Corporal R.J. Mitchell and his Marines lined up flush against the wall and peeked through the doorway. Beams of sunlight streamed into a large room, illuminating dust in the air.
Lying in the middle of the room was the body of a man killed by the last Marines to enter the house. Mitchell knew there were other insurgents in the house, but he didn’t know where.
He was on a mission to rescue wounded Marines, and he could see the bedroom where they were trapped. The Marines would have to cross the room in the middle of the house to get there, a large space with no cover. Mitchell tapped the shoulder of the man in front of him and they charged.
Mitchell made it. But as he began tending to one of the wounded, the Marines who followed Mitchell into the center room were torn down by a hail of gunfire from above. There were men perched above them on a second-floor landing, positioned to fire on anyone who stepped into the room.
It was, in the words of a news photographer present that day, a perfect kill zone.
Mitchell’s Marines were the third wave to fall into the insurgents’ trap. There were now at least eight Marines trapped inside the house, six of them wounded.
The Marines who survived the events of Nov. 13, 2004, in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah call the building where they fought for their lives the “Hell House.” The battle has become legendary within the Marine Corps, and the intensity of the fight made it a defining episode of the U.S. military’s nine-month saga in Fallujah.
Fifteen years after the beginning of the battle of Fallujah, VICE News spoke with survivors of the Hell House. Fallujah represented a shift in the Iraq War; the U.S. had invaded only the year before, but American service members were now facing an organized insurgency. Fighters from around the region began streaming into Iraq, turning the country into a battleground where Islamic militants could vie for power among themselves and take on the United States.
The Hell House veterans’ brutal accounts stand as a cautionary tale for how quickly wars can devolve, and a reminder of the hollowness of the Bush administration’s prediction that American troops would be greeted in Iraq as liberators.
And at a granular level, what Marines experienced in the Hell House represents a visceral style of combat that policy-makers have sought to avoid during the era of drone warfare. Drones didn’t become an alternative to troop deployments until the Obama administration, when their use in targeted strikes proliferated.
The fighting in Fallujah was bookended by two battles, the first in April 2004. During the months without a U.S. presence, the insurgency metastasized. By summer, military officials believed its leader was based in Fallujah but said the intelligence wasn’t strong enough to justify a second assault. The U.S. didn’t crack down on Fallujah’s insurgency again until November, a month that saw 82 U.S. service members lose their lives in that city, more than 600 service members wounded in action, and about 2,000 insurgents killed.
Bing West, an author and former Marine who embedded with Marine units during the battles, believes the delay enabled the violence to spread — and was perhaps a missed opportunity to find the leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would go on to found ISIS before being killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
“As a result, things around — all across Iraq — began to deteriorate,” West, the author of “No True Glory,” a gritty front-line account that includes the first blow-by-blow description of the Hell House fight, told VICE News.
As the war stretched into its second year, Washington’s plan to take Baghdad with columns of tanks had given way to grueling house-to-house fighting. The Marine Corps, which trains especially for this kind of warfare, hadn’t actually fought like this since the Battle of Hue in Vietnam.
“It was as close to hand-to-hand combat as you're going to get,” said Jesse Grapes, the commander of an infantry platoon in Fallujah. Mitchell was one of the 83 men under his command. 1st Lt. Grapes’ Third Platoon, part of Kilo Company, was charged with clearing the western section of the city.
The city’s streets were narrow and lined with houses surrounded by courtyards and brick walls. The fighters were dug in and sophisticated, employing a “defense in depth” strategy: fighting from one house and then falling back and taking up a new position in another, a tactic to wear the Marines down.
And once Marines were drawn into a house, they could no longer call in missiles or heavy guns because of the risk of friendly fire.
For the Marines, the Hell House was not only searing and difficult but also strangely satisfying. “Although we had no sympathy for their cause or what they were doing, we could at least respect the fact that these guys had enough cojones to, you know, stand up and fight us,” Grapes said.
The kill zone
1st Sgt. Brad Kasal and Pfc. Alex Nicoll had followed Mitchell into the kill zone, their rifles pointed upward. They surveyed the room. It was in the center of the house, with multiple doorways leading to other adjoining rooms. A staircase wrapped around a wall and led to a landing on the second floor, and the two-story room was topped by a skylight-studded dome.
According to West's book, Kasal then walked to a doorway underneath the stairs. He swept his rifle across the small open room and discovered a man hiding near the light switch. The man fired his rifle at Kasal and missed. Kasal shoved his rifle into the man’s chest and fired.
Then gunfire exploded from above.
Kasal was shot several times in his legs, and he crawled into the small bathroom where he had found the gunman. Nicoll was still in the open taking more fire. Kasal reached through the doorway for him, and was hit again. He dragged Nicoll into the bathroom.
