by Spotter Up

Before we begin, I want to try and put the Battle of Falluja in some kind of context and so I recommend you read all you can about the 1/8 in Falluja. Here’s words from award winning writer Michael Blanding on his Lt. Eliot Ackerman profile and the platoon: “In the coming showdown in Fallujah, U.S. forces would find themselves engaged in their bloodiest battle since Vietnam—a two-week urban grind that would leave 95 Americans dead and more than 700 wounded, along with thousands of insurgents killed or captured.” and “Ackerman’s platoon, like many others, performed the difficult task of going door-to-door clearing houses, aware that an insurgent could be waiting for them inside each one. The endless game of Russian roulette took a psychological toll on the troops”IMG_5047-360x240

Nov 19th, 2014: I’ve known Daniel K. LaRose for a long time and felt it was important to share some of his knowledge with our readers but I didn’t hear back from him for months. I continued working to build Spotter Up and kept him in the back of my mind. One day I saw Daniel as he walked along a corridor. He waved at me and I waved him over. I introduced him to Alec, a fellow Marine, who served as a battle planner. Alec is the old dude of our group, having graduated in ’78.  Dan smiled and told me he’d have something for me. Months passed and I didn’t see him for a while. Daniel was never a flake. He always delivered and that was a quality I liked about him. Months passed and I finally saw Daniel at a conference. Business took place over Spotter Up priorities; we did not get a chance to link up.  A few days passed and Daniel called me. I was happy to hear from him.

“Hey Mike” he said to me, “I have something for you. Just been working on it but there’s too much to say and it’s not coming out the way that I wanted it to.” I told him that I could put it in interview format. Maybe that would let the thoughts flow better. I came down to his house. Daniel is an interesting guy. He’s reserved, not loud, controlled, a typical squared away Marine. He decided to share what he could and I was happy to listen and learn. He’s still fit as ever, a muscly-dude, despite the change in environment. We started talking right away.

I could tell that he wanted to share. And I wanted to respect that, I wanted to respect what he told me. I could tell that he had a lot to get out. His toughened body of sinew shivered a bit as he spoke. It was as if his body was struggling to keep it in but his heart and mind wanted to let it all go.

Here’s the interview:

“Trust in your gut and fear is a gift and a curse” Daniel said to me. “Those are the lessons I learned over there.” I could see by the look on his face, and actions that there was a lot of conflict going on. There was a struggle between what he rightly believed he should share and what he rightly felt he should hold onto. But there was no dishonor in what he wanted to share. I knew that already. I knew that about Dan and the person sitting before me. I was appreciative of him sharing his experiences to help others who might want to enlist or those who have returned home.

Why did you join the Marine Corps?

Why’d I join?  It was right after 9/11. Coverage on the war was every day. A reporter was discussing a Marine Sniper who stayed in position for 24 hours and I thought to myself, who is this guy? I want to do that. I had never even given the military a thought until that moment. Right after high school, after 9/11 and that news coverage I walked straight into the Marine Corps recruiter’s office. I went in and scored high on the ASVAB but I didn’t care. I told the recruiter, “put me in the infantry”.

Tell me about your first deployment. Where to?l

It was on my first deployment as a Marine. We were stationed at Al Asad I was with 1st Battalion 8th Marines Alpha company 1st platoon 1st squad. Normally on platoon patrols my squad led the patrols. I don’t remember where we were patrolling. On one of our patrols we had decided to switch the order of the patrol and put 3rd squad in the lead 3 2 1 was the formation. We skirted along the Euphrates River and passed through towns. We were out there miles and enough hours to the point where everyone was low on water it was dangerously hot. I remember approaching a town and noticed that a lot of civilians were on the road. As we approached closer into the town the crowd began to dissipate just like in the movies. Perhaps that’s how I recall it now. No one was there. Across my shoulder, from where I was facing, we saw another town. It was just across the river and it was crowded as well. By the time we got there it was empty too. I noticed and said nothing. I’d been on many patrols before. I felt wrong. Maybe I should have said something.

I think about that all the time. Did anyone else notice?

Bagarhella a fellow Marine and who I call brother stepped on an IED he was in 3rd squad; right then shooting from within the town came at us. We were trapped in combined arms attack of small arms fire and IEDs’. We took more fire from the town across the river while we dealt with the loss of Bagahrella’s leg. My squad kicked in a door of a home to give support to our guys firing down below. We rushed into a home in order to get to the roof inside was a woman and three older males. She was cooking. We shouted commands to have them separate and get on the floor.  I shot up to the roof with my squad leader and a few members of my squad. Somebody called in a QRF (Quick Reaction Force) with trucks to take away Bagarhella. We fought back and got out of that situation. We were able to fight back and win.

