FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The events of Sept. 11, 2001, brought former Marine, Cpl. Brandon Connelly, back into the Corps to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Twenty-eight-year-old Connelly, originally a native of Toms River, N.J., was living in New York City at the time of the tragedy. Like everyone around him, he recalls being shocked and angry as the day's events unfolded. But unlike many of his fellow New Yorkers, this 1995 Toms River High School North graduate did not wave a flag or sport a bumper sticker to express his solidarity and patriotism. Rather, the former Marine combat engineer would give up the comforts of home for a lifestyle he had long left behind.
"I was a personal trainer at a Crunch Fitness gym (in East Village)," he explained. "I loved working in that kind of environment, helping people train for marathons and showing them the proper way to work out. I was making a pretty good living, too. On my worst year as a trainer, I'd still make about $70,000."
The terrorist attacks on his home city forced him to re-evaluate his career path. Three years to the month after the fall of the Twin Towers, Connelly swapped out his gym shorts for the camouflage green he had not worn since leaving the Corps in 1999.
"I came back in because I was inspired by what was going on in Iraq, and I felt that our country had made the right move," he stated. "I had some reservations about doing it, because I'd never really cared much for the Marine lifestyle. I thought four years had been enough for me."
This time around, however, Connelly would trade his wire and engineer stakes for a grenade launcher mounted underneath a service rifle. Connelly had returned to the Marines as an infantryman, and he was seeking a piece of the action.
"I came back in as infantry because I didn't want to take the risk of being an engineer again and getting assigned to a (supporting element) unit," he stated. "I wanted a place in the fighting that was going on."
Currently, this seasoned Marine serves alongside his teammates from 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment which is continuing to secure the former insurgent hotbed of Fallujah. Instead of going after the terrorists himself, though, Connelly helps train Iraq's own security forces to tackle this task.
He and seven other infantrymen provide the nation's soldiers and policemen with a five-day-long combat leaders course twice per month. Working out of an abandoned train station-turned-proving-ground, Connelly’s Iraqi Security Forces training cadre teaches these troops first aid in combat, weapons handling skills and urban war fighting tactics.
"I teach the soldiers how to move about the city while on patrol, and how to communicate using hand and arm signals," Connelly explained. "I also teach them how to operate in a city environment and where to look for certain threats there."
From 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., the Iraqi troops receive a mixture of classroom education and practical application sessions on each topic. Instructors observe the soldiers as they patrol through their city's train station compound simulating attacking a insurgents in a building in downtown Fallujah.
"We show them where to position themselves during these missions, and correct them on their shooting positions," Connelly said. "When one of them gets wounded (during the simulated exercises), we'll help show the other soldiers how to correctly apply tourniquets and pressure dressings."
Thus far, Connelly's battalion has trained approximately 600 Iraqi troops on everything from basic infantry tactics to convoy driving skills.
ISF soldiers already form the lead element of every counter-insurgency operation 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment personnel conduct. The Iraqi troops are also performing more missions independent of Coalition forces partly due to the training they receive from Connelly's cadre.
"Most Iraqi soldiers have no prior military experience when they come to us," Connelly stated. "They all perform at pretty much the same level at first, but we see improvements after just a few days of teaching them."
“We came to Fallujah to fight the terrorists, and we will use what we learn to drive them out,” stated Pvt. Sayf Jamel Mahdy, a former student of Connelly’s combat leaders’ course, as he explained how he and fellow soldiers value this course. “Iraq is tired of war, so we must all take responsibility and do our part to fight the terrorists.”
The long, hot days he and his Marines spend training these troops are helping maintain Fallujah's relative amount of civil tranquility.
Connelly enjoys the peace he is helping to foster, and remains committed to his role fighting in the war on terrorism here.
"I'm going to make the best out of these next few years and contribute to the mission as much as I can," he said. "If I had to go back in time and decide whether or not to sign up and serve, I'd do it all over again."