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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, July 22, 2004

Marines recall their time in Iraq

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Just back from about two of the worst places to be in Iraq — Fallujah and Ramadi — three 3rd Radio Battalion Marines said yesterday that progress is being made but security remains tenuous.

Marine Sgt. Gary Cisneros, son Gabriel, 6, wife De and daughter Isabella, 7, walk near the Pacific War Memorial at Marine Corps Base Hawai'i. Sgt. Cisneros recently returned from a second Iraq deployment.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Gunnery Sgt. Richard Taylor, Staff Sgt. Charles Willson and Sgt. Gary Cisneros are among 22 of the Hawai'i-based Marines who have returned to Hawai'i.

Another 140 of the Marines, who specialize in electronic warfare, are expected home in September. Last year, 250 of the radio battalion Marines deployed to Kuwait and Iraq.

"I think, obviously, we still have some security issues," said Taylor, 31, who spent most of his five months at Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi, and the last week and a half in Fallujah before arriving in Hawai'i on July 11. "(Iraq) is a very young nation, so to speak, and I think every step forward means some of the lateral steps that we're being forced to take."

At both Blue Diamond and Camp Fallujah rocket and mortar attacks were routine.

Both cities are west of Baghdad in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" of greatest resistance to the U.S. presence. Radio battalion Marines also are at smaller "forward operating bases" in the region.

Several thousand Marines fought Iraqis in the streets of Fallujah in April after four American contractors were ambushed, killed and their bodies dragged through the streets.

A large portion of American deaths since June 28 have occurred in Anbar province, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah. At least 17 Marines and four soldiers have died there.

News accounts for months focused on the fighting in Fallujah — to the exclusion of progress elsewhere, some complained.

Taylor, who was stationed in Hawai'i with 3rd Radio Battalion for 2 1/2 years, went to California with the unit, and returned here to deploy, said Fallujah's reputation for insurgency is a deserved one.

"For years it had been a stronghold for the bad guys. Sometimes Saddam wouldn't send his own forces in there," he said. "It was bad. It's hard to get a big overhead view because it wasn't just Fallujah, it was happening in Ramadi and Najaf and some of the outlying areas."

The focus was on that one area "because that was probably where the most intense fighting was going on," said Taylor, who worked as a logistics chief.

Despite the opposition, Taylor said "we made positive steps forward there constantly, not only in the combat aspects, but also the rebuilding aspects, where we're going out there and talking to the normal people and the people who are running the government of Iraq. I think we're making great inroads into letting them know — we're not the bad guys."

The California man, who is married and has 4- and 5-year- old sons, spent most of his time in camp, but went out to see what other 3rd Radio Marines were experiencing. The radio battalion Marines are told not to discuss the missions they go on.

Staff Sgt. Willson, 27, who was at Camp Fallujah for six months, had close calls: a roadside bomb blew up less than 300 feet from his convoy and a 120 mm rocket exploded about 150 feet away. He was not injured.

The only radio battalion Marine to be injured to date is Lance Cpl. Daniel Powell, 22, who received a Purple Heart in June for shrapnel wounds received in a mortar attack in May.

Rocket and mortar attacks on Camp Fallujah are sporadic, said Willson, who was a motor transport maintenance chief. A stalemate of sorts has existed in Fallujah since May when U.S. forces decided to pull back from the city.

Willson said he doesn't speculate on whether Fallujah, a city of 300,000, will see more violence. "We don't see that level of stuff," he said. "We just saw what was right in front of us. We didn't have time to think about the politics. They'd tell us to go here, we'd go here. We didn't care why we were doing it. It just had to be done."

Cisneros, 32, who works in signals analysis and communication support, now has done two tours of Iraq. He deployed last year and traveled up to Baghdad.

The Tucson, Ariz., man said this time, it was more difficult to tell who the enemies were.

Last year, "a lot of times, (the enemies) were too busy running away." This time, "the people helping you during the day were the same people shooting at you at night," he said. "It was more deadly this time than it was the first time ... not knowing who the actual enemy is is more stressful."

The view of some Iraqis is "they don't want us occupying their country," Cisneros said. "But they can't do it by themselves. If we leave then other countries will take advantage of them because they have nothing to defend themselves with."

On the home front, Taylor's wife, Ingrid, said having two boys to take care of and a full-time job in California helped time go by.

Around March and April, it got really scary when fighting in Ramadi was in the news, she said.

"I e-mailed him to make sure everything was OK. We'd continue to get word from the command saying that all of radio battalion was fine," she said. "I did have the Web site that gave the fatalities and all the coalition casualties and I checked it. We know a lot of Marines."

Her husband is glad to be past that — at least for the time being.

"It's surreal at times (being in Hawai'i)," Richard Taylor said. "My wife and children and I are staying down at the Hale Koa (hotel) and it's on the beach and it's so incredible to be back. You just stand there with a big grin on your face."

Willson said it will take time to readjust.

"Once you get used to a place like Iraq and you come back, normal life ... it takes some time," said the eight-year Marine. "Cars backfire or balloons popping ... it takes me right back to Iraq."

He's not even thinking about the possibility of having to go back some day. "If I have to go back, I have to go back. But in the meantime, that's in the past, and I'm going to focus on taking care of my family and what I have to do for the Marine Corps now."

Reach William Cole at 525-5459 or wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.