Recon ran gauntlet, but no one died
Submitted by: MCB Camp Pendleton
Story Identification Number: 2003814163918
Story by Pfc. Macario P. Mora Jr.

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif.(August 14, 2003) -- In the blitzkrieg that marked Operation Iraqi Freedom, they were on the leading edge - moving so quickly in their humvees that other 1st Marine Division units couldn't keep up.

They were fast on the draw, too, knocking out enemy targets before they could attack or simply overpowering them with some of the heaviest and most accurate firepower of the war.

The men of 1st Reconnaissance Battalion surgically and forcefully destroyed the Iraqi opposition - without suffering a single fatality. It's an accomplishment born out of extensive training, independent thinking and quick reactions, according to Recon platoon leaders involved in the unit's biggest test - a four-hour firefight, a "cannonball run," of sorts - through a gauntlet of Iraqi fighters down narrow streets in a southern Iraqi town.

Fortunately, the unit had plenty of time to prepare before that harrowing day at the end of March.

It all started with training before deployment. The Marines found out they weren't going to be doing the typical recon mission, said Sgt. Charles Graves, a team leader for C Company's 1st Platoon. Instead, they'd use vehicles and heavy guns.

"We spent most of our time getting ready by getting used to the equipment," said Graves, who served as a sniper in Iraq.

The unit left in mid-January and made the most of its time while underway.

"For the five weeks we were on ship, we trained from (7 a.m. to midnight) every day on things such as weapons skills," said Staff Sgt. Rick A. Rardon, a platoon sergeant for A Company. "My platoon was mostly formed up of guys straight out of (the School of Infantry), and Recon Marines with a bit of experience, and guys with great experience. We did a lot of weapons skills and weapons handling."

According to Rardon, the exercises helped prepare the younger Marines for primetime warfare.

Once in Kuwait, the Recon team stayed busy with live-fire training, Graves said, making sure all the weapons - and the Marines using them - were ready.

They crossed over into Iraq on March 21, Graves said, and were surprised at receiving no enemy fire over the first few days on the long, dusty trail.

"We thought from day one we were going to be utilized," said Rardon. "Everyone was itching to do their jobs, but they just weren't seeing anything, and it almost seemed like they had been let down.

"Every time you turned the corner you were thinking this could be it right here," he added. "It was just all part of the war."

In retrospect, Rardon believes the early quiet was good.

"Not everyone had a mission that put them on the front lines right when they got there," said Rardon. "Our first mission was to set a screen, and we did it without any contact. I think it was a good thing for the simple fact that it gave guys a chance to get used to their equipment and get used to the fact that they were in war."

Rardon called the battalion's success amazing in light of some handicaps. For example, the battalion lacked direct intelligence enjoyed by other battalions, he said. They sometimes didn't get information until a week after an event, he said. And they moved so quickly, other battalions couldn't keep up.

"I don't think anyone expected us to bounce around and move like we did," he said.

Their speed sometimes prevented them from receiving mail.

"I think I received mail three times while I was there," said Graves.

"It became a joke with the guys," added Rardon. 'Why don't you mail it to me?' It was fun. Any other unit, I would have had a hard time ... trying to keep the morale up."

The Recon Marines spent their first few days in Iraq encountering prisoners of war and transients.

But, by their seventh day in Iraq, they finally got to put all their training to good use.

The Marines were to move along the outskirts of a small town north of An Nasiriyah in support of another battalion.

"That's when we heard 1/11 being ambushed," said Rardon. "Right outside of town - there was a heavy fighting force. As we kept going on this farm road on the outskirts of the town, we see civilians passing us."

"They were not going in groups of ones or twos," said Graves. "It was a mass of people going into the opposite direction of where we were moving."

"We didn't know it at the time, but it was a key sign that bad things were about to happen to us," said Rardon. "It became a joke - 'walk by and have a nice ambush' is what they were sort of saying to us."

A haze of fog and swirling sand obscured their vision as they advanced toward town. Moments later, as the city came into view about 1,000 meters away, the battalion began taking fire.

