By mid-November 2004, my platoon had been clearing houses from dawn to dusk for more than a week in the city of Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar Province. It was tiring and monotonous work. The sounds of distant gunfire and explosions were incessant, but otherwise the city’s mostly abandoned streets were eerily silent.
We were a motley crew; some of the Marines concealed growing facial hair under their neck gaiters, which was way out of regs and a mortal sin within the Corps’ conventional ranks. Some carried confiscated enemy weapons. A variety of sidearms tucked into waistbands and a few AKs per squad were open carried and used for shooting locks off the front doors of the houses we cleared.
The number of houses 3rd Platoon of A Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, were tasked to clear daily steadily climbed from about three dozen to as many as 70. Our only gunfight felt like it was in the distant rear-view of a week prior, and despite how shocking and violent being ambushed was, it seemed at the time like we’d been blooded and had possibly made it over that hump for good. Our wounded were evacuated and had survived. We’d killed most of our enemy during that fight. Next, the silence of empty houses set the tone. The complacency caused by clearing empty houses seemed to be our greatest threat, but we could only keep moving forward.
It was easy to get lost in the mechanical tempo of house-clearing because of the mindless repetition the work required: the sounds of the point man breaching the front door, the second man throwing a frag into the first room and the explosion, waiting a few moments for the smoke to fade, then the calls of grunts clearing rooms and sounding off for the support team to do the rest. It was an endless cycle.
My radio pack felt heavier every day. As the pack’s straps dug into my bony shoulders and made my lower back feel like a horse was napping on it, I felt like I was getting weaker. When we stopped for the night in the last house on the block we were clearing, my pack suddenly felt a little lighter.
The lieutenant, the corpsman, and I were rolling with the 3rd squad and would bed down with them for the night. We stood up large couches to black out the windows, dragged the refrigerator in front of the back door, and trained a light machine gun on the front door to kill any uninvited guests. The squad’s team leaders began working out night watch rotations, which meant dinner wouldn’t be far away.
My platoon commander, Lt. Bronson, emerged with the 3rd squad leader from a back room and said, “Let me see your pack, Anderson.” I offered it to him, and he dug out a small cooking pot and some bags of pasta I hadn’t realized were in there. As I dug further into the pack and discovered a small hand ax and a hammer, I suddenly realized that over the past two weeks, the lieutenant had been adding these items to my pack. I wasn’t getting weaker; I was being turned into a mule.
I cussed the lieutenant, who responded with, “Shut the fuck up, Anderson,” which I did.
The lieutenant then announced, “We’re doing Thanksgiving tonight, boys. There’s a stove in the back with enough propane to cook the pasta.”
There were grunts of approval. We hadn’t had a hot meal in too long. A Marine with a thick New York City accent said, “Ey, we should get dressed up for dinner. There’s lots of cool clothes in the back.”
Marines not on post began rooting through closets to find their look, and Pappy, our platoon’s resident chef, started cooking up the meal. The homeowner had a unique sense of style, and soon Marines were dressed up like ’80s coke lords from a bad episode of Miami Vice. We arranged plastic chairs around a dining room table and set it.
Pappy spooned pasta and red sauce onto the plates set around the table. We ate our family meal on one of the last nights 3rd squad would be present in the city of Fallujah as an intact unit. It was a simple dish, but it somehow tasted more delicious than any meal I’d ever eaten. We’d made it — that far at least. And that was something.