The Magazine

The New Band of Brothers

With the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division in Ramadi.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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Ramadi, Iraq

TERRORIST-INFESTED RAMADI in the wild west of Iraq is for U.S. troops the meanest place in the country, "the graveyard of the Americans" as graffiti around town boast. There is no better place to observe American troops and the fledgling Iraqi army in combat. That's why I came. When military public affairs asked where I wanted to be embedded, I told them, "the redder, the better" (red means hostile). So they packed me off to Camp Corregidor in eastern Ramadi with the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). The 506th's official motto is "Currahee," Cherokee for "stands alone." But they're better known as the "Band of Brothers"--so dubbed by author Stephen Ambrose and HBO (although the term originally applied to just one company in the regiment).

During the Battle of Falluja in November 2004, many of the enemy who had vowed to fight to the death, including foreign terrorists, slipped the U.S. cordon. Ramadi, a city of 400,000, was a logical destination. The southwest point of the Sunni Triangle, it lies about 30 miles west of Falluja and that much closer to Syria--a reliable source of both supplies and foreign jihadists. It's also the capital of Al Anbar province and a favorite stomping ground of al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi until two 500 lb. bombs blew apart his hideout last Wednesday.

To most of the media, Baghdad is where Iraq begins and ends. So naturally, they think Baghdad is the most dangerous part of the country. Wrong. "The sheer scale of violence in Ramadi is astounding," wrote AP's Todd Pitman after spending time with several units there. Pitman arrived the same night I did. "One recent coalition tally of 'significant acts'--roadside bombs, attacks, exchanges of fire--indicated that out of 43 reported in Iraq on a single day, 27 occurred in Ramadi and its environs," he wrote in a dispatch. Track the weekly butcher's bill for all of Iraq and you'll often find that a third to a half of U.S. combat deaths are in this one city about a third the size of Baghdad.

Units that go "outside the wire" during the daytime are usually zapped. I went on two day patrols; both times we got hit. Capt. Joseph "Crazy Joe" Claburn, commander of C Company, told me by email after I left: "I have been involved in two firefights in the last two days. We fired over 1,500 rounds of .50 cal [.50 caliber ammunition from an M2 Browning heavy machine gun] and 500 of 7.62mm, 40 rounds of 40mm [40 millimeter grenades] and brought everybody out okay. However, yesterday we had a close friend and Marine hit in the knee. We found out today that he would lose his leg. Does anyone else in Iraq see this on a daily basis?"

There are four minarets within sniping distance of Corregidor, and the gentlemen in these places of worship regularly shoot at the raised observation posts around the camp and sometimes into the camp itself. Mortars as large as 122mm smash into Corregidor on average every other day. I saw a steel container (the kind carried on flatbed trucks and train cars) hit by a mortar; it looked like an aluminum can blown up with a cherry bomb. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) pop up like mushrooms, and vehicle-borne IEDs delivered by young men determined to get at those 72 perpetually renewing virgins are also a constant threat.

But here in this hellhole, I found men who would have made their famous World War II forerunners proud. They are no longer paratroopers but are brave, bold, and elite in every sense of the word. The actions of these men in fighting an enemy less skilled than the Germans yet far more vicious and fanatical tell a story that has remained largely ignored. In fairness, Ramadi itself has been mostly ignored.

When it finally made headlines across the country in late May, it was because of bad reporting when the Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer "broke the news" that 3,500 men from the 1st Armored Division in Kuwait were being deployed there as emergency reinforcements for a city essentially lost to the terrorists. Actually, it was 1,500, of whom "some" are "likely to be sent to" Ramadi as the New York Times correctly reported. And the place is bad enough without such exaggerations as the claim by one of Knickmeyer's sources that al Qaeda runs it.

Welcome to Corregidor!