'They were probably the most horrific days of my life'

The Iraq War was less than a week old. Then-1st Lt. Brian Chontosh and the rest of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, were headed to Baghdad. They had seen some action since leaving Kuwait, but nothing major.

March 25, 2003, was a clear morning, and in their Humvee, following four tanks, the Marines worked to stay alert.

Cpl. Armand McCormick turned 21 the day before, but he didn’t even realize he had missed his birthday. He and Cpl. Thomas Franklin switched places in the Humvee that day, so McCormick was in the driver’s seat and Franklin — by all accounts the best .50-caliber gunner in the battalion — was manning the gun.

The desert was flat, Chontosh said, but soon the landscape began to change.

“I remember seeing a big berm on the right, saying, ‘Aw, Frankie, keep your gun pointed in that direction,’ ” Chontosh, now a major, said.

Suddenly the convoy started taking fire. The Humvee behind Chontosh’s was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. A corpsman inside was killed.

“From the moment we went in ... the contact, up-close and personal, the fatigue, the stress, being that close and surrounded by the grotesque of combat. It was just ... bad. Every single day."
- Maj. Brian Chontosh

“We’re caught in the contact zone, the kill zone,” Chontosh said. “Tanks started moving forward to try to get out of the kill zone. I’d like to sit here today, nine years later, and connect all the dots ... but more or less things just started happening.”

McCormick put his foot on the gas.

“I was going as fast as I could go,” McCormick said. “Finally, we found an opening in the berm.”

He steered the vehicle almost directly into the center of a defended enemy trench. Franklin immediately destroyed the enemy machine gun bunkers there with the .50-caliber machine gun.

“Franklin freaking poured it on. He pretty much crushed those bunkers,” McCormick said. “He’s right out there in the open, he’s just pelting people.”

The other Marines got out of the Humvee and headed down the trench on foot — Chontosh and Lance Cpl. Robert Kerman first, with McCormick slightly behind and to the right.

“It’s a shallow irrigation ditch, so we’re going along, trying to find cover, shooting, and Kerman’s just smooth. He stops, he’s shooting once, he’s shooting twice. ... I’m just pulling the trigger,” Chontosh said.

The enemy fighters, hundreds of them, were shooting RPGs and AK-47s at the Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicles, seven-ton trucks and other vehicles in the U.S. convoy.

Chontosh’s rifle jammed. He tried to reload it, but it wouldn’t work. So he handed the rifle to Kerman, took Kerman’s, and kept going.

When he ran out of ammunition with that rifle, he pulled out his pistol. But it was only a few seconds before he ran out of ammunition again. He stuffed the pistol in his pocket, picked up a discarded enemy AK-47 and began shooting that. Then he picked up another AK-47.

McCormick found an RPG launcher.

“I don’t know how the hell to run this damn thing,” McCormick said.

Chontosh didn’t either. But McCormick told him he better figure it out, quick.

The eventual shot wasn’t great. McCormick remembers “a ball of fire going down the trench.”

The men laughed. Then they took off.

On their way back to the Humvee, they saw a man faking death while trying to work a grenade.

The Marines told Chontosh to shoot him, but he was out of ammunition again.

Then he looked down.

Chontosh was standing in the exact place he had been when his rifle initially jammed. A few unused rounds laid on the ground. He loaded one and shot the man.

Back at the Humvee, Franklin was almost out of ammunition. He likely shot more than 1,500 rounds, Chontosh said.

Franklin was later awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with “V” for his actions that day — far less than what McCormick believes he deserved.

“Honestly, if it wasn’t for him up in the gun, I don’t know if we would have even made it [into the trench],” he said.

McCormick and Kerman were awarded Silver Stars. Chontosh earned the Navy Cross.

“When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others,” Chontosh’s award citation reads.

But he credits his Marines for keeping him going.

“They saved my life, multiple times that day, during the ambush. That’s all them. If it wasn’t for them, I would be the lieutenant who would be reported as ... a case of what not to do.”

When the 3-5 left Iraq, McCormick’s enlistment contract was almost up and Chontosh was scheduled to move to Quantico, Va., to become an instructor at The Basic School. But both men went back to Iraq in 2004.

For McCormick, the second Iraq deployment was “boring as hell” — quiet patrols, mainly.

For Chontosh, it was “Operation Phantom Fury” — the second battle of Fallujah.

Chontosh, by then a captain, had been able to push his moving date back to Dec. 1, 2004, so he could stay with 3/5 as a company commander. The unit started out at Camp Baharia outside Fallujah and had a few raids and firefights before going into Fallujah in November 2004.

There, every day was worse than anything Chontosh had seen before.

“From the moment we went in ... the contact, up-close and personal, the fatigue, the stress, being that close and surrounded by the grotesque of combat. It was just ... bad. Every single day,” he said. “When I look back at it, they were probably the most horrific days of my life.”

The Marines “squeegeed the city,” clearing from north to south, for more than a week. There were engagements every day, casualties nearly every day. But no matter what the Marines did, insurgents kept finding their way in.

Chontosh earned two Bronze Stars with “V” during that deployment.

As the end of his deployment got closer, Chontosh calculated the time it would take him to get from Fallujah to Quantico, Va. He left the battle on Nov. 27 and landed in Baltimore on Nov. 30, just in time to report the next morning.

“I was pretty emotional, leaving [the Marines],” he said.

It helped that the Marines loved the captain who replaced him, and they performed well throughout the deployment. But when he heard one of the Marines had been killed, it was hard to shake the feeling that maybe, if he had been there, things would have been different.

Now, even as he’s asked to look back, Chontosh said he doesn’t romanticize his time at war. He knows anything he says now is just a re-creation, colored by knowing the outcome.

“What was I thinking? Absolutely thinking about the mission, absolutely thinking about the Marines,” he said.

And while he’s achieved a kind of folk hero status among Marines, Chontosh said he was just doing his job.

Every action was “just an average dude doing exactly what anyone else that cared, that loved his people, or had a sense of what they were supposed to be doing ... I was just doing exactly what any of those individuals would do,” he said.

Twitter: @jhlad

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