Second in a two-part series.
In the late summer of 2004, having already completed a seven-month tour of duty, Ketchum resident Cpl. Jason Willingham, 24, knew he was heading back to Iraq and he knew the situation was rapidly deteriorating.
"It was just a matter of time before we got the call," Willingham said. "But we didn't find out we were going to Fallujah until a month before we left. We asked some of the guys returning what Fallujah was like. They told us, 'Just be prepared, because you might see your buddy blown up.'"
Fallujah, a city of 300,000 about 40 miles west of Baghdad, was thrust onto the world stage on March 31, 2004. On that day, four Americans employed by Blackwater, USA, a private security firm based in North Carolina, were killed. Television cameras beamed the image of their bodies, hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River, across the globe.
Within a week, the U.S. Marines, along with the Army and Iraqi Security Forces, were poised to clear the city of enemy insurgents. Clearing a city of 300,000 people, the vast majority of whom are not insurgents, is not an easy process.
Willingham and the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment—also known as the 3/5th—were set up on the east side of the city waiting for orders to move in.
It was the second attempt by the Marines to clear insurgents from the city. The first offensive ended when local leaders vowed to curb violence, a move many insurgents saw as a victory, Willingham said.
"At the time, this was really the last city the insurgency still had a handle on."
Before the second Fallujah offensive, Willingham remembers seeing American planes drop flyers ordering citizens to leave the city.
"The flyers let them know we were getting ready to start bombing the city, (and) anyone who stayed we assumed was an insurgent," Willingham said. "When the orders came we headed in. We started by breaching doors."
Willingham and his fellow Marines went door to door, building to building, block by block.
"It was crazy. Your adrenaline over there is going all the time—you are basically sleeping with adrenaline," Willingham said. "After a while it's basically second nature and pretty soon it's just another day."
Nov. 10, 2004, was not just another day.
"We were constantly running convoys knowing there were IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," Willingham said. "Every day you'd wake up and just pray—I hope today is not the day. With those IEDs, it's just a matter of time."
As of Tuesday, May 22, 2007, the Defense Department reported that 377 service members were killed under hostile circumstances since Jan. 1, 2007. Of those deaths, 265, or 70 percent, are attributed to IEDs.
Willingham, along with Staff Sgt. Gene Ramirez, 28, of San Antonio, Texas, and Lance Cpl. Joseph Heredia, 22, of Santa Maria, Calif., manned the second in a two-vehicle convoy of "up-armor" humvees—those with heavy armor and a roof-mounted machine-gun. The convoy was moving in the black of night through the heart of Fallujah.
"There was no warning whatsoever," Willingham said. "The blast knocked me out for a few seconds. When I came to, the adrenaline was running so strong that if I had something wrong, I didn't care. I was worried about my guys.
"It was so dark. I put on my NVGs (night vision goggles), but the way those work is by amplifying the moonlight—and on that night there was no moon. I expected the explosion to be followed by an ambush. I hopped out of the truck and got ready."
The front humvee was undamaged by the blast and rushed back to post security.
"All I could hear was Staff Sergeant Ramirez yelling," Willingham said.
He attempted to tend to Ramirez's injuries, placing a tourniquet on his badly injured arm.
"His arm was basically blown off—I wasn't going to move him, he was in bad shape—the blast basically went off right behind his seat. He was going in and out of consciousness. All I could do was keep giving him water."
Willingham also pulled Heredia up on the truck and "started patching him up before the medics got there."
Within a couple of minutes a reaction team arrived with reinforcements and a doctor.
"When I got to the hospital a sergeant told me that my cheek was bleeding," Willingham said.
At that time he began to check on himself.
"I had a little bit of shrapnel in my legs and in my arm. I didn't realize it at the time, but a chunk of metal grazed my cheek and lodged in the glass next to my head."
The next day Willingham was told Ramirez had died. On Nov. 20, after fighting for life for 10 days, Heredia died in a hospital in Germany.
"They kept telling me he was going to be all right, that he was going to lose his legs, but that he would make it," Willingham said.
For a few days following the attack Willingham was kept off the front lines.
"They didn't want me to go back right away," he said. "But after four or five days I went back in."
Willingham returned to driving humvees in armored convoys and breaching doors in search of insurgents and weapons caches.
"Driving was hard, but it was my job. It wasn't like I could say no."
Although Willingham is now back in Ketchum, the town where he grew up, he remains in the inactive reserves and could be called back into duty anytime.
Despite all he has seen, the friends he has lost and the nightmares he battles to this day, Willingham said that given the chance, he would do it again.
"I received the best training in the world. I am never going to lose that," he said. "I met so many great friends. There are so many people in the Marines from all races and backgrounds—you can't help but learn about yourself."