Marine Purple Hearts: a time to recall, forget
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
KANE'OHE BAY — The Hawai'i Marines, most of them in their 20s, talked in clipped sentences about the violence that earned them Purple Hearts in Iraq.
Their descriptions of roadside bombs, attacks and the intensity of not knowing what was coming next spoke to the hostility in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province.
A roadside bomb destroyed the Humvee Lance Cpl. Chaim Kozak was riding on April 22 in Baghdadi, northwest of the capital.
The 20-year-old from Michigan remembers "everything, but I'm kinda trying to forget, you know what I mean?" he said yesterday.
The hand, knee, spleen and other internal organ damage he suffered makes that difficult. He walks with a metal cane.
He and fellow Marines were "busy all the time. Hardly any sleep. Just trying to take care of killing some terrorists."
Sgt. Christopher Kelbaugh, 22, was sleeping when a suicide truck bomber on July 24 barreled into a fortified building he and 16 Marines were in.
"I remember shots and running," the Maryland man said.
A falling concrete block broke his nose. A monocle-like scar now circles his left eye.
Sgt. Jon Gonzalez, 27, from Arizona, was ambushed by several armed men in a palm grove in Baghdadi on Sept. 1. A machine-gun round shattered the bone in his upper arm.
They were among the 48 Marines and a sailor with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment who received Purple Hearts yesterday with more than 900 fellow battalion members watching.
The last group of 3rd Battalion Marines, known as "America's Battalion," returned on Oct. 5. The Hawai'i battalion's headquarters was at Haditha Dam, northwest of Baghdad, but Marines were spread throughout the "Triad" of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana near the Euphrates River and down to the Baghdadi-Jubbah-Dulab region.
Sunni attacks on U.S. forces have increased with the continuing occupation and frustration with a Shiite-dominated government. Eleven Marines with the 3rd Battalion and three attached to the unit from elsewhere were killed in Iraq since March.
Maj. Patrick Beckett, the executive officer for the 3rd Battalion, said it was an "exceptionally hostile" environment.
"There were very few uneventful days in the battalion with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), mortars, small-arms fire and ambushes, and that raises the intensity level," Beckett said.
A total of 88 were wounded, with the most serious injuries including a leg amputation as a result of a roadside bomb and a gunshot wound to the chest resulting in partial paralysis.
The emotional trauma left some Marines deeply shaken, and a few buried their heads in their hands yesterday and wept during the Purple Heart presentation, which was made more personal with families of the dead Marines on hand. A memorial is planned at 3 p.m. today on the base.
Fourteen members of Cpl. Andres Aguilar Jr.'s family from Texas filled an entire row yesterday in the base theater. All wore black T-shirts with the Marine Corps logo on the front and Aguilar's name on the back.
The 21-year-old Marine was killed April 2 along with five other Marines when the 7-ton truck they were riding in rolled over during a flash flood near Al Asad.
"It's taken us days, weeks, months, but we're holding on," said Aguilar's uncle, Arturo Hinojosa. From the moment the family was told the news, "we were supportive of the troops, because this (being a Marine) is what he wanted to do."
The fight, and losses, continue on for Hawai'i Marines in the Haditha area of Iraq. The 2nd Battalion, which replaced the 3rd Battalion, already has suffered five combat fatalities since Sept. 26.
The latest was 2nd Lt. Joshua L. Booth, 23, of Massachusetts, who was felled by a sniper's bullet in Haditha on Tuesday.
Brig. Gen. Mastin Robeson, the 3rd Marine Division commander out of Okinawa, told the 3rd Battalion Marines yesterday they accomplished the toughest mission that a Marine has — making the "spur-of-the-moment decision" about when to use lethal force.
"You killed when you needed to kill. You saved when you needed to save," he said.
Beckett said one of the 3rd Battalion's legacies in Iraq is a more capable Iraqi security force. The primary mission now for U.S. forces is to train up Iraqi counterparts.
An Iraqi army battalion that wasn't doing independent squad operations is now doing company-sized operations, he said. The force is primarily Shiite in a Sunni region, and "there were (acceptance) challenges with the local population; however, they were very professional," Beckett said.
There were also attrition problems with Iraqi soldiers going AWOL, but the core group that remained was very proficient, he said.
Kelbaugh, the Marine injured in the suicide vehicle attack, said for him, a previous deployment to Afghanistan was "very quiet." He's getting out of the Corps in two weeks and going to college to be a wildlife biologist.
"Iraq's definitely a very different place and a lot more violent towards Americans," he said.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.