NEW YORK – Adam Banotai was a 21-year-old sergeant and squad leader in the Marine Corps during the 2004 invasion of Fallujah, a restive insurgent-held city in Iraq. His unit – which had seven of 17 men wounded by shrapnel or bullets in the first days of the invasion – seized control of the government center early in the campaign.
So when Sunni insurgents, some with allegiances to al-Qaida, retook the city this month and raised their black insurgent flag over buildings where he and his men had fought, he was transfixed, disbelieving and appalled.
“I texted a couple of friends,” said Banotai, now a firefighter and registered nurse in Pennsylvania. “Everyone was in disbelief.”
“I don’t think anyone had the grand illusion that Fallujah or Ramadi was going to turn into Disneyland, but none of us thought it was going to fall back to a jihadist insurgency,” he said. “It made me sick to my stomach to have that thrown in our face, everything we fought for so blatantly taken away.”
The bloody mission to wrest Fallujah from insurgents in November 2004 meant more to the Marines than almost any other battle in the 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many consider it the corps’ biggest and most iconic fight since Vietnam, with nearly 100 Marines killed in action and hundreds more wounded.
For many veterans of that battle – most now working in jobs long removed from combat – watching insurgents running roughshod through the streets they once fought to secure, often in brutal close-quarters combat, has shaken their faith in what their mission achieved.
Some now blame President Obama for not pushing harder to keep some troops in Iraq to maintain the stability. Others express anger at George W. Bush for getting them into a war they now view as dubious in purpose and even more doubtful in its accomplishments. But either way, the fall of the city to insurgents has set off within the tight-knit community of active and former Marines a wrenching reassessment of a battle that in many ways defined their role in the war.
“This is just the beginning of the reckoning and accounting,” said Kael Weston, a former State Department political adviser who worked with the Marines for nearly three years in Fallujah and the surrounding Anbar province, and later served alongside Marines in Afghanistan.
Weston, who is now writing a book but remains in close contact with scores of the men with whom he served, said Marines across the globe had been frenetically sharing their feelings about the new battle for Fallujah via email, text and Facebook.
“The news went viral in the worst way,” he said. “This has been a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, ‘I thought my son died for a reason.’”
Ryan Sparks was a platoon commander during a seven-month Fallujah deployment in which three men were killed and 57 wounded in his 90-man unit. Now about to take a job in New York after recently leaving the Marines, Sparks, 39, said many of the younger Fallujah veterans were angry “because we lost so many Marines, and it feels like they were sacrificed for nothing.”
One of the last things Matthew Brown, a 20-year-old lance corporal when he was wounded the third day of the invasion, remembers about Fallujah was seeing Banotai help load him into a vehicle. Given last rites because he had lost so much blood after a sniper shot him in the leg, he awoke a week later at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and began the long process of learning to walk again, which he now does with a cane. Seeing pictures this week of insurgent-held Fallujah, he said, was “nauseating.”
“It’s just like, wow, thanks for dragging up all these memories I tried to forget that were controlling my life,” said Brown, 29, who now lives in Fayetteville, N.C. “For a while a I lived out of a bottle trying to shut the memories off.”