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Marine Reflects On Second Battle Of Fallujah, 10 Years Later

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

10 years ago today, American troops were encircling the city of Fallujah some 40 miles west of Baghdad. Here's how NPR's Anne Garrels described their preparations for battle.

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ANNE GARRELS, BYLINE: This afternoon, 3,000 marines gathered to hear the commanding general, who turned up at this base to rally the troops. He called Fallujah a town held by mugs, thugs, murderers and intimidators. General John Sattler said the Marines' job is to help the Iraqis do what they could not do for themselves.

BLOCK: Fallujah had become a base for the Iraqi insurgency. Earlier that year, in March, insurgents had ambushed an American convoy. They dragged four American contractors from their cars, killed them and hung their charred bodies from a bridge. That led to the First Battle of Fallujah. Then on November 7, the Second Battle of Fallujah began. It would be the bloodiest, most sustained street-to-street battle American soldiers had seen since Vietnam. Greg Nichols was a 19-year-old infantryman in the First Battalion, Eighth Marines. And he joins us now from Philadelphia. Mr. Nichols, welcome to the program.

GREG NICHOLS: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Why don't you take us back to that first day as you were going to battle. Civilians had been told to flee Fallujah. The insurgents were dug in. While you were waiting to go in, what was going through your mind?

NICHOLS: I think a lot of us, you know, went inside ourselves and just kind of said, hey, you know, there's some significant things happening here. And our expectation was that it was going to be a violent and very intense engagement.

BLOCK: And as you moved into Fallujah, what did you see? What happened?

NICHOLS: So, for us and specifically my platoon, there's a train tracks north of the city. And there was this berm that was maybe about six or seven feet high. And we staged up behind that. And that was essentially the first point of contact between the, you know, invading force and the insurgents. And so we basically squared off. Both sides just absolutely opened up. I'm not sure many people have seen anything like that, but it was an incredible and awesome display of power. It was intense.

BLOCK: And as you moved through the city were you going house to house?

NICHOLS: Yes. For us it was a little different because we were on vehicles. But, you know, the line companies and, you know, the line platoons - and so those are the guys that are on the ground, you know, those guys are doing the house-to-house fighting, and we would augment them, you know, as needed for the house-to-house stuff. But, you know, that type of fighting, the only way that you can actually engage and take territory is to put boots, you know, in that house, in that room, in that window. I mean, it was just really very close, very violent, very intense.

BLOCK: I imagine that you must have since memories of that time 10 years ago printed on your mind of what it sounded like, what it looked like, maybe what it smelled like.

NICHOLS: Sure, sure. It - you know, when we first rolled into the city, I mean, it was just gray. It was so gray. It's unlike anything I've ever seen. It was just pulverized concrete, you know, from artillery and, you know, 500-pound bombs, 2,000-pound bombs, mortars, you know, rockets. It just smelled like destruction, you know, just the air was - it felt different. It tasted different. There was something palpable about that place in the world at that specific point in time that was unlike anything else.

BLOCK: How many Marines from your unit were killed in Fallujah?

NICHOLS: I want to say there were 17 killed in Fallujah. And we had four killed prior to that in our deployment. So the total number came up to 21 over the course of the deployment with, you know, the casualties and the losses being extremely heavy over the course of that month of November when we were in Fallujah.

BLOCK: Is there any way to prepare yourself for that even if you know that that might be the outcome? I wonder how you mentally steel yourself for that possibility.

NICHOLS: You know, I can't speak for anyone else, but I certainly - I planned on dying. I mean, you just do the math, and you say, well, there's 3,000 insurgents that are well-entrenched. They've, you know, lined up IED chains of 25 IEDs on a road to take out an entire platoon. You know, they've fortified compounds. You say, OK, well, that means, you know, that I'm probably going to die here. So, I just kind of accepted the fact that hey, this is probably it. So, let's do it.

BLOCK: Ten years after your time there in Fallujah, are those memories still very fresh? I mean, do they still come back to you?

NICHOLS: I would be incorrect to say that it hasn't affected me, you know, negatively and positively. You know, I mean, I certainly have, you know, my issues with, you know, sleep. Everyone that knows me knows I can't sleep well. But things like that. You know, on the flipside, it also humbles you. I mean, it's an incredibly humbling experience when - at least for me anyway, you know, I mean, I had accepted at 19, you know, hey, well, I'm going to die. And then, you know, I didn't die. And it's kind of like, OK, now what? But at the same time it's - these other guys did die and other people did die, and so if there's any real lesson out of it, it's to, you know, essentially try to live, you know, live in a way that those guys aren't here, you know, would be proud to do, you know.

BLOCK: Well, Greg Nichols, thank you very much for talking with us today.

NICHOLS: Thank you.

BLOCK: Greg Nichols served in the Second Battle of Fallujah, which begin on this day 10 years ago. He's now retired from the Marines and is a business manager. In January this year, Fallujah fell to Sunni insurgents from the so-called Islamic State. The city remains in the hands of ISIS extremists. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.