Ramadi, a mostly Sunni city with about 500,000 residents, was considered to be one of the most violent cities in the world during the early part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Today, locals are out shopping at the cityâ€™s bustling marketplace, known as the souk. Children are playing soccer in fields, and students are walking mostly worry-free to and from the provinceâ€™s local college, al Anbar University.
The signs of war have steadily declined as the city has embraced peace and the region is returning to normalcy, which is an unexpected but welcome change for Marines with 1st Battalion,9th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, returning to the region for consecutive tours.
â€œA lot of the action happened in Ramadi,â€ said Cpl. Abdias Betancourth Jr., a 23-year-old motor transportation operator from Toppenish, Wash., with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1. â€œWe had it all hereâ€”improvised explosive devices, small arms fire, rockets, almost every type of attack.â€
The city of Ramadi endured some of the toughest fighting between 2004 and 2006, and the Marines expected intense combat while preparing for their deployments to the region.
â€œWe had an idea of what we were going into just from all of the storylines and news coverage,â€ said 1st Sgt. Patrick J. Dostal, the Headquarters and Service Company first sergeant with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, who was previously deployed to Ramadi in 2006. â€œBut still you just donâ€™t know what to expect. We trained for (heavy combat), but its just one of those things you donâ€™t (fully comprehend) until youâ€™re there.â€
â€œWe would just wait for something to go wrongâ€
The relative calm in Ramadi, during the first few months of the invasion, quickly turned toward a violent insurgency in 2004. The Marines often encountered heavy small arms fire within seconds of leaving their base of operations, and intense skirmishes were fought almost daily in the city.
â€œIt was kind of strange,â€ said Sgt. Matthew Jee, an intelligence specialist with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, currently on his second deployment to Ramadi. â€œAs soon as we left the wire, we would always get amped up and ready for combat. We would just wait for something to go wrong. Not knowing what was around the corner or what was going to happen didnâ€™t really bother me, it was just the waiting that bothered me.â€
Dostal, who was the Company K first sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, during his first deployment to Ramadi, did whatever it took to avoid attacks on his Marines. They always remained alert and ready for an attack, which would often occur. Over time, Dostal said he became used to the feeling of uncertainty and always believed in his Marinesâ€™ abilities.
â€œI just grew accustomed to it,â€ Dostal said in reference to always being extremely watchful. â€œI always knew the Marines would do whatever they needed to do. But, thereâ€™s not a great deal you can control if you hit a big IED. So we tried to avoid any attack by always being aware of our surroundings.â€
During the most severe fighting in the country, the average monthly number of attacks on infrastructures, civilians, and Iraqi and coalition forces topped 5,000, according to the Department of Defense. For the Marines, the nightly death totals reported on the local six oâ€™clock evening news wasnâ€™t just a number. The report could have been their fellow Marine brother or sister.
Devil Dogs, as Marines often call each other, are a tight-knit brotherhood. So the deaths of their counterparts, which every deployed battalion had to cope with at the time, affected Marines everywhere.
â€œThe worst day for me was when I lost 3 Marines and a sailor on April 2, 2006,â€ Dostal said. â€œThat was the first time Iâ€™ve ever lost a Marine or sailor. That was ultimately the worst day during my first deployment to Ramadiâ€”the whole company was in shock. It happened only less than a month after we arrived.â€
During that period of hardship, the Marines did what any individual would do in their situation: they turned to each other for comfort.
â€œI had a lot of good friends with me,â€ said Gunnery Sgt. Michael Meyer, a motor transportation chief with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, currently on his second deployment to Ramadi and his fourth to Iraq. â€œWe kept each other busy by staying occupied. Having good friends made the circumstances a little better. We tried to keep our minds off of what was going on around us.â€
Though the Marines found ways to keep their mind off the chaos surrounding them, they could not always escape the thought of becoming the next casualty.
â€œThere were many times when I feared my own life. I would be lying if I said I didnâ€™t,â€ Meyer said. â€œBut, at the same time, I feared for my Marinesâ€™ lives more than I did mine.â€
Although the Marines were always surrounded by threats, they managed to complete their assigned missions and stood firm while in the midst of adversity.
