RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At the end of this year, U.S. troops will finish their formal combat role in Afghanistan. NPR News has covered American troops year after year on the battlefield.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We've continued with them as they return home from Afghanistan and Iraq. And today, NPR, with eight public radio stations across this country, begin a project to chronicle American troops back at base.
MONTAGNE: We start in Southern California. That's where hundreds of Iraq war veterans are gathering this morning near San Diego. They're commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the second Battle for Fallujah.
INSKEEP: It was the fiercest combat of the Iraq war. Susan Murphy of member station KPBS reports on what the anniversary means for those who lived through the battle.
SUSAN MURPHY, BYLINE: Even today, 10 years later, it's hard for Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Torain Kelley to talk about some things that happened during those six weeks in Fallujah.
MASTER GUNNERY SERGEANT TORAIN KELLEY: We had people shooting at us from, you know, up the rooftops, from the houses, from the sewers or wherever they could take a shot at us from.
MURPHY: The fighting was intense. Almost 100 Americans died - 600 others were injured.
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UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Gear on the back. Hurry up.
MURPHY: Kelley was one of 6,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton in Fallujah. Their mission - root out insurgents house-by-house, block-by-block. It was the second time Marines entered Fallujah that year in the spring, days after four American contractors were killed, their bodies strung up on a bridge. The Marines went in to clear the city of insurgents. In the months between those battles, insurgents in Fallujah regrouped. They planted explosives, stockpiled weapons and dug elaborate tunnels for hideouts. That was what Marines like Kelley and other U.S. forces and coalition troops walked into.
KELLEY: You just had to be smart. You had to be smart. You had to be thinking on your feet the whole time, and at the same time, have control to not - not pull that trigger on an innocent, 'cause you still had innocent people running around the city, so you had to be really careful.
MURPHY: At one point, a rocket-propelled grenade hit Kelley's Humvee. He and five others were injured. The Marines eventually took control of Fallujah and secured the region through 2010. Maj. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson commands the 1st Marine Division now. He says the fight for Fallujah is just as notable as famous World War II battles in Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal.
MAJOR GENERAL LAWRENCE NICHOLSON: This will become an iconic fight that will be studied, I think, by military leaders, you know, for a century. And I think there were so many positive aspects of how this fight occurred that I think need to be remembered.
MURPHY: Remembered for its tactics and strategy of fighting block-by-block - but now Nicholson is disappointed. After the Marines left in 2010, the Iraqi government took over security for Fallujah. Today, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has captured the city.
NICHOLSON: Our tagline for this has always been we did our job. We did it well. And I'll just leave it at that.
MURPHY: Maj. Gen. Nicholson says commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the battle is an important way to honor those who served and those who died. He hopes the reunion will bring healing and renewed friendships.
NICHOLSON: We're going to have guys out here who haven't seen each other in 10 years. You know, that's going to be pretty emotional. There will be some high emotions here. There will be teammates that the last time they probably saw each other was in Fallujah.
MURPHY: Eight troops received the Navy Cross for their actions during the Fallujah battle. The Navy Cross is the military's second highest award for valor in combat. For NPR News, I'm Susan Murphy in San Diego.
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