U.S. Marine Corps / Bronze Star with Valor
Under heavy fire, he led his Marines through numerous obstacles into Nasiriyah
The day was not going well for Lt. Col. Rickie Grabowski, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, as he stood a few hundred yards south of the railroad bridge leading into Nasiriyah, the first major city U.S. forces encountered in the invasion of Iraq.
Grabowski’s Marines had lost valuable time searching for and rescuing soldiers from the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, who had bypassed their lines, taken a wrong turn and gotten lost in the city. That task had put the attack to seize Nasiriyah’s bridges hours behind schedule on March 23, 2003 – the fourth day of the war.
Incredulous at what he was hearing over the radios, Brig. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of Task Force Tarawa, went to the front lines to talk to his combat commander directly, as did Grabowski’s commander, Col. Ronald Bailey.
Grabowski briefed them with the best information he knew. Marine tanks and amtracs – tub-shaped assault vehicles – already had rescued some soldiers, but there was another problem. Pentagon intelligence had assured the Marines that Iraqis would be greeting them with waving flags, but the Iraqis instead were defending their city vigorously.
The attack had to proceed, but the remaining soldiers had to be found.
“Do whatever it takes,” Natonski said. “Find those missing soldiers. They would do it for us, and we need to do it for them.”
Grabowski quickly adjusted his plan.
With half of his big Abrams tanks refueling after rescuing some of the 507th’s soldiers, Grabowski had one company and a heavily armed Humvee platoon lead the advance into the city. He and his command vehicles followed, with two other companies trailing.
But Pentagon intelligence would fail the Marines again. They encountered nine dug-in Iraqi tanks at a railroad overpass leading into the city, and suddenly the Marines were engaged, utilizing Javelin and TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missiles and blasts from low-flying Huey helicopters.
The smoke, flame and noise were incredible as the Iraqi tanks were quickly destroyed. Grabowski needed his tanks, however, as the Iraqis continued to battle.
Suddenly he heard the sounds of heavy metal moving toward him, and the ground began to rumble. Four Abrams tanks burst through the thick black smoke, seemingly out of nowhere. They raced past Grabowski’s vehicle, ran up the bridge past the Humvees and amtracs and jockeyed into position in front of the Marines.
Grabbing his radio even as the tanks were moving past him, Grabowski yelled for the battalion to advance on its first objective, the Euphrates River Bridge.
Marine vehicles poured across the bridge, turning hard right and leaving the exposed road. Grabowski planned to avoid any expected Iraqi defense by advancing parallel to the main road, nicknamed “Ambush Alley,” before seizing the Saddam Canal Bridge to the north.
It was a good plan, but as the tanks, amtracs and Humvees drove a few blocks, they bogged down in sewage; even the powerful Abrams tanks broke through the hard-crusted earth and sank several feet into the stinking mess.
With the Iraqis firing down at them, the Marines defended themselves while trying to dig out their vehicles. Grabowski stood with his troops, working the radio, trying to direct his battalion while under direct fire.
Unable to free any of his tanks or ‘tracs, Grabowski divided his Marines and proceeded to attack north on foot and in Humvees; his small force continued to take fire from both sides of the road and from rooftops.
Having lost much of his communications when his command vehicle bogged down in the muck under a set of power lines, Grabowski was unaware that one company commander already had made a dash three miles north to the Saddam Canal Bridge, where his Marines met heavy resistance and were mistakenly fired upon by two American Air Force A-10s.
Ducking and jabbing over the next two hours as the Iraqis continued to fire on his slowly advancing column, it took until late afternoon before Grabowski was able to reach his Marines on the Saddam Canal Bridge.
Eighteen Marines died that day. But there was little time to mourn the fallen; night was falling, and Grabowski was busy setting his defensive perimeter, planning ammunition re-supply and checking on his Marines.
Andrew Lubin is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania who has embedded with the Marine Corps in Iraq; Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Beirut, Lebanon. He is the author of “Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq.”
U.S. Marine Corps / Bronze Star with Valor
Born Jan. 25, 1957, in Bolger City, La. Now lives at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.
Wife Barbara; children, Adam, Alexis and Joey.
Joined the Marines in December 1975. Was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the invasion but now is a colonel.
WHAT HE DID
Directed a Marine Corps advance under heavy fire through the strategic city of Nasiriyah during the initial days of the Iraq war.
WHERE HE IS NOW
Chief of staff at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.
WHY HE JOINED THE MARINES
“I grew up listening to my uncle Ernie ‘Mac’ Macomb, who'd fought in the Pacific with the 2nd Marine Division. I never had any doubts that I'd become a Marine.”
Iraq / Nasiriyah