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
I was impressed with how much smarter, better-trained and better-equipped today's Marines are compared with my Marines, Class of '69. All the men of Fox 2/5 had high school degrees, which many of my Marines did not. Most of them seemed to be capable of handling responsibilities at least a rank or two above their own and had the maturity that goes with it. They had had far more weapons training and field and tactical training; we had been rushed into training and sent to Vietnam.
All of them were equipped with night-vision equipment which has become the American military's greatest technical and tactical advantage on the battlefield, giving them total control at night.
Their motivations were much the same as the Marines I served with in that they seemed to be more interested in being a Marine than serving their country. But most of the enlisted men of Fox 2/5 had signed up after 9/11, and had a much greater commitment to the fight than my colleagues had in Vietnam.
Most of us had questioned the foreign policy that brought us to Southeast Asia. But when I asked one of the Marines of Fox 2/5 on the eve of the invasion if he still thought this was the right thing for the country to do, I remember him saying those kind of questions were way above his "pay grade" and that "this wasn't the right time to be worrying about things you can't control."
And they haven't changed their minds since — despite the recent violence and the controversy over whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. All the members of Fox 2/5 I've spoken to say they're still convinced that what they fought for was right: the liberation of the Iraqi people. They still remember the smiling faces and cheers as we rode into Baghdad.
‘Back in the World’
In addition to following-up with some of the Marines for recent anniversary reports, I've managed to stay in contact with many of them over the course of the year as we've all tried and struggled to readjust to life "back in the world." That's what we called home when we were in Vietnam, and that's what Marines still call it today in Iraq.
After we came home, I shared the complaints of the Fox 2/5 Marines about not being able to sleep through the night for several months. And like them I also found myself having a tendency to be a little less patient and short-tempered around my wife and children. As Gunny Ferguson tried to explain, "We were used to going non-stop, full throttle for so long, we kind of expected everyone at home to be working with the same speed and do-or-die determination."
Some of the married members of Fox 2/5 have gone through relationship counseling since they got back.
The most difficult meeting I had was with Sgt. Smith's widow, Sandy, who lives with the couple's three children in Vista, Calif., near Camp Pendleton. "When Edward was in Iraq, I'd come home and watch the news non-stop," she told me while trying to maintain her composure. "I was trying to hear bits and pieces, trying to figure out where he was by looking for you on TV. And then after he was killed, I just couldn't look at the war anymore."
Any thoughts of celebrating the anniversary of what we thought was the end of the war have been tempered by the reality that it's still going on.
Like Oliver Wendell Holmes once told a group of Civil War veterans: "We have shared the incommunicable experience of war . Our hearts have been touched by fire."