FALLUJAH, Iraq - Capt. Sean Sims watched artillery shells
fall and explode in a blast of sand and rubble, close enough to
hear but too far to see what they hit. It was Sims' first
daylight look at the rebel-held city of Fallujah on Monday
afternoon, just hours before he would lead his men deep into its
A Marine Harrier jet screamed overhead. A Mark-19 automatic
grenade launcher nearby let loose - bomb-boom-boom - sending
grenades to burst in the distance.
As commander of Alpha Company, of the 1st Infantry Division's
Task Force 2-2, Sims drew a mission the U.S. military had sought
to avoid since the start of the Iraq war: house-to-house
fighting in an urban landscape that gave rebels many places to
hide, significantly offsetting the superior firepower of U.S.
troops while risking civilian casualties and vast property
destruction. It would be the most intense urban combat for U.S.
troops since the 1968 battle for Hue, in Vietnam.
Sims' men would win the battle, yet no one would feel like
celebrating. Killing the enemy, they learned, was sobering. More
so was the loss of friends.
Sims would not come back.
Before his men left the Forward Operating Base near Fallujah
that morning, battalion commander, Lt. Col. Pete Newell,
gathered them in a circle. "This is as pure a fight of good
versus evil as we will probably face in our lifetime," he said.
Alpha Company was heading to the city's eastern corridor, the
Askari neighborhood, from where they would turn south into
industrial districts and finally hook back to the west, running
for six bleary days with almost no sleep.
Although most of the city's 300,000 residents had fled,
intelligence briefings suggested the Askari neighborhood - home
to many former officers in Saddam Hussein's army - had been
turned into one big bunker, with car bombs, booby traps and
None of the young American men had ever set foot in the town,
shared a cup of tea with a resident or seen the ornate blue
domes that topped the mosques.
After Sims took in the view, soldiers of Alpha Company
scrambled to a road overlooking Fallujah. Then sniper fire began
and the battle was joined. Some soldiers emptied their M-16
clips, some yelling, others laughing as return sniper fire
pinged off the Bradleys and pavement around them.
"Lord, I have to say a special prayer now," the 32-year-old
Sims said in the soft-spoken accent of his hometown of Eddy,
He hustled up a berm to the road to link up with the Task
Force 2-2 reconnaissance team.
Crouched down on his right knee, Sims watched the insurgents'
mortar rounds land, and a minute or two later he heard the
retort of U.S. artillery. A few hundred yards away, the
outskirts of Fallujah rose out of the desert in a warren of
Satellite images after recent airstrikes showed dozens of
ensuing explosions that probably resulted from roadside bombs.
"Everybody realizes that it's something that will affect the
rest of our lives, in terms of seeing that type of combat," Sims
said a few days earlier. "When the first bullet impacts, you
know the eyes of the world are going to be on you."
Near Sims, a sniper lay on his belly with a rifle scope
pressed against his eyes. A five-man insurgent team was
scampering in and out of the buildings of Askari. One rebel
appeared to be carrying mortars.
More bullets flew by, and the mortar rounds grew closer.
Capt. Kirk Mayfield, of the recon team, yelled, "Everyone behind
Standing next to his Humvee, Mayfield screamed for U.S.
mortar strikes on the five-man team. After the ensuing rumble, a
voice called over the radio: "Can I get a battle damage
"An assessment?" the reply came. "There is no more building."
Sims laughed to himself.
Sniper shots zipped by, pinging off the Humvee.
"Where is that sniper? Here it is," Mayfield barked, turning
to a gunner behind an automatic grenade launcher. "Blow him
The red-hot streak of another bullet whizzed past. The gunner
shot round after round, with explosions echoing across the town,
then pulled a pair of binoculars to his face and announced, "He
is not there anymore."
Sims called over to his men, "Let's go," and they went
scrambling back down the dirt berm.
At about 7 p.m., he lined up his vehicle behind his First and
Third platoons as they braced for the fight.
Sitting in the back of Sims' Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Corp.
Travis Barreto, from Brooklyn, leaned over and tried to get a
glimpse through one of the small rectangle windows at the back
of the truck.
