May 28, 2006
JESSE HAMILTON
Courant Staff Writer

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The Marines are filthy and
tired and act hard, like they've been here two years
instead of two months.

Charlie Company's 200 or so infantrymen -- half
from Connecticut -- are reservists, pulled from
civilian life for the unit's first trip into the war.
They will spend seven months running patrols,
guarding posts, raiding suspect houses and manning
checkpoints in one of Iraq's most dangerous cities.

The men from Enfield, Colchester, Middletown
and East Windsor are fighting in Fallujah to keep
things from getting worse. They fight to buy time
for the training of Iraqi replacements. They fight
for an unknown future under yet-to-emerge Iraqi
leaders. And, at the most basic level, the corporals
and privates first class fight to keep themselves
and their friends from getting killed.

They rehash their battle stories sometimes before
they've returned to safety, writing their own
characters into the war movies they gravitate to.
They court death in their spare time, watching
violent movies and some playing video games of
war. Under it all, they are young and far from home.

``We're trying to keep Fallujah stable and get out of
here,'' said Cpl. Parke Stearns, 26, of Lebanon, Ct.
The Marines here are fighting a war. But it's not
always clear whose war.

Charlie Company is based at the Civil-Military
Operations Center, or CMOC, pronounced
see-mock in the acronym jungle of military speak.
The compound is at the center of the city, facing
the major east-west route through it. Charlie
Company owns downtown, the worst of Fallujah.
It is one company where four battalions with
thousands of troops once operated. The nearest
Marine company, another part of the 1st Battalion,
25th Marines, known as ``New England's Own,'' is
at the train station on the northern edge of the city.

But there are other supposed allies. Iraqi police,
most of them locals, work from stations scattered
around Fallujah, driving little pickups with patches
of steel welded to them for armor. Three Iraqi
Army battalions -- increasingly trusted by their
elsewhere.

The area is a stronghold for the Sunni branch of
Islam. The Iraqi Army soldiers are mostly Shiites,
so they are among the insurgents' favorite targets.
While the Iraqi police are mostly Sunni, their
partnership with American occupiers invites
attacks on them, too, leaving them walking a
crooked line.

As 1st Sgt. Ben Grainger, Charlie Company's chief
noncommissioned officer who is from Enfield, said,
``They live in the community, the same
community the insurgents live in. It's not a matter
of them dying; it's a matter of their wife, family
and kids dying. They're almost forced to play both
sides.''

When working with either security force, Grainger
said, Marines are told, ``Treat them as our
counterparts, but be ready to kill them, if
necessary.''

On May 19, a car on the ``new bridge,'' the main
crossing over the Euphrates River, rolled up to the
point of the bridge where Iraqi soldiers sat in a
sandbagged post. It detonated, tearing the car and
suicide driver into hunks of black shrapnel. Only
one of the soldiers was wounded in the explosion
that wrecked two of their armored vehicles, but the
blast also punched holes through the bottom of the
bridge, knocking it out until it could be repaired.

Soon after the attack, Iraqi soldiers milled around,
laughing and taking pictures. One of them showed
off a plastic bag that held a license plate. He
signaled that the other item in the bag was the
blackened foot of the driver.

That evening, as engineers checked out the bridge,
another company from the battalion watched the
area. They came across a group of men who
scrambled into vehicles and fled. Chasing down one
of the cars, a taxi, the Marines watched its driver
run the car into pedestrians before bailing out into a
building.

Charlie Company responded as backup, to help
surround a section of the notorious area of town
known as the Pizza Slice, a triangle formed by two
main roads and the river. Inside the taxi, Marines
found a few automatic weapons and a
rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Night fell on
their search, which ended with a suspect who fit
the description, but couldn't be held without more
proof.

As they prepared to leave, a few shots popped in
the distance across the adjacent cemetery. The
Marines who heard barely reacted. Bullets are
almost as common as mosquitoes when the sun
goes down in Fallujah. But the Marines carry
night-vision equipment. As they like to say, ``We
own the night.''

