On Nov. 10, 2004, in 30 minutes of close combat, Marine Pfc. Christopher Adlesperger, a soft-spoken, religious young man who loved poetry and art, attacked an enemy stronghold in Fallouja, Iraq, and killed at least 11 insurgents.
He killed them with his M-16 and with his grenade launcher. He killed them at such close range he could hear the blood gurgling in their mouths and noses.
He killed insurgents who were heavily armed and probably high on drugs -- and who had just killed his close friend, Lance Cpl. Erick Hodges.
He protected two wounded squad members from attack and saved innumerable Marines.
When it was over, Adlesperger’s face had been bloodied by shrapnel and he had bullet holes in the sleeve and collar of his uniform. He refused to be evacuated until Hodges’ body was recovered.
“It was a tremendous bit of fighting,” said Col. Patrick Malay, the battalion commander. “He was a quiet kid, but he was remarkable. He was one tough bastard.”
For his bravery, Adlesperger is among a handful of Marines who have been nominated for the Medal of Honor in Iraq.
A nomination does not ensure that an award will be made. No Marine has been awarded the Medal of Honor for combat occurring since Vietnam.
The nation’s highest recognition of bravery is reserved for those who have shown conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. In fact, two-thirds of the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines since the beginning of World War II have been posthumous.
If an award is made to Adlesperger, his too will be posthumous.
A month after the firefight for which he has been nominated, Adlesperger led Marines in storming another building where insurgents were hiding. He was shot in the heart and died instantly.
Only after his death did family members here learn of his bravery. At first they were shocked -- this was the same person who had once cringed at the thought of shooting birds on a hunting trip. Then they recognized in the details of the firefight the determined youth they knew and loved.
“That was Chris. Whatever he did, he always went in with the idea that nobody was going to beat him, nobody,” said Dennis Adlesperger, 53, his uncle.
Fear -- and Courage
Centuries of warfare have not entirely answered the question of why some fighters, in times of maximum chaos and danger, act in a heroic fashion, putting concern for their own lives in abeyance.
For a military force dedicated to ground combat such as the Marine Corps, the issue is of surpassing importance. How do you train young men to put the needs of the mission above their own instinct for survival?
Bing West, a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam and now the premier chronicler of the Marines in Iraq, estimates that even in the Marine Corps, no more than one in 10 shows a talent above his training for taking the fight to the enemy and killing.
Much of the Marine philosophy about bravery can be found in the classic study “The Anatomy of Courage,” published in 1945 by Lord Moran, a British physician who served at the front during World War I and then as physician to Winston Churchill for 25 years. The book is on a Marine Corps reading list given to sergeants on up through captains.
Moran’s thesis is that men fight not just for survival or patriotism but in response to strong leadership -- and because they have grown to identify with their group so tightly that any threat to the group is seen as intolerable.
Courage, Moran suggests, is a moral quality that comes from an unwillingness to quit. Fear, he says, is a critical part of it. Without fear, he argues, there is no courage; fear provides the energy, the resolve.
All new Marines are asked to read C.S. Forester’s novel “Rifleman Dodd,” about a young British infantry soldier who becomes separated from his company during a battle in rugged terrain.
Weaving his way through enemy territory, Dodd comes across a disheveled man babbling incoherently in the forest. For several days he tries to protect and guide him.
But then he realizes that he must leave the man behind so that he can find his way back to his company. The moral is clear: A soldier cannot deny his fear, but he must learn to leave it behind and join the fight.
In boot camp in San Diego, one of Adlesperger’s drill instructors quickly instilled the reality of combat as he scanned more than 100 recruits sitting attentively on the exercise field and picked 10 at random to stand up.
“When your company goes to Iraq, this is the number of Marines who won’t be coming home alive,” the DI barked.
He ordered 10 more to stand. “And this is how many more will die if you don’t start listening to me.”
Normally self-confident, Adlesperger sounded shaken when he told his mother about the lecture.
“Chris said the DI scared him, but it helped him realize what Iraq was going to be like, that he was going to have to learn to protect his Marines,” said Annette Griego, his mother.
Much of Marine training is based on the theory that shared hardship creates strong bonds and interdependence among men. Add the shared danger of a combat zone and the process intensifies.
Adlesperger and his fellow recruits were lectured about brave Marines of the past, particularly those who died protecting Marines in combat. Even in the middle of a gut-busting 54-hour ordeal called “the Crucible,” they were ordered to discuss the heroics of Medal of Honor winners and challenged to live up to their legacy.
“We give Marines a sense that there are things more important than their personal safety, that there are things worse than physical pain,” said Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, who led a battalion into Fallouja in April 2004. “Our training takes honor and shame into account.”
Looking for Structure
Christopher Adlesperger was not one of those young men who start dreaming early in life about the Marines. Nor did he talk about the war in Iraq.
His family was surprised when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in the fall of 2003, shortly after his 19th birthday. They tried to dissuade him from joining the military branch most likely to send him into combat. They suggested the Air Force.
He was polite but unmoved.
“I told him I didn’t want him to go, but he said he didn’t want a boring life,” said his grandmother, Wanda Adlesperger, in a tearful interview. “Well, it wasn’t boring.”
Looking back, family members now realize that he was a nearly perfect candidate to become a Marine. He loved family and structure, even though he did not always have it. His mother and father were unmarried when he was born, and a hasty marriage thereafter soon dissolved.
Adlesperger grew up in Albuquerque mostly with his father, Gary, a pipe fitter and recovering alcoholic with a checkered employment history. He also lived for several years with his grandmother, spent some summers with his mother and finished high school at the home of his mother’s parents. He adapted to all of the moves.
“He was always trying to please people; he was starved for affection,” said Dennis Adlesperger.
Friends say he was popular in high school, where he ran track and wrestled.
Brian Ferguson, 22, his best friend in high school, said Chris was “always worrying about other people. If you needed a ride, or if you needed somebody to talk to, he was there for you.”
He was close to his aunts and uncles and cousins and particularly to his grandfather, Edwin Adlesperger, a retired oil company sales representative. The two enjoyed camping and fishing, and Ed gave his grandson a used Ford Contour.
Ed died unexpectedly in August 2003 at age 73. Chris, who had enrolled at the University of New Mexico, quit after a few weeks. Family members believe that if his grandfather hadn’t died, Adlesperger would not have enlisted.
“He was grieving his grandfather, looking for something he lost, some structure,” said Phillip Blackman, who had been Adlesperger’s taekwondo coach and gave the eulogy at his funeral. Under Blackman’s tutelage, Adlesperger had become a national champion in his weight and age class.
In taekwondo, he may have acquired another trait essential to bravery: the ability to overcome fear. As a match approached, Adlesperger could be found with his head in a wastepaper basket, throwing up. After getting sick, he went into his “Christopher mode,” and a sense of maturity, of purpose, seemed to take over, Blackman said.
“I’m sure that’s how he was in boot camp and the battlefield. He only knew one way: straight ahead,” said Blackman. “There was no ‘retreat’ in his vocabulary.”
By all accounts, Adlesperger loved the Marine Corps. He thrived on the physical challenges and packed muscle onto his 5-foot-8, 150-pound frame. He got a tattoo, USMC, down the right side of his stomach. He formed fast friendships.
“The Marine Corps became his family, and when they went to fight he was looking out for his brothers,” said Debra McAtee, 42, whose sister is Adlesperger’s mother.
At Camp Pendleton and in Iraq, people noticed his seriousness.
“Some of these kids, you have to pound it into them, but not Chris. He always wanted to get better,” said Gunnery Sgt. Paul Starner, who was Adlesperger’s platoon sergeant in Iraq.
In September 2004, Adlesperger left Camp Pendleton for Iraq. Just days before his death, he called his friend Ferguson, a student at the University of Arizona. He glossed over what he was doing in Iraq except to say he had made some good friends in the Marine Corps. Ferguson noticed something in his voice.
“He seemed a lot more grown up,” Ferguson said. “He was more serious, more mature, not so much joking.”
A Search for Insurgents
It may have had a more complex name among the generals, but to the Marines of Kilo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, it was called the squeegee tactic.
Like window washers trying to clean a grime-streaked window, the Marines would sweep methodically through Fallouja, searching each house for insurgents.
The insurgents, having learned from earlier fights with the Marines, were no longer fighting in the streets. Instead, they waited inside homes, ready to spray bullets as Marines pushed through a door or entryway.