A truck pulled up carrying a rocket with about 350 feet of
cord attached to it and 5-pound blocks of C4 plastic explosives
spaced out every foot down the line. With a small whoosh, the
rocket flew forward and a wall of flame shot up. Roadside bombs
planted by rebels exploded, one after the other.
"You know we're going to destroy this town," said Barreto,
"I hope so," replied the soldier sitting next to him.
Phosphorous shells came next, releasing bouncing white orbs
of smoke. The gunner on top of the Bradley began firing 25 mm
high explosive rounds, filling the cabin of the Bradley with an
ammonia-like smell. Barreto looked outside the window again and
could see only smoke and flashes of light.
The U.S. artillery shells were coming in "Danger Close" - the
thin line between uncomfortably near and death.
Insurgent AK-47 fire rang off the sides of the Bradley.
Explosions sounded to the rear, but it was impossible to tell
which belonged to roadside bombs and which were rocket-propelled
As the hours passed, soldiers tried to grab a few minutes of
sleep, slumping their heads on the next shoulder. Each time they
began to drift off another explosion would jolt them awake.
Large concrete barriers and parked cars blocked in the road
in some places. The big M1A1 Abrams tanks lined up and pounded
the obstacles with 120 mm shells, shaking the air.
Sims followed his platoons, which moved a few blocks at a
time, one in front of the other, before stopping. The rear hatch
of the Bradley lowered amid yells of "Dismount! Dismount!" The
soldiers, having ridden in a tight, sweaty box through the
battle - their knees cramped and aching - ran out, then slammed
to their knees and took cover beside a wall. Then came "Go! Go!
Go!" and the men busted through the front door of a house and,
waving their rifles, cleared rooms before storming upstairs.
Sims parked his vehicle with two others in a blocking
position on the road outside before following to the rooftop,
where his soldiers set up a lookout.
With bullets whizzing, Sims and his men crouched down with
the third platoon and assessed the battle. Barreto, acting as a
guard, crouched next to Sims with a dazed look on his face.
"It's weird how we can be looking at the rooftops and there's
no one," he said, "and all of a sudden they're shooting at us."
An AC-130 airplane flew overhead, shooting its cannons in a low
The third platoon reported that the house next door had a
jumble of wires leading to a propane tank. Fearing a booby trap,
Sims got on the radio and called for a tank to level the
building. The call came back: the road was too narrow. Well,
Sims said, blow a hole through a wall and drive through it.
"It's difficult terrain," Sims yelled over the noise around
him. "We're having to move deliberately through the rubble."
He took another look around the rooftop, then scurried back
downstairs and into his Bradley.
Mortar rounds began to fall, at first far away, then closer
and closer as unseen insurgents walked their mortar fire forward
a few feet at a time. Sims' Bradley was stuck between two other
vehicles, but to veer off the road would risk hitting a mine or
bomb. Another mortar fell, and its shrapnel tattooed the side of
the Bradley and rattled those sitting inside. "Kill those
b-------, kill those motherf------," someone screamed in the
No one said another word.
Thirteen hours after the push began, Sims and his men looked
gray and worn. Dirt was beginning to cover their faces and
uniforms. Their ears ached. After two hours of sleep on a
concrete floor of an abandoned house, their eyes were dulled.
"At first, last night, when we came in and heard all the
AK-47 fire we freaked out," said Sgt. Brandon Bailey, 21, of Big
Bear, Calif. "But now as long as it's not coming right at us,
Later, Bailey said it felt like the enemy was coming from
"So we just went ape shit with the cannon, shooting
everything," he said.
How many people did they kill? Bailey shrugged his shoulders.
Sims' temporary headquarters was a mostly empty house. It
stood on the north side of Fallujah's main road which, like all
east-west roads there, was given a woman's name by military
planners: Fran. On the other side stood the beginnings of the
city's industrial district, where more insurgents lay in wait.
Tanks were parked up and down Fran, and ordnance disposal
teams were already identifying the homemade bombs - Improvised
Explosive Devices, in military lingo - that lined the road. They
were densely packed, but with no one to detonate them, the bombs
sat idle as Army trucks rolled by.
