The Marines are filthy and tired and act hard, like they've been here two years instead of two months.
Charlie Company's 200 or so infantrymen -- half from Connecticut -- are reservists, pulled from civilian life for the unit's first trip into the war. They will spend seven months running patrols, guarding posts, raiding suspect houses and manning checkpoints in one of Iraq's most dangerous cities.
The men from Enfield, Colchester, Middletown and East Windsor are fighting in Fallujah to keep things from getting worse. They fight to buy time for the training of Iraqi replacements. They fight for an unknown future under yet-to-emerge Iraqi leaders. And, at the most basic level, the corporals and privates first class fight to keep themselves and their friends from getting killed.
They rehash their battle stories sometimes before they've returned to safety, writing their own characters into the war movies they gravitate to. They court death in their spare time, watching violent movies and some playing video games of war. Under it all, they are young and far from home.
``We're trying to keep Fallujah stable and get out of here,'' said Cpl. Parke Stearns, 26, of Lebanon, Ct.
The Marines here are fighting a war. But it's not always clear whose war.
Charlie Company is based at the Civil-Military Operations Center, or CMOC, pronounced see-mock in the acronym jungle of military speak. The compound is at the center of the city, facing the major east-west route through it. Charlie Company owns downtown, the worst of Fallujah. It is one company where four battalions with thousands of troops once operated. The nearest Marine company, another part of the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, known as ``New England's Own,'' is at the train station on the northern edge of the city.
But there are other supposed allies. Iraqi police, most of them locals, work from stations scattered around Fallujah, driving little pickups with patches of steel welded to them for armor. Three Iraqi Army battalions -- increasingly trusted by their U.S. partners -- also operate here, brought in from elsewhere.
The area is a stronghold for the Sunni branch of Islam. The Iraqi Army soldiers are mostly Shiites, so they are among the insurgents' favorite targets. While the Iraqi police are mostly Sunni, their partnership with American occupiers invites attacks on them, too, leaving them walking a crooked line.
As 1st Sgt. Ben Grainger, Charlie Company's chief noncommissioned officer who is from Enfield, said, ``They live in the community, the same community the insurgents live in. It's not a matter of them dying; it's a matter of their wife, family and kids dying. They're almost forced to play both sides.''
When working with either security force, Grainger said, Marines are told, ``Treat them as our counterparts, but be ready to kill them, if necessary.''
On May 19, a car on the ``new bridge,'' the main crossing over the Euphrates River, rolled up to the point of the bridge where Iraqi soldiers sat in a sandbagged post. It detonated, tearing the car and suicide driver into hunks of black shrapnel. Only one of the soldiers was wounded in the explosion that wrecked two of their armored vehicles, but the blast also punched holes through the bottom of the bridge, knocking it out until it could be repaired.
Soon after the attack, Iraqi soldiers milled around, laughing and taking pictures. One of them showed off a plastic bag that held a license plate. He signaled that the other item in the bag was the blackened foot of the driver.
That evening, as engineers checked out the bridge, another company from the battalion watched the area. They came across a group of men who scrambled into vehicles and fled. Chasing down one of the cars, a taxi, the Marines watched its driver run the car into pedestrians before bailing out into a building.
Charlie Company responded as backup, to help surround a section of the notorious area of town known as the Pizza Slice, a triangle formed by two main roads and the river. Inside the taxi, Marines found a few automatic weapons and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Night fell on their search, which ended with a suspect who fit the description, but couldn't be held without more proof.
As they prepared to leave, a few shots popped in the distance across the adjacent cemetery. The Marines who heard barely reacted. Bullets are almost as common as mosquitoes when the sun goes down in Fallujah. But the Marines carry night-vision equipment. As they like to say, ``We own the night.''
The following day, again, a suicide car bomb struck. This time, it hit an Iraqi police station. The car blew up at the outer security perimeter, injuring some people there, but no officers.
When Iraqis are hurt or killed in the city, it slides off most of the Marines in Charlie Company. It's when their own get hit, as they have a few times in the last several weeks, that the news grips tight.
