The midnight knock on the door of her Council Bluffs home brought Mary Ellen Ward what no military mother wants: the thanks of a grateful nation for the sacrifice of her son.
Insurgent gunfire cut down Sgt. Thomas Houser on Jan. 3, 2005, as he and his squad of Marines mopped up after weeks of fighting in Fallujah, the fiercest battle of the long and ugly Iraq War.
Thousands of American troops fought to clear enemy forces from Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, two nests of al-Qaida-linked militants, during years of combat in Iraq. At least 100 Americans died there, including six from Nebraska and western Iowa.
But now — three years after U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq — some of those same militants control all or part of the two key cities.
The reversal is dismaying to service members who fought there, and the families who lost loved ones.
“It infuriates me,” said Ward, 57, who goes by her initials, M.E. “We HAD Fallujah. We won that. I don't know why Iraq — the good people — couldn't keep it under control.”
The brutal house-to-house fight to tame the Iraqi insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad in the fall of that year cemented its place in U.S. military history. In Marine Corps lore, Fallujah stands alongside such storied battles as Guadalcanal in World War II, Chosin Reservoir in Korea, and Hue City in Vietnam.
Historian Richard Lowry, author of the book “New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah,” likens it to “a thousand SWAT teams going through the city, clearing criminals out.”
“They entered darkened rooms, kicking down doors, never knowing if they would find an Iraqi family hunkered down in fear or an Islamist terrorist waiting to shoot them and kill them,” Lowry told the Associated Press.
About 100 Americans died and 1,000 more were wounded during the major fighting there, Lowry says. It was the pivotal battle of the Iraq War.
“Up until that time, the nation was spiraling into anarchy, totally out of control,” Lowry said. “The United States Marine Corps — with help from the Army and from the Iraqis — went into Fallujah and cleared the entire city and brought security to Anbar province, allowing the Iraqis to hold their first successful election.”
One of those Marines, Sgt. Ismael Barrera, 28, now serves at U.S. Strategic Command. Eight years ago, the New Mexico native worked in Fallujah as a mail clerk — a deceptively dangerous job because it meant criss-crossing dangerous streets mined with roadside bombs to deliver letters to Marines at small bases scattered across the city.
On June 23, 2005, he saw up close one of the most devastating attacks of the war. A suicide car bomber attacked a truck carrying 14 female Marines immediately in front of his vehicle. Five of them died, along with one male Marine.
“We had a lot of Marines doing extraordinary things,” Barrera said.
He said he couldn't sleep when he heard that the city had fallen again to extremists. He and some friends stayed up late passing around comments on Facebook.
“That's the place I helped defend, that's been taken over by insurgents,” he said. “We shared a little bit of our frustration and pain.”
Robert “Bronk” Brunkalla, 47, served as a communications officer at Camp Fallujah just outside the city during parts of 2005 and 2006. He arrived soon after the decisive battle in a town that was battered and restless. Civilians were slowly returning to bomb-damaged homes and businesses.
“The stability wasn't quite there,” said Brunkalla, now retired from active duty and senior vice commandant of the Marine Corps League's Omaha detachment. “The Marines were still fighting every day, full battle rattle. ... IEDs were a huge concern.”
Toward the end of his yearlong tour, Brunkalla said, the Marines began to pivot from killing the enemy to winning the favor of local civilians. Those were the first green shoots of cooperation in what would come to be known as the “Anbar Awakening.”
Anbar, the large western province that includes Fallujah and Ramadi, had become the heartland of the insurgency. With some coaxing, local sheiks and Sunni religious leaders switched sides — at great personal risk — and cooperated with U.S. and Iraqi government forces against al-Qaida-linked groups who had taken control and instituted a reign of terror.
The relative calm of the Anbar Awakening continued through the end of the U.S. presence in 2011. But Brunkalla said those who served there knew the hard-fought peace they had won would always be fragile. He wasn't exactly shocked when he heard that the black flags of the insurgents flew once again over Fallujah.
“I'm disappointed. I don't know that I'm surprised,” he said. “We could see the handwriting on the wall.”
The problem, he thinks, is that the United States and its coalition tried too hard to bring American-style democracy to a country still governed by ancient tribal customs.
“We tried to make Iraq a mini-America,” Brunkalla said. “They didn't want to be a mini-America.”
He remembers talking to an Iraqi once who scoffed at the idea that the United States could teach anything about nationhood to Iraq, an area known as the “cradle of civilization.”
“They have more thousands of years than we have hundreds of years,” Brunkalla said.
After the Fallujah battle, the terrorist affiliate al-Qaida in Iraq moved to Ramadi, 37 miles to the west, and declared the city of 500,000 to be its capital. That's where the 1st Squadron, 167th Cavalry Regiment of the Nebraska National Guard arrived in the middle of 2005, tasked with providing security for a Marine unit that cleared bombs from area roads.
“It was a constant barrage of small insurgent attacks,” said Capt. Matt Misfeldt, 43, of Omaha, who was then a platoon leader in the squadron. “We were very combat-oriented, urban operations. We entered a house, cleared the house, detained people.”
Despite his unit's effort in support of the Marines, the insurgents kept a hold on a part of the city center that he said “just became a war zone.”
Misfeldt still takes pride that all of his soldiers survived their yearlong tour.
“My job wasn't to build schools. It was to protect Marines,” Misfeldt said. “You volunteer to do your job. You're keeping your buddies alive.”
That helps him to accept the grim news from the city whose security he and many other Nebraska Guardsmen toiled for a year to protect.
“I don't feel bad about it,” Misfeldt said. “It's their civil war. They're going to have to fight it out.”
But others are dismayed to see the cities in enemy hands.
“I don't think anyone had the grand illusion that Fallujah or Ramadi was going to turn into Disneyland, but none of us thought it was going to fall back to a jihadist insurgency,” said Adam Banotai, a former Marine who is now a 30-year-old firefighter and registered nurse in Pennsylvania. “It made me sick to my stomach to have that thrown in our face, everything we fought for so blatantly taken away.”
Actually, the cities are far from lost. Iraqi government forces have surrounded Fallujah and reportedly are preparing to retake the city. And only part of Ramadi has fallen into insurgent hands.
Retired Marine Corps Reserve Col. John Folsom served a pair of tours in Iraq, including seven months at Camp Fallujah in 2005. He doubts that the Iraqi leadership can seize the opportunity the U.S. and its military allies gave them to unify their country.
“The table was set. All they had to do was say, 'Hey, what's best for our country?' Obviously, it's to get along,” said Folsom, who now runs an Omaha nonprofit called Wounded Warrior Family Support. “Unlike Japan and Germany (after World War II), they don't want it.”
Folsom said he doesn't regret the military's effort. But he's not going to lose sleep over the end result.
“Beats me what they're going to do,” he said. “I'm beyond caring.”
Although Americans in general seem to have little desire to fight in Iraq yet again, some Marines said they would go back if called.
“If I could be recalled, I'd be first in line,” said Brunkalla.
“I saw our departing as bittersweet,” said Barrera. “There's a little piece of me out there; a little piece of my friends, too. We definitely don't want to give it up. It was paid for.”
Even M.E. Ward, who surrendered a son to save these cities, is at peace with her loss, whatever happens to Fallujah and Ramadi.
“Tom loved what he was doing, and he did it well,” she said. “Why should I be bitter? He was trying to protect all of us, you and me. And he did.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press and the New York Times.