Letters From the Front

Brian Donlon
1st Lt. Brian Donlon granted FOX Fan permission to publish letters he sends home to family and friends as he serves the United States of America overseas in Iraq.

February 16, 2006

To All:

First, let me apologize for my two months of silence. The tempo of events over the last 60 days has been by far the busiest yet of the deployment. My Marines are well. Since my last letter, however, four were injured in combat — sending two of them to temporary non-combat duties and one back home to the United States. I have recovered from my own wound, and returned to full duty at the end of December.

The weather these last few months has varied continuously between wet, dry and windy, but always with the single constant of considerable cold, especially through the night. There has been a great deal more rain this winter than I experienced last year in Baghdad. As I wrote last year, the rain had a remarkable affect on the skyline of the city. Between occasional downpours and days of continuous drizzle, the rain has washed away months of dust. It has also cracked and rinsed away the brown shell that encased the city, and minarets of brilliant blue and green have emerged on the horizon. Unfortunately, the cleansing affected by the rain has had the opposite effect on street level, turning the alleys into seas of mud and brown stagnant water.

Nevertheless, despite the failure of sewers to process the rainwater, the city has continued to show signs of improvement. These signs, seemingly imperceptible, hint at a permanent return to normalcy — the appearance of street signs, a reduction in the mountains of garbage on corners, sidewalks and medians, the construction of new homes and businesses. It’s all proof that stability is slowly returning to Fallujah. Bullet holes and rubble still exist, however, as visible reminders and a potent warning to the citizens of the city of what happened here a little over a year ago.

Important signs of success also abound in the Iraqi Army, and more slowly in the Iraqi Police. The first, composed of 14-month Shia veterans of the city, have continued to impress with their thoroughness, drive and growing professionalism. It has been a pleasure to watch the squad of Iraqi soldiers search either a collection of vehicles or civilians. They have remarkable energy and are eager to work beside the Marines. Much of their growing capabilities can be credited to the Marine and Army Reservist personnel embedded with them as instructors and advisors. They are the future of Iraq's security and, at the lower echelon, are more than ready for the challenge. The Iraqi Police, composed of Sunnis from the city, have become an integral part of operations. The highest testament to their growing import has been the attention recently paid them by the enemy.

Unfortunately, as the city's population returns, and Fallujah is reborn into a better place, insurgency has begun to creep back with greater force. It is an odd condition of war that on any corner, amidst all shows of regular life, violence can unpredictably erupt in the form of an IED or a gunfight. As I have told my Marines, by this point, all the dumb and careless Muj are eliminated. Those we fight now are the last 10 percent, and the survivors are those whose intelligence and ability has made them more difficult to kill or capture.

January was a tough month for the battalion. In the first days of the New Year, we lost four Marines in small arms engagements in the city. An enemy who uses pedestrians and traffic as cover, and who attacks and withdraws into the protection of civilian crowds, is dangerously lethal, for all his cowardice. Nevertheless, the Marines tenaciously continue to seek this foe, even when faced with the fear of their own deaths and the image of slain comrades before them.

Two special cases highlight such heroism. The first is that of Cpl. Gettings from Fox Company. Shot through the abdomen, he collapsed in the street, only to suddenly rise from his mortal wound. He returned fire against the enemy and rallied his squad around him as he led the fight through the ambush. To know of such heroism in the final moments of life, and to know of the victory of such selfless virtue over the overwhelming instincts of self-preservation, is truly humbling. Doc Engels, a Navy Corpsman in Echo Company, showed equal resolve. His squad was caught in a narrow alleyway. Two Marines were lying wounded in the open street and Doc rushed to their aid amidst a hail of bullets. Disregarding his own safety, he was severely wounded. Refusing to surrender his position despite increasing fire, Doc dragged a wounded Marine to safety before collapsing. Doc lived, but was forced to return home. There seems no end to the courage of the men here in Fallujah.

