It was like getting the old rock band back together. But instead of Crosby, Stills and Nash, it was Chontosh, McIntosh, Burgwald, Jelinek and South, and instead of joining together on stage, the reunion took place via Skype.
They are five members of India Company, 3/5 Marines, with whom our Fox News crew was embedded a decade ago in the deadliest battle of Iraq, the invasion of Fallujah. The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Fallujah. That battle was aimed at clearing the city of Al Qaeda-linked insurgents, but the anniversary marking it has an edge, as the hard-won gains have been erased and Fallujah is now controlled by the Islamic State.
Rex McIntosh, the Company’s first lieutenant, who shouted expletives as we were going into Fallujah, now works for an oil firm in Texas and is a lot more cool and collected. He told us of his frustrations watching Fallujah and other parts of Iraq fall into Islamist hands and said if the country is not wrested back, he fears they might feel like veterans of the troubled Vietnam War.
“It will have a certain hollowness,” he said.
Sgt. Shane Burgwald hasn’t changed much except for a bit more mustache and goatee. The intensity with which he served his nation now benefits a police department outside of Chicago, where he works as a detective for the Oswego police. He's "mad as hell" about what has happened since he and others risked their lives to free the Iraqi city.
“If I told you how I truly feel, this would immediately turn into an R-rated segment for language content,” he said, adding that he blames the Obama administration for letting the victory in Iraq escape.
Klay South, who was badly injured when an insurgent opened up on him as he was clearing houses in Fallujah, looked darn good. He’s active in veterans’ affairs and is staying up late with a new child. “That’s OK,” he told me, “he’s in training to be a drill sergeant.”
Remarkably, considering all the pain he has endured, Klay was the most gung-ho about taking on the militants.
“When do we go back?” he asked.
Like many of those who were putting their lives on the line, Dave Jelinek was young at the time of the invasion, just 20 years old. Well-liked, "Jelly," as he was called, is now a landscape gardener in Illiinois. He had the most measured view of the current war against Islamic State.
"It seems we are hitting the right targets,” he said, adding that he fears mission creep could put more boots on the ground where he once fought.
Finally, there’s Capt. Brian Chontosh, a true force of nature. The first night we met “Tosh,” he was Indian wrestling with his men in his headquarters. Going into Iraq he killed 20 insurgents, earning the Navy Cross. He was just as fearless in the Fallujah battle.
Now he lives in San Diego, enjoys being “off the grid,” works for the CrossFit fitness firm and has the most cautious, and maybe knowing, opinion of all those we talked to about what should be done regarding Islamic State.
“Just let it be for a while,” he remarked. “Just let this one sit for a few minutes.”
He and all the men were unanimous on two points:
Despite the new gains for the Islamists in Iraq, especially Fallujah, in the words of Chontosh, the 2004 invasion was not a waste of blood or effort.
“I’m not going to judge what we did 10 years ago by events today,” Chontosh said. “It’s not fair.”
Because, in part, again as all reminded me, the Marines are pretty much doing their fighting, as McIntosh put it, for “the men on their left and their right.” They don't have the luxury in the heat of battle to grapple with big-picture politics.
And that was, for me, perhaps the best part of our conversations with the men.
These fellows accepted me and cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski 10 years ago as a part of their unit. They joked with us, made fun of us, and looked after us just like they look after each other. We joked again this week, and all of us felt like it was yesterday and we were together again.
As we reflect this week on the importance of military veterans, remember these fellows too. They’ve been watching all of our backs.