Sgt. Marquel Curtis remembers the first time he was shot at.
It was in Fallujah in 2004.
“I was with my buddy,” Curtis said. “My sergeant sent me out to get some material to make a fighting position. I looked over to him and I had to second guess myself. I said, ‘Is this real? Am I getting shot at?’”
It wasn’t the last time Curtis and his fellow Marines would be the target of hostile fire in Fallujah. For more than a month toward the end of 2004, troops, including members of the 1st Battalion, 8thMarines, went into the central Iraqi city to weed out members of the insurgency who claimed the city as a stronghold.
But more than nine years later, militants have taken Fallujah back, leaving behind questions for those who lost both blood and brothers-in-arms in the fight and drawing unsettling parallels for those who fought in Vietnam only to have Saigon fall back into communist hands 39 years ago.
Curtis was a 19-year-old private first class with 1/8 when the battalion entered Fallujah in early November 2004.
“When we arrived, it was dead silent,” Curtis said. “It was vacant when we entered. They knew we were coming. We sent out messages saying we were coming. It was really quiet.”
Things got loud, though. Very loud. According to former Sgt. Monty Devenport, who also served with 1/8 during Fallujah, said ear protection was a necessity when the fighting heated up.
“Without it, you’d physically hurt,” Devenport said. “You’re hearing your weapon, friend’s weapon, their weapons. Then you’re hearing the bombs, which are so much louder than your guns. It was loud.”
After entering the city, troops were tasked, in part, to go door to door in the urban area approximately one hour west of Baghdad to find insurgents and nullify the threat they posed to the troops and anyone else in the city. Soldiers and Marines kicked down the doors of the deserted city that had housed more than 300,000 people with no one knowing who, if anyone, was waiting for them.
“It was dangerous,” Curtis said. “Sometimes, I was the person that kicked the door open and I had no idea what was going to happen. It was an adrenaline rush but at any given moment, I could get shot. It’s impossible to explain.”
Curtis said his superiors made it clear that they were preparing for a historic battle that would drive a major blow to the enemy and pave the way for law and order in Fallujah.
“You think to yourself, ‘I’m gonna be part of history,’ but at the same time, you’re there for a month and you’re wondering, ‘Is this going to be my day?” Curtis said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen day to day. You don’t know if you’re going to survive or end up in a body bag.”
Curtis and Devenport both survived the battle, but 95 of their brethren did not, including members of the 1/8. For Devenport, the death he witnessed in Fallujah hit him on a personal level.
“(1/8) lost 22 guys in Iraq, and 17 or so in Fallujah. That was the worst part,” Devenport said. “A lot of the guys we lost were young guys. They were killed before they could buy a beer in the country they were fighting for. It stung when they died because they did on our watch and we had to make sure they were OK. You understand that people die in war, but you still feel like you let them down.”
While in Fallujah, Devenport said the day was spent fighting and “putting your training in use,” but after the gun fire subsided at night, an internal battle began.
“When you’re fighting, that’s the only time you get a break from being scared,” Devenport said. “During your down time, though, you get scared. Maybe your buddy got hurt or one of your own died. You’re crying and you get mad. You’re angry at the entire world for what you’ve been in. You’re angry because it seems like (the Iraqis) don’t care about what we’re doing over there. But, when it’s morning, you gear up, you’re on the move again and it’s all done.”
After the coalition of American, British and Iraqi troops took the city from the insurgents in December 2004, 1/8 took their leave and said their final “goodbye” to Fallujah. For Devenport, it was a sweet farewell to an almost otherworldly city.
“Fallujah wasn’t hell, but it’s in the same area code,” Devenport said. “There was nothing worse than sitting in that city.”
Curtis said he was “relieved” when his battalion received orders to leave Fallujah, looking forward to leaving the city behind to its inhabitants.
“It was relieving that our job was done and that we helped people who couldn’t help themselves,” Curtis said. “I hoped that the people of Fallujah could finally live in peace.”
Nine years after leaving Fallujah behind, Curtis and Devenport still work closely with the military. Curtis is still in the infantry and Devenport now works with a company that helps prepare Marines for foreign deployments by immersing them in an environment similar to what they’ll experience once they’ve shipped out.
Fallujah now is also similar to how it was back in 2004. On Jan. 4, al-Qaida linked militants reclaimed the city from the Iraqi government. The city, in many respects, is right back where it was when the 1/8 entered nearly a decade ago.
“I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” Devenport said. “On one hand, I’m saying if they don’t want it, they don’t deserve it. On the other hand, I feel like we should take it back.
“It’s a low blow. We fought long and hard to take that city. It’s as if they didn’t care about the freedom we wanted to give them.”
Curtis said he found out about the fall of the city, his thoughts turned to his colleagues who didn’t make it out of the city.
“They made the ultimate sacrifice,” Curtis said. “What was it all for? I don’t want to blame the Iraqis, but I felt like they didn’t do their job. Why did we go over there? Why did we do what we did? Why did we fight that battle?”
Devenport and Curtis said they drew parallels between the fall of Fallujah and the fall of Saigon in 1975 that ultimately ended the conflict in Vietnam. According to retired Marine John Johnston, who did four tours in the Southeast Asian nation, the hurt he felt nearly 39 years ago is still with him now.
“I cried when Saigon fell,” Johnston said. “It was such a waste ... all the people who lost their kids over there. We’re sending people to die over there for no reason. It was crazy then and it’s crazy now.”
Retired Sgt. Maj. Joe Houle did a tour in Vietnam in 1966. When Saigon fell back under the control of communist North Vietnam, Houle felt that two decades of American fighting in Southeast Asia was for naught.
“I felt worse for the kids over there,” Houle said. “We were getting to them. We were making a difference to them ... a light at the end of the tunnel. They blew that candle out when Saigon fell. I would venture to say the Iraqi veterans feel the same way.”
Devenport said the anger he had while serving in Fallujah is still with him, though he said it’s mostly due to a nation that doesn’t seem to know or care about what he and his “brothers in arms” did during that month in late 2004. He hopes Americans come to understand and appreciate what coalition troops did while serving in Fallujah.
“I hope they understand what we gave up for that land and why we feel the way we do,” Devenport said. “This was no insignificant event and it seems like the American people don’t care. They don’t even know where Fallujah is.
“But, I gained the kind of perspective the average person will never get.”
Christopher Thomas is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.