“Females are essential”

In the aftermath of the deadliest attack ever on American women soldiers, Marines unite around the need for military women in a war zone.

Topics: Iraq war, Pentagon,

"Females are essential"

At 7:30 on a dusty evening June 13, a convoy of U.S. Marine vehicles headed east on Fallujah’s main road and signaled for a vehicle in front of them to pull over. In Iraq, U.S. convoys always direct Iraqi traffic away from them as a security measure, and like thousands of other Iraqi drivers, this driver obeyed and pulled over to the side of the road. The driver waited for two Humvees to pass by, and then, as a lightly armored, seven-ton truck full of 20 Marines rolled past him, he accelerated and detonated his explosives, igniting the fuel tank and setting the truck ablaze. Five Marines and one sailor were killed, and 13 wounded, but the bombing made international headlines because three of the dead and 11 of the wounded were women. It was the deadliest attack on female U.S. soldiers in American history.

“I set up security around the truck. The truck was still burning,” said a Marine who responded immediately at the scene, and who was only a few hundred feet to the east when it happened. The man requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the incident. “We went back to Entry Control Point 1 and grabbed 10 fire extinguishers. We attempted to put out the fire, but the fire burned until it wanted to stop. Twelve fire extinguishers couldn’t put it out. We weren’t able to get into the vehicle at all.”

Members of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, had arrived at the scene within minutes of the attack, and encountered a scene of carnage and twisted metal. The ground was littered with scattered equipment and torn bodies. As the men of India Company rushed to put out the fire in the burning truck, squads fanned out through the area and cleared nearby buildings, following security rules for a convoy attack.

When the Marine who gave the account of the bombing was asked what went through his mind when he saw the aftermath of the bombing, he looked away, at a loss for words.

In the United States, the attack reignited the debate on the role of female soldiers, but here in Fallujah there is widespread American acceptance of the role played by female Marines. The women who were killed had been searching female Iraqis at crucial checkpoints; the truck had just made the rounds of all the Fallujah checkpoints and had picked up almost all the female searchers before it was bombed.

Within India Company, which fought to secure the bomb site, many dismissed distinctions between men and women in the military. Many of the young men here are on their third tour of duty in Iraq, belonging to the same unit that helped pull down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square. The 3/4, one of the most famous units of the Iraq war, also took the city of Tikrit and fought the first siege of Fallujah in April 2004.

Lance Cpl. Alex Pak of Bellbrook, Ohio, is a fire team leader who was at the scene of the bombing. “I totally commend women. There’s a lot of opposition for them to join the military, and it takes a lot of balls for a woman to come out here. Guys have it easy — they are expected to be in combat, fight for their country and die — but women have opposition from the get-go. It takes a hard person to join an elite force like this one.” Pak is only 20 years old, but he has experienced more combat than many members of the military have in two decades. Pak gives the impression of being at least 10 years older than he is. Like many other members of India Company, he is also on his third tour of duty in Iraq.

Cpl. Courtney Waddell of Angola, N.Y., was waiting to begin her shift as a female searcher at Entry Control Point 1 two days after the suicide bombing. Normally, she works as a combat engineer, fortifying positions and building bridges. “I think especially because of the nature of my job, the military needs to keep us in forward positions, especially for things like this, because otherwise we would have to use doctors or use their husbands to search the Iraqi women, and we can’t trust their husbands. Females are essential in the city to perform these actions. The military is supposed to be a uniform unit. How can it be uniform if females aren’t supposed to be doing what the males are doing? My job is the closest thing to infantry we can get. That’s why I believe I should stay in a forward position.” Like Pak, Waddell is 20 years old.

The attack underscored the difficult security situation of American forces as they try to assist the return of normal life in Fallujah. For months, the city had been quiet as U.S. and Iraqi forces patrolled the streets, but the latest suicide attack is part of a sharp spike in violence in the area. As more residents have returned to a place still largely in ruins, there are visible signs of a civic life returning to what had been a ghost town.

All residents of Fallujah are now retina-scanned and fingerprinted and must carry a special I.D. card that allows them entry to the city through one of the checkpoints, a kind of technological replacement for an old city wall. But it seems likely that insurgents, too, have managed to pass through the checkpoints, or found other routes into the city. Recently, the new Iraqi government has been issuing its own I.D. cards, which allow ministry officials to cross the checkpoints, and Marines have been finding dozens of forgeries.

Months earlier, a resident had to carry an I.D. issued by the first Marine division to enter the city. “Now they’re coming through with teacher badges and Ministry of Oil badges, and all these [other] crazy badges. We’ve been here long enough to filter through them, but about half the badges we get are fake,” said one Marine on condition of anonymity. “The last couple of months, these new badges have been showing up, and they’ve been letting the Iraqis use them.”

In Fallujah, the Marines have won when insurgents came out into the open. A few days before the suicide attack, in a southern neighborhood of Fallujah, a small unit of U.S. forces called a combined antiarmor team arrived as dozens of insurgents were setting up an ambush. In the firefight that followed, the Marines battled their way through a carefully designed maze of roadside bombs, car bombs, rockets and machine-gun fire. The Marines in the small convoy managed to overtake the insurgents’ positions and killed many of the attackers without taking a single casualty. There were no reporters present when the incident took place, but five members of the unit later described the progress of the battle, drew diagrams and established timelines for events. Marines in Lima Company were able to corroborate many of the events in the timeline.

The bomber struck the convoy June 13 inside the secured part of the city, on Route 10. Because vehicle traffic into the city is tightly controlled, there is a strong possibility that insurgents assembled the bomb inside Fallujah. Another striking aspect of the account is the description of the way the bomber waited for the first two armored Humvees to pass and then chose the crowded seven-ton truck as his target. U.S. Marines often travel in the seven-ton trucks, many of which have steel armor that will stop a bullet from an automatic rifle. But the thin steel plate turns into shrapnel when hit by more powerful weapons. Many of the Marine seven-ton transports are lightly armored, however, and because they can carry as many as 18 people they’re a prime target of suicide attacks and large roadside bombs. It is also true that the bomber could not have easily approached the truck from the back of the convoy, since he likely would have been killed by turret gunners on the rearmost Humvees. It seemed that he had carefully picked his approach to coincide with the seven-ton.

U.S. commanders are trying to walk a delicate line between allowing Iraqi citizens back into the city and giving Iraqi officials more say in the city’s affairs, but as the security situation gets worse, they are likely to err on the side of caution and limit Iraqis’ autonomy in deciding who gets back in.

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>