Through their eyes: A chronicle of the Iraq war, from four men who’ve fought in it
By Marion Callahan and Joe Nixon
Of The Morning Call
March 16, 2008
In the predawn hours of a moonless November night, five days into the seemingly ceaseless Battle of Fallujah, Cpl. Jacob Knospler charged with gun drawn into a home stockpiled with guns and ammunition, a squad of Marines at his heels.
As Knospler led his battle-weary men up a flight of concrete stairs, insurgents hurled grenades from the second floor. He heard a thunderous boom, then saw two more grenades tumble down the steps.
”I remember looking for my weapon and I knew something was wrong,” he said. ”The whole roof of my mouth had been blown out of my face.”
More than 29,000 American troops have been wounded in action during the war in Iraq, the second-longest armed conflict in U.S. history, trailing only Vietnam. With the fifth anniversary of the war Wednesday, the American death toll is closing in on 4,000, with nearly two dozen of the dead from the Lehigh Valley area.
As interest in the war wanes for many Americans, the resolve to win it remains firm in service members such as Knospler, 26, of Middle Smithfield Township; former Marine Sgt. Adam Banotai, 24, of Schnecksville; former Army Capt. Mihai Sofronie, 29, of Palmer Township; and Army 1st Lt. Nick Piergallini, 24, of Forks Township, who currently is serving in Iraq.
With talk of the war reduced to political rhetoric, the voices of those fighting it are sometimes lost. It is through their stories that this chronicle of the war is told.
”I remember getting off the plane and it was hotter than hell. I thought the hot engine from the plane was blowing on me. I got 300 feet across the tarmac and it was still hot, ” Knospler recalled of his arrival in Iraq, three weeks after the invasion.
His platoon of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, was ordered to take control of the former headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party in Mosul. Piling into an open-bed truck, each Marine clutched his weapon with one hand and the arm of a comrade with the other as they drove into a mob scene.
”You name it, they were throwing it — glass, rocks, saw blades,” said Knospler. ”Guys were flipping cars and lighting them on fire.”
Spilling off the truck, they used their gun muzzles to clear the crowd. When gunfire erupted, the Marines fired back, killing at least 40 Iraqis. Knospler spotted a sniper behind a concrete wall. On his third shot, the man fell.
”That was one less guy shooting at me,” said Knospler, who was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his role.
That incident no longer qualifies as combat to Knospler — not after what he would face in Fallujah a year later.
Adam Banotai joined the Marine Corps in 2001 and was in boot camp on Sept. 11, when the day’s events solidified a sense of purpose and duty he knew would eventually lead him to a battlefield.
”I remember some guys were crying, ‘I don’t want to go to war,’ and I thought, ‘This is what I enlisted for.’ If there was going to be a conflict, I wanted it on my watch,” he said.
Banotai, also with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, arrived in Mosul a few days before Knospler, who was in a different company. His mission, with five Marines under his command, was to secure the airport and patrol Mosul’s surrounding villages.
”I was 20 years old and that terrified me,” he said. ”There was this unknown. I wasn’t a hardened combat leader. No one knows how you are going to react when the first bullet whizzes by your face. I just hoped I wouldn’t be that person who cowered in the corner.”
That first patrol was like many that followed, uneventful. Three weeks after setting foot in Iraq, Banotai was shipping out.
”I came home feeling ashamed that I did so little. I manned a front gate. Someone yelled at me once. That’s it.”
The next month, on an aircraft carrier with a ”Mission Accomplished” banner hanging behind him, President Bush declared ”major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
The year ended with the triumphant capture of a dirty, bearded and crestfallen Saddam in an underground bunker near Tikrit.
”In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” President Bush, May 1, 2003
American dead: 486
An insurgency was building that would change the course and character of the war.
Army 2nd Lt. Mihai Sofronie four American contractors were killed in Fallujah, their bodies burned and hanged from a nearby bridge. The city, about 85 miles from Sofronie’s base, had become flooded with insurgents. In April, the U.S. launched a monthlong siege that failed, leaving Fallujah in the hands of insurgents who spent the next months setting up booby traps and sniper nests in anticipation of a second American assault.
When Banotai, on his second deployment to Iraq, arrived in June, he sensed hostility.