Some had injected themselves with lidocaine, Novocain or adrenaline, allowing them to fight even after receiving mortal wounds, a spectacle the Marines called the “Night of the Living Dead.”
The battalion had drawn one of the most dangerous sectors, the Jolan neighborhood in Fallouja’s northwest corner, where Marines had encountered stiff fighting during an aborted offensive in April. The houses were close together, and the curving, rubble-filled streets were too narrow to allow the Marines to use tanks.
On Sunday, Nov. 7, Adlesperger led other Marines in a Bible reading. He had been telling his family members in phone calls and e-mails to pray for his fellow Marines.
Shortly after dawn on Nov. 10, the Marines pushed out.
For hours, they faced only minor resistance. A few more buildings and they could stop for the night.
“We had cleared buildings all day, hundreds of them, but on that 101st house, that’s the one that gets you, and that’s what happened,” said Starner, 33, a 14-year Marine veteran.
Like a lot of Iraqi buildings in the Jolan, the structure had a wall around it. There was a courtyard in front of the building and an outdoor stairway leading to the roof.
Adlesperger, acting as the point man for the four-man fire team, had attempted to knock down a gate. Hodges moved forward and was immediately felled by a hail of bullets from inside, probably from a concealed opening in the masonry wall.
As they rushed the house, Navy corpsman Alonso Rogero was hit in the stomach and Lance Cpl. Ryan Sunnerville in the leg. Grainy, shaky film of the incident shows Sunnerville hopping on one leg, still firing his M-16. Marines and insurgents exchanged gunfire from no more than 20 feet. From inside the building, the insurgents also threw grenades.
The insurgents had hoped to spring what is called a Chechen ambush, named after the rebels who have fought Russian troops for years. The tactic is particularly successful when tanks cannot be used.
The strategy, Marines determined later, had been to wound Marines attempting to enter the building. When other Marines came to help them, an insurgent sniper down an alleyway would pick off corpsmen, radio operators and officers. And when enough Marines or vehicles were gathered, insurgents would fire rocket-propelled grenades.
Adlesperger fired at the insurgent machine-gun position as he ran toward Rogero and Sunnerville. He helped the two up the outside stairway to the roof. As insurgents tried to storm the stairway, Adlesperger killed them before they could reach the roof. Shrapnel ripped into his face.
From his rooftop position, he could see insurgents peppering Hodges’ lifeless body with bullets, including two to his head. When one ran from the building to seize Hodges’ weapon, Adlesperger killed him with a single shot.
Still, the machine-gun position inside the building had not been touched, and it was pinning down Marines gathering to assault the building from the front. With no time to consult officers, and with other Marine units engaged in firefights, Adlesperger was left to his own initiative.
“Chris essentially took over,” said Malay.
Unable to penetrate the building with his M-16, Adlesperger shifted to the grenade launcher. Standing on the roof, he blew holes in the building and then rained down gunfire on the insurgents below him. They returned fire and then fled.
From his rooftop position, Adlesperger killed four insurgents who had fled into the courtyard, each with a shot to the head. By Malay’s estimate, Adlesperger killed a total of 11 insurgents. The actual number may be higher.
The building had been an insurgent command-and-control center. Failure to quickly subdue it, Malay concluded, could have thrown off the timetable for the Fallouja assault, which depended on speed and keeping U.S. casualties to a minimum.
Marines from adjoining rooftops joined Adlesperger and began preparing the wounded for evacuation. Once that was done and Hodges’ body was removed, the Marines pushed in one side of the building with an amphibious assault vehicle. Adlesperger insisted on being the first Marine to search the building to make sure all the insurgents were dead.
That night, Starner went to Adlesperger to gather information for the official report. As Adlesperger spoke, he began to weep -- not for the men he had killed, or even for the fact he had had to kill them, but for Hodges, a wisecracking Northern Californian who was on his second combat tour in Iraq and had turned 21 only the day before.
“He just kept saying, ‘Hodges, Hodges, we had to get him out,’ ” Starner said.
Adlesperger, Hodges and Sunnerville were particularly close. Each had been a high school wrestler, each had learned to trust his life to the others.
“We were tight,” said Sunnerville, 22, who has recovered from his wounds, been promoted to sergeant and recently finished his third combat tour in Iraq.
