The American Platoon

by Patrick K. O’Donnell

The Battle of Fallujah and its impact on a group of young Marines

Following your dream shouldn’t cost you your life. But for many of the members of First Platoon, that’s exactly what happened.

This week marks the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Fallujah. During the battle, I was embedded as a combat historian with the Marine First Platoon, Lima Company, 3/1, as they fought house-to-house. First Platoon suffered some of the highest casualties in Fallujah: four killed in action — Lance Cpl. Nick Larson, Lance Cpl. Nathan Wood, Lance Cpl. Mike Hanks, and Lance Cpl. Benjamin Bryan — and 31 wounded, many more than once.

But in many ways, what happened in Fallujah paled in comparison with the sacrifices the men have made since. Several have deployed back to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. Others have been wounded in action so many times it’s hard to keep track, or have suffered hardships related to their time at war. A few come to mind.

The lowest-ranking member of First Platoon was Sean Stokes. Following an AWOL charge he incurred when he left his duty station to save a family member from domestic violence, Stokes was given a choice: demotion to private (the lowest rank in the Marine Corps) and a trip to Iraq, or leaving the Marine Corps. Having wanted to be a Marine his entire life, Stokes gladly chose the demotion.

In Fallujah, Stokes became one of First Platoon’s finest. “Stokes was always the first into the house for my team. I cannot say for sure the number of enemy combatants Stokes eliminated, but there were many,” recalled Lance Cpl. Heath Kramer, Stokes’s fireteam leader.

On November 17, Stokes, along with most of First Platoon and me, encountered a sophisticated ambush. Inside a house, an enemy fragmentation grenade threw Stokes back six feet. “As I got up, rounds started impacting near me down the hall. The fighters kept coming closer, closer . . . ” he said afterward. “Then my magazine went dry! Everything I did was by instinct, so I pulled out a grenade to frag the Chechens. I thought I was going to die; I was out of mags, and they were just about to peek around the corner.”

Pvt. Sean Stokes

Before the insurgents could kill Stokes, Lance Corporal Kramer burst into the house, guns blazing. Kramer grabbed Stokes and carried him to safety. Despite his wounds, Stokes “begged me not to let him be taken out of combat. This is the kind of Marine I wanted beside me during a time like this,” remembered Kramer. Stokes killed nine insurgents during the battle, including one in hand-to-hand combat.

Duty-bound, Stokes went back to Iraq one more time and was meritoriously promoted to corporal, having been called a “model Marine.” However, after four years of honorable service, the corps informed him that because of the 2003 AWOL charge, his enlistment would not be extended. He literally begged for one more chance and received a temporary ten-month extension of his contract, which involved another deployment to Al Anbar. He eagerly accepted.

Back in Iraq, Stokes served as one of the battalion commander’s personal bodyguards, an honor reserved for only the finest Marines. Knowing his enlistment would be over in months, Stokes heroically did his duty, sacrificing himself to protect his battalion commander. He bled out in his commander’s arms on July 30, 2007. Although he never believed he deserved special recognition, he received the Silver Star posthumously for his actions in Fallujah in 2004; he was the first Marine private to be so honored since Vietnam.

In the years after Fallujah, Sgt. Dustin Turpen discovered that the scars of war are not always physical; they are also sometimes invisible. First Platoon’s first de facto reunion was Turpen’s funeral after his suicide.

Haunted by memories of insurgents’ using civilians as human shields and other disturbing scenes of battle, Turpen had been self-medicating with alcohol for over five years. He couldn’t receive proper psychiatric help, because it would have required him to go on leave and thereby destroyed any chance of promotion. He knew that unless he received a promotion, his Marine contract would likely not be extended, effectively ending his Marine career.

The final blow came in the form of a DWI; he didn’t injure anyone, but he lost his promotion to staff sergeant and was demoted from sergeant to corporal. This ensured his contract termination from the Marine Corps, ending the only dream that he had. Like Sean Stokes, Turpen saw his dreams dissolving before his very eyes. Stripped of his future, the 27-year-old ended his life, pulling the trigger on his .45-caliber pistol.

Dustin’s death coincided with a massive Nor’easter that hit the East Coast, and the funeral was delayed for over a week. During that time, many of the members of his unit relived Fallujah in their minds while waiting for his body to arrive. At the funeral, one member remarked on how the war haunted many of the men; their minds are “cooked,” he said.

Despite the staggering personal costs, the men of First Platoon continue to serve. For many, the firefights of Fallujah have been replaced with the minefields of Afghanistan. They patrol every day in the forlorn hope of protecting an Afghan population that often doesn’t want protection. At times the Afghans actively plant mines that make every step potentially lethal.

In the spring of 2011, Marine Sgt. Jacob de la Garza and Sgt. Marshall “Butters” Kennedy both found that out the hard way. Sergeant Garza lost a leg and nearly an arm to a water jug filled with high explosives that had been buried in the path of one of their foot patrols. In May, Sergeant Kennedy lost both legs below the knee. Despite their grievous wounds, Garza and Kennedy inspire all those around them, remain upbeat, and plan on continuing their military careers with the Marines. Both men are in intense rehabilitation and have relearned how to walk and function with artificial limbs.

Sgt. Marshall “Butters” Kennedy

Once again First Platoon is preparing to head overseas. All too often, it’s only military families who take notice when units deploy or return, while the rest of the country remains seemingly ambivalent. America’s fighting men are as fine as ever — the next great generation. Does America deserve men such as these?

— Patrick K. O’Donnell captured First Platoon’s story in We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah. He has also written Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story — The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company and five other books