Inside the house, the family that fled left handwritten
verses of the Quran on the doorways, a tradition intended to
keep homes safe. Baby formula was scattered around and a
kerosene heater was stored in a utility closet. A painting of
Mecca, Islam's holiest city, hung on the wall in the front room.
Bullet holes pocked the walls of the house. Its windows were
shattered. Pieces of plaster and concrete were strewn about. A
solider defecated in a stairwell, and the stench grew with the
Staff Sgt. Jason Ward was sitting outside the house in his
M-113 armored truck - a square box on tank tracks used to cart
casualties off the battlefield.
Ward, from Midland, Texas, had a deeper accent than Sims, a
square jaw and a blank expression. He was chewing on a Slim Jim.
Ward said he'd ferried at least 10 injured soldiers the night
"It's been very intense," he said. "For a lot of our younger
soldiers, it's overwhelming."
He wore a bracelet with the name "Marvin Sprayberry III"
etched on it, just above "KIA" and "True Friend."
Sprayberry was Ward's best friend. He was a good man. He was
killed on May 3 when the vehicle he was in rolled over during a
firefight. That was all Ward had to say on the matter.
Resting in a Humvee nearby, 1st Lt. Edward Iwan was scrolling
down a flat blue computer screen, mounted to the dashboard, that
showed the location of every Army and Marine unit in Fallujah.
Iwan, Alpha company's executive officer, noted that his men were
deeper in the city than any other unit.
"It's a fairly complex environment, like we thought it would
be," said Iwan, 28, of Albion, Neb. "Cities are where people
die. That's where you take most of your casualties."
Iwan looked out through the Humvee's window at a thicket of
buildings in every direction.
"There are 8,000 places to hide," he said, shaking his head.
Across the street, a long row of shops, once home to
mechanics and carpenters, lay in ruins. Tin cigarette stands
leaned on their sides, pocked with bullet holes.
Sims was on the roof of the house, sitting against a wall,
his legs crossed at the ankle with a map on his lap. A little
past dawn, after an hour or two lull, the shooting started
A reporter offered Sims a satellite phone to call his family.
No thanks, he said. He wanted to talk with them when he got
somewhere quieter. He had an infant son, Colin, whose brown hair
and small ears, which poked out on the sides, looked just like
Sims wondered aloud if the bullets flying by were aimed at
him. During the next couple minutes, several ricocheted off the
roof near him.
"OK, that's a sniper right there," he said with a small grin
as his men grabbed their guns and crouched so only the top of
their heads showed above the roofline.
Sims picked up the radio and called in an artillery strike to
"soften" the sniper positions. His call sign was Terminator Six.
Barreto moved his rifle slowly, scanning the cluster of
houses nearby. "He's somewhere from my 11 o'clock to my 3
o'clock," he muttered.
Spc. Luis Lopez, 21, was too short to rest his M14 sniper
rifle on the roof, so he created a step from a metal box
containing a child's Snoopy sneaker.
The company radio squawked with sightings of snipers and
everyone adjusted their aim: a circle window to the southwest, a
rooftop to the southeast, a crevice in the wall to the
southwest. With every new location, the men clenched their
triggers and shell casings flew up in the air. The sniper rounds
stopped. And then, they began again.
"He shot right at me," yelled Barreto, ducking. "He shot
right AT me."
Those soldiers who weren't on sniper rotation sat on the roof
with their brown Meal Ready to Eat packets, finding the main
meal - bean burrito, country captain chicken, beef teriyaki -
and dunking it with water in the cooking pouch, which smelled of
cardboard and chemicals.
They talked about Steve Faulkenburg, the battalion sergeant
major, shot in the head the night before. What the hell was he
doing out there, they asked. Directing traffic, trying to get a
truckload of Iraqi National Guardsmen out of the line of fire.
The tough 45-year-old was from Huntingburg, a small town in
southern Indiana where there are cornfields and a population of
about 5,500. There's a Victorian-style downtown district there
with brick-lined sidewalks and streets named Chestnut and
Washington. Thousands of miles from home, he'd fallen dead, in
the dark, on a street with no name.
"Friendlies coming up, friendlies coming up," other soldiers
yelled as they climbed the stairs to the roof.
