Coming Home Project
12:32 am
Thu January 9, 2014

Iraq War Veterans Reflect on Fallujah

It’s been two years since the U.S. military left Iraq. Some of the deadliest fighting was in the western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, where more than 1,400 Americans died battling Al Qaeda insurgents. This week, news broke that Al Qaeda has taken control of the cities. 

WNPR sat down with two Marines who fought in Fallujah, and they shared their reaction to the recent turn of events.

It's been seven years since his time in Fallujah, but Ismail said memories of his deployment have stayed with him, including thoughts of those who didn't make it back.

Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, Michael Zacchea, is one of many Iraq War veterans who are taking the news personally. "This is a real kick in the stomach," he said. Zacchea lives in Brookfield. He was severely injured in a fire-fight in 2004 during what is known as the second battle of Fallujah. His unit was stationed there to train the first Iraqi Army battalion.

Zacchea is not happy reading about how Al Qaeda is back. Of the battles to win Fallujah, he said, “It was brutal combat; most brutal since Vietnam certainly. We did our mission, but we have nothing to show for it.”

Gulaid Ismail is a Marine from New Britain who served in Fallujah with Charlie Company, a Reserve unit out of Plainville. He was deployed after Zacchea, but they had the same mission: to train members of the Iraqi Army.

Looking back, Ismail said he’s not surprised the Iraqi government is failing. "Based on the time we spent with them," he said, "you saw the work ethic, and they weren’t fighters. We did foot patrols, and we had grenades tossed at us. We first take cover, and then set up security. But you got guys taking off, and we’re here to train you so you can take over your province."

It’s been seven years since his time in Fallujah, but Ismail said memories of his deployment have stayed with him, including thoughts of those who didn’t make it back. Three Marines from Charlie Company were killed in action.

Ismail said they were on the minds of everyone at a recent gathering of Marines from the Plainville unit. "Just talking about Fallujah and the guys that we lost," he said. "It was kind of disheartening. All that work put into it, and to see it overran, it’s like...we had to tell ourselves that we were here for each other. Despite of everything else, we were here for each other: do the mission, but look after your brothers. That’s how we keep ourselves from getting angry, you know, as far as to see Fallujah overran with insurgents. But are we surprised? No."

Now that the insurgents have taken over, a lot of recent news coverage has mentioned the number of Americans killed in Anbar province, and whether the sacrifice was worth it.  Zacchea said many sacrificed a part of themselves in the fierce battles years ago. "There were a lot of people wounded in Anbar province," he said. "I know of Marine battalions, Marine units, where 50 percent of Marines got Purple Hearts. I know of a Marine battalion where every single Corpsman got a purple heart. Even here in Connecticut, when I go to the Marine Corps ball, you’ll see 50 percent of the Marines with Purple Hearts.”

While Zacchea and Ismail both said they’ve have had conversations with other veterans who half-kid about going back to Iraq, and defeating the insurgents again, they know that is not the answer. Zacchea said the troops did what they were supposed to do. "Some people have been complaining that we should never have left and this, that, and the other thing," he said. "When I first went to Iraq, President Bush said, as they stand up, we stand down. That was his quote; that was what the mission was. When the Iraqi Army is built up, then we’ll go home."

Now the international community waits to see whether the Iraqi government can defeat Al Qaeda on its own. But the future of the country is further clouded by deeply-rooted sectarian violence that only complicates Iraq’s chances.

Listen to the full story.