Following your dream shouldn’t cost you your life. But for many of the members of First Platoon, that’s exactly what happened.
This week marks the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Fallujah. During the battle, I was embedded as a combat historian with the Marine First Platoon, Lima Company, 3/1, as they fought house-to-house. First Platoon suffered some of the highest casualties in Fallujah: four killed in action — Lance Cpl. Nick Larson, Lance Cpl. Nathan Wood, Lance Cpl. Mike Hanks, and Lance Cpl. Benjamin Bryan — and 31 wounded, many more than once.
But in many ways, what happened in Fallujah paled in comparison with the sacrifices the men have made since. Several have deployed back to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. Others have been wounded in action so many times it’s hard to keep track, or have suffered hardships related to their time at war. A few come to mind.
The lowest-ranking member of First Platoon was Sean Stokes. Following an AWOL charge he incurred when he left his duty station to save a family member from domestic violence, Stokes was given a choice: demotion to private (the lowest rank in the Marine Corps) and a trip to Iraq, or leaving the Marine Corps. Having wanted to be a Marine his entire life, Stokes gladly chose the demotion.
In Fallujah, Stokes became one of First Platoon’s finest. “Stokes was always the first into the house for my team. I cannot say for sure the number of enemy combatants Stokes eliminated, but there were many,” recalled Lance Cpl. Heath Kramer, Stokes’s fireteam leader.
On November 17, Stokes, along with most of First Platoon and me, encountered a sophisticated ambush. Inside a house, an enemy fragmentation grenade threw Stokes back six feet. “As I got up, rounds started impacting near me down the hall. The fighters kept coming closer, closer . . . ” he said afterward. “Then my magazine went dry! Everything I did was by instinct, so I pulled out a grenade to frag the Chechens. I thought I was going to die; I was out of mags, and they were just about to peek around the corner.”