A building a few blocks away quaked with fresh explosions
that sent ashes falling like snowflakes. Flames shot into the
The radio squawked: "OK, I've got an injury to sergeant ...
and I'm unaware if it is a gunshot wound to the groin or a
shrapnel wound to the groin."
Another report came in: A second sergeant had been shot. The
soldiers on the rooftop with Sims paused, shook their heads,
then turned back to the fight.
When they got bored or scared of being on the rooftop, some
of the men - young and with an awkward day's stubble on their
upper lips - went outside and around the corner to see the Fat
Man. "Hey dude, we're going to see the Fat Man, wanna come?"
Their boots crunched hurriedly across the rubble outside the
house and then slid down a muddy hill of trash and feces.
The Fat Man lay in his own blood. He was an Iraqi insurgent
who'd hidden in an alley next to a garbage dump waiting for the
Army to come by. A couple 25 mm high explosive rounds, shot from
a Bradley, blew off his left leg, leaving a stump of bone, and,
from the looks of it, punched a hole through his midsection. Two
or three others died with him. A group of insurgents managed to
drag the others away, but the Fat Man was too big. His arms were
still splayed back from where his comrades tried to pull him
through the narrow alley.
Some of his guts - perhaps an intestinal tract - were
splattered on the wall. His eyes were open, peering out from his
dirty face and scraggly beard, staring at the heavens. A
traditional red-and-white checked Arab keffiyah headdress was
wrapped around his waist, and a bag with slots for RPG rounds -
all empty - lay on the ground next to him.
The Fat Man was the first dead person that many soldiers had
seen. They grew solemn as they leaned over his body and peered
into his eyes, but never too close, never close enough to touch
his skin or take in too deep a whiff of death.
Joshua Franqui, a big kid with a tooth missing from the
bottom of his smile, grew up in Augusta, Ga., and had never been
farther than Louisiana before he signed up with the Army.
His uniform was stiff with sweat and dirt, and he'd become
quiet over the past few days. No one asked why. Maybe it was all
the noise from the gun he manned from his Bradley's gunner seat:
the M242 25 mm "Bushmaster," a weapon capable of shooting 200
high explosive rounds a minute.
Maybe it was seeing what his "25 mike-mike" did to human
A buddy walked up and asked, "Hey, Franqui, how many kills
Franqui looked down, the smile slipping off his face.
"I don't know, man," he said. "Sometimes they sort of
vaporize when we hit 'em."
Franqui was standing in the front room of the house where he
and his First Platoon mates had been catching off hours of sleep
for the past couple days. They'd urinated in the corners and
defecated on the floor.
Many of the men wore skull and crossbones patches sewn onto
But Fallujah was not the place for bravado. It was constant,
pounding violence, the sort that left the heat of passing
bullets on a young soldier's face, and the crack and boom of
RPGs ringing in his head.
On Tuesday, about eight men from the platoon had been trapped
on the roof of a schoolhouse, with RPGs thudding into the walls
and bullets coming down on them. A Bradley shot smoke rounds,
and the soldiers jumped off the roof to escape slaughter.
Soldiers didn't discuss it when sitting around and sharing
Resting against his SAW machine gun - a large gun with a
tripod that weighs more than 16 pounds - Spc. Sheldon Howard,
20, listened as his platoon commander gave orders to move out in
a few minutes. Dark rings formed below his eyes. Dirt showed in
thick bands across his forehead when he took off his helmet.
Howard, who wore glasses and had a round face, grew up near a
Navajo reservation outside of Farmington, N.M., and usually
didn't speak much.
"I'm tired and I don't want to be here," Howard said. "I
don't want to take all of this back with me, but I probably
Picking through a box of MREs, Sgt. Scott Bentley, 22, said
he didn't mind killing insurgents in Fallujah because it would
keep them from coming up to his base north of Baghdad. "I'm
tired of my buddies dying," he said.
Bentley, of Philadelphia, allowed that the past few days had
"Every place we take a roof, the RPGs come flying," he said.
At times, he said, he and his men were "just kind of spraying
The lieutenant walked in and said it was time to go. Howard
hefted up his weapon and jogged outside to his Bradley, the one
with the number "16" written on an orange tarp hanging off the
back of the turret.