In the meantime, insurgents were still firing down at the bedroom doorway. Mitchell, who had some medical training, put pressure on Lance Cpl. Cory Carlisle’s wound. He could hear him screaming through the gunfire; he’d been shot in the thigh and was losing a dangerous amount of blood.
Then Mitchell heard another person screaming in agony. Peering back into the central room, he could see Nicoll and Kasal in the bathroom off an adjacent wall.
To get to them, Mitchell would have to step back into the kill zone.
“I'm thinking to myself that this is the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life,” Mitchell told VICE News. “My next thought was, ‘This is going to hurt really, really bad.’ And then I moved.”
As he ran, a grenade exploded in a bright flash. Gunfire hit the wall behind him, and a round ricocheted into his thigh. But he made it to the Marines in the bathroom off the house’s center room.
Now, Mitchell, Kasal, and Nicoll were in the bathroom, while the three Marines they’d come to rescue were still trapped in the bedroom. And, in a kitchen off the kill zone, two wounded Marines who had attempted an earlier rescue were hiding. They’d been caught in an ambush too.
It was, as Grapes put it, a real shitshow.
Mitchell had made it to the bathroom, but he found both Kasal and Nicoll grievously injured. Kasal, bleeding and struggling to stay conscious, urged Mitchell to treat Nicoll, who was in even worse shape.
Nicoll’s first problem was his left leg, which had been shot below the knee six times. Mitchell applied a tourniquet, cutting off blood flow to the wound. He began ripping Nicoll’s body armor off and found a bullet entrance on his back, just over the lungs. He patched it with a valve that prevented air from being sucked into the wound.
Mitchell then turned to Kasal. He was out of medical supplies, so he tightened the holster straps around Kasal’s upper thigh, where he had been shot. He handed Kasal the strap and told him to hold it tight. The Marine had also taken shrapnel when the insurgents threw another grenade toward him and Nicoll; Kasal had rolled on top of the more junior marine and absorbed the blast.
Kasal held the makeshift tourniquet with one hand and a pistol, which he kept aimed at the doorway, with the other.
According to West’s book, Kasal then urged Mitchell to find a way out before Nicoll bled to death. After a decade and a half, Michell struggles to remember details of his conversations but recalls the noise of the gunfire inside the enclosed house. “Everything sounded like I was underwater. We were yelling at the top of our lungs,” Mitchell said.
As Kasal watched the doorway, Mitchell focused again on Nicoll, who was drifting out of consciousness. Mitchell slapped him and told him to stay awake.
The platoon commander, Grapes, was patrolling several blocks away when he heard reports on his radio that troops had been wounded. Grapes and Mitchell had first deployed together to Iraq a year earlier, during the invasion. Mitchell had a natural ability to rally other Marines and could keep a cool head, qualities Grapes prized.
“You know who your best guys are,” Grapes said, “and Mitchell was my best squad leader.”
Grapes had joined the Marine Corps after working briefly as a corporate consultant. A devout Catholic, he felt called to duty on 9/11, seeing an answer to the drift he’d been fighting since graduating from college. He went to a recruiting office the next day.
Now, he rushed south toward the house, arriving alongside Humvees with heavy guns and more Marines on foot.
Grapes radioed Mitchell, asking him for a clear picture of what was happening inside. He realized the Marines’ tactic of lining up and charging the room was exactly what had gotten them trapped. “We were doing what we were trained to do,” Grapes said.
The trouble was, the insurgents on the second floor knew that.
Grapes needed a plan, and there were no good options.
Ultimately, he and Cpl. Francis Wolf decided the only hope to get their men out was to run a rescue team through the kill zone. But they’d need to stop the fire from the upstairs landing. They thought the roof to the central room might be a vulnerability; if they could shoot through the skylights, it might buy enough time for a rescue team to get the injured soldiers out of the house.
Grapes took a team to a rooftop across the street, where they would fire into the dome. He hoped he could hit the insurgents — or at least force them to duck — while Wolf’s team attempted the rescue.
Wolf, meanwhile, led his team to the doorway to the central room.
Grapes’ team unloaded on the Hell House’s roof. Sgt. Byron Norwood, a Humvee commander who had volunteered to join the rescue effort, leaned into the doorway to check out the kill zone.
An insurgent shot him in the forehead, killing him instantly. Wolf, standing next to Norwood, watched his friend die, and then was shot in the chest himself. He fell to the ground and discovered his flak jacket had caught the round.
From the opposite rooftop, Grapes heard over the radio that Norwood had been killed. It was a gut punch; Grapes was fond of Norwood and hadn’t known he was part of the rescue team.
Norwood’s death, Grapes told VICE News, meant the plan to shoot the building’s dome hadn’t worked. Grapes still had to find a way to incapacitate the insurgents. And he needed more back-up.
Grapes radioed the company headquarters and asked for the “quick reaction force” of Marines standing by as emergency help. 1st Lt. John Jacobs and his force turned out to be only 75 yards away, in a house they had occupied the night before; the insurgents and Marines had likely slept next door to each other.
