Four pairs of best friends went to war … only four men came home.
“Nobody really knows what’s going on the ground in Iraq,” remarked Congresswoman Jane Harman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee in a recent press conference. Nobody, that is, except the grunts in the squads and platoons fighting the war. In my new book, We Were One, I give the men on the ground the opportunity to tell their story, in their own words, from boot camp to the Iraq war’s toughest battle -- Fallujah.
Among the Marines who conquered al-Qaeda’s greatest stronghold in November 2004 were four sets of best friends, all in 1st Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment—“3/1.” When the battle finally ended, 1st Platoon had suffered thirty-five casualties. Of the eight best friends, only four men survived. We Were One describes a group of men who can only be called the next “Greatest Generation.”
In We Were One, I write from a unique perspective, because I marched—and fought—alongside the Marines, even as the fatalities mounted. I have captured the sensory details as well as the human drama of men fighting and dying for each other and their country best described in this excerpt from We Were One:
"At the same time 2nd Squad was being ambushed, Sergeant Bennie Conner’s 3rd Squad was drawn into an ambush on the opposite side of the buildings. I was accompanying 3rd Squad.
Conner recalled how it happened:
“I went walking up to this southern wall of the house. There were a couple bricks missing that I could get through, so I pushed the wall in and Hanks follows me. At this point, I’m not sure where the rest of the squad was at. The next thing I came up to was a window, and I came face-to-face with a fighter. This son of a bitch looks like Yasser Arafat in his younger days. He had a red towel on his head. He had a dirty, dark-green coat on. I raised my weapon to shoot him through the window, but the ground was at a slope and you know I’m only 5’3”. I didn’t have a good shot. If I pulled the trigger, I would have shot the ceiling. I was going around to the door to get a better shot. I guess this guy heard me. He just spun around and pulled the trigger on his RPK. I thought to myself, ‘Sh**!’ I dropped to the ground. It felt like someone socked me in the arm, and I spun around. I remember talking to myself and wondering if I was dead. I backed up and looked down at my arm and saw some red—I didn’t realize how bad it was until later..” Conner had at least one bullet in his upper arm and a fragment in his forearm.
“Hanks, watch out! I’m hit, I’m hit!”
Hanks yelled back, “Conner’s hit!”
“The whole time, he is watching my back, so I come around the door and there is nobody in there,” recalled Conner. “I’m so pissed off, I empty a magazine in the room. As I was doing this, I noticed the guy I was fighting had a weapons cache. He had two RPGs, an SKS, and a couple of AKs. It wasn’t enough for an army, but it was enough for one or two men to wreak some havoc.” Conner called out to Hanks, “I’m hit dude, I got to come by this window, so cover me.”
Hanks yelled back, “Okay dude.”
“I rolled under the window. Hanks, he had good cover; he was behind a wall. He was looking over the wall towards me.”
“Come on dude, get the f*** out of there,” shouted Hanks.
The next moment replays endlessly in my mind’s eye. I was crouching behind the wall next to Hanks. A presence I can’t explain told me, “Don’t go any further, you aren’t trained to clear a house.” I hesitated for a second, but Hanks didn’t.
Suddenly a massive volume of RPK fire came out of the building. Then I heard someone yell, “He’s gone!” “Corpsman!”
“Hanks is f***ing gone!”
Michael Hanks’s bloody head was lying next to my boot.
There were still a lot of bullets flying, but for a second everyone stopped. The moment seemed to last for an eternity. Then everyone was snapped back into action by the CO’s orders. Sommers decided to avoid any further casualties by bringing in tank support. He barked, “Get Hanks, get him outside. A tank will f***ing level this.”
Gunny Hackett grabbed the platoon radio. “I have a priority medevac. Break. I’m at grid 8643 8929.”
They started pulling back, firing and throwing grenades at the house. Since I thought there was a tiny chance Hanks was still alive, I grabbed the back of his flak jacket and started dragging him to the rear. A Marine came to help me. As the squad was moving back, Conner escaped the courtyard through another gate in the wall and caught up with them. Unaware that Hanks had been hit, he said to the entire squad, “There was a hardcore muj in there. He had the f***ing headband and everything and was positioned behind a large weapons cache with an RPK.” Conner’s arm was soaked in blood. I remember him ripping off his uniform’s sleeve, still firing his M16 and directing the squad.
A tank arrived to provide fire support. Despite the blood spurting out of his arm, Conner told the tankers where to fire. “That house right there needs to go away!”
As the tank shredded the building, Sergeant Conner and the remaining members of 3rd Squad pulled back about one hundred meters, crossed a road, and made their way to a walled compound where the wounded were being treated. Conner, Lieutenant Sommers, Corporal Hardin, and Garza had all been hit. I was dragging Hanks with my right arm. Hanks’s lifeless body weighed a ton.
Conner poked at Sojda and said, “Bill, talk to me dude.”
“Is that f***in’ Mike?”
“Is that f***in’ Mike?”
Sojda’s eyes were as big as saucers as he nodded up and down. Conner beat his hands on the dirt courtyard and said, “No, motherf***ers!” A tearful Sojda picked up his best friend’s bloody helmet and weapon.
Stokes was also on his way to the compound to be medevaced. “I remember walking down the street and seeing you dragging somebody down the street. I said to myself, ‘Who the f*** got hit?’ The second before, I was just so happy to be alive. I remember telling Kramer, ‘You saved my life, I’m so happy to be alive right now. I’m so happy to see you.’ How I only took five pieces of frags with that grenade blowing up with nothing in between me and the grenade. I could have kicked the grenade, that’s how close it was. I still couldn’t believe I was alive. Then when I saw Hanks’s body, I was like, ‘What the f***?!’ I thought Hanks was bulletproof, like he could never be killed. Then, when I saw him, it was a really weird mix of emotions.”