The vehicle began taking fire almost immediately. Its 25 mm
A group of fighters darted from one house to the next,
launching RPGs, which were exploding all around.
Spc. Arthur Wright watched out of the porthole-like windows
of the Bradley.
"They killed somebody," he yelled. "There's body parts all
over the streets. Yes! Yes!"
The back of the Bradley lurched open, and the men scrambled
toward a house where insurgents had fled.
A shotgun blasted the front door, a kick and then another
shotgun blast. Smoke filled the house.
"Don't touch anything," said Sgt. Isaac Ward. "They may have
deliberately broken contact to lure us in."
M-16 fire rang through the next room. Howard ran that way,
only to find soldiers staring at an open back door.
The soldiers went through the door and down an alleyway,
scanning the roofline for movement. Gunfire started a couple
Ward wiped sweat from his eyes.
"They've got this shit figured out," he said. "They're
running around the back of a house as we bust in through the
Outside, the bodies Wright had seen were lying in the street.
One of them had been run over by a Bradley, leaving a mound
of meat and bones in the sunlight. A large green bag lay next to
Howard took out a camera and clicked a few pictures.
Bentley ran over to grab the bag. He gave it a yank, and an
arm rose out of the pile, but the strap would not give. With his
friends looking on, Bentley pulled harder and harder, and the
arm flapped in the air. Another soldier joined in the tug of
war, and the arm leapt up, disgorged from its body, and Bentley
fell back a little, bag in hand.
"F------ Hajji," he muttered, using grunt slang for Iraqis.
Inside, a stack of $100 and $20 bills was covered with gore.
Bentley flipped through quickly, and counted about $800 in all.
Back in the Bradley, Wright asked if Bentley would get to
keep the money. No, said Sgt. Randy Laird. It was being put in a
plastic bag and handed over to an intelligence officer. Laird, a
24-year-old from Lake Charles, La., with dirty blond hair,
Besides, he said, who would want cash with all that blood on
Sgt. Dave Bowden laughed.
"It's just a little bit of Hajji blood," he said. "What's the
Despite heavy gunfire outside, Laird popped open the
Bradley's rear hatch a few inches for fresh air. Alpha Company
was pushing through southern Fallujah, a maze of factories and
empty buildings they called Queens. Hardcore insurgents were
rallying there, some of them swimming across the Euphrates river
to join the fight.
A pack of Marlboro Reds, one of the last good packs of
cigarettes left in the platoon, was passed around. There was no
moon in the sky, the crescent having disappeared a few nights
The battle had pushed 72 hours straight, and the soldiers had
gotten, maybe, seven hours sleep.
Wright began to talk about his past in a jumble. He'd joined
the Army after the state of New Jersey sentenced him to
probation for marijuana possession. His mom was an
administrative assistant at a hospital in Harlem.
The Army made him a supply clerk. He hated it - passing out
notebooks and pencils while others went out on field exercises.
So he'd asked Sims if he could switch with a guy who was leaving
the infantry unit. He got his wish. The two were close - when
Sims heard Wright wasn't getting care packages, Sims called his
own wife, a school teacher, who got a class to adopt him. Wright
would walk into the captain's room, sit down and talk about
"girls and what I want to do with my life."
Touching his hand to his gaunt face, Wright's voice softened.
"I've gotten so skinny since I've been in Iraq," he said. "I
mighta lost 30 pounds."
In the glow of his night-vision goggles, hanging off his
helmet, the high cheekbone of his ebony face glistened with
Throughout the week, most of the soldiers had moments of
confession - in the back of a Bradley, lying on the ground just
before closing their eyes, taking a break between firefights.
Their voices came out of the darkness, tired and usually
directed at no one in particular. Some were sweet. The men
missed their girlfriends and wives, and they took their pictures
out of notebooks to look at them one more time. Some stories
were hard. One guy talked about guard duty in Kosovo one day and
getting angry about being there, in the middle of nowhere, in
the middle of nothing. He saw a mentally ill child who always
came to the gate, asking for candy. The soldier told him to come
over, and then he punched him as hard as he could, over and
over, just to see if the kid would come back the next day. When
he did, the soldier beat him again, laughing.