"There wasn't a whole lot of room to maneuver. Alpha Company was on point, so Alpha Company was in the brunt of the firefight," Rardon said.

The other companies looked on but couldn't do much, because they had to stay with their vehicles, Rardon said.

The platoon commander called for air support to relieve some of the pressure the enemy was applying. Recon Bn. was in a "choke point and had to keep moving," Rardon said.

Then, there were rules of engagement to contend with.

"It was kind of hard because we weren't fighting a conventional force," said Rardon. "We were fighting guys (in) civilian clothes (who fought, then retreated) into the city. It became a guessing game. The only way you could know (if it was the enemy) was if you saw muzzle flashes or took rounds. Only then could you fire back.

"So we were then tasked to link up with another force on the opposite side of the city."

Backtracking wasn't really an option, because the streets were too narrow, Graves said.

"We were tasked to go straight through the city," said Rardon.

"A city no one had gone through," added Graves.

At first they all thought it was a joke, Rardon said. Being channeled through a city had been their biggest fear.

"We went and it was a cannonball run," said Rardon. "We turn this corner and a mass fire of rounds just started embedding in these vehicles."

"It was a weird sound, too," said Graves. "You don't really hear the gunshot itself. You just hear the metal hitting metal, sort of like a 'tink tink tink.' I looked back and saw some vehicles with bullet holes everywhere. These are vehicles with no doors and soft-back roofs, and it just makes you feel really negative, especially riding through the city. If someone wanted to throw a rock at you and hurt you, they could."

Just progressing down the streets was difficult, Rardon said. The roads were no more than 10 meters wide. Moreover, they were littered with debris, abandoned cars - and booby traps.

"They laid decapitation wires across the street," said Graves. "It was the first time we had to deal with that. The wire is placed there to take out the gunner."

The Marines began destroying these deadly, gruesome killing devices. Again, Rardon credited their extensive training and ability to act independently.

A lot of the Marines had accepted that this could be it for them, Rardon said.

"So, everyone was going out in a blaze. ... they were doing everything they were trained to do and had thought was unimportant," said Rardon. "It was like muscle memory to them ? they were changing magazines and reloading at a fast pace."

"They weren't fumbling with their gear while laying down fire," marveled Graves. "They were doing two or three magazine changes. It was real impressive to see."

As a result, 1st Recon lost no one and took only two casualties the entire war, Rardon said.

And they rolled on.

"We were going so fast that we only had time to get off a couple of bursts at the guys hunkered down in buildings with their AK-47s," said Graves.

"We stirred the bees nest for the tail end (of the battalion)," said Rardon. "By the time we had gone through, (the Iraqis) had figured out we were crazy enough to go through this town and got ready for the rest to follow.

"By that time we came around to the friendlies," said Rardon. "They were in awe, like, 'Where did you guys just come from-'"

Once the battalion had reunited on the other side of the city, it began laying massive amounts of rounds on the enemy, said Rardon. They even drove back down the road to get the enemy in their line of sight.

"It was a rush," said Rardon. "I've done a lot of things, like jumping and diving, but that was the biggest rush, fighting for your life."

That danger strengthened the bond between the Marines.

"When you have rounds impacting your (humvee) and ricocheting all you have is your team," said Rardon. "It's either them or us."

Recon Bn. had several other encounters with the enemy, but nothing as sustained as the foregoing account. The bulk of their engagements were brief - usually an initial engagement before follow-on units mopped up, the Marines said.

Amid their remarkable lack of casualties, the Marines praised the work of surveillance and reconnaissance corpsmen. The docs made them feel invincible.

"I never had to worry about being shot because those guys are good," said Graves. "They could do minor surgery right there in a firefight."

"Yeah, they could stuff you full of gauze and still get off rounds," said Rardon.

Recon corpsmen undergo the same training as recon Marines. They also give classes, ensuring each Marine is proficient in first aid.

Proficiency across their skill set was the key to the battalion's success, the two Marines agreed.

The same couldn't be said for the Iraqis they encountered, said Graves.

"They were poorly trained," said Graves. "They shot from the hip and then prayed to Allah, hoping he'd guide the bullet towards us."