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Ennis, Texas, native leads his Marines through new Fallujah

30 Oct 2007 | Pfc. Brian Jones

 It was a few hours past sundown, and Marines with Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, were preparing for their first excursion into the city of Fallujah upon their recent arrival into the city.

 Sgt. Keith B. Harris, 26, a squad leader with fourth platoon, gathered his Marines around the map board to receive the patrol order for their first security patrol in the Khadairy district of Fallujah, Oct. 21.

 “My main mission is to make sure that all the Marines that came with me leave with me, and we will get the mission accomplished that way,” said Harris, an Ennis, Texas, native. “That’s my own personal mission.”

 Harris’ experience as a squad leader dates back to 2005, when he was here while Coalition Forces were still fighting for the city. Raised in a single-parent home in Dallas, he said he wanted to become a Marine since he met his first recruiter while attending junior high. He enlisted shortly after graduating from Ennis High School in 2000.

 A husband and father of five, he volunteered to return to the fight to be here for his Marines. In his seventh year in the Marine Corps, Harris is working toward a full 20 years or more. He said he plans to reenlist on this deployment.

 The purpose of the night’s patrol was to make their presence known among the people and familiarize the Marines with their surroundings, said Harris.

 “We’re here for the Iraqis’ safety,” he said.

 After arriving at the police precinct of Khadairy, where the Marines live and work with Iraqi police, Harris realized he and his Marines would be working with the IPs more closely than on previous deployments.

 Prior to deploying, the Marines’ training changed to meet the needs of what the battle had evolved into. The Marines prepared more for security measures than for a kinetic fight.

 “One of the main things we focused on was learning Arabic,” Harris said. “Every week we were taught some phrase in Arabic to help us out with talking to the locals. That was a key feature before we got out here.”

 Insurgents are operating in one- or two-man teams, planting roadside bombs at night. Recently, however, there had been no considerable sniper threat in the area, said 2nd Lt. A.J. DeSantis, the platoon commander.

 “However, that can change with one bullet,” DeSantis assured. “The enemy is only going to attack if they see one thing, if they see soft targets. They know what is going on. The best thing we can do is go out and look solid.”

 Harris expressed confidence in his men.

 “My squad is pretty strong,” said Harris. “I have a lot of senior guys in my squad. I have a good mix of weapons guys and senior guys who have deployed two or three times. It helps me out to get the new guys spun up.”

 Harris oriented his fire teams into order and assigned tasks. He reiterated the threats, safety maneuvers and patrol movement with 360-degree security at all times. Harris told his Marines to be confident and let their training lead the way. They suited up and checked their equipment.

 Harris said he wanted to make a strong first impression on the IPs. The “Sons of Fallujah” kept a close eye on them. A sense of urgency filled the atmosphere as they went down the stairs to the first floor of the precinct. The gravity of the situation could be seen in their faces, and in the faces of the IPs who were watching.

 The IPs man checkpoints throughout the city. In addition, there are a series of barriers channelizing the flow of people into and out of the city. These security measures greatly restrict the terrorists’ freedom of movement. Harris led his squad aggressively, exploiting this critical vulnerability.

 Long before the “Darkhorse” battalion Marines ever set out on their first patrol, Harris trained them to use their heads before their trigger fingers. Harris said he wanted them to maintain themselves as hard targets.

 As they moved along, the Marines were suspicious of whistles they heard. They were curious to know if they were signals to someone that was up to no good, signals used to notify them the Marines were close by.

 People sat outside their homes taken in the cool evening air, a sight they wouldn’t have seen two months ago. Harris and DeSantis stopped and spoke with residents, but never let down their guard. The Marines continuously covered their sectors of fire and kept moving. They were careful not to cause any unnecessary disruption.

 “It’s good to see people out,” Harris said. “That means things are good here and they feel safe and it feels safe for us too.”

 The patrol ended as a relatively uneventful night. The suspicious whistling signaled no attacks, but Harris’ Marines remained fully aware things can change in an instant.

 “All the Marines have trained and were ready to get here,” Harris said. “Most of the new guys were kind of scared for their first patrol in Fallujah. They have heard the war stories about Fallujah.”

 Harris has continued to talk to them to keep them on the right track. He reinforced his confidence in them, knowing their training will lead the way.