Four years ago tonight, I carried the body of a dear friend from the battlefield, stood watch as he was identified, watched a company of Marines file through to pay their last respects, and said goodbye.
Our loss of John came in the context of two days of unit-wide suffering - his was just the death the struck me most personally. June 15th was a hot night, and at 1am the boys of 2nd Platoon, Weapons Company 1/5 stood up as QRF to assist an Alpha Company platoon that had suffered a catastrophic vehicle strike. This was a tragedy the likes of which I hoped to never see again: a double stacked anti-tank mine exploded directly beneath an up-armored M1114 HMMWV in a dirt alley. The doors blew off the vehicle in both directions, knocking down cinder block walls, and the 800-pound gun turret was flung up over a 10-foot wall into an adjacent courtyard. We found the truck's windshield, over 200 pounds of laminated glass, almost 50 yards away, a dogtag embedded in its shattered crystal. The recovery operation took almost 8 hours to ensure nothing was left behind. Tyler Trovillion, Jesse Jaime, Jonathan Flores, Chad Maynard and Dion Whitley were killed in the explosion; 4th Platoon took them home while 2nd finished the cleanup and retrograde.
Later in the same day, Marines from the command element were surveying the blast site when Doc Baez was shot by a remain-behind enemy sniper. That next afternoon, 2nd Platoon deployed to screen an Alpha Company operation in the souk, the heart of Ramadi's market district. As the sun reddened the dust of the western sky, a distant explosion rumbled in the distance like summer thunder. Alpha had almost wrapped up their op, and as the explosion echoed through the city 2nd Platoon peeled off from a final turn through the souk and headed south without order or encouragement, almost of its own mind. Over the radio I let Capt Thompson know we were already moving, and heard Charlie break in calling troops-in-contact. After the previous night, not one of us wanted to drive on a dirt road again, but there weren't many other options to get down to Shit Creek.
We sped out of the souk and cartwheeled through a maze of one-lane residential streets until we popped out on a large southbound road. As we neared the southern part of town, an ominous pillar of black smoke stood silent on the horizon, peppered by the static of small arms fire. Our vehicles spread out on the dirt alleys, and as we emerged from the density of the city a single upturned humvee brought our column to a standstill. There was but a second to watch the flames pillaging the vehicle, to remember the sickly sweet smell of burning diesel and rubber from the night before. With their lead vehicle struck and stranded, Charlie had dug in and was returning fire, but our arrival just to their north blocked their shot at the enemy. My guys took up the fight, Gunny directing the dismounts into buildings and the Mark-19s opening up on open windows and suspect alleyways.
Initially, we did not know the scope of the damage, only that wounded Marines needed immediate evac. After linking up with Lt. Fell, now leading the company under fire, we determined that two of the wounded were already loaded in a cargo vehicle, and two others were being treated in the courtyard of nearby residence. Later, I heard Marines speak quietly of men aflame, running to the safety of the nearest building. Oddly, for some reason I chose to run across the same open field to find the Marines in the courtyard - Fell didn't know which building they were in. The sight of one man sprinting across this dump of trash-choked land was enough to catch the attention of the wounded Marines, who quickly flagged me down. Even more odd, my failure to communicate my recon to the platoon resulted in several dismounts and two vehicles following my haphazard quest. While that worked out in the end, someone could've gotten hurt.
Gunny had the suppression and room-clearing well in hand, and I was operating under the assumption that a speedy evac was more important at this point than chasing a presumably long-gone triggerman. Once we loaded the stretcher cases into the cargo vehicle, my truck and one other escorted the WIAs back to the field hospital at Camp Ramadi. Cpl Ramirez, the Charlie radio operator and a comm Marine by training, drove solo through the city in the highback containing the casualties. Radioing ahead to coordinate helo support for the burn victims, I became aware that there were still two Marines unaccounted for. It wasn't until we got to Camp Ramadi that the Ramirez asked me if they had gotten the CO out. I'll never forget the chill as I realized he meant John, and "out" meant the upturned humvee that greeted our arrival. With that thought on my mind, we headed back to Shit Creek.
Once again in two days, an IED buried in soft dirt roads had taken its toll. How often have I looked back and regretted failing to go to the humvee first thing? I am assured that a rescue had already been attempted, and that the damage was complete, but you can't help but wonder what good you might have done by trying one more time.
It took three more hours to recover John and Erik from the the vehicle - our unfortunate practice from the night before paid off. Complete, we loaded up our revered cargo and stood fast to cover the retrograde of Charlie Company. Like many leaders before and after, John was the last of his men to leave the field. Looking back, I should have taken the time afterwards to sit down with every one of my Marines to talk about all they saw and did. I didn't - missions wait for no man - but I hope in their actions that they bore the same honored witness that I did.
John Maloney was as fine a human being as I've known, and the *finest* Marine Officer I have ever served with. The stirring final stanza of the Marine's Hymn sings of the Marines that guard the Streets of Heaven - if that is true, then certainly John must be the Captain of the Guard.
In memoriam: Capt. John W. Maloney, USMC (1970-2006)