On Wednesday, Marines from Charlie Company's 2nd Platoon are returning to base when an Iraqi boy, maybe 11, throws a grenade at them. It lands within lethal range but doesn't go off. The boy gets away. Explosives disposal guys are called in to grab the grenade. They arrive with a flat tire, so more Marines from 2nd Platoon come out for security.
An arm pokes around a corner and throws another grenade.
This one blows as Marines dodge for cover. Two Marines are hit with minor shrapnel: Lance Cpl. Jordan Pierson, of Milford, in the arms and leg, and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Lambert, of Oxford, Mass., in his right thigh. Both are taken to the hospital at Camp Fallujah.
Afterward, as he limped from his treatment, Lambert said to the medical staff, ``It's nice meeting you guys, but I don't want to see you again.'' He and Pierson returned to the unit.
Another day, when gunfire crackles and blasts start shaking Charlie Company's building, the Marines get ready for a fight. They gather in the entryway of their four-story building, like greyhounds at the starting gate, the air heavy with the smell of gunpowder. In squads, they start to reinforce guard posts and head into the city.
The explosions come from a combination of rocket-propelled grenades streaking into the big compound and mortar shells dropping from above, in greater numbers than usual. With fire from three machine guns on top of it, the coordinated attack is the nastiest on CMOC since the unit got here in March.
Within a few minutes, Marines have shot back and hit two or three attackers -- news that puts smiles on faces back inside their building. The surviving insurgents vanish, taking their wounded with them. The leaders of Charlie Company count it as more of the same -- hit-and-run, no real threat to the Marines, though more organized than they like to see.
But theirs isn't the only building in this dusty hub. In one corner is the equivalent of a town hall. There is another building that houses the mayor's offices. And a new police headquarters just opened on the northern edge, which could also have been a target for the rain of more than a dozen mortars.
No Marines were hit, though one dud mortar embedded itself on the roof of the former education administration building they live in and another landed a dozen yards away.
The attack did kill three Iraqi police officers on a nearby guard post -- Iraqis killed by Iraqis. Much of the violence in this wounded city is between Iraqis, leaving U.S. troops as the referees in a game with more teams than rules.
Just a few hours earlier, out at a Charlie Company checkpoint on the west side of the Euphrates River, a car drove up with a dying man in the back seat, his curled-up form full of bullet holes and soaked red with blood. The car was allowed to pass through to a nearby hospital, where a doctor turned it away after a quick check that concluded the man had died.
When the car got back to the checkpoint, Marines tried to figure out what had happened. They gathered the six other men from the white Toyota and held them aside while a translator questioned them. Meanwhile, a Navy corpsman -- a medic who travels with Marine units -- checked the man in the back seat. ``He has a faint pulse in his wrist,'' the corpsman said.
``He's still alive.''
The man's brother leapt from his kneeling position and began weeping and moaning, trying to get closer through the knot of Marines.
The corpsman kept working, looking for further signs of life. He couldn't find a pulse in the man's neck. And his heart was still.
``He's done,'' the corpsman finally said.
The other man continued to cry, his tears rolling through his brother's blood where it stained his face. He had the eyes of an animal struck by a car, stunned and confused. As he folded against the car trunk and put his head down on his arms, the story was told by the others through the translator.
Their car had been at a gas station down the road. A group of men got out of a gray BMW and fired an AK-47 -- Iraq's favored assault rifle. Nobody in the Toyota said they knew why.
Bottom line: The shooting didn't involve a Marine. So the Marines waved them on, back down the road.
YOUR BRIDGE TO IRAQ: Over the next month, Jesse Hamilton and Tom Brown will be embedded with Marine reservists of the Plainville-based Charlie Company.
Each Sunday, they'll report from the ground on the growing complexities of the Iraq war, through the eyes of the Connecticut unit. Midweek, they'll file shorter snapshots.
ON THE WEB: A special website at www.courant.com/iraq gives readers an opportunity to react and respond to developments as they unfold. Additional photographs, audio segments and interactive graphics provide background and context. A daily blog from 1st Sgt. Ben Grainger offers a rare window on the war from the Enfield resident who is Charlie Company's top noncommissioned officer. And a message board will capture messages to and from the Marines.Copyright © 2015, CT Now