The following day, again, a suicide car bomb
struck. This time, it hit an Iraqi police station. The
car blew up at the outer security perimeter, injuring
some people there, but no officers.

When Iraqis are hurt or killed in the city, it slides
off most of the Marines in Charlie Company. It's
when their own get hit, as they have a few times in
the last several weeks, that the news grips tight.

On Wednesday, Marines from Charlie Company's
2nd Platoon are returning to base when an Iraqi
boy, maybe 11, throws a grenade at them. It lands
within lethal range but doesn't go off. The boy gets
away. Explosives disposal guys are called in to
grab the grenade. They arrive with a flat tire, so
more Marines from 2nd Platoon come out for
security.

An arm pokes around a corner and throws another
grenade.

This one blows as Marines dodge for cover. Two
Marines are hit with minor shrapnel: Lance Cpl.
Jordan Pierson, of Milford, in the arms and leg, and
Lance Cpl. Nicholas Lambert, of Oxford, Mass., in
his right thigh. Both are taken to the hospital at
Camp Fallujah.

Afterward, as he limped from his treatment,
Lambert said to the medical staff, ``It's nice
meeting you guys, but I don't want to see you
again.'' He and Pierson returned to the unit.

Another day, when gunfire crackles and blasts start
shaking Charlie Company's building, the Marines
get ready for a fight. They gather in the entryway
of their four-story building, like greyhounds at the
starting gate, the air heavy with the smell of
gunpowder. In squads, they start to reinforce guard
posts and head into the city.

The explosions come from a combination of
rocket-propelled grenades streaking into the big
compound and mortar shells dropping from above,
in greater numbers than usual. With fire from three
machine guns on top of it, the coordinated attack is
the nastiest on CMOC since the unit got here in
March.

Within a few minutes, Marines have shot back and
hit two or three attackers -- news that puts smiles
on faces back inside their building. The surviving
insurgents vanish, taking their wounded with them.
The leaders of Charlie Company count it as more
of the same -- hit-and-run, no real threat to the
Marines, though more organized than they like to
see.

But theirs isn't the only building in this dusty hub.
In one corner is the equivalent of a town hall. There
is another building that houses the mayor's offices.
And a new police headquarters just opened on the
northern edge, which could also have been a target
for the rain of more than a dozen mortars.

No Marines were hit, though one dud mortar
embedded itself on the roof of the former education
administration building they live in and another
landed a dozen yards away.

The attack did kill three Iraqi police officers on a
nearby guard post -- Iraqis killed by Iraqis. Much
of the violence in this wounded city is between
Iraqis, leaving U.S. troops as the referees in a game
with more teams than rules.

Just a few hours earlier, out at a Charlie Company
checkpoint on the west side of the Euphrates
River, a car drove up with a dying man in the back
seat, his curled-up form full of bullet holes and
soaked red with blood. The car was allowed to
pass through to a nearby hospital, where a doctor
turned it away after a quick check that concluded
the man had died.

When the car got back to the checkpoint, Marines
tried to figure out what had happened. They
gathered the six other men from the white Toyota
and held them aside while a translator questioned
them. Meanwhile, a Navy corpsman -- a medic
who travels with Marine units -- checked the man
in the back seat. ``He has a faint pulse in his wrist,''
the corpsman said.

"He's still alive.''

The man's brother leapt from his kneeling position
and began weeping and moaning, trying to get
closer through the knot of Marines.

The corpsman kept working, looking for further
signs of life. He couldn't find a pulse in the man's
neck. And his heart was still.

'He's done,'' the corpsman finally said.
The other man continued to cry, his tears rolling
through his brother's blood where it stained his
face. He had the eyes of an animal struck by a car,
stunned and confused. As he folded against the car
trunk and put his head down on his arms, the story
was told by the others through the translator.

Their car had been at a gas station down the road.
A group of men got out of a gray BMW and fired
an AK-47 -- Iraq's favored assault rifle. Nobody in
the Toyota said they knew why.

Bottom line: The shooting didn't involve a Marine.
So the Marines waved them on, back down the
road.   
.