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11th MEU combat in Najaf: A fireteam's tale

Marine Corps News

Story Identification #: 20049284211
Story by Cpl. Matthew S. Richards

FORWARD OPERATING BASE HOTEL, Iraq (Sept. 2, 2004) -- Early August, the world watched as Marines and sailors of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) battled against Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia in the opening days of a tough fight in a huge cemetery sacred to the Shia Muslims.

By August 6, the struggle was well known as it flashed across television sets around the globe, but the story of the men wedged inside this vicious fight was untouched by the eyes of the world.

These Marines and sailors trained for many months before this day arrived. Infantrymen and corpsmen participated in the battle, along with many other Marines from varying technical specialties. All, however, walked in the footsteps imprinted in history by the endless unsung heroes who fought America's battles before them.

Men like Lance Cpl. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, a twenty-one-year-old team leader from Chicago. Lance Cpl. Nathaniel A. Ziobro, a twenty-year-old rifleman from Temecula, Calif. Private first class Ryan D. S. Cullenward, a nineteen-year-old rifleman from Cool, Calif. And Pfc. Heladio Zuniga, a nineteen-year-old rifleman from Jackson, Mich.

These Marines, only one of which is old enough to buy a beer, all walked away from the battle unscathed and without individual recognition. Their names won't be remembered for their actions that day, except for a lifetime by the men who fought alongside them.

They were just another fireteam with 2nd Platoon, Company C, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th MEU (SOC).

They were relaxing in between shifts of guard duty at Forward Operating Base Duke, Iraq, when they got the word to saddle up and get ready. They were going into combat to join the ongoing fight.

"It was not really a shock, but we were excited and nervous at the same time," said Dela Cruz, the fireteam's only veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom I.

They were split at the time of the announcement. Dela Cruz and Zuniga had come back from breakfast when they heard the news. But Cullenward and Ziobro were told as they came back from sitting up all night on the flight line, ready to jump on a helicopter in case a casualty needed to be evacuated.

"We were just coming in after a long night and we were thinking we would get some sleep when they told us to pack our stuff and get on the seven-ton (truck)," Cullenward said.

But they were ready for the action.

"A lot of us were kind of excited to get off guard and kind of do something," Cullenward said.

Zuniga agreed with him.

"Just like he said, I was happy we got to do something," Zuniga said.

The battle had been going on for one day and was all over the news. More important than the politics behind the fighting, they only cared about the battle they were called to join, deep inside that massive cemetery.

They loaded up and rushed to the fight. No sooner had they arrived there than a rocket-propelled grenade flew directly over their heads.

"I heard it go right over our heads and heard the boom right behind us," Cullenward said, mimicking the flutter sound of an RPG in flight.

Except for Dela Cruz, it was the fireteam's first taste of combat and it came as a shock at first.

"I first thought, 'whoa, I'm getting shot at,'" Ziobro exclaimed. "It was kind of funny because the walls are real short and I'm kind of a tall guy."

They joined the rest of the Marines lined up down the road that ran along the edge of the cemetery. The fireteam happened to be on the far right side while the company pivoted on the left. They moved the farthest and the deepest into the cemetery, and were responsible for covering the company's right flank.

"Above all, we knew our responsibility was that flank," Dela Cruz said. "It was only our fireteam covering it."

They took constant sniper fire, mortars and RPGs. They could hardly ever see who was shooting at them.

"We had no idea where they were coming from, we just would shoot where everyone was shooting," Dela Cruz said. "Every now and then they'd pop out at us."

This was different from what they had expected.

"I was kind of hoping they'd show their face a little more," Cullenward said as Dela Cruz acted as if he was ducking behind a wall and shooting blindly. "If you're going to shoot someone, show yourself."

They eventually became accustomed to the never-ending, incoming fire.

"After a while you just get used to it," Cullenward said. "You're just standing by a tomb as rounds fly by you head."

At one point they were taking constant sniper fire from a building near the cemetery. The enemy fire ended abruptly, however.

"We started taking fire from a building and the (81mm Mortar Platoon) told us they'd been taking fire all day from that building," Dela Cruz said. "Then all of the sudden the whole building just went boom! Someone had called in an air strike or artillery on it."

Once they took up a defensive position, they continued to receive sniper and mortar fire.

"What (stunk) was we could hear the mortar rounds being walked in on us," Cullenward said. "One landed just to the left side of us and our doc had to go to help a Marine that didn't make it."

Cullenward felt an inner conflict when he thought of all the Marines taking heavy fire.

"You're relieved when it hits somewhere else, but it's difficult because it might have hit someone else," he said.

Later that day, water began to run low during the hottest part of the afternoon and Cullenward became very dehydrated.

"When we had no water, my tongue felt like paper," he said. "I could just tear it in half."

Dela Cruz did the best he could for the team.

"I tried to rotate them all into the shade while we were fighting," he said.

Once nightfall came the fireteam was still there. They were constantly watching for the enemy and spent a restless night watching and waiting. They each only got an hour of sleep.

"I kept hearing their flags flapping, thinking it was somebody coming," Ziobro said.

The other Marines joked and poked fun at Zuniga because during the course of the night he claimed to have seen two ghosts.

"That cemetery is a spooky place, I swear I saw two ghosts," Zunga said as the others laughed. "Maybe I was just hallucinating from the heat."

Dela Cruz wasn't worried about ghosts, he was thinking about the fight the next day.

"I didn't want the morning to come," he said. "The only thing I was scarred about was one of us getting hurt, and I was worried about Cullenward being a heat casualty."

But morning inevitably came. They didn't stay long that next day. In fact, after the fireteam was tasked as a security element for their company first sergeant, the entire BLT pulled out of the engagement.

They had to run the 500 meters back to their trucks under mortar and sniper fire in full combat gear.

"I was the very last one of our platoon in the seven-ton," Zuniga said.

They lived through the battle that day and fought like Marines, their contribution a small footnote in Marine Corps history.

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