Ghosts In The Fish Market – A Marine’s Story From Barwanah, Iraq

first published on October 6, 2016 by

Mark Perna, the founder of Korengal Industries, tells the story of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines in Barwanah, Iraq, circa 2006.

When it comes to the war in Iraq, there are many historic stories that have been told. We have all read books about The March Up, Nasiriyah, Operation Phantom Fury, and the numerous SEAL team and ODA raids that happened in the country. Many of us have even spent a good portion of our young adult lives walking the streets of Iraq.

This is a story from the perspective of a regular Marine ground unit, 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines, and some of the things they encountered. It’s just one of many stories from Iraq, and Afghanistan that have yet to be told.

As the years continue on, and much of the nation begins to forget what happened there, it is important that stories like this be recorded now, while the history we made is still fresh in our minds.

Ghosts in the Fish Market. Barwanah, Iraq.

Written by: Mark Perna, founder of Korengal Industries.

First, a trigger warning. We pull ‘em.

Never heard of Barwanah? Neither did we, until we got stuck there. A little town of 35,000 outside of Haditha, Iraq, and across the Euphrates River. One company of Marines—178 men, and that included cooks, drivers, mechanics, radio operators—was expected to hold this place. The Forward Operating Base was an old school smack in the middle of town. There was exactly one route for resupply, and it was peppered with IEDs like the moon has craters.

There was very little running water, electricity, or food. The only thing that came in generous helpings was violence.

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It was Marine paradise, as being surrounded by the enemy simplifies the problem of finding them—unlike Afghanistan, were we would hike for weeks on end looking for a gunfight. As Chesty Puller once said, “They’re on our right, they’re on our left; they’re in front of us and behind us….they can’t get away this time!”

But the added complexity of the terrain, and the experience of the insurgents, in fact made finding them very difficult. Often times we would patrol down to the busiest market in town and the streets would be empty. Dead silent. But it felt like there were eyes on you—you knew there were eyes on you. Stalking us like unrestful ghosts.

The history of the Iraq War in Barwanah was particularly hell-scorched.

01 August 2005. Six Marine scout snipers were killed in an ambush, one survived the initial ambush in which several of the mens throats were cut, and was seen driven through the streets of Haditha. His body was found battered and hung from the ‘Verrazano Bridge’ over the Euphrates River just south of Haditha.

04 August 2005. Fourteen Marines and an interpreter were killed all at once when their AAV Amphibious Assault Vehicle struck a massive IED—three anti-tank mines stacked on top of each other—just north of Barwanah, just under two hundred meters from a part of Barwanah the Marines had named ‘The Fish Market,’ named for it’s storage units full of decaying fish in piles of salt. Delicious.

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19 November 2005. The Haditha Massacre. A group of US Marines kills 24 civilians after an IED attack. They report small arms fire from a series of three buildings, and frag and clear. All civilian deaths.

11 September 2006. The Washington Post releases a leaked intelligence report from Colonel Pete Devlin, that concludes Anbar province in Iraq is lost. There are no functioning government institutions in Anbar, no security forces, and a lack of American troops. “Lawlessness is a way of life there.”

11 September 2006. Fox Company, 2nd battalion, 3rd Marines, is sent to Barwanah.

We weren’t briefed about the province being “lost.”

Not to mention none of us had any clue where to find Barwanah on a map. We just knew we would be in the shit. The only factor to question was: knee-deep or neck-deep? Marines are known as the ‘tip of the spear’, but in this case, we had decided that we were at the edge of a sledgehammer. Day in and day out, mortar attacks on the FOB. Not the kind that you hear about from the gate guard—you Fobbit—but the kind where your life is saved because the round didn’t go off. I was a young squad leader and on the very first day in Iraq, all ten of us nearly all got killed by a 120mm mortar round that landed right on top of us. It was a dud—but the dirt spray it kicked up inspired the Lieutenant to ask “Who’s kicking rocks?”

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Once or twice a day for two months we endured accurate mortar attacks. I’m talking red-hot shrapnel flying through the door, the roof nearly caving in from an explosion, and Marines on post having to hit the deck when their post is nearly obliterated. Leave your truck in the open for too long? Incoming. (POST TRUCK PHOTO)

Firefights and direct mortar attacks on the base were a daily occurrence, and at night, packs of wild dogs roamed the wadis and would attack Marine patrols at random—leading to the slaughter of entire roving packs of dogs out of necessity. I must’ve shot a dozen, myself. Occasionally, a hot potato would come flying over the base wall into the chow line—that’s a hand grenade, folks.

Everywhere on the FOB, spray painted in red lettering: “Complacency Kills.” Here, just below a mortar blast that nearly took a Marine’s head off.

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The Barwanah Fish Markets were a special place.

The town’s only ice factory was on the outskirts—this was the only way to store food and if a family had extra dinars, they might have had an air conditioner in their home that was basically a fan blowing over a chunk of ice. The fish vendors set up shop right next to the ice factory—when they could afford it, they would have ice.

But you have to understand that there were very few supplies and little food making it to market in the souk, so fishing was not only a primary source of food, there was just no way to keep it fresh, either. The fisherman appeared to just toss it in a storage unit and cover it with salt.

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I remember, once, surveying the scene of a suicide bombing. Seeing the flesh of brains a hundred yards into the trees. The crisp black and red blast where people were basically vaporized. That scene didn’t cause nearly the retch in my stomach that the stench of the fish markets did.

The Barwanah fish markets were a real popular place to launch attacks against Marines. It was situated at the north end of Barwanah, between the Marines and our only route to resupply. You can imagine with only one road in and out of the city—it was dangerous territory. I walked the road where that AAV blew up and fourteen Marines died on the spot, and found the cogs and shredded pieces of metal leftover from the incident.

fish-market

I imagine their blood seeped into the ground and remained there, under my boots. A testament to their sacrifice.

Some of us added our blood to the memorial, and those that didn’t bleed left other parts of themselves.

And not one Marine who spent a night in the fish market will ever forget it.