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Fallujah veteran questions sacrifice

In a file photo from Aug. 10, 2005, Iraqi policemen and Marines with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment gather around insurgents they detained in Fallujah, Iraq.

When retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Marty Gonzalez heard this month that the Iraqi city of Fallujah again had fallen into the enemy's hands, he became physically ill. Then depressed. Then angry, bitterly angry.

Nine years ago, he was a squad leader in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, fighting house to house to clear the city of Islamist insurgents in some of the fiercest ground battles for U.S. soldiers since the Vietnam War.

The cost was enormous. Ninety-five Americans lost their lives, four of them from Gonzalez's squad. Five hundred and sixty were wounded. The city, which dates back to the Babylonian era and is known as the city of mosques, was devastated.

Gonzalez, then a 24-year-old Marine from The Woodlands, received three Purple Hearts and earned two Bronze Stars with V for valor for his heroic acts in battle. He had nine surgeries to repair and save his shattered arm. An exploding grenade injured his brain. He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

When he went into Fallujah in November 2004, Gonzalez says, he believed in the mission. He was there to free the Iraqis from "an evil they had to endure every day of their lives." It was a worthy cause, and it was successful.

The way he sees it, at the start of the Second Battle of Fallujah, there was a dark cloud over the city. By the time he left, the sun was breaking through.

That cloud has returned, he says. And nine years later, still wrestling with his injuries, physical and psychological, and with the city he sacrificed so much for back in evil hands, it now blocks some of the light in Marty Gonzalez's life as well.

Very discouraging

Gonzalez doesn't follow the news much these days, finds it too discouraging. So he didn't learn until some time after the fact that fighters with the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham had retaken Fallujah.

His wife, Tawnee, watched him as the reality sunk in.

"When he found out, he was physically ill over it," she says. "He did not talk to anyone and isolated himself. They cleaned out a lot of evil that was there, and he was proud of that. Now to have fought so hard and so many died to clear that city just to give it back. How are we supposed to swallow that?"

The anger has come slowly, boiling inside of him, eating away at him.

For some time, Gonzalez has been a familiar figure among the Houston area's Iraq veterans, a hometown hero standing tall and proud in his Marine uniform, saying the right things about service and honor and putting a public face on post traumatic stress disorder.

He didn't believe pulling U.S. soldiers out of Iraq was the right thing to do, but he didn't publicly criticize the decision.

Now that Fallujah has fallen, and the militants appear to be tightening their hold on the city, he says, he can't remain silent.

"It sickens me," he says. "Everything that's happening right now just sickens me. Honestly, if you want to know the truth, I'm boiling inside right now. It hurts my heart to watch this … and I'm supposed to just sit here and pretend like it's OK?"

Anger over withdrawal

He's angry at President Barack Obama. He's angry at the generals. He's angry at politicians he sees making decisions based on their desire to get re-elected and not on what is right. And he's angry at a military culture that he thinks punishes those who don't blindly follow orders.

He is particularly upset about an email discussing the fall of Fallujah from a Marine Corps colonel that circulated widely among current and retired Marines, which says in part that "as Marines, we follow orders and leave the politics to our civilian leadership and … of course there will be many opinions about the timing of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, etc.

"We did our duty and thinned the ranks of our Nation's enemies. I believe that in the clearing (of) Fallujah and in the 'Anbar Awakening' that followed, we set conditions for the new Iraqi Govt to succeed."

"Hoorah! Semper Fi! Devil Dogs! Of course he said all the little hoorah, hoopla stuff," Gonzalez says. "'We're Marines. We follow orders. We just execute our orders.' I understand you want to withdraw the troops and stuff, but you gotta do it smart.

"These guys died, and we call them heroes, and then all of a sudden we just pull out and now some colonel wants to step up and speak for me, and I'm tired of some guy that's an officer speaking for me. We're not just Marines who take orders. There are times when we have to question orders and say, 'Hey no, this is bull----.'?"

The American psyche as it relates to the war in Iraq is tormented. Seventy-five percent of Americans supported Obama's decision to withdraw the troops, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in December 2011. And the nation then was still virtually split down the middle about whether the decision to use military force in the country was the right one in the first place.

