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Note: This was written in November of 2005, shortly after my Marine Infantry Battalion, 3/25, returned from Iraq. I’ve made a few small edits to the original. RIP, LCpl Lance Graham.
I remember when I first saw it. Lance Graham was shooting the breeze with the guys and one of them pointed it out. It was a green band on his wrist. I think it may have been taped up with duct tape, I’m not sure. He had had it made in Las Vegas, I think, while on our brief liberty before coming to Iraq.
Less astute people may have thought it was mocking the Lance Armstrong yellow band. This one said “Die Strong.” More astute people knew better.
He was in weapons company, in one of the mobile action platoons, MAP-7. MAP-7 had already gotten an early reputation for finding roadside bombs the hard way. They were the battalion commander’s personal security detail and usually in a hurry to get someplace, I’m sure. And they went just about everywhere with the commander.
But they also did their fair share of route security. Major roads, main lines of communication went through our area of operations and we had to keep them open to traffic at all times. The MAP’s drove up and down the roads every day looking for bombs, looking for muj, looking for trouble.
He didn’t say much, he seemed laconic. He quietly showed it to me. After he left I listened to the guys talk about it. All agreed that Lance Graham had a great philosophy and admired him for putting it into a tangible form. Of course, being young Marines, they didn’t say it that way.
Living strong is important and our yellow shirted hero is right to urge us to make ourselves strong and devote at least a part of our lives and outlook to become physically and mentally tough. That’s not so easily done, but it’s only an incremental step in our lives. What Lance Graham was saying was more profound, at least to us.
Not too long after that, the muj fired some mortars at us up at the dam. I’m pretty sure that no one was hurt, the muj were usually terrible at aiming. We reacted by sending our boats down river where they came under intense fire from the shores. One group of Marines was on the east shore giving support, MAP-7 and a tank platoon section were sent down to assist as well. When the enemy shows himself, we like to oblige him by killing him.
MAP-7 went south of their meeting point with the tanks, turned back north and came to the main plaza, right by the Haditha hospital. We’ve been to that hospital many times in the past, even very recently. The hospital staff was at the least neutral, possibly supportive. They knew they had a lot to gain from us if they cooperated with us.
But on that day, everything was different. Our boats returned to the dam, the enemy was engaged by the Marines on the far side of the river, and the hunt commenced on the near side with the tanks and MAP-7 pushing hard to find them. As they passed the hospital, a truck accelerated at them from a small alley and disappeared again just as rapidly.
It disappeared in a huge explosion. Some murderous muj decided to selfishly seek out paradise and an illusion of a guarantee of virgin attendants. At the same time, machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenade attacks erupted from inside the hospital and from across the street. Islamic fanatics and murderous thugs had come into the hospital very recently and occupied it. They threatened the hospital staff, moved out the patients, some of whom were squeezed into a small area remaining, and constructed fortified gun pits and firing positions. It was a long planned ambush, with MAP-7 caught in the trap.
I don’t claim an infallible memory, I’m sure I have many details wrong. But here’s how I remember it, from the vantage of a Marine sitting at the dam waiting for the casualties. While the survivors loaded the six wounded and then the five dead into the bed of the seven-ton truck, one Marine kept up a vicious return fire with a machine gun. Another got on the radio and reported the situation. Somehow the tank section got on station and assisted them. The seven-ton was half demolished, and I will have everlasting admiration for the engineers in Osh Kosh making a truck that can take so much damage. Somehow Sgt Pace got that beast back the 10 miles or so to the dam with two shredded front tires, no radiator, and pretty significant structural damage.
I don’t remember where Graham was in all of this, I wasn’t directly there and even this short time has caused me to forget details of the after action reports that were prepared. I think only one Marine in MAP-7 wasn’t hurt, and all behaved heroically.
Second Lieutenant Slater, the tank platoon commander realized that the wounded had to leave at once. But if they left, he would be stuck in the middle of an urban environment with enemy infantry all around, and he wouldn’t have any infantry support. This isn’t a generally smart idea for tanks. Slater has my undying admiration because he didn’t hesitate. He ordered MAP-7 back and held the scene with his two tanks while waiting for another MAP to assemble and reinforce him.
Eventually, an ad hoc platoon arrived, consisting of the XO, the S-3A, the Operations chief, the watch clerk and any number of cats and dogs. They assaulted through the hospital, put out the fire that the enemy set, and drove out the enemy from the area.
Meanwhile, MAP-7 arrived at the dam. The wounded were piled on the truck, with the dead on top of them, it took a while to sort everyone out. The H&S company commander, Karl Gordon, hurled himself on top of the truck and created order out of chaos, Unlike the movies, no one cried and looked on in a catatonic trance. No one went crazy. Even the wounded responded to orders or acted without them. Marines acted as Marines have always acted. I remember hearing about Cpl Childress hopping around on one foot with shrapnel wounds and a bullet wound, but still jumping in and helping out his buddies.
When we returned home from Iraq many months later, Graham’s parents met us coming off the bus. I talked with them briefly, they stoically smiled and welcomed us home. Pain was on their faces, but they looked proud to be there and see the men who went to war with their son. After I shook hands with his father, he gave me a small package. It was a black wrist band, with his son’s name on it and the words that he chose as his mottto half a year earlier, “Die Strong.”
I don’t normally wear jewelry or faddish gee gaws like yellow wrist bands. I proudly wear that band.
They were strong. They were Marines. LCpl Graham, a Marine, a strong man, died like he lived. Strong. And the rest of us will live out our lives remembering to always be strong, because we know from his example why it’s important to die strong.Published in