Battle for Fallujah, our warfighters towered in maturity and guts
April 28, 2005
Operation Dawn - Al Fajr
"Major Zarnik, these are my Marines, and I am giving them to you." A concluding story
We have read an account on the internet station, “Marine Corps Moms” where an Air Force KC-135R tanker aircraft commander (AC), Major Zarnik (since promoted to lieutenant colonel), conveyed his thoughts about retrieving and repatriating the first 22 American military troops to have died in this battle for Fallujah. For this author, this is solemn.
A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels an F-16 Fighting Falcon. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Mike Buytas. Presented by Air Force Link
Zarnik and his crew had been refueling F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters from Turkey to Spain when his orders were abruptly and unexpectedly changed. He was instructed to go to Kuwait City and pick up 22 troops who died in the Fallujah battle and return them to Dover Air Force Base (AFB), Delaware. The aircrew was tired from its F-16 refueling mission, and had intended to get some crew rest in Turkey before going on to Kuwait. But the crew voted to go straight to Kuwait because it felt it was important to get these 22 brave Americans back home to their families as soon as possible.
During the flight to Kuwait, the AC read the regulations regarding retrieving and carrying home and caring for “human remains.” The AC's plan was to pick up the soldiers, fly directly to RAF Mildenhall, England, remain overnight (RON), and then fly to Dover. This was the fastest routing. Zarnik then wrote the following:
“I thought that I was prepared for the acceptance of these men until we landed at Kuwait International. I taxied the jet over to a staging area where the honor guard was waiting to load our soldiers. I stopped the jet and the entire crew was required to stay on board. We opened the cargo door, and according to procedure, I had the crew line up in the back of the aircraft in formation and stand at attention. As the cargo loader brought up the first pallet of caskets, I ordered the crew to 'Present Arms.' Normally, we would snap a salute at this command, however, when you are dealing with a fallen soldier, the salute is a slow three second pace to position. As I stood there and finally saw the first four of twenty-two caskets draped with the American flags, the reality had hit me. As the Marine Corps honor guard delivered the first pallet on board, I then ordered the crew to 'Order Arms,' where they rendered an equally slow three second return to the attention position. I then commanded the crew to assume an at-ease position and directed them to properly place the pallet. The protocol requires that the caskets are to be loaded so when it comes time to exit the aircraft, they will go head first. We did this same procedure for each and every pallet until we could not fit any more.
“I felt a deep pit in my stomach when there were more caskets to be brought home and that they would have to wait for the next jet to come through. I tried to do everything in my power to bring more home but I had no more space on board. When we were finally loaded, with our precious cargo and fueled for the trip back to England, a Marine Corps colonel from first battalion came on board our jet in order to talk to us. I gathered the crew to listen to him and his words of wisdom.
“He introduced himself and said that it is the motto of the Marines to leave no man behind and it makes their job easier knowing that there were men like us to help them complete this task. He was very grateful for our help and the strings that we were pulling in order to get this mission done in the most expeditious manner possible. He then said:
"'Major Zarnik, these are My Marines and I am giving them to you. Please take great care of them as I know you will.'
“I responded with telling him that they are my highest priority and that although this was one of the saddest days of my life, we are all up for the challenge and will go above and beyond to take care of your Marines. 'Semper Fi Sir.' A smile came on his face and he responded with a loud and thunderous, 'Ooo Rah.'
“He then asked me to please pass along to the families that these men were extremely brave and had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and that we appreciate and empathize with what they are going through at this time of their grievance. With that, he departed the jet and we were on our way to England.
"I had a lot of time to think about the men that I had the privilege to carry. I had a chance to read the manifest on each and every one of them. I read about their religious preferences, their marital status, the injuries that were their cause of death. All of them were under age 27 with most in the 18-24 range. Most of them had wives and children. They had all been killed by an 'IED' which I can only deduce as an [improvised] explosive devices. Mostly fatal head injuries and injuries to the chest area. I could not even imagine the bravery that they must have displayed and the agony suffered in this God Forsaken War. My respect and admiration for these men and what they are doing to help others in a foreign land is beyond calculation. I know that they are all with God now and in a better place.
“The stop in Mildenhall was uneventful and then we pressed on to Dover where we would meet the receiving Marine Corps honor guard. When we arrived, we applied the same procedures in reverse. The head of each casket was to come out first. This was a sign of respect rather than defeat. As the honor guard carried each and every American flag covered casket off of the jet, they delivered them to awaiting families with military hearses. I was extremely impressed with how diligent the Honor Guard had performed the seemingly endless task of delivering each of the caskets to the families without fail and with precision. There was not a dry eye on our crew or in the crowd. The Chaplain then said a prayer followed by a speech from Lt. Col. Klaus of the second Battalion. In his speech, he also reiterated similar condolences to the families as the Colonel from First Battalion back in Kuwait.
"I then went out to speak with the families as I felt it was my duty to help console them in this difficult time. Although I would probably be one of the last military contacts that they would have for a while - the military tends to take care of it's own. I wanted to make sure that they did not feel abandoned and more than that appreciated for their ultimate sacrifice. It was the most difficult thing that I have ever done in my life. I listened to the stories of each and every one that I had come in contact with and they all displayed a sense of pride during an obviously difficult time. The Marine Corps had obviously prepared their families well for this potential outcome.
"So, why do I write this story to you all? I just wanted to put a little personal attention to the numbers that you hear about and see in the media. It is almost like we are desensitized by the "numbers" of our fallen comrades coming out of Iraq. I heard one commentator say that "it is just a number". Are you kidding me? These are our American Soldiers not numbers! It is truly a sad situation that I hope will end soon. Please hug and embrace your loved ones a little closer and know that there are men out there that are defending you and trying to make this a better world. Please pray for their families and when you hear the latest statistics and numbers of our soldiers killed in combat, please remember this story. It is the only way that I know to more personalize these figures and have them truly mean something to us all.
"Thanks for all of your support for me and my family as I take on this new role in completing my Air Force Career and supporting our country. I greatly appreciate all of your comments, gestures and prayers.
"May God Bless America, us all, and especially the United States Marine Corps.
The Marine Mom responded, "Thank God for Major Zarnik and others like him."
One Army officer who was in this fight, a West Pointer, said this:
"We lost over 50 soldiers and Marines in the fight for Fallujah, including a sergeant major, company commander, eight platoon leaders, and dozens of good kids between the ages of 18 and 25. I can't tell you how proud I was to be part of this fight, and to know these soldiers who fearlessly and relentlessly went from building to building to take the battle to the enemy.
"The losses were hard on our units. But anyone back home who thinks the world is a safe place needs to come here for a day and learn real fast that there are people out there who hate Americans enough to risk their lives to kill us. I see firsthand in Iraq that we cannot live peacefully back home right now unless we stay on the offensive against our enemies in their own backyards. The day we signed up, all of us soldiers accepted the risk of death as the price of defeating evil. There are some things worth fighting and dying for, and making America safer is one of them.
"We have an officers vs. enlisted football game tomorrow where I am the quarterback, so I am excited to get the competitive juices flowing again. We also have a Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow."