24 December 2009

"A Father's Journey to Iraq" by Greg Janney

What were you doing on April 6, 2004? While most of us went about our daily lives, members of 2/4 Marines Echo Company were fighting and dying in Ar-Ramadi, Iraq, and twelve families’ lives were forever changed. On a day that few of us remember, 11 Marines and a Navy Corpsman were killed during a daylight ambush in a narrow, concrete block-lined alley 8000 miles from home. I know the father of one of these men, and this is the tale of two long journeys that we made to Iraq in an attempt to visit the site where his son fell in battle that terrible day in 2004. If successful, this trip would be the first time that any Gold Star parent had visited the actual site where their son or daughter was killed while in Iraq.

John Wroblewski, father of Marine 2nd Lt. J.T. Wroblewski, and I first met on January 12, 2007, as we set off with journalist Martha Zoller on our first trip to Iraq. Martha’s plan was to get John to the site in Ramadi where J.T. was mortally wounded. We arrived in Baghdad on January 14, but despite numerous attempts to get to Ramadi, we were unsuccessful due to sniper activity there. Having spent seven days by John’s side during which we heard more about J.T. and the Wroblewski family, I felt John’s anguish as we risked so much in our unfulfilled attempt to honor his son’s sacrifice. On the solemn flight home, I promised John that I would bring him back to Iraq to fulfill his dream.

After a year of planning and fundraising, John and I boarded a plane on February 27, 2008 on the first leg of our second journey to Iraq. We arrived in Kuwait on February 28th and received my first email from Marine Public Affairs Officer MSgt. Ellerbrock, which advised that we had clearance to get to Fallujah, but that Ramadi was not an option. I feverishly hammered out my response that we had to get to Ramadi, as that was the main purpose of my embed request. Ellerbrock then requested the reason for the urgency. With nothing left to lose, I explained that my assistant John Wroblewski is actually the Gold Star father of a U.S. Marine who was killed in action in Ramadi, and our mission was to perform a memorial service for J.T. and the ten other Marines and Navy Corpsman who fell alongside J.T. on 6 Apr 2004. Msgt. Ellerbrock's next message advised that he would see what he could do and would advise me via email soon. Since John and I were scheduled to depart via helicopter to Fallujah soon, I lost access to the internet for many hours.

With dreadful uncertainty, John and I continued our slow journey to Baghdad. We boarded an Air Force C-130 at 7:00 a.m. on March 1st, and landed in Baghdad at 10:00 a.m. Within 30 minutes of arrival we had boarded a Blackhawk helicopter, and landed inside Baghdad’s International Zone after a 15 minute flight (a special thank you to my friend at the helo desk.)

We arrived at CPIC and soon obtained our new press credentials, and I waited for a reply to my email. At 3:00 p.m., I received a call from US Army Maj. Lee Peters about my request. I told him about the ambush and my plan to take John to the site to perform a memorial service. The silence on the other end of the phone was deafening. After what seemed like a lifetime, Maj. Peters said, “I’m not sure how, but I’ll make it happen.”

We boarded a CH-47 Marine helicopter late on March 2nd, and were greeted in Fallujah by Msgt. Ellerbrock at midnight. Incredibly, we had all met during our January 2007 trip, but I didn’t realize it until then (a very interesting story in itself for later.) On March 3rd, after a few hours sleep, John and I met with the Marine Public Affairs staff to plan our strategy. Later, I interviewed Marine Major Matt Reid, Regimental Command Operation Commander, to outline challenges, goals, and accomplishments of the combined Army/Marine Units. We later retired to our quarters where I checked email and updated my blog. March 4th was spent with units of 1-4 and 3-1 Marines on a patrol southwest of Fallujah where we met with the mayor of Faris and toured an irrigation reconstruction project near the Tigris River. On March 5th, we met Marine Major General John Kelly (Commander of Multi-National Forces Iraq – West) who would accompany us to the site in Ramadi on March 6th, along with 2/8 Marines PSD Company. John and I slept little that night as we knew that tomorrow was the big day. Would we reach our ultimate goal on this 2nd and final attempt?

At 8:20 a.m. on March 6th, John and I met Maj. General Kelly for a pre-mission briefing and a quick lesson on tourniquet application in the event someone was injured. John looked as nervous as I felt as he climbed into Gen. Kelly's Humvee. I said a silent prayer for our safe passage and we began the last leg of our quest to visit the ambush site. Our Humvee convoy departed Fallujah on Route Michigan for the tense ride to Ramadi.

After our convoy stopped at the Ramadi compound for a short meeting with Maamoon Sami Rahseed al-Awani, the Iraqi governor of Al-Anbar province, we headed toward Route Gypsum. The narrow market-lined street seemed almost too narrow for the Humvees along with Iraqi foot and vehicle traffic. We soon stopped and dismounted. I shouldered my camera gear, taking photos along our walk toward the T intersection leading to the alleyway where the ambush took place. I tried to focus on my images, but was very aware that a shot could ring out at any moment.

We kept to the cinder-block walls of the alley, and a Marine used a GPS device to confirm the exact spot where J.T. fell. John Wroblewski and Major General Kelly stood side by side as John solemnly explained that we were there to honor the 12 men of 2/4 Marines, Echo Company that died on April 6, 2004. His voice gravelly with emotion, John read the names of the fallen, “LCPL Benjamin Carman, LCPL Marcus Cherry, PFC Christopher Cobb, LCPL Kyle Crowley, PFC Deryk Hallal, PFC Ryan Jerabek, PFC Moises Langhorst, LCPL Travis Layfield, HM3 Fernandez Mendez, LCPL Anthony Roberts, SSGT Allan Walker, and my hero, 2nd Lt John Thomas Wroblewski.” John then asked for a moment of silence and we all bowed our heads. Finally, John asked the Marines if they would give a Marine cheer to honor their fallen brothers. The Marines’ loud “Ooh-Rah!” echoed off the houses and alley walls surrounding us and slowly faded away into the palm trees in the distance.