â€œThere were quite a few times when I just thought, â€˜What in the heck am I doing here?â€™â€ said Betancourth, who also deployed to Ramadi in 2006. â€œBut, I volunteered to be a .50 caliber machine gunner and honestly sometimes I regretted it, but that was my spot. Thatâ€™s where I belonged.â€
Iraqis also seemed vary anxious, according to Jee.
â€œThe vast majority of Iraqis were nervous, they knew we had guns and the willingness to use them to protect ourselves,â€ Jee said. â€œWe werenâ€™t out to punish or oppress the people but we were a walking, physical threat on their streets. They probably viewed the invasion as trading one threat for another.â€
The professional conduct of the Marines, along with their operational successes and several blunders by the insurgents, soon changed the localsâ€™ feelings toward coalition forces.
â€œIf somebody wouldâ€™ve told me back then that the city would be this calm I wouldâ€™ve said youâ€™re crazyâ€
The sacrifices Marines and other coalition forces have made over the years to better security in Iraq have paid off. In May of 2008, the monthly total of deaths for coalition forces reached an all-time low of 19, the lowest in the five year war. According to a recent military report, roadside bombs in the country are down by nearly 90% from this time last year.
â€œRamadi is quiet now,â€ Betancourth said. â€œIf somebody wouldâ€™ve told me back then that the city would be this calm I wouldâ€™ve said youâ€™re crazy.â€
One of the major reasons behind the reduction in violence has been the sahawa al Anbar, or the Anbar awakening. The awakening began in 2006 with the murder of a highly revered sheikh. The killers, al Qaida in Iraq, insulted and disrespected the sheikâ€™s family by hiding his body for three days so he could not be buried according to Islamic tradition. Their actions proved to be the breaking point for the locals, who were furious over the terrorist organizationâ€™s lack of respect for their culture and were exasperated with the endless violence. The local tribal leaders, led by Sheik Sattar abu Risha, declared themselves an enemy of al Qaida and formed the Awakening Council.
â€œBefore the Awakening, it was very kinetic,â€ said Maj. Jeff McCormack, the operations officer with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, who was deployed to the province during the awakening. â€œWe had IED attacks and firefights everyday. Within a week, we went from not being able to stand still for five minutes without being shot at to not having any attacks in the area.â€
In addition to the Awakening, the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to the region also proved to be pivotal in the turnaround. The surge allowed the troops to leave their safe areas, the forward operating bases and observation posts, and heavily engage locals who were now willing to cooperate with coalition forces. As the Marines were able to make more contact with the citizens, the people began to change their opinions toward coalition forces. They began to give the forces valuable information and tips.
â€œAt the beginning of my deployment, we really didnâ€™t have a whole lot of contact with the locals,â€ Dostal said. â€œToward the end of the deployment, we began interacting with them more often and we noticed a big change. The people started to help us more vice ignoring us.â€
The surge also allowed the Marines to turn their focus toward training Iraqi security forces. Still in progress, the training is meant to get Iraqi forces to an operational, self-sustaining level so they can take control of security in their city. Today, Iraqi police patrol the cityâ€™s streets daily while Marines only serve as mentors to the maturing force.
â€œThere were just a few Iraqi policemen in 2006,â€ Dostal said. â€œAs a matter of fact, I was shocked when I went into the city recently. I heard the city had changed, but I was still amazed to see the Iraqi police and people out and about. The Iraqi policemen are definitely out there controlling their city and theyâ€™re doing a heck of a job.â€
â€œThe people have something to look forward to nowâ€
Today the region is being rebuilt, the people are enjoying peace, and the concern of yesterday has been transformed into the anticipation of tomorrow.
â€œThe people have a feeling of hope,â€ Jee said. â€œThey are not scared anymore. They have something to look forward to now.â€
â€œThe people want some form of normalcy,â€ Dostal added. â€œYou can see it from the houses being rebuilt and the buildings being reconstructedâ€”the city is coming back.â€
The gains in Iraq did not come without a loss. Thousands of servicemen have made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of democracy and many Iraqis have given their lives in their fight for freedom. Without the selfless devotion of both the Marines and Iraqis, the region would not be where it is today.
â€œAll of the units that have come here and the Iraqis have made great sacrifices,â€ Meyer said. â€œItâ€™s sad to say that weâ€™ve had to sacrifice so much, but itâ€™s helped to change this region.â€