FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Capt. Jodie L. Sweezey stepped into Fallujah with a daunting mission just eight days after Operation Phantom Fury began on Nov. 8, 2005.
Operation Phantom Fury, later named Al Fajr, which means dawn in Arabic, was an attempt to regain control of Fallujah from insurgents in preparation for national elections for January 2005.
Al Fajr was expected to cause collateral damage to the already broken, insurgent-infested city. Sweezey and her team of Marines needed to stand up a Civil-Military Operations Center to aid in reconstructing Fallujah.
Nearly two years later, on Oct. 5, she helped close the center.
“It’s hard to see it close because when you put so much of your own time and effort and emotion and everything that goes with it,” Sweezey said. “It’s kind of hard to see it close … but I do know part of the transition process is letting go.”
D-Day plus eight of the battle Al Fajr, November 2004, Marines from the 4th Civil Affairs Group, Naval District Washington, Washington, D.C., had the assigned mission to set up a Civil-Military Operations Center in Fallujah, even though the battle was fought around them.
Sweezey, team leader for Detachment 4-1, and Master Gunnery Sgt. Dale E. Cutts, the group’s operations chief, were part of the first group of Marines present when the CMOC opened for operation. He was also in Fallujah when the center closed.
In the initial fight for Fallujah, the building later to be turned into the CMOC was secured by 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, home-based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Marines from 4th CAG moved in and turned it into a CMOC, according to Cutts.
At first, the 4th CAG Marines operated out of the Fallujah Liaison Team building right outside of Fallujah. FLT was a place to make contact and liaison with the local people, Sweezey said.
“We just started to operate out of there because we were not able to get into the city of Fallujah,” Sweezey said. “There were certain things that had to take place, one of which was that part of the city had to be secured by the regiment.”
Even though 4th CAG Marines moved into the CMOC, the Al Fajr battle was not over.
“The building had an open courtyard, and we literally walked in and could see the rockets flying over our heads,” Cutts said. “It was just a shot up hulk when we got there.”
The CMOC was the center of all the reconstruction effort in the beginning. It became kind of a humanitarian assistance center once the Fallujans came back into the city.
“Marines from 4th CAG set up the CMOC in Fallujah to help meet the needs of the Iraqi locals during and immediately after Al Fajr,” Cutts said. “Their mission included providing humanitarian rations, fresh water, blankets and heaters as the temperature was hovering around 40 degrees. At the time there were less than 5,000 people in the city.”
Marines helped facilitate the re-entry of displaced Fallujans back into the city so they could once again stand as a community and a government, according to Cutts.
The work was nonstop.
“You would work 15 to 18 hours a day and you’d lay down to go to sleep on the floor and you would hear gun fights all around you,” Cutts said. “You would hear single rounds impacting the building. We had snipers who were shooting at us while we were there.”
Sweezey explained the experience of stepping into the raging battle as dreamlike.
“I’m a historian in my civilian life, so to be in the middle of this historic Marine Corps battle was pretty surreal,” she said. “I remember it was like 30 degrees outside, and we would be all bundled up trying to sleep while listening to gunfire. The sounds of battle were going on right around us; sometimes it was next door to us.”
“They were still firing tanks right in front of us,” Cutts added. “They were firing at houses. The first day we set up they were firing rocket-propelled grenades. It was pretty surreal.”
The Marines’ sense of purpose and drive did not quit in the heat of battle.
“One of my favorite memories was around Christmas time,” Sweezey said. “We actually had put together a convoy run to go to Baghdad to get humanitarian assistance.”
Along with the original mission, they wasted no time arranging a little something for their Marines’ morale as well.
“We were going to Baghdad to pickup supplies a few days before Christmas,” she explained. “All of us pulled money together and went to Burger King and spent about $300 on Whoppers. We came walking into Burger King and we hadn’t showered in a month. Everyone stared at us like we were from another planet. We ordered like a whole picnic table full of Whoppers and brought them back.”
As the only female working day in and day out at the CMOC, Sweezey fit right in.
“You know, it wasn’t a big deal at all,” she said. “It was kind of rough living. There were other females that came and went from time to time, but I actually loved it down there. We didn’t have any plumbing. We had electricity but no heat. We became a family. It was good living, it really was.”
But now with the CMOC closed, the amount of time and energy they put into that building will also come to a close. The memories of their hard work, along with mission accomplishment and what it has done for the Iraqi people are still treasured.
“I had no idea they were going to close the building down until I got here,” Cutts said. “That was kind of wild. It was a good idea to have an American military presence as far as to help the people in Fallujah.”
These Marines spoke of that first mission to open the CMOC and the mission to close the CMOC with a strong sense of purpose.
“It’s an amazing thing to really see something through,” Sweezey said. “I think that’s a unique opportunity that the few of us that were down there originally have.
“That’s the purpose of why we’re here, to transition over to them,” she added. “It’s a really cool opportunity, and I think there’s very few of us that have fought over here that will get to see something like that. I’m very grateful for that.”
The closing, while bittersweet, was gratifying for Marines who opened the center in the midst of a fierce battle.
“I like to think we made a difference there,” Cutts said. “I’m dying to see the CMOC again, just helping the Iraqi people even a little bit. How many American people can actually say they did that? The rest of my life I can say that I’m a part of history.”
According to Maj. Scott D. Crockett, director of the CMOC squadron, the 4th CAG moved the CMOC to the Fallujah Liaison Team after the CMOC closed on Oct. 5.
“The focus is transition to self-government,” Crockett said. “Moving the CMOC is simply a part of the transition plan.”
Crockett said his experience of working at Fallujah’s CMOC was enriching. He grew to better understand the Iraqis here and what it takes to meet their needs.
“I found the Iraqi people to be like people anywhere,” Crockett said. “They’re warm and generous people, and they want what anybody wants … a better life. They’re becoming more and more self-sustaining each day. The ultimate goal is for the military to leave Iraq.”
The building will be run by the Iraqi Army now that the 4th CAG Marines closed the CMOC operations in the city.
Marines from 4th CAG will continue to act as a liaison between commanders and the Iraqi people throughout the Al Anbar Province. Their mission will continue by assisting the Iraqi people to develop their economy and infrastructure, working to re-establish law and order so local authorities may govern themselves.