The anger, hurt and frustration that Gonzalez feels is widespread among his fellow veterans, says David Danelo, a former Marine Corps infantry officer who took part in the First Battle of Fallujah, but it's for reasons that are more complicated than merely the withdrawal of the troops.

"What angers veterans - and yes, it is deep anger - is the feeling as though no one cares whether they won or lost," says Danelo, the author of "Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View Of The War In Iraq." "Marines fight to win and hate to lose. But worse than losing is feeling as though the citizens you represented when you fought - and whose way of life you would sacrifice yours to defend - do not care about the outcome of your fight."

Gonzalez doesn't disagree.

"No one cares anymore," he says. "It's heartbreaking to say it, but it's true."

House-to-house combat

The Second Battle of Fallujah was code-named both Operation Phantom Fury and Operation Al-Fajr to reflect the involvement of Iraqi forces. The bloodiest battle of the Iraq War, it began on Nov. 8 and was over on Dec. 23.

Estimates vary as to the number of insurgents killed in the fighting, which was largely conducted at close quarters, house to house. They range between 1,200 and 2,000. According to the Red Cross, as many as 800 civilians were killed.

Sixty of the city's 200 mosques were destroyed, and many of those had been used by the insurgents to store weapons caches. As many as 10,000 buildings were destroyed, and of those that weren't, between one-half to two-thirds had key damage.

In 2007, Fallujah was officially handed over to the Iraqis, and in 2011 the last American combat troops left the country.

When Gonzalez first arrived in Iraq in September 2004, his squad was assigned the duty of clearing roadside bombs on the main highway into Fallujah. He was itching to get into the fight and got his chance when 3/5, as his unit is known, was ordered into the city.

He earned his first Purple Heart on Nov. 14 when an insurgent grenade exploded and burned his hand while he was trying to help a soldier in a courtyard. Lance Cpl. George Payton, for whom Gonzalez's 9-year-old son is named, died in that fight.

The second came on Dec. 12 when he and other Marines were fighting their way up the stairs of a house to help a squad member who had been wounded and another insurgent grenade exploded. A piece of concrete hit him in the head. Cpl. Ian Stewart, Sgt. Jeffrey Kirk and Staff Sgt. Melvin Blazer died that day, and dozens of men were wounded.

The next day he earned his third medal, and a ticket back home, when an insurgent shot him through the elbow while the squad was clearing a house.

It took nine surgeries and a lot of metal hardware to save his arm. Persistent back pain led to the discovery that he also had injured his back. An initial surgery to fuse vertebrae failed, and a subsequent surgery on his 33rd birthday last February caused more damage, making it difficult to walk.

'What do we do now?'

The physical injuries were only part of what the war cost him. His first marriage fell apart. He's not physically able to be the father he wants for his three children (there's a fourth on the way). He is still haunted by the fact that four of his men died.

In the past couple of weeks, he says, some of the parents of those men, with whom he stays in touch, have contacted him.

"They said, 'What do we do now?' And what do I say? What do I do? I can go to Washington to protest, but they'll just say, 'Well he's just some crazy vet with PTSD and that explains why he's heated,' and that's not the truth."

The truth, he says, is that it was a mistake in the first place to pull the troops out, and nobody spoke up in protest. They all just followed orders.

"We went in there. We beat the city up. We took all the bad guys out of there as much as possible," Gonzalez says. "That city was under control. Giving it to the Iraqis when they were clearly not ready to take over their country was a mistake. The officers, somebody, should have said, 'No, this is bull----. We're not pulling out.' They're just interested in keeping their careers."

Gonzalez is still proud of his service, of his fellow Marines, and what they accomplished in Fallujah. But he now wonders, for the first time, whether that sacrifice was worth it.

"We lost 18 guys in our whole battalion, and that means something to me," he says.

Did they die in vain?

He pauses for a long time, his eyes brimming with tears.

"It's looking that way," he says, softly. "That's a tough thing to say, you know. I would like to think that what we did in Fallujah was worth the guys who gave their all. For a time I thought it was worth it, and now, you know, I question it. And it's eating me up more and more."

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