But on the night before our final push into Baghdad, I was exhausted. The three days of fighting had come on top of three weeks of sleepless nights in the desert, and the company was "back on its heels," pausing for a rest in a garbage dump in a suburb nicknamed Saddam City.
"I'm too young to feel this old," grunted 23-year-old Corporal Eric Barnes as he stirred awake. At twice his age, I felt even worse. Gunnery Sgt. Dan Ferguson suggested I sleep on the hood of our Humvee to let the engine heat work its way into my aching back. It worked, but the next morning Ferguson chastised me the way any good gunny would: "It's amazing they didn't shoot you last night up there," he said.
We were still somewhat in shock from the three straight days of heavy combat. The company had suffered its first — and thankfully, only — fatality of the war, when the seemingly indestructible 1st Sgt. Edward Smith was hit by shrapnel from an exploding Republican Guard ammunition dump. That night, there had also been a horrific "fog of war" incident at a Fox 2/5 checkpoint, which claimed the lives of nine Iraqi civilians.
The only thing that was able to change the morale was the unexpected order to take off our intolerable chemical suits, in which we had lived, slept — and never washed — for the past 23 days. It was the best indication yet that our war was just about over.
Back in Combat
This was my second war. The time I spent with Fox 2/5 — from their final training in California, to the Kuwaiti desert, and then to Baghdad — was a three-month flashback of many of the images, emotions and fears I felt in Vietnam and thought I'd never have to experience again.
Frankly, I wasn't sure how I would react to combat again without the naivete and false sense of immortality which help all young Marines get through it.
When the bullets started flying, I was surprised and slightly shocked by how fast it all came back to me. I found myself using terminology I hadn't used in 30 years, calling out locations by time clock ("enemy at 9 o'clock") and using slang for weaponry ("willie pete" for the white phosphorous rockets used as marking rounds).
When we were caught in an ambush on the road to Baghdad and our driver stopped to wait for orders, I found myself screaming at him: "Push north and get us out of the kill zone."
Marines Then and Now