My own platoon fell prey to the enemy offensive when we were attacked by a suicide car bomb the second week in January. At the time of the attack, half of the platoon was dismounted from the HMMWVs, conducting a search of the area. The massive explosion lifted the rear of one HMMWV in the air, filling the cab with smoke as flames licked around the windows and windshield, in a tremendous ball of fire. The force of the blast threw open the back door, sending shrapnel into the cab, bouncing off the body armor of those inside. Then, as suddenly as the air filled with the thunder of the explosion, all fell silent and the smoke began to clear. Marines lay sprawled out up and down the street and that next moment all seemed in doubt. The Marines started to stir and one by one rose to their feet. Cpl. Burchfield, wounded in the arm and concussed by the blast, used his rifle as a crutch to regain his feet. Just as when he was wounded in the mine attack, he ignored his own condition and began to establish a defense in expectation of follow-on attacks. Similarly, Cpl. Beachley and Sgt. Snell, the latter badly wounded by shrapnel is his arms, legs and back, began to establish security around the vehicles. Only one Marine, Cpl. Ingram, was unable to rise from his wounds and was treated by the corpsman. Throughout this fight and in the ensuing MEDEVAC, the Marines, like Cpl. Gettings and Doc Engels, kept their heads up and again proved their courage.

For all that I have written here of heroism and progress, I have been told that there is much frustration at home with the war. The frustration is understandable. I know that frustration often slips into the thoughts of my Marines as they face danger, homesickness and fatigue. Fighting an insurgency is nothing like a conventional battle. An invasion, or an Al Fajr, is straightforward, aggressive and fast-paced. The fight in Iraq today requires patience, tenacity and discipline. There are no hills to capture in a dramatic effort, no Suribachi to fly a flag from and no statues to topple in the square. Instead, victories are small. They come haltingly and often seem imperceptible. The ground we seize and hold is almost always defined in the intangible. This is not a war that can be captured in a single image or a pithy analogy. Nonetheless, movies, web pages, books and music videos attempt to create just such an easily digested vision. In the process, they conjure forth in the popular consciousness scenes of civil strife, bloodshed and a fruitless future dim amidst the crush of dust and urban ruin. From this perception, there is little surprise that frustration is purported to reign and the word "Iraq" has become so clearly a pejorative.

Perhaps the falsity of this hopeless perspective of the war is best conveyed in a line from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, entitled "Ulysses." Here the poet speaks in the voice of the Homeric hero Ulysses, now an old man, remarking , "I am become a name" — that the legend has replaced the reality. No one wants to see the old man, grown gray in the shadow of many peaceful years; rather it is the imaginative vision that captivates emotions, as shallow and ephemeral as these are when compared to the man in the flesh. Just as the Homeric warrior who fought beside Ulysses in front of the walls of Troy would no longer recognize the same Ulysses who emerged years later from the sea or who crept slowly into old age, so it is with Iraq. It is far easier to accept the legend of Iraq as a frustrating failure than to accept the reality, lacking as it is in the instant gratification of weapons of mass discovered or bin Laden captured.

I know that when I leave in about two months, the moment I step onto the plane I will have left the cutting edge of this struggle. I will no longer see so clearly the context of those daily events that, without intimate contact, are made imperceptible by distance and disassociation. What buoys me now, through my own frustration, is my firm conviction that forces of the human spirit, virtues far greater than that which can be tallied, are at work here, for all the insinuations of politics and economics. The surest proof for me of this slow victory of the human spirit, both in American and Iraqi, are the parts played by the principal actors I see daily in this drama. It’s the men, like Cpl. Gettings and Doc Engels, who sacrifice so willingly, based on the Iraq they, and the other heroes beside them, see in front of them with each passing day.

That's all from me at this time. Thanks to all who have sent letters, e-mails and care packages. Time permitting, I will try to write more frequently. In the meantime, thanks again for all you do to support us from home. God Bless and Semper Fidelis.

1st Lt. Brian Donlon

Read 1st Lt. Brian Donlon's previous letters from Iraq