Grapes and Jacobs conferred outside the Hell House. The neighboring building wasn’t tall enough for them to get the right angle to shoot into the skylight; they agreed they would have to put the insurgents on the defensive from inside.
They made a risky plan: If the Marines took cover in a number of doorways and shot upwards at the same time, there was a chance the insurgents would duck and they could pull the wounded men out.
Jacobs and his Marines moved into the living room and approached the door to the central room. One of the Marines peeked inside. Those trapped inside the house yelled, “Get out of the doorway!” Jacobs pulled his men back.
In the meantime, several of Jacobs’ Marines tried entering the house through an adjacent entrance to a kitchen off the kill zone. They found two wounded Marines sheltering there, and helped them out of the house. Jacobs then slipped back into the kitchen with his men.
Grapes, meanwhile, noticed a window on the north side covered with metal bars. He and a private began pounding the metal bars with a sledgehammer, then took their helmets and vests off to worm their way into a bedroom. Inside, they put their gear back on.
There were now Marines in three separate doorways off the kill zone: the bedroom that Grapes had just snuck into; the bedroom next door, where Carlisle and two other Marines were still hiding; and the kitchen, where Jacobs and his men were.
As the Marines set up for their counterassault, a photographer embedded with the Marines was furiously snapping pictures, moving between the rooms off the kill zone. Lucian Read’s photos would become a definitive record of the Hell House battle.
Read recalled feeling desperation when he heard the option they had been left with. “You're just shooting into a ceiling,” he thought.
In the master bedroom, Grapes lay on his back and shimmied into the doorway until he could see the landing. This way, “the first thing that would be presenting itself to the bad guys was my rifle,” he said. After Grapes was in position, the second Marine crouched over him, pointing his rifle in the opposite direction.
In the adjoining bedroom, where Carlisle lay wounded, Cpl. Jose Sanchez took aim from the doorway.
Jacobs stood near the kitchen doorway with two Marines. He pointed into the kill zone, which they were about to run through to rescue Kasal, Nicoll, and Mitchell. “You guys are going to need both hands,” he said. They dropped their weapons.
Jacobs raised his rifle, counted down, and everyone in position started firing.
Amid the gunfire, Jacobs’ two Marines ran, unarmed, across the main room and into the bathroom. They grabbed Kasal by the arms and dragged him back through the kill zone and out the kitchen into the courtyard. Then they ran back for Nicoll, carrying him into the kitchen using a poncho they fashioned into a stretcher. Mitchell insisted on running out on his own.
On the other side of the house, Marines knocked down a wall of the bedroom sheltering Carlisle and the two Marines trapped with him. Carlisle was carried out on a stretcher.
The commander, Grapes, then sent an explosives expert inside with a satchel charge of C4. The house erupted, the concrete mixing with the insurgents’ bodies in a pink mist.
The Marines stood nearby. After a few minutes, Grapes’ mind turned to inventory lists. He and the Marines approached the house, looking for equipment they might have dropped during the fighting.
As they peered into the rubble, an insurgent trapped underneath raised his arm and dropped a grenade.
The Marines sprinted away, and after the grenade exploded, they turned and fired on the ruins. Grapes saw the man still moving. He called a ceasefire, walked into the rubble, and unloaded half his magazine into the insurgent’s head.
“You know you’re going home”
Eleven Marines were wounded and one killed in the Hell House — a third of Grapes’ platoon. The battalion commanders gave Grapes 11 combat engineers. Three days later, he was back on the street.
Mitchell, Grapes’ favorite squad leader, wasn’t one of them. The grenade blast inside the Hell House, which peppered his right leg with shrapnel, was Mitchell’s third serious injury during that deployment; he had been shot through the right arm only the day before.
That evening, Grapes took Mitchell aside and pulled out a flask of whiskey he had carried with him, unopened, since the deployment began. “You know you’re going home,” Grapes said. At dusk, Mitchell was loaded into a Humvee and on his way out of the war.
On Nov. 16, U.S. military officials announced the end of major combat in Fallujah. Kilo Company left the city prior to the parliamentary elections in late January.
“It looked like Berlin in 1945,” said Jacobs, the 1st lieutenant who sent the rescue team through the kill zone. From the back of a Humvee, he studied the city as he rode out of it for the last time. “It was a strange feeling,” Jacobs said, “to look at that kind of destruction, and — I don’t know if this sounds dark or not — but to feel a sense of pride that we had taken the city, that we'd done what we've come there to do.”
Grapes left active duty after he returned to the U.S. He was sent a third time to Iraq in 2009, in a reserve unit, where he served alongside his friend Jacobs. Grapes is now headmaster of a Catholic boys high school in Virginia, where students wear military-style uniforms and are referred to as cadets. “Someone must answer the call to make real men of faith: selfless and self-disciplined,” Grapes says on the school website.
Mitