Heroes 2006: ‘We are all going to make it out of here’
Army captain led soldiers in Battle of Karbala
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2006
Less than two weeks into the invasion of Iraq, U.S. forces had advanced to within 50 miles of Baghdad.
The 1st Armored Division’s 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry out of Fort Riley, Kan., was about to battle its way across the Tigris River at As Samawah. Then-commander Lt. Col. George Geczy received orders to attach an armored company, while sending one of his infantry companies 50 miles away to what would become the Battle of Karbala.
The companies had to fight their way to their new areas within 18 hours.
Geczy chose an infantry company led by then-Capt. Marlon James, who would receive the Bronze Star with Valor for leading his soldiers into an urban battle and pulling several wounded soldiers from harm’s way at great personal risk.
“Bottom line: I needed a smart, aggressive and experienced company commander to pull off a complex mission … I chose Marlon,” said Geczy, now a full colonel and joint operations chief at U.S. European command.
James and his company arrived on Karbala’s outskirts and saw through their binoculars, hundreds of Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary fighters sitting on the rooftops. They were waving their weapons inward, daring the soldiers to enter the city of about 500,000 people.
“Tell my wife I did my best,” said one soldier over the radio. Others shared similar sentiments. James wouldn’t have any part of it. “I don’t want to hear that talk,” he said. “We are all going to make it out of here.”
James and three Bradley Fighting Vehicle platoons advanced and met with automatic weapons fire from Fedayeen riding in the back of pickup trucks driven by women and children.
Faced with incoming fire, James made decisions that have made it difficult to sleep at night.
When under fire, “you tell your soldiers, ‘Don’t worry who is in the vehicle,’” James said. “As Americans, we see women and children and we don’t shoot. (The Fedayeen) knew that.”
As the company penetrated further in Karbala, casualties began to mount. James and his executive officer, 2nd Lt. Steven Thorpe, pulled six to eight injured men off the ground and got them inside vehicles. Thorpe later would be awarded a Silver Star.
By then, the enemy had begun repositioning its troops, while reinforcements arrived from other cities. The company was getting bogged down as fire intensified.
James told his troops, “Let’s go,” and charged ahead in front.
“It made those guys focus on me,” James said. “I think anybody would have done it as a leader. I really don’t think it was worthy” of a Bronze Star. “It was just my job.”
James’ C Company completed its mission after 18 hours of fighting, protecting the main attack’s flank at the Euphrates River. Some soldiers celebrated. James had his mind on the next battle.
Today, James is a major and the personnel chief for the 2nd Infantry Division’s Fires Brigade at Camp Casey, South Korea. He says he loves the Army and will stay in as long as he can. But James makes it clear to soldiers that he does not love war.
“Don’t ask for war,” he said. “Your name will be called. But be prepared spiritually and physically. You’ll deal with it when you leave that environment.”
And he denies his actions merited a medal. Instead, he speaks of 22-year-old Spc. Larry Brown of Jackson, Miss., shot in the leg during the 2003 push to Baghdad. Brown escaped and hid in an alley, alert and talking to comrades.
That made later news of Brown’s death all the more shocking, James said: The bullet had severed an artery.
James, who said he’s called the young soldier’s mother over the years, said Brown “lost his life April 5. I’ll never forget it. That’s who the real hero is.”
Unit: 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division
Medals: Bronze Star with “V”
Earned: Spring 2003, in Karbala, Iraq