Happy Marines could be found throughout the battle of Fallujah. They would usually start at it early in the morning when their dirty faces could get away with it, a smile and a laugh, usually at some other Marine’s expense, the energy was strong in the morning and everyone could only be happy before an operation. After that the smiles appeared only in brief short bursts, behind the gunfire and fire, the smoke that choked the young men with their black lungs. I met Paul Stewgots during his first day assigned to our Infantry unit; he had transferred over from security forces and the Marine Corps’ elite fleet anti-terrorism force (Fast Company). I was mopping the floor in the Alpha Company office.
I had been in the infantry a long three weeks and even to “the field”, our slang for the real infantry training I participated in the week before. I had been around the block and I wanted to make sure that Paul was on his game after he arrived. I introduced myself and told him that we would be in the same platoon; he was waiting in our reception room before being introduced to our Captain. Paul noticed that I was as new as his fresh socks but kindly humored my advice anyway. He asked me to program his watch to make up for his time change and once again I found myself frustrated that even the new guy was telling me what to do. I programmed the watch and babbled on all about the things necessary for “the field” which I had become an expert in and we would be leaving again for shortly.
Most transfers from security forces would have spent their previous two years guarding nukes, or the president, and others came from the historic drill team based in Washington D.C., therefore I assumed that Paul had either been standing in front of a missile or marching smartly. Our infantry unit was preparing for a deployment to the Philippines that we would never sail to aboard our Navy ships, which changed direction and headed for the middle-east. The only Marines in our unit that had been to Iraq were the older enlisted Marines, who deployed to Desert Storm thirteen years before. A strange thing had happened while my class was in the school of Infantry in January 2004, our instructors were replaced later in the cycle with instructors who had returned from recent deployments in Iraq, like a cheesy war movie the eighteen year old me was pretty sure the war in Iraq would be over with soon but in hindsight the instructor switch should have rang a loud bell.
Paul sat in his chair, a naturally quiet man. What he did not say was, “Shut your boot mouth kid, I just got back from Iraq.” He would be the only Marine in our platoon who had been to combat in less than a decade. Paul was a weapons expert and a professional Marine. I assured Paul the word that had been handed down to me, not to worry about that Iraq shit, Hawaii Marines go to the Philippines. When we made it to those ships that kept sailing everything changed as we crossed into waters known as the straits of Hormuz, off of the coast of Iran and the gateway into the middle-east. Our platoon was tasked to provide security along the perimeter of the ship; I stood next to Paul, loaded up with live rounds and curiosity. Small Iranian speed boats constantly flirted with our ship’s standoff distance; their small vessels would speed toward our ship and quickly break away before we started our two warnings and a sunken speedboat policy, nevertheless they were testing us and Paul stated that matter of fact when I asked him what the deal was with the speedboats? We stared at the boats and coast of Iran for hours, any time before I would have been water-skiing off of the back of a speedboat in air so hot, the water was emerald and would glow at night. Paul was preparing for round two.
During the first full-fledged firefight I found myself involved in, a squad of Marines were caught in a gunfight with thirty enemy fighters in the house next-door to us. Nathan Douglass recalled from the perspective of our third squad, that Paul Stewgots sent a hail of grenade launcher fire down the street. The launcher requires the operator to load one round at a time, Paul was getting a hand cramp but Douglass explained it was a sight to behold, he just knew what to do, Paul Stewgots was a real life war machine. Some of this would have come from his advanced training in the elite FAST Company but most of it came from a warrior finding his place in the world. I was naturally clumsy, very young and my operating looked a world opposite of Paul’s.
Paul’s squad was blown up inside of a corner house later in the battle. Paul and his best friend Donnie were guarding a stairwell outside of the house when they heard the explosion followed by the moaning of wounded Marines. Today Donnie and Paul live close to each other in Connecticut; I went fishing with them this summer. Paul recalled that as he entered the house he asked his squad leader to help him pull bodies out of the house, his squad leader rasped “I’ve been shot,” and collapsed. Donnie and Pauley began dragging Marines out of the house that was also engulfed in flames. One Marine was lying on a stairwell and was too badly wounded to crawl out of the house. The smoke grew thicker by the moment and when Donnie and Paul found the injured Marine, they had a hard time moving him. Donnie recalled that they looked at each other and Donnie said, “We are going to die in here.” Paul recalled, “But it was like we were all going to leave this house or none of us were.”
Donnie and Paul were always a funny sight for tired eyes, they could make anything fun and the two were the heart of the platoon. They both received medals for valor that should have been higher. I talked to Paul about that last night. He had also been hit by shrapnel but never put in for a purple heart. I remember Paul and Donnie laughing in the desert, seared into my brain. Pauley Stewgots said to me last night that he recalled a flag waving on the back of a vehicle we exited to enter the battle, and how he thought that this was not the reason he was fighting, a piece of cloth. The Marine he pulled out of the burning house is breathing today.