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The Seattle Times September 18, 2004

Courage amid chaos

The War in Iraq | How a Battle Unfolded

By Hal Bernton; Seattle Times staff reporter

The information in this story is largely based on an after-action report filed by 1st Lt. Lamar Breshears. Such reports are filed after military operations. This story also includes information from letters written to Sgt. Yadir Reynoso's family by Marines in his platoon. Interviews with Breshears' father, Larry, and John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, offered additional background information.

On Aug. 5, on the holy ground of the Najaf cemetery, two Marines from Washington state and their comrades came into close contact with the enemy and the high cost military duty can exact. Recently disclosed details provide a picture of mayhem and of one man's final act.

The two Marines came to Iraq from different sides of the Cascades and from very different backgrounds. 1st Lt. Lamar Breshears grew up in a middle-class Renton home; Sgt. Yadir Reynoso was the son of Mexican farmworkers in the Yakima Valley town of Wapato.

But in Iraq, the two members of the 81-mm mortar platoon of the 4th Marine Regiment formed a bond, swapping stories about their favorite places back home in the Northwest.

And, on the tail end of the blistering-hot day of Aug. 5, the two men's platoon of more than 50 was in the turbulent city of Najaf, moving inside the maze of thick-walled mausoleums, gravestones, catacombs and narrow alleys that make up the largest and holiest of Shiite Muslim burial grounds. Shortly after entering the vast cemetery, they would encounter a platoon-size group of insurgents.

Breshears, commander of the mortar platoon, would lead the men through a harrowing firefight that ranked among the most intense of the Iraq war. And Reynoso would die in a last-ditch attempt to aid fellow Marines in a retreat from heavy fire.

A Marines after-action report obtained by The Seattle Times paints a vivid portrait of a firefight that helped touch off weeks of combat between U.S. forces and militia loyal to Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The report also underscores the sometimes hellish and politically complicated nature of combat in Iraq.

On this day in Najaf, Marines sometimes found themselves in firefights with enemies no more than 30 feet away. The battle lasted into the night, with pinned-down squads lacking enough radios to communicate with one another. Due to the sensitivity of fighting in the middle of one of the Muslim world's most revered places, the Marines were dismayed to find they couldn't call in heavy artillery as the fighting grew fiercer.

Amid the presidential campaign rhetoric about whether the war in Iraq is wrong, the after-action report offers a glimpse of the courage of those who continue to fight and die in that war.

2 different childhoods

The son of an insurance man and the son of a farmworker both pick the Marines

Breshears grew up in a subdivision in Renton, where he excelled at cross-country running and would later embrace surfing.

He was the son of an insurance agent, Larry Breshears, who served seven years in the Army. Lamar accepted a Marine Corps scholarship that paid his way through the University of Washington, where he majored in society and justice.

After graduating in 2001, Breshears entered the Marines as a commissioned officer. He bucks some time-honored traditions: He doesn't smoke or drink. And when he's home, "the last thing that he wants to talk about is the military," his father said.

But Lamar Breshears, at 25, is a combat veteran, having served in Iraq during the 2003 U.S. invasion. He returned to Iraq last spring as commander of the 81-mm platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. The unit specializes in firing mortars at longer-range targets, but every Marine is a rifleman capable of close-in combat.

Reynoso, 27, was a late addition to the unit, joining the platoon as it left its home base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., for Kuwait.

The rail-thin Reynoso was the eldest of four children whose Mexican parents moved to the small Eastern Washington town of Wapato in 1982. They first worked in the orchards and fields, later in warehouses and processing plants.

His father, Jose Reynoso, recalled how his son came home from high school one day to pore over a Marines recruiting brochure.

"He said, 'Is it OK if I join them Marines?' I responded that it was his decision. I would support that decision, if that was the career he wanted," Jose Reynoso said in an interview translated by his daughter, Patty.

Reynoso, who had four young children of his own, quickly asserted himself as a leader of the platoon. He was a popular guy, a storyteller with a great sense of humor. On many nights, he and fellow platoon members would stay awake listening to selections from his large compact-disc collection.

It was Breshears who made the decision to put Reynoso in charge of a squad, a decision Breshears would later describe "as one of the best moves I have ever made."

Treacherous duty

From boredom in Baghdad to battle in Najaf

The platoon's initial months in Iraq this year were spent at a base in southern Baghdad. The Marines saw little action, and they often were bored.

On Aug. 4, the platoon got an order to head 80 miles south to the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Well-armed rebel fighters were positioned in the cemetery and inside the compound of the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine.

A fragile truce reached in the spring had started to fray.

At 7:30 a.m. Aug. 5, after two hours of sleep, the platoon was called to assist Iraqi police in fending off insurgent attacks.

Throughout the day, the platoon fought sporadically with the militia. One platoon member was wounded in the abdomen, leg and groin.

A helicopter sent to aid in the fight crashed just north of the police station, and the platoon moved to secure that site.

At 6 p.m., after receiving intense fire from the cemetery, the platoon went in to try to secure part of the burial ground.

This was treacherous duty. The walls of the tombs made it impossible to see clearly for any distance. Even if Marines swept through an area, there was always the danger that an insurgent would pop up from an underground catacomb and attack from behind.

The trouble started less than 200 feet into the vast cemetery, when the mortar platoon had a surprise encounter with advancing insurgents. The Marines divided into a 1st Section and 2nd Section fought for about 45 minutes in close quarters, using small arms, grenades, shoulder-fired rockets and machine guns. During most of the fighting, the enemy was no more than 30 to 100 feet away.

Then Breshears got a radio order to fall back. He quickly conveyed the message to the 2nd Section Marines. But the 1st Section, with Reynoso, had no radio to receive the order. And it had split off and headed to a different part of the cemetery.

Breshears, concerned about the fate of 1st Section, sought to call in artillery fire.

"But the mission was denied because it was politically insensitive to fire into the cemetery," Breshears wrote in the after-action report. This put "the entire 1st Section in danger of being overrun by a numerically superior enemy."

Breshears struck out alone to try to reach the 1st Section, which contained about 25 troops. It was a slow journey, as he was constantly having to take cover from enemy fire.

Finally, he was able to hook up with a corporal from the 1st Section and relay the order.

A final act

Reynoso fires on the enemy so his men can withdraw

Reynoso and the others in the 1st Section faced a perilous predicament. As the other units fell back, these Marines were exposed on three sides to rocket-propelled grenades and other hostile fire.

In his final moments, Reynoso led his men in battle. He threw a grenade that killed three enemy fighters, according to the report. He instructed another Marine to launch a shoulder-fired rocket that killed four more insurgents.

Those actions drew more intense fire from the enemy.

Reynoso, hoping to give his squad a chance to withdraw, made a dangerous decision. He would start firing with his own rifle in hopes of pinning down the enemy long enough to give his men cover for an escape.

But that act exposed him to the enemy. He was hit twice: once in the neck, once in the face.

From about 50 feet away, Navy medic Joshua Bunker watched Reynoso fall. In the face of intense enemy fire, Bunker stood up and ran from tomb to tomb to reach Reynoso's side. He discovered that Reynoso was dead.

The 1st Section Marines moved in to retrieve Reynoso's body. Somehow, they managed to reassemble around his body, forming a circle and firing in all directions. Under cover of darkness, they fought their way back to a road outside the cemetery, rejoining the 2nd Section of the platoon to pass an uneasy night.

The fighting was far from over.

At 4:30 a.m. Aug. 6, the platoon was targeted by mortar fire that fell within 50 feet of its position. As another day and another night wore on, the platoon moved back into the cemetery, spreading out in a position known as a picket line.

The platoon took more mortars and other fire. Another Marine died. Another was evacuated due to shell shock. Another suffered shrapnel wounds. Another had a slipped disk, and another had heat exhaustion.

At 7 a.m. Aug 7, the Marines withdrew from the cemetery.

Postscript

The platoon spent most of the remaining days of August firing mortar on enemy positions. It was dangerous work because if it stayed too long in any one spot, it risked attracting enemy fire.

Platoon life quieted down in late August, when the insurgents, after negotiations with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, agreed to withdraw from the cemetery and the shrine.

Reynoso's body was taken back to Wapato, where the flag-draped casket lay in state at the high-school gymnasium before burial. The City Council recently passed a motion proclaiming Aug. 5 Sgt. Yadir Reynoso day. "He fought like a true warrior and always will have a place in my heart," Breshears wrote in a letter to the Reynoso family.

Reynoso is under consideration for a Silver Star for gallantry in action, Breshears said in a recent e-mail to his father, Larry.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Excerpt of Report

After-action statement from 1st Lt. Lamar Breshears, platoon commander, on the death of Sgt. Yadir Reynoso:

I first met Sgt. Reynoso when he came to my platoon on ship prior to reaching Kuwait. He was an experienced mortar man and I was glad that he had been assigned to me. Initially, he was put as a squad member. I had never worked with him and I was hesitant to put him in a leadership position until I had observed his leadership ability. I immediately noticed that he was smart, aggressive, and that he took the time to accomplish tasks the correct way. After observing him for several weeks, I decided to put Sgt. Reynoso as the squad leader for third squad. The previous squad leader was performing adequately, but I felt the squad would benefit even greater from the example that Sgt. Reynoso was setting. The decision to make him a squad leader was one of the best moves I have ever made. There was an immediate improvement in his squad's performance and in the way they conducted themselves. Under Sgt. Reynoso's leadership, the squad displayed more discipline, aggressiveness, and were more efficient in the way they operated.

I also respected Sgt. Reynoso as a person. He was easy to talk to, had a great sense of humor and was very laid back. He had one of those unique personalities where he was carefree and happy when we had free time, but was a strict professional when it was time to work. He knew when it was time to be serious, and he knew how to break the tension in stressful situations with a well-timed joke. He had a great taste in music and we always asked him to play his CDs whenever we were hanging out in our sleeping tents. We shared the common bond of being from Washington. I'm from Woodinville, WA [where Breshears' family moved after Renton] and I've gone camping and hiking many times in the Yakima Valley area. We often talked about home, the common places that we both knew, and how we missed being in Washington. I miss having him around. He was a great leader for the men that he was in charge of and exemplified the values and standards of Honor, Courage, and Commitment that Marines are known for. He fought like a true warrior and he will always have a place in my heart. Semper Fidelis


Copyright 2004, The Seattle Times Company