RAMADI, Iraq -- Lance Corporal Leigh W. Buckhout wished he was spending the 4th of July partying with his friends back home.
Instead, Buckhout and Marines from Company I, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment were called to complete an important task in one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.
Their mission: secure the Ramadi Hospital from insurgents for the people of Ramadi.
“I would’ve rather been doing a barbeque,” said Buckhout, an infantryman with 3rd Platoon, Company I. “But this had to be done. It’s good that we did this for Ramadi and the rest of the country.”
According to the Geneva Convention, a hospital is considered a sanctuary. However, this hospital was being used as an insurgent safe haven for the past year and was preventing the people of Ramadi from receiving proper medical care. Therefore, the Provincial Government with the Iraqi National Government’s approval decided to take action.
“The purpose of going into the (Ramadi) Hospital compound is to remove insurgents from the hospital and prevent their continued use of the hospital as a safe haven and a place to coordinate attacks against Iraqi people, as well as the Iraqi Security and Coalition Forces,” said Lt. Col Stephen M. Neary, battalion commanding officer.
Coalition Forces have seen insurgent activity in the hospital and surrounding region since March. The Marines had encountered attacks with small arms and mortar fire from the hospital. It had also been used as an observation post by the enemy.
“The insurgents laid many IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) along the roads leading to the hospital in order to cover their withdrawal,” said Neary, 40, from Boston, Mass., “We have discovered numerous caches between the Ramadi Hospital compound and the Euphrates River.”
After months of preparation, it was time to take action.
Leading the entry into the hospital were Iraqi Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division. Marines from Company I followed in support.
The company sized force traveled on dusty back roads, through thick vegetation, and over ruble torn buildings to get to the hospital.
They waded through heavy marsh and even passed mortar rounds wedged into the road. After the long walk the group had to breach a ten foot iron fence around the hospital compound.
“The most difficult thing was the terrain,” said Bigley, a 22-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, “But fighting for my country on Independence Day was an honor. This is what I signed up for.”
Lance Cpl. Brian M. Tracey, a team leader with 3rd Platoon led his Marines over the wall to a towering seven-story hospital.
He knew the hospital was the highest point in Al Anbar Province capital, which meant a possible sniper threat.
The Marines thought about what they had to do when they reached their destination.
Bigley considered how he was going to clear a building of that size while working through a language barrier with the Iraqi Army.
Thoughts of booby-traps raced through Buckhout’s mind.
But once they reached the entrance there was no more time to think, just react. Tracey looked back at his team and quietly whispered, “Ready?”
In an instant the hospital doors swung open as the Marines and Iraqis simultaneously swept through each corridor on the first floor clearing the mass rooms and doorways. Some squads made their way to down the basement as others flew up six flights of stairs, securing each floor on the way.
Cpl. Steven T. Giannetto, a team leader from 3rd Platoon, was impressed with his Marines and how they managed the task of securing such a large obstacle.
“My team was very proficient,” said Giannetto, a 25-year-old from Rochester, N.Y. “It’s the biggest building we’ve ever secured in training or combat. I was impressed that they worked so well with other squads and the detachments.”
“The hospital was unknown to us. We just wanted to get inside once and for all and get rid of any threat,” he added.
The Marines secured the entire building in a matter of minutes, encountering no resistance.
This mission also allowed the Iraqi Army to operate independently with minimal help from the Marines.
“This just means the Iraqi Army is one step closer to operating on its own,” said Tracey. “Right now they’re trained enough… you can point with your finger and they know exactly what you need them to do.”
The Iraqi soldiers secured the second and third floor on their own. They also set up security on upper floors and established watch posts in each stairwell.
“They are motivated and willing to do the job,” said Giannetto.
After the hospital was secure, a convoy carrying personnel and supplies made its way to the front door of the hospital. Teams of Coalition forces and Iraqi Soldiers formed a search element and examined every room of the hospital, looking for hard evidence of insurgent activity.
Dubbed Task Force Sumo, the task organized search team was composed of over a hundred specialized Marines, Sailors and Soldiers operating in the area. The teams found propaganda posters hung on every floor and IED making materials hidden in ceiling tiles.
Though the search was extensive the hospital remained open. Iraqi citizens had complete access to hospital care and doctors continued to perform operations and surgeries even with the heavy military presence.
When the search was over all U.S. forces returned to their respective bases. Iraqi police officers stayed inside the hospital to keep an eye out for insurgent activity. The Iraqi Police will continue to operate inside the hospital providing security and stabilization in the area.
“Now Iraqis here will have a place to operate smoothly and not have to worry about insurgents using the hospital as a shield,” said Bigley.