KARABILAH, Iraq -- The platoon of Marines set off on foot the morning of Nov. 8 towards Karabilah. In the first three days of Operation Steel Curtain, 3rd Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, temporarily under Regimental Combat Team 2, had cleared parts of Husaybah.
“I’ve seen more men here with the courage to enter buildings (to clear them of insurgents),” said Sgt. Jake R. L. Brubaker, 23, of Seattle, Wash., and platoon guide for 3rd Platoon, after the fight here and in Husaybah. “Going into buildings where they know the enemy might be waiting for them.”
The platoon came out of the fight in Husaybah without any casualties, but their fate would change as they passed through western Karabilah.
Into the ‘Shark Fin’
The city of Karabilah is smaller than Husaybah and its western section where the Marines were heading looked like a shark fin on satellite maps. Its streets were winding and unpredictable in their direction, its flat or two-story houses seemed rough edged and hastily built.
Instead of clearing square city blocks, Marines and Iraqi soldiers with 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Division of the Iraqi Army, jumped over high walls dividing local properties and crossed unsecured streets and alleys in order to search houses in the hodge-podge of Karabilah.
Scattered gunfire and the occasional explosion caused by Coalition explosive ordnance disposal teams blowing up improvised explosive devices and captured weapons were heard throughout the day. Another prominent sound was the loud Arabic messages transmitted through loudspeakers fitted on U.S. Army humvees. The messages advised civilians on what to do as Coalition Forces approached their homes.
Near the crosshairs of the enemy
Third Platoon’s march was continuing in earnest when bullets from the street they were on began smashing into a two-story vacant house to the left and front of their position. Marines from another regiment were firing toward a position near 3rd Platoon, at what was later discussed as a possible insurgent IED triggerman.
Some of the Marines, Iraqi troops and other forces stopped and positioned themselves as other Coalition troops continued moving on the street. An abandoned car was found hidden behind a half-constructed house and as Marines attempted to disable the possible vehicle-borne IED with machine gun fire, the car blew up in a sudden flash.
The blast was so strong that Marines shielded by the house and the wall in its front yard fell back on the ground. Seconds after the blast were shouts for the Navy corpsmen.
“Corpsman up!” yelled Marines in the aftermath as the Sailors, affectionately known as ‘docs,’ surged forward to attend the injured.
At least five Marines sustained some injury. Three of them who had non life-threatening injuries were later evacuated to regional military medical centers. Second Lt. Erik R. Sallee, 24, of Oklahoma City, and platoon commander for 3rd Platoon, was slightly wounded in the arm by shrapnel from the vehicle. Later, he downplayed the slight injury and the playful grief that some would give him for being a Purple Heart recipient and continued leading his men.
“It’s an eye opener,” said Lance Cpl. Christopher J. Hamacher, 19, of Martin, Mich., and an infantryman assigned to 3rd Platoon, recalling later his combat experience during Steel Curtain. “I’ve realized that so many things we take for granted and how real the fight is.”
Searching for guns in garages and then a Birthday
After the skirmish, Marines and Iraqi troops paused at their location for the day and rested until the next morning.
The process of clearing Karabilah continued for another two days. Searching through endless homes, shops and work garages for an enemy that would put up a fight was tedious for the Marines at times but the warriors drove on, finding some weapons and munitions in the area.
“The Marines have performed exceptionally well,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew M. Thuma, 27, of Tipp City, Ohio, and platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon. “They’ve done everything they were trained to do from their pre-deployment training all the way through this operation.”
A change of pace came on Nov. 10. The Marines paused inside a vacant house in the dark, morning hours to celebrate their 230th birthday in the far western regions of Iraq. The proclamation by the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. John A. Lejeune, was read and a spice pound cake from a Meals-Ready-to-Eat field ration was cut and passed from the oldest Marine present—Pvt. Jeffery Horner, 27, of Los Angles and an infantryman—to the youngest, Lance Cpl. Hamacher.
“I believe that it’s important in the combat zone to remember the Marine Corps Birthday, sir,” said Thuma to Sallee in a conversation the night before. “It’s especially (important) for the younger Marines to know this.”
Later on that evening, Marines even received a rare hot meal of steak, potatoes and corn-on-the-cob supplemented with energy drinks and non-alcoholic beer. For some, the meal came so late into the evening that sleep was preferred instead, but it is noteworthy to see that even in combat zones, Marines take special pride in remembering their birthday.
Third Platoon and the rest of their company continued their push through Karabilah, encountering little resistance on Nov. 10 before resting for a couple of days within the cleared city.
Rumors were heard and soon orders were passed to clear out a small city several miles eastward on the Euphrates River.
The town was Ubaydi, Iraq.