On March 31, 2004, a group of American contractors working in Iraq were attacked and dragged from their vehicles in Fallujah, a city in the Al Anbar province, located about 43 miles west of Baghdad. They were beaten, set on fire, and drug through the streets before their bodies were hung from a bridge crossing the Euphrates River.

These violent actions prompted the United States to launch Operation Vigilant Resolve, an action intended to capture or kill those insurgent elements responsible for the murder of the American contractors. Despite successes on the ground, the offensive was called off before its completion following a request by the Iraqi government. Hopes that local forces could provide security while quelling the insurgency—which at the time was centered in Fallujah—were not realized, and the city fell further into the hands of insurgents and violent jihadists who barricaded themselves in what was essentially a terrorist base. By early fall of 2004, it was clear that U.S. forces would need to return to Fallujah. This time, they would finish the job.

On November 10, 2007, just over three years since the launch of Operation Phantom Fury, three of the warriors of Fallujah came together to share their experiences at the American Veterans Center’s 10th Annual Conference. The panel was introduced by Marine Col. Willy Buhl, and featured Marine Sergeant and recipient of the Navy Cross Jeremiah Workman, and Army Staff Sergeant and recipient of the Silver Star David Bellavia.

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Col. Willy Buhl: The importance of Fallujah is that it lies along the supply route from the Syrian-Jordanian border. It is one of the last major cities before Baghdad. Fallujah is a big concentrated city, just under 300,000 people. Everything that came from Syria and beyond went past Fallujah.

The city was very concentrated; it was an old city with narrow streets, two to three story homes built like fortresses with large walls around it and heavy metal gates. Fallujah is in the heart of Sunni Iraq, so many of these folks were empowered and enriched by the regime of Saddam Hussein. It was not a friendly place to be as we tried to stabilize the country after removing Saddam’s regime.

Our mission was the ultimate mission for an infantryman. We came to Iraq to rebuild it, to stabilize it and to return it to the people of Iraq to allow them to have democracy and to enjoy some of the blessings and liberty that we’re so privileged to have. But it became clear to us that Fallujah had become a sanctuary for insurgents and terrorists, and our mission was to remove them from the city by force.

We had four Marine infantry battalions and two Army cavalry battalions that composed the assault force, and a whole host of others who ensured that we could cordon the city effectively and not allow anyone to escape as well as to cover the other lines of communication into Baghdad. It was a joint operation and took far more than the six battalions that actually physically assaulted it.

We also integrated a large amount of Iraqi security forces that were shoulder-to-shoulder with us in the city. They really performed their duties very well. It gave us great hope that they would be able to take over and assume the lead in many regards.

Sgt. Jeremiah Workman: For me, when I got to Iraq it was not a question of if we were going into Fallujah, it was when we were going into Fallujah. You got a very eerie feeling when you drove into that city. You could see the houses, and you could just tell it was going to be an ugly fight. Once word came down that we were actually going into the city, morale went through the roof.

The Marines were ready to go—we don’t like to sit around and wait. I remember thinking to myself, “this is it.” Marines sat there before going in, listening to music, and preparing themselves mentally. November 7 was the day the battle kicked off, and while the battle was officially over about a week later, we were tasked to start pushing back through the city almost like squeegee, picking up the weapons and ammunition that were left behind.

During the battle you didn’t have time to stop to clean all that up. We had been doing that for about two weeks while encountering little pockets of resistance.