Thousand Mile Stare
We entered Fallujah with Charlie Company of the First Marine Battalion, Eighth Regiment, shortly before midnight after watching from afar a two-hour bomb and gunfire barrage that lit the night sky like a Fourth of July fireworks show. I was nervous but tried to keep an outward calm, telling my colleague Patrick McDonnell that we might as well just go and get it all over with.
We had talked throughout the day, promising to keep an eye on each other and vowing not to leave the other behind. We crammed into armored tracked vehicles with a platoon of Marines ---- and I prayed as never before for the next half-hour.
Disgorging from the tracks we immediately hit the ground. The blinding light of illumination flares shined down on us. At the northern edge of town Arabic voices eerily blared from nearby minarets, calling on the townspeople to wage war.
We got up and stumbled through the dark, crossing railroad tracks to a traffic circle where we were pinned down by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. With no cover but a six-inch-high curb we laid down in the gutter with heavy packs pressing down on prone bodies. Then it rained for the next four hours, soaking us to the bone. Overhead more rockets whistled by, exploding no more than 50 yards past. I counted more than a dozen. Streams of tracers pierced the night. I was miserably cold and scared. I thought for sure that I would be killed.
As dawn approached the rockets and gunfire subsided and we pushed up a main road behind a huge bulldozer. A squad of Marines broke into a house, cleared it and we all piled in. But we were soon on the move again. Within minutes we came across two dead insurgents and one who was barely alive. As we all took cover a brave Marine turned him over to check for booby traps. I gritted my teeth and waited for an explosion that never came.
The morning light was finally rising, though the weather remained dreary. I cranked up the ASA and dialed down the shutter speed. I was cold and tired. A heavy pack cut into my shoulders. Still, it felt good to be walking and alive and taking pictures.
Turning a corner we came under fire again. The platoon hugged a wall and two machine-gunners set up and fired down a side street. I followed one Marine into a nearby house and took pictures as he returned fire from the front door. Then he looked into the house, saw it was filled with explosives, and began screaming for me to get out. We both ran across the street and I dove into a hedge. Crawling up against a nearby wall, I spent the next 20 minutes photographing an intense firefight.
As bullets flew in all directions, a pair of tanks arrived to cover us and the Marines broke into another house. They ran through the two-story structure looking for insurgents and explosives. Then they went up to the roof and fired on nearby houses where insurgents had holed up. Again RPGs and bullets rained from all sides. Outside the tanks fired their machine guns and cannons. For what seemed like forever chaos reigned. In the midst of it all, I pulled out my laptop and filed half a dozen pictures.
The fighting raged through the rest of the day. At one point it subsided for about an hour and the platoon took turns taking naps inside. I too fell asleep and, when I woke up, I had no idea where I was. Then the shooting started again and brought me back to the present.
A squad of Marines ran in the door. They had gone to recover the body of a fellow Marine from another platoon holed up nearby. He had been shot in the head. They were very somber and for the first time I think they all realized that this could end very badly. But there wasn't time to think. Somebody was yelling from the roof that we were again under attack. A group of insurgents tried to storm the house and shots rang out. When I got upstairs I saw a dead insurgent against the side gate and another across the street in a vacant lot. The tanks had left us.
As night fell we coordinated our escape with the other platoons in nearby houses. The company had taken a nearby mosque and we could find safety there. We walked up a thoroughfare to the mosque joined by tanks, bulldozers and dozens of other Marines. The power was out and the night was thick and black. For the first time in almost 24 hours not a shot was fired.
At the mosque I filed six pictures more, including one of Lance Cpl. James Miller. I had tried to get his name but the exhausted platoon was already asleep in the darkened building. I identified him simply as "A Marine." I thought nothing of the photo. Just a detail shot to complement the action. However, it soon got legs and has since run all over. People now tell me it has become an icon. I don't know. It's hard to tell from the middle of a combat zone. All I know is that if Miller had turned the camera around on me, I would have had that same look: eyes filled with anxiety and fatigue framed in a face determined to survive.
© Luis Sinco
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