”The locals were tired and knew that if we were gone, the insurgents wouldn’t be fighting us and there wouldn’t be people shooting through their homes or placing IEDs on their roads,” Banotai said, referring to improvised explosive devices.
On an August day when temperatures reached 125 degrees, his battalion was pulled from patrol duty to comb the banks of the Euphrates River for weapons caches.
”People were shooting us from here and there, and we couldn’t see where they were,” Banotai said. ”They would stick a rifle out of a house, shoot and then duck back inside.”
A Marine stepped on a bomb and a lieutenant pulled him to safety. A hail of bullets showered the street as Iraqis dressed in civilian clothes began shooting from across the river and from nearby buildings. In the center of the firefight, Banotai barked orders, directing machine gunners to their targets as he tried to distinguish the shooters from civilians.
”We had a wounded Marine who was missing a foot and we couldn’t find anyone to fight back at…And I was yelling, ‘Hold your fire! Hold your fire!”’ he said. ”We were true to our rules of engagement. If we did not see them shooting, we didn’t shoot at them. I walked up and down the line and tried to control machine gunners. We ended up killing five or six guys.”
The attack marked the first combat experience for Banotai and many others in his unit. ”They were shocked I was walking right there out in the open. And I was quietly thinking, ‘I’m 21 years old and just ordered someone to die.”’
The shootout was a proving ground, and Banotai was proud of his performance. ”I reacted like I needed to. I kept my Marines alive…I no longer feared how I would react,” he said.
That confidence would later buoy him through one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
The summer ended, and with autumn came the promise of more strife. Sofronie was among about 5,000 American and Iraqi troops to wrest the city of Samarra from insurgent control in October. His tank crew provided needed cover during the three-day siege known as Operation Baton Rouge.
”We had 360-degree security so no one would sneak up on us,” he said.
When tank crew members grabbed some sleep, it was on the turret. But there was little sleep for Sofronie, who spent so much time standing in his tank that his ankles swelled and his men had to help get his boots off. The little sleep he did get on the back of the tank was ”some of the best sleep I ever had,” he said.
After a couple of days, local residents began coming up to the tanks, sometimes with bread and hummus or with ice.
”They came out and thanked us for being there,” he said. ”So many foreign fighters were running the city. They were so happy that we chased them out and killed them or captured them. There was a feeling we were doing a lot of good over there.”
In volatile Anbar province, Banotai was hearing about a second battle in Fallujah — a place that had taken on mythical meaning for the troops.
”We knew sooner or later it would happen; no one knew when,” Banotai said.
They figured the battle was drawing close the day thousands of leaflets showered the city, ordering civilians to evacuate. Knospler’s Bravo Company would go in first, clearing and securing buildings and roads. Banotai’s Alpha Company would serve as the tip of the spear, driving the insurgents to the southern end of the city where the Army would kill or capture them.
Knospler would be the first Marine, in a force of more than 10,000, to penetrate the city. By his side was his squad of 12, seven of whom would leave Fallujah wounded. In every pouch and pocket of his uniform were pictures of his infant daughter Jahna, born after his deployment.
It was 10 p.m. on Nov. 8 when the first round of thunderous booms from artillery, mortars and bombs rained on targets throughout the city. Poised behind a berm on the outskirts, Knospler waited for the signal to lead his squad of Marines into the maze of dark streets. The rest of the platoon would then follow.
”My lieutenant said, ‘Knospler, you see the blue chem lights?’ I said, ‘Roger!’ and took off running towards them.”
The blue chemical lights marked the route engineers had blasted with plastic explosives to clear the mines and bombs. The lights led him to a building that he and his men were to rid of insurgents.
Knospler and other Marines from Bravo Company made their way south to Fallujah’s Cultural Center and the famed green-domed mosque. Its tall minaret was a hideout for enemy snipers. The mosque was blocks away, but the street-to-street fighting slowed them to a crawl.
As they drew close, Knospler positioned himself on the roof of a building. Looking down, he spotted a wounded Marine lying in the street.
”At that point, I got the worst feeling in my body I ever felt. I knew I was going to have to run out in that street and get that wounded Marine.” He rushed down and ran into the street with others from Bravo Company.
”Once I made it out, five Marines were lying in the street, so I started running down towards them. The insurgents were still firing, but I did not realize that until I had grabbed a Marine and he pointed out the bullets hitting the ground right next to us,” he said.
