FALLUJAH, Iraq – Maj. Rich Bourgeois says the image of a young Navy medical corpsman rushing to aide a mortally wounded Marine in Fallujah's (search) notorious Jolan district will be forever imprinted in his mind.
"In the middle of a firefight, there was this wounded Marine, his left leg blown off and just the femur sticking out," recounts Bourgeois, 41, of Malden, Mass. "And the young corpsman ran to his side, oblivious to the battle, applying the tourniquet."
More than 50 Marines have died since the Fallujah attack began Nov. 8, and skirmishes still take place in the city. Yet for some Marines, their performance in one of the major battles of the Iraq (search) conflict is a source of pride.
"Fallujah is going to be right up there among the most successful battles in Iraq," said Maj. Tom Davis, 45, of St. Cloud, Minn. "It's where the rubber meets the road. That is where our heroes did their best."
Fighting in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq made November one of the bloodiest months for American forces since the war began in March 2003. At least 135 U.S. troops died in November — the same number as last April, which had been the deadliest single month of the conflict.
"Fallujah has been a life-changing event for many of the Marines, fighting in an environment that is just unfathomable to anyone outside," said Bourgeois, an explosives expert who retired from active duty two years ago, but was recalled this year.
During the Fallujah battle, he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment to study enemy tactics and techniques.
Although the fighting was brutal, Bourgeois believes the Marines' morale was reinforced when they found evidence of atrocities committed by insurgents — including emaciated hostages chained to the wall and bodies of those killed execution-style.
"When we saw what the enemy did, what they were capable of doing, we were only more eager to do away with this pure evil," Bourgeois added. "Regardless of how many pockets of resistance are still out there, it will not sway our morale. Nothing can."
Lyle Gilbert, a first lieutenant and spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said morale is high in Fallujah — despite the ongoing firefights.
"Sure, the Marines are engaging every day. Fallujah is not as cleared as everyone would like it to be," he said. "Some insurgents still lie there in waiting. They get restless, hungry and start shooting at us. But we will chase them. We shall beat them on their turf."
Lt. Col. Dan Wilson said that although major resistance collapsed two weeks ago, Fallujah remains a very dangerous place for American troops because some insurgents are still holding out or have slipped back into the city.
"One minute they (Marines) might be handing out emergency supplies and a couple of steps away, they might be getting shot at by insurgents who are still hiding in some damaged structure," Wilson said.
Some of the Marines echoed those concerns as they patrol Fallujah, its empty streets an apocalyptic landscape of bombed out buildings and debris.
"There is always a moment of uncertainty that some Iraqi would be passing by, giving us the thumbs up and the next minute he'd fire an AK 47 at us," said Sgt. Mike Wagner, 27, of St. Louis, Mo. "But you know that your buddy is there, watching your back. If it weren't for my buddies, I wouldn't be here."
Sgt. Wayne Doyle, 23, of Neversink, N.Y., said he naturally misses home.
"But I'd much rather be here with my Marines," he said. "And I'd do Fallujah all over again."