Gunnery Sergeant Wilson, Lima Company’s top Staff NCO during the battle, arrived at the compound to check on the men. “I walked up to 1st Platoon. Sojda has Hanks’s helmet in his hands. He’s got this look on his face that I had not seen on anyone’s face, yet. We had dealt with death already, but here you’re talking about a guy’s best friend, and Sojda was carrying his best friend’s helmet. You couldn’t read the name on the back of the helmet because there was so much blood. Sojda was just wandering. I let him keep walking, but I felt compelled to take the helmet out of his hands. I went up to him and gently said, ‘Let me just take that.’ I couldn’t imagine losing my best friend, being in that situation, so I took the helmet and for whatever reason—I felt compelled—I needed to clean it. So, I got a bunch of water bottles and I cleaned it off. The next time he went for the helmet, I didn’t want it to be covered in blood. It was full of blood—it was a bucket of blood. I cleaned it out as best as I could—cut off the liner, took off the helmet cover and got rid of all that stuff. Then I put it on the truck. Sojda handled the experience incredibly well. Sojda stayed dignified and he pushed forward. That’s a warrior.”
Someone said Conner needed medical attention for his arm. Despite his serious wounds, Conner still had plenty of fight left in him.
“I’m not leaving my f***ing Marines!” he shouted. “They oughta just napalm this f***in’ place!”
“Right now, I know how you feel, but we got to get you back to the aid station,” replied Gunny Hackett.
According to Conner, “Doc Escanilla was trying to bandage me up and put me in an ambulance. Once I made sure everybody was holding security, and everything was settled down, I said, ‘Hey, can I get a f***in’ pressure bandage?’ It’s kind of funny, because Doc E was trying to help me the whole time. Doc bandaged me and they loaded me into the ambulance. They also tossed Hanks in there and I didn’t want to even look at him. I had already seen what he looked like, and I tried to forget about it really quick.”
Stokes also resisted evacuation. He told Sergeant Kyle, “I don’t want to go back, I’m fine, I’m fine. I don’t want to leave.” The corpsman decreed that he had to go, because he was so badly concussed that he couldn’t remember his Social Security number. “Wounded, almost dying from a grenade, and seeing his buddy get killed by the Chechens in the house, and Stokes still wanted to stay in the battle,” recalls Kyle. “It says a lot about him as a Marine.”
Everything went numb for a minute. You don’t hear any of the sounds of battle, you don’t see anything, everything becomes slow motion. The blood was running off and I was scrubbing parts of him off his weapon. It took probably four or five bottles of water and I’m scrubbing with a brush, pieces of him and his blood, and it’s running onto me, running on the ground. The worst thing was having to rescrub it over and over again.
“It’s pretty unbelievable. You hear what it’s like to see a friend killed, but until it actually happens, it doesn’t really dawn on you. At that point in time, it becomes real, since you’re actually dealing with it face-to-face. You can’t ignore it; it sticks in your head and makes everything pause.”
As the Humvee carrying Sergeant Conner and Mike Hanks’s body pulled away, a remarkably composed Corporal Bill Sojda assumed command of what was left of 3rd Squad. The men’s faces were ashen, their eyes filled with tears. Lance Corporal Jacob de la Garza, the last surviving member of Hanks’s fire team, covered his head with a brown scarf. Garza was spent. His face looked like he had aged ten years, and he said nothing to his buddies. Lance Corporal Steven Wade grabbed his hand and said, “Garza, we’ll get you home.”
The remaining men in the squad held hands. According to Derick Lowe, “It was our way of silently saying, ‘We came through this, we are going to make it out of here together, no matter what happens.’ We were all dropped into 3/1 together around the same time, and for most of us the squad was the brothers we never had. When one hurts, you all felt it.”
As the battle raged, Lowe went on to tell the remaining Marines in his squad, “Even though they kill one of us, it just makes us come together more; this shows how much we have to stick together. All we have is us.”
He further reflected on that moment, which seems forever frozen in his memory: “Once you get the EGA (Eagle, Globe, and Anchor), and been with grunts that have been in combat, you all have something in common. You know the Marine next to you will die for you, and you will die for that Marine; that’s the connection that makes you one. We were one.”
The battle continued to rage, and 3rd Squad still had work to do. As the squad pushed on to clear the next house, “Natasha,” a D9 armored bulldozer on loan from Israel, leveled the building where Hanks died. Natasha was said to be named after an Israeli woman, the wife of an army officer, who was killed by a suicide bomber.
As the platoon watched the destruction of the building, no one said a word.
It was instant justice. “I hope they all get crushed alive. These ba**rds are all hyped up on drugs; they deserve a painful death,” thought Private Francisco Contreras. I found the RPK that killed Hanks in the rubble of the building, along with a red-checkered scarf, universally worn by the jihadis, covered in blood and riddled by bullet holes.
Gunny Hackett and Lieutenant Sommers led 1st Platoon’s survivors forward. In the distance, Sommers and I spotted a muj on a rooftop. Sommers looked at Hackett and said, “Let me show you how it’s done.” Sommers took careful aim with his M16.
With one shot, he killed a sniper over 300 meters away.
“Nice shot,” said Hackett.
The platoon moved west and took shelter in the company go firm house, the palace of the Sheikh of Fallujah. The sun set on another horrible day in Fallujah.