After that story, Laird told the soldier he was a coward and
Laird's father committed suicide when he was 12, and Laird
dropped out of school when he was 14. He spoke often about his
son, 2 1/2 year-old Brayden, who was back at home in Germany
with his mother.
"Every time he sees somebody in uniform, he thinks it's
daddy," Laird said.
Brayden would run up to soldiers and hug their legs, thinking
he'd found his father. "I'm sure after a while, he'll understand
that I killed people, that I've seen dead bodies," Laird said.
"It's emotional now when I see a war movie because I know what
they're going through. Especially when guys in full dress
uniform go to a mother and say her son is dead and she falls to
the floor. It makes me think about my mom getting that call."
Sitting a couple men over on the bench of a Bradley was
Bowden, whose father was in the 82nd Airborne Division and who
grew up knowing he'd join as soon as he turned 18. His father
later became a sheriff's deputy at the Pike County, Pa.,
sheriff's department, and his mother got a job at a local
"When people say that war is the most terrible thing, they
ain't wrong," Bowden said. "The things it does to people. You
think that killing people for your country is cool, but when you
do, it just numbs you."
Bentley re-enlisted last October because he knew his unit was
headed to Iraq and he didn't want them to go without him. "I
remember every face I see out there, every moment out there," he
said. "I can't forget it. I can't make it go away."
Standing in the rubble, the soldiers gathered the AK-47s and
RPGs left by the group of fighters who'd fled.
The house, yet another in a line of dozens if not hundreds,
was blown apart by Bradley and Abrams tank fire. "It's intense,
that's about all there is to say," said Spc. John Bandy, 23, of
Little Rock, Ark. "The determination these guys have against our
forces, these little bands of guys shooting at tanks, it's
He took a long drag from his cigarette. Bullets were in the
air. Artillery shells whooshed by, on their way to punching a
hole in some building or person.
A sofa survived the shelling, and some men were sitting on
it, taking a breather. They could see into the next house
through holes in the wall.
The cat and mouse pursuit, insurgents flitting from one spot
to the next, a step ahead of heavily armored vehicles and the
infantry, made the men angrier.
Increasingly, they turned to Laird, a forward observer for
the artillery, and asked him to pound a house with 155 mm
"We trained to fight a country with armor on a field," Laird
said. "These guys shoot at us, drop their weapons and become a
The men picked up their weapons and jogged to the next house.
Spc. Fredrick Ofori was in the lead. A 24-year-old from Ghana,
whose family moved to New York looking for work, Ofori's face
was drawn tightly, without emotion, as usual. His lithe, compact
body showed muscle at every movement.
Wright teased him about not going out to clubs back in
Vilseck, about not throwing down drinks with his buddies and
picking up women. "That is your life," Ofori would respond. "It
is not for me."
Ofori said more than once that getting a Combat Infantryman's
Badge meant little to him. The ribbons, he said, were for
talking, and he was here to fight so he could go home.
He respected the insurgents, he said, for their willingness
to fight to the death.
The streets outside were littered with dead men, their
corpses left for cats and dogs to gnaw on after the sun set. The
sight of bearded insurgents, eyes open, lying in gutters was no
longer a novelty.
Walking through the house, Ofori turned his gun toward a
doorway. Shots rang out. A fighter in the room had been waiting
with a grenade in hand. He'd probably been listening the entire
time as the men sat on the sofa next door, their voices wafting
through the holes in the wall.
When he jumped forward, he didn't scream "Allahu Akbar" - God
is Great - as insurgents often did. He moved in silence, until
Ofori's fire blew him back. Ofori looked down for a few seconds
and walked out of the room. The soldiers behind him went inside
to ogle. "Damn, look at Hajji," one said.
Walking into the garage, Ofori found a dead fighter lying on
the ground next to a pickup truck outfitted with a machine gun.
Having heard of the incident, the New York Post wrote a
headline calling Ofori a "Coney Island Hero."
His mother told the newspaper, "he doesn't like that Army
Later in the day, an RPG tore through the torso of Lt. Iwan,
the company's executive officer, ripping his body apart. He was