Knospler struggled to move Gunnery Sgt. Ryan Shane, who was struck in the leg while trying to pull Sgt. Lonnie Wells to safety. Shane, he said, was a big guy weighed down by equipment.
”He was like the uncle of the platoon, the guy we could always turn to, someone I never imagined I would see in that much pain. As he saw the bullets hit the dirt, he was giving me that get-me-out-of-here look. I kept pulling, but he wasn’t moving too much.”
With the help of Cpl. Nathan Anderson, whom Knospler had known since boot camp, they dragged Shane from the street. But they couldn’t save Wells. He was the first casualty in what would become one of the war’s deadliest battles.
”There was not a time of day you did not hear some type of explosion or gunfire,” Knospler said. ”To cope with things, you would look around at the Marine to your left and right. That is what kept you moving. At that point, we weren’t fighting for America. We were fighting for each other.”
The firefight never let up. It lasted eight days, but Knospler wouldn’t see the end of the battle.
On Nov. 11, his patrol was ambushed by men dressed as the Iraqi National Guard. Marines waved. The men fired. Knospler’s friend Anderson was killed instantly.
”I imagine that was a bad night for me. I’m glad I wouldn’t remember that night,” Knospler said.
In the predawn hours of Nov. 12, Knospler’s squad was ordered to clear a house from which the Marines would launch an attack on a mosque housing snipers.
Knospler got his men past the booby-trapped door, but grenades hurled from the second floor exploded on the steps they were climbing. One blew up in his face, leaving a hole where his mouth and jaw had been. Knospler remembers the boom, feeling that a piece of his mouth was gone and stumbling out of the building.
Navy Battalion Surgeon Richard Jadick was among those who worked to save his life. ”He had a good idea of what was happening. His eyes were large and open and the tears were coming down his face, but he couldn’t scream,” Jadick said.
Banotai and Alpha Company moved in on tanks and assault vehicles Nov. 10. When Banotai stepped onto the street, he was relieved to see blinking lights from rooftops, letting Marines on the ground know which routes had been cleared.
He and his platoon headed to the government center, clearing it and neighboring twin buildings nicknamed Mary Kate and Ashley. Orders came to move the fight farther south into enemy territory. Night, Banotai said, was the time to move.
”The insurgents didn’t fight at night. They couldn’t see and they knew we could,” he said.
Banotai’s squad was ordered to secure a house that combat pilots had strafed. ”The pilots had done too good a job. When we got there, the building had collapsed,” Banotai said.
They found cover in a shop they would call ”the candy store,” and spent the night feasting on sweets and Iraqi soda. At daybreak, they got their first glimpse of the enemy.
”We saw them creeping up on us, and they had no idea where we were,” Banotai said. ”We mowed down 20 to 30 insurgents over the course of a couple of hours. It was a role reversal. They were out in the open and they didn’t know where we were. Once they found us, we took fire from all sides.”
The platoon was pinned down. Marines took turns shooting from the windows. An armored medical vehicle called to rescue a wounded Marine was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and a second vehicle couldn’t locate the platoon. Banotai ran out of the house to flag down the medical unit, then turned back to help carry out the wounded man.
”He was only 19. He was soaked with blood and all he kept saying is, ‘I’m sorry guys.’ And I told him, ‘Dude, you didn’t let anyone down.”’
Banotai received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his actions.
Over the next few days, more than half of the platoon was injured, including Banotai. He was exhausted and dehydrated when he suffered a concussion from a tank blast and was pulled from the fight.
”That was one of biggest regrets of my life,” he said. ”It’s the most sorry excuse for leaving the field of battle.”
After a few days in a field hospital, he was deemed fit for duty. He was told to sort through a pile of uniforms of Marines who had been killed or wounded.
A feeling of helplessness washed over Banotai when he came upon one uniform that was bloodied, shredded and charred. A picture in the arm sleeve was intact. It showed a woman holding a baby girl.
The name on the uniform: Knospler.
On Dec. 11, Knospler’s 23rd birthday, he received a Purple Heart from President Bush at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
”Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions, and if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight,” U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Sept. 30, 2004.
