FALLUJAH, Iraq --
When Marines with third platoon, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, received orders in October to move into a house next door to an Iraqi police station here, they thought they knew what to expect.
After all, this is the “Darkhorse” Battalion, one of the most battle-hardened infantry units in the Marine Corps. It is filled with tough, combat-wise leathernecks who have spent years in Iraq, learning the culture, fighting terrorism and bringing security to a formerly troubled Anbar Province. So, why were they all looking green around the gills their first few weeks in Iraq?
The answer to that question lies in the nature of how they were doing business. No longer were patrols radiating from a forward operating base, spending a few hours in the city, then returning. Instead, third platoon, like many of the platoons in the battalion, were living, eating, sleeping and bathing in the neighborhoods they were helping to stabilize.
The close-quarters living arrangements have already yielded results for third platoon, said Cpl. Jordan M. Moehnle, a 21-year-old squad leader on his second tour in Iraq. He said he and his Marines visit local shop owners and residents to talk about simple things, such as whether a particular generator is putting out enough power, or if a minor remodeling job is going smoothly. In other words, things neighbors anywhere discuss.
Moehnle said the turnaround has also come with a reinvigorated Iraqi police force in the city.
“It’s not about what we’re doing, it’s more about what we’re not doing. The IPs ask for responsibility. They come over and eat with us. The IPs are just as motivated as we are about getting this place cleared up. The more they step up to the plate, the more we can back off,” he said.
One of the unintended side effects of getting down into the neighborhoods is the sickness that swept through the platoon’s home in the Fallujah’s Nazaal district. Improvements to hygiene procedures quickly contained the spread of the virus, which was marked by stomach cramps and violent nausea. Despite the aches, pains and sudden onsets of unpleasant bodily functions, Moehnle and his Marines continued their rigorous patrol schedule, spending hours every day in the neighborhood.
“When you’re walking through the city, stuff gets around. It’s just a part of adapting to the environment,” said Moehnle, a Los Angeles native.
Making such an adaptation has been a difficult balancing act, said 22-year-old Lance Cpl. Christopher J. Parra, a team leader with the platoon and San Antonio native.
“It’s hard to hit the right level of alertness,” said the 2003 Judson High School graduate. “When I first got here, I was looking at every trash pile, every danger area, every place where, if (the locals) weren’t on our side, they could kill us. I had to tone it down before I shot someone. But on the other side of that, you don’t want to get too complacent.”
The new tone of Fallujah has been a surprise to the “Darkhorse” Marines who spent their previous tour in 2006 around, but not in, the city. Parra said he could sit in an observation post and watch explosions from car and roadside bombs erupt on a regular basis.
The relative stillness has surprised Lance Cpl. Kody D. Stahl, who is on his first tour in the city. Stahl said he heard stories from the more experienced Marines in his platoon from their 2006 tour, and based his expectations accordingly.
“I expected it to be more hostile. We haven’t found (improvised explosive devices), no sniper fire. A year ago they had sniper fire, small arms fire (and) indirect fire,” said the 20-year-old Clarksville, Mich., native. “Back home people think everything’s crazy here, but then when you come over here, it’s a lot different.”
That difference comes on the street level. Changes come in ways that can’t be seen from through the blast-proof glass of an up-armored humvee.
“(Here) we’re like neighbors, (Iraqis) live right next to us. Now that we do more dismounted patrols and we’re living in the neighborhood, people aren’t as intimidated. They’re adapting to us and we’re adapting to them,” said Stahl, a 2005 Lakewood High School graduate.
On every patrol, Moehnle and his Marines are swarmed with children looking for high fives or chocolate. Shop owners welcome them in and talk about business. Smiles and open doors greet them, instead of suspicious glances and shuttered windows. Instead of outsiders looking in, they have become part of the ecosystem here.
“We’ve been at the (patrol base) almost a month. Since we’ve been here, we can stop and shoot the breeze. We have living conditions pretty similar to the Iraqis, we use the same city water and we buy food from the markets to cook it up ourselves,” said Moehnle. “Last time we were here, the city was like the Wild West. We’d put down our heads and drive down (the middle of Fallujah) and hope we didn’t get shot.”
Though the situation on the ground has been a new and unexpected experience for the third platoon Marines, it is most certainly welcome. Waking to the noisy crying of babies and the smell of cooking eggs beats starting your day with the sounds of gunfire and explosions.