It was during the opening hours of Operation Phantom Fury, the military name for the Second Battle of Fallujah, which commenced on November 7, 2004. Faulkenburg was at the head of a group of Iraqi soldiers, whom he led into an intense urban battle like they were his brothers. They were among the first to engage the enemy in their stronghold.
"The insurgents catch them cold. Buildings on both sides erupt with muzzle flashes... it is the first major firefight of the battle." (From House to House: An Epic Memoir of War)
It is strange to think how quickly a decade has passed since that battle. What was once so emblematic now seems like a curious footnote.
The Islamic State has control of the city that Americans bled so mightily to secure. In a little over ten years, then, Fallujah has gone from Baathist control, to nominal coalition forces, to Iraqi security forces, to a foreign insurgency, back to Americans, to the Iraqi government, and now to a Sunni-led terrorist quasi-state.
As The United States quietly exits the war stage in Afghanistan, Soldiers and those who support them would do well to remember the ferocity and commotion in Iraq a decade ago. 2004 was the second calendar year of Iraqi Freedom. Troops were pouring into the country to quell a growing insurgency after the U.S. had toppled the government and dismantled its military.
Chaplain Brown was one of those nearly 100,000 troops.
I met him in May of this year. He was serving as the 4th Infantry Division chaplain as that unit prepared to leave Afghanistan. I was just arriving in Kandahar with my unit, and we were attached to the 4th ID. Brown was my chaplain.
At the time I was immersed House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, in an effort to acquaint myself with a chapter of American military history that was too quickly being forgotten.
Its author, Staff Sgt. David Bellavia, also knew Faulkenburg, counting him more a father figure than a friend. Bellavia was an infantryman whose prose matches the tempo and efficiency his military occupation demanded.
"A bullet strikes Faulkenburg just above his right eyebrow, a millimeter below the rim of his Kevlar helmet. He falls. The fight rages. Inspired by his examples, the Iraqis charge on and drive the enemy back. Others risk their lives as they dash to Faulkenburg's aid. Our sergeant major lies unmoving in the street." (From House to House: An Epic Memoir of War)
It is a harrowing account of what was probably the most ferocious battle in over a generation of Americans fighting. A character in his tale is his chaplain--the same one I had just met in Kandahar.
"Sergeant Bellavia," said Brown one evening before the battle, "would you like to pray with me?"
Bellavia, a squad leader with Alpha Co., 2nd Bn, 2nd Infantry Reg., "Ramrods," participated in some of the most hellish combat of the battle. He writes reverentially of Brown, whose calm and earnestness underscored the violence and chaos about to be unleashed on the men of 2-2.
"Lord, give this young man the strength and wisdom to protect his soldiers. Give him the courage and conviction to deliver them from the unknown. Give him the faith and guidance to know your path, Lord. Give him the perseverance to stay on it." (From House to House: An Epic Memoir of War)
As I passed by the chaplain one day in southern Afghanistan a decade later, I asked him, "Did you serve in Iraq in 2004?"
"Yes," he said with a smile. (Chaplain Brown almost always wears a smile).
"Were you featured in a book about your service in Iraq in 2004?"
"Come talk to me about it sometime," he replied, knowingly, his smile growing.
So I did.
We sat for about an hour and chatted. It was not long enough for me to satisfy my curiosity about the Battle of Fallujah, and not long enough for him to do his experiences--or his fallen friends--justice.
He described, in spiritual terms, what Bellavia wrote about in House to House.
The story needed an inject of something good. According to Bellavia, Fallujah was hell. Empirically, it was the bloodiest urban battle since Vietnam. But you wouldn't know that from talking with Brown, who seemed as comfortable as a little old lady in one of his stateside church services.
Brown was on the front as the task force prepared to breach the outer berms guarding the city. He took indirect fire in his soft-side Humvee, but made sure, according to his own recollection and that of Bellavia, to check on Soldiers under his pastorship.
"I went from vehicle to vehicle so I did the same thing when we got staged that day. Talking, praying, heading in one direction and then the mortars started coming in in like they were targeting me. My assistant yells, 'mortars!' 'I know! but we gotta go check on these people,' I reply. Besides, the safest place to be is where the mortar just hit, so we checked on one side and head to the other side of the perimeter. By this time the company commander says he wants everyone in the vehicles. But I've got a canvas top. Just then, a mortar round did hit close to one of my guys, so we had to go check on him."
What motivates a Soldier like Brown to walk around in defiance of the enemy's indiscriminate firepower?
"I like what Stonewall Jackson said," he told me. "My religious beliefs teach me to feel as safe in battle as in bed." Essentially, that's the way I live my life. I try not to take unnecessary risks, but there are some risks that are worth taking. Being where your boys are, being in the thick of it… there is no way I was going to miss being in Fallujah. I was not fearful."
Bellavia can't make the same claim; he readily admits to the fear that taunted him in fits throughout the operation. His account of the battle is gritty and honest. But he was there to kill, while Brown was there to help young men like Bellavia find strength to complete their awful task, and to help remember those whose missions were cut short.
Today marks exactly ten years since Brown, Bellavia, Faulkenburg, the Ramrods, Task Force 2-2, and the rest of the Marines-led warriors that were part of Phantom Fury began amassing themselves on the outskirts of a city that would soon be awash in blood and brass.
And Chaplain Ric Brown will be posting more memorial photos to his Facebook timeline of some of those Soldiers who gave their lives a decade ago.