American dead to date: 1,335
Knospler spent the first two months of the year in the hospital, learning to walk and talk again. The seizures began a few months later and then the daily vomiting, for a year and a half.
”I would take three steps and collapse into the walker, but my family wouldn’t leave me alone. They made me keep going,” he said.
In Iraq, Sofronie was gearing up for the national elections. Voters would see the Iraqi Army at the polls. But the Americans, including Sofronie and his tank crew, would provide security from a distance.
In the weeks before the elections, insurgents raided a police station near Tikrit that was supposed to serve as a polling place. They bound the dozen policemen inside, shot them in the side yard and blew up the station.
”It’s a shame,” Sofronie said. ”We worked hard with those guys. Some of them were good people.”
On Jan. 30, Iraqis tasted democracy as they elected a National Assembly.
Our military has done everything that has been asked of them. The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home,” U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., Nov. 17, 2005.
American dead to date: 2,181
Sofronie returned to Iraq that summer and was charged with supervising a 90-soldier maintenance crew at Camp Ramadi. It was ”the worst part of Iraq, the worst part of the world.…Anytime you left the base, you were scared,” Sofronie said.
”It was just really depressing,” he recalled. ”I mean, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, the speakers would go off in the camp — ‘Anybody with B-positive blood, please report to the aid station immediately. We have mass casualties.’ It seemed like it was happening every day, every other day over there.”
His job was to repair shot-up, blown-up and blood-stained military vehicles. ”Sometimes it was rough, because there were soldiers that lost their lives and limbs and different things in those vehicles,” he said.
His crews were recovering a vehicle that had been hit, when an ordnance team on its way in to analyze the blast was obliterated by a bomb. ”All that was left was a frame,” Sofronie recalled. ”It was a bad day all around. It was probably one of the worst days I had in Iraq.”
”Now is the time for resolve, not retreat. Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis,” then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in The Washington Post, March 19, 2006.
American dead to date: 3,003
In the spring, after Bush promised an additional 20,000 troops, Sofronie noticed conditions improving.
”More Sunni Iraqis were joining the Iraqi Security Forces. The number of roadside bombs and sniper attacks, amongst other attacks, started to seriously decrease. But most importantly, the amount of people that were working with coalition forces greatly increased, which helped capture, kill and expel insurgents in Anbar province.”
That’s the Iraq 1st Lt. Nick Piergallini of the Army’s 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, found when he arrived in November as part of the troop surge. From a base the size of a college campus in Taji, Piergallini roots out insurgents as well as hands out school supplies to children. Building playgrounds, helping merchants tap grant money and getting propane to villages are all part of the mission.
”We’re trying to improve lives and living standards,” said Piergallini, a tank platoon leader now in Iraq. ”That is a hard fight and a long fight. I don’t expect to see provinces turn around and say, ‘I’m happy you’re here.’ I won’t see that on my time.”
”It is obvious people are impatient and frustrated. There is a sense of futility about the mission at the moment,” U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th District, May 8, 2007.
American dead to date: 3,904
The war seems to have become old news to Americans, said Sofronie, who left the service as a captain and is working for an Arkansas food company. Several years ago, it was commonplace for the public to greet soldiers in uniform with a handshake or a kind word, he said. ”You don’t see that anymore.”
Banotai, a phlebotomist at Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown, said he fears the public may someday think of the Iraq war as another Vietnam. He knows he’ll never see it that way. Calling the Battle of Fallujah the defining experience of his life, he said, ”I’m not Adam. I’m Adam the Marine who fought in Fallujah.”
Knospler, with the help of his family, is coping and recovering. He faces at least a dozen surgeries in addition to the 22 he’s already had.
”I don’t look anything like I used to. I’ve sat next to guys I’ve grown up with my whole life, and they don’t have a clue who I am.”
The war has frozen him in time. ”My life doesn’t go on,” he said. But his hopes do. He wants to work, drive and chew his food again — to live a normal life.
”If I was going to quit,” he said, ”I would have quit in Iraq when I was lying on the floor half-dead.”
”We’ll have success if we stick to it. I’m not saying we should or we shouldn’t. That’s a decision the people will have to make when they go to the polls in November,” Lt. Nick Piergallini of Forks, currently serving in Iraq, Feb. 22, 2008.
U.S. Department of Defense confirmed American dead to date: 3,978