On Thanksgiving weekend, with the entire company watching, Adlesperger, who had just turned 20, was promoted to lance corporal because of his actions on Nov. 10. Starner also started talking with Adlesperger about attending sniper school, a prized assignment.
“He was all proud: He was in charge of his own fire team,” said Rosela Montoya, 60, Adlesperger’s maternal grandmother.
In early December, Central Command ordered a second round of squeegee to catch insurgents who had been overlooked or who had managed to sneak back into the city.
But this time, fewer troops were assigned; some battalions had been redeployed to other cities as the U.S. tried to decrease its Fallouja “footprint” in advance of the city being reopened to residents.
This time, Adlesperger’s battalion was assigned to sweep a neighborhood that had been the responsibility of another unit during the initial attack.
“We moved across the Line of Departure, and 20 minutes later Chris was dead,” said Malay.
Adlesperger had taken the lead in approaching a nondescript house. He was hit in his armored vest by multiple rounds. The impact spun him around, and one round struck his side, where there were no protective plates. He died instantly from a bullet to the heart.
Starner and other Marines lifted Adlesperger’s body onto a Humvee. An air strike demolished the building, burying the living and dead in rubble.
Months later, when the deployment ended, the boot camp DI’s prediction had proved eerily accurate. In Adlesperger’s Kilo Company, 11 Marines were killed, the most in any company in the battalion.
A Wrenching Loss
Christopher Adlesperger’s body arrived home in the cargo hold of a Delta Airlines plane. A military honor guard met the flight and the Albuquerque Police Department provided an escort for the hearse.
More than 500 people attended the funeral. The casket was taken aboard a fire engine to the Santa Fe National Cemetery, where Adlesperger’s grandfather, Ed, an Air Force veteran, is buried.
Since the funeral, Wanda Adlesperger, a teacher and former real-estate agent, has taken to watching the lists of military personnel killed in action on PBS’ “The Newshour With Jim Lehrer.” She takes special notice of the Marine lance corporals.
“Those lance corporals don’t last long,” she said. (Her observation was affirmed by a recent academic study that found that the troop most likely to be killed in Iraq is a Marine lance corporal.)
Chris’ mother, Annette, 41, has moved with her husband, Phillip Griego, and their children, Matthew, 13, Leandra, 11, and Phillip, 15, to Las Cruces, N.M., to be closer to her side of the family.
“That first year was downhill for everybody,” Annette said. “We need a fresh start.”
Tamara Adlesperger, 20, Chris’ cousin, named her recently born son Christopher. “He has a warrior’s name; maybe he’ll have a warrior’s spirit too,” said Tamara’s mother, Casy, 44, who has become involved in Blue Star Mothers, a group that sends packages of goodies to troops in Iraq.
Chris’ father, Gary, 42, collapsed in the driveway of his home when his ex-wife called to say that their son was dead. He resumed drinking, spent time in the hospital, relapsed more than once. He says he’s now been sober since Jan. 1. He got a job last month.
He’s gotten involved with TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) and attended some of its meetings. He calls the day he was told his son was nominated for the Medal of Honor “hands down, the proudest day of my life.”
Like others in the family, Gary continues to support the U.S. mission in Iraq. On his lapel is a pin with the U.S. and Marine Corps flags.
Even for combat-hardened troops, Adlesperger’s death was emotionally wrenching. In the midst of the fight to rid Fallouja of insurgents, Marines took time to mourn. Several later had his name tattooed on their arms.
“When we finally went firm [moved to a secure location], one of the noncommissioned officers cried all night about Chris, and I had to separate him from the other Marines,” Starner said.
A member of Kilo Company wrote later in an online tribute to Adlesperger: “This is to you and your family, a sincere thank-you for letting all of us come home and live and love. But most importantly, showing us what sacrifice and being a true man is all about.”
The night Adlesperger died, Malay went to the mortuary affairs unit at the Marine encampment in Fallouja to inspect his body, in part so he could tell the family how he died.
But that was not the only reason.
“It’s a hard thing to explain, but somehow I just felt compelled to say goodbye,” said Malay in a soft, slow voice during an interview in Carlisle, Pa., where he is attending the Army War College.
“He had a touch of greatness.”