Later on we were told that Bagahella lost his leg. I knew he lost his leg and that still bothers me today. Years have passed and I still think to myself how things might have been if we hadn’t switched places. The best part of that day was drinking the filthy water out of that river. Best tasting water I’ve ever had so far.

But you know Mike; it was the Battle of Fallujah that I experienced true fear. My squad was the main effort for our battalion and company. We were the first ones in. We entered with tracks (AAVP-7A1 armored personnel carrier) into the city. Everyone was quiet. We were braced for something. I didn’t know what. No one knew what. But our silence stopped as bullets started pinging off the sides of our vehicle. The ramp dropped and we jumped out. We all heard someone screaming. I turned to look but it was nothing serious. One of the Sergeants tripped and rolled his ankle.

All of a sudden we were taking fire from everywhere. Bullets skipped and jumped around us and so we had to breach into a building. We destroyed a wall and pushed inside into what was a police station. The guys cleared the building and when it was safe we hunkered overnight. The next morning we had to push deeper into the city. That time we kicked the door into some kind of candy shop. We hunkered down beneath the cartons of cigarettes and other crap they had, like candy and bags of sugar. That’s what they had, bags of sugar.

We pulled all the bags of sugar and built up our defenses with them. We took a lot of fire that night and kept returning fire. In the battle our platoon Sgt. took a shot from an AK 47 right into his Kevlar and he went down. He was laying there as if he was dead. We all thought he was dead. We finally figured out that he had a concussion and the tracks had to be called to evac him.

Then we had to light up the rooftops with our suppressive fire. Our SAW guns blasted back as tracks took him away. Later that day we had to push further into the city. This is where things changed for me. We exited the candy shop that’s where we had linked up with our tanks and began patrolling the street with them in the center of our patrol. Muzzle flashes came from everywhere, every direction, every building. We could see the traces of fire raining down on us heavy. It was heavy, blasting, terrifying and that’s when I felt true fear.

I remember standing in the middle of the cross roads frozen. Bullets are landing all around me and this thought came in my head, “I’m about to die.”

I pissed my pants then.

It all came out and I couldn’t control myself. It all happened in slow motion. The bullets were raining down and the men were moving and I was standing there in the middle of the street pissing my pants. I stood there and all of a sudden this conclusion came into my mind. I thought “F____it. I’m going to die. I’m going to die and I’m going to take a lot of people with me.” I came to my senses. I accepted it. I owned it and the fear left me.

We pushed and fought with intensity. It changed who I was. I had SAW drums on my chest, SAW drums in my pack. Moving 500 meters was a snail crawl. It took us 2 hours to battle our way in over that short distance. Right at an intersection an insurgent popped out with an RPG and fired it at me.  I raised my weapon at the same time to fire upon him but my weapon went ‘click’. Today I can still see every detail of that round coming at me. But it rose above my head and went behind me. It exploded and I thought “God! Someone must have said a prayer for me.”

I kicked in the door of a home to get out of the line of fire and reloaded my weapon. I rushed back into the streets and we kept fighting through a lot more heavy fire. Our machine gunner Rupe gave me cross-coverage as we moved ahead. I glanced back and noticed see our 1st Sgt and Co. Gunny had taken hold of a building in order to help us. We couldn’t even make it ahead with our tanks. One of the machine gunners went down after getting hit by small arms fire. Tracks came in and evacuated him. We fought our way out straight to our objective.

Once we got into the city we had to clear a building. I think it was a government complex that we had to clear. I just recall it was a tall building.  A lot of small arms fire came out of that place. Very precise fire came down all around us. It was muzzle flashes everywhere. We were pinned down and Lt. Ackerman decided to call in the birds. I looked back and one of our guys was using a metal garbage lid for a signal mirror. Danger close mission, There were many of those. 500 lb bomb blew the crap out of that building. The whole thing collapsed in front of us. Marines stood all around in the dust and junk flying across the city.

My best friend Benny moved into a building. We were taking fire from an insurgent who was firing through a window. Benny raised his SAW to fire and looked down. An AK round hit him there-right in the butt stock of the weapon clearly missing his body inches away from his chest. Some higher being was looking out for him. The shot was so close to his heart. A Marine named Calderon fired the AT4 into the window and neutralized the threat. The man was neutralized.

Was I ever sad? I was never sad until the fighting calmed and saw a dog split apart dragging himself with his front paws. His guts were dragging behind him. Our Sgt said put him out of his misery.  We shot the dog in the head with a 9 mm. Watched him die. I saw blood pouring out of his eyes. 5 minutes of screaming.  I felt the worst. Thinking….

A dead insurgent was on the ground after he blew himself up. His deteriorating body was blue and he stunk. I think of that scent every day. That battle. Trust your guts….say something… fear is a gift and a curse.

I took it to heart when I was in a leadership position. Fear is a curse depending on what you do with it. It could have cost me my life.  Fight your way through your feelings. Fight your way through your feelings to win. Don’t get paralyzed. After that I never felt fear again. Be a great leader. My guys hated me. Thanked me after their deployment with me. I worked them hard. Worked them hard in training but after deployment they never questioned me again. I had new guys who had never been in combat leading patrols, Patrolling with confidence.

Are you in touch with them still?

Yes. They call me. I think about them all the time. I think about ISIL, the Terror group, I don’t want the work we did to be in vain. Many gave their lives and fought hard in IRAQ.

What made you separate?

I would have stayed in. I loved being a grunt. I had a family at the end of the day. My last deployment in Afghanistan an Afghan soldier shot at one of my Marines for no particular reason. I punched him in the face. It’s not okay. You can’t do that to my guys. My chain of command made me apologize. I was a senior NCO-my platoon Sgt. didn’t have my back. They pulled me into the main base. BN CO, 1st Sgt, the Sgt. Major.

I explained everything. Lucky I didn’t kill him. I felt betrayed…

How did you feel coming home?

After Fallujah-my emotions….it’s very hard to describe. I had to practice my emotions. Lots of people noted my emotions, not what I’m feeling but I’m hiding them. Look happy. I didn’t want to offend my wife so I kept it in because she was so happy to see me.

Best thing that came out of it?

Learn to trust yourself and your instincts. The gut feeling when something is bad. Your body goes into shock but you can override it.

Did you get a job?

I was in training to be a police officer. One of the students asked me if I felt fear. I told him that I did. One of the other students told me he didn’t feel fear. But he was always telling stories. Once he said he was deployed to Baghdad in Afghanistan. I looked at him and said I’m not talking to you. He’s ignorant. I felt fear. I don’t do this for glory-There is no glory in it. Not in lying. I’ve had enough of it. I don’t find killing someone amusing. I killed to survive.

What were your hardest struggles?

My hardest struggles were my emotions. I don’t deal with showing my emotions. I speak roughly to my children. I try to do better every day with them.

What would you tell our readers?

Find time to pray. Believe in what you believe. Be strong in that. Share it with those who went through the same thing. I don’t talk to those who don’t have an understanding. How can they? But talk to someone who has been through it.

People you remember?

Too many…Lost my Doc in Afghanistan. He stepped on an IED. I had made a promise to bring everyone home. We only had one Doc and we had to loan him to another squad that day. He was crossing a river. I told my men to scan with their metal detectors. Scan the side, then scan the water, and scan the other side but he didn’t want to get wet that day. He crossed over. Boom; He stepped on an IED. It took 6 tourniquets to stop the bleeding. There was a huge crater were he stepped. His weapon had fragments of his gloves stuck in the trigger well. He Medevac but he bled out on the bird….

Our new Lt. didn’t know how to tell his Marines. He went back and cried but I told him to stand up and be a leader and step up. I was numb. It was a sacrifice; all part of combat. Death didn’t bother me anymore. When it’s my time, it’s my time.

I’m no longer afraid of dying. If an Active Shooter came into my work I’d be the first to fight back with a stapler, a chair, whatever it took. I wouldn’t hide.

What are your final thoughts?

I hate that I’m not really myself anymore-I’m just my experiences. I’m not the best man I could be, not glamorizing anything. I feel messed up. I pray my kids will be better than me… I’ve hurt my wife with words; I’ve spoken roughly to my kids. Get out there and get family support. PTSD is a serious thing.

-In addition, Blanding wrote in his Tufts profile of Ackerman and his men: “it emerged that Ackerman’s push down the alley had broken the heart of the enemy resistance in the center of the city, essentially cracking the toughest neighborhood in the grisliest battle of the Iraq War. “His platoon happened to be repeatedly placed in actions that were extremely important to the battle on the city,” says Captain Doug Krugman, Alpha Company’s executive officer and Ackerman’s superior. “Wherever we put them, they seemed to run into large numbers of resistance.”

Daniel introduced me to Mr. Elliot Ackerman via email correspondence. I wrote to Elliot and asked him if he read Dan’s interview. Elliot replied via email to me: “I just read La Rose’s interview. That’s great and powerful stuff. I admire the hell out of him. He was one of the finest Marines I ever served with.”

I think Daniel’s words will tell you a lot about who he is. Hopefully I did him and his fellow Marines right  in this interview. Thank you Daniel. I’m sure your story may inspire, motivate and help quite a few people. Thank you Elliot for you have done as well.

Semper Fi

Spotter Up recommends you read the additional:

http://www.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/spring2007/features/fear.html to try and put it all in perspective.

Pic from www.Times.co.uk

Originally published September 16 2014

 

 

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About The Author

Mike credits his early military training as the one thing that kept him disciplined through the many years. He currently provides his expertise as an adviser for the DoD. Michael Kurcina subscribes to the Spotter Up way of life. “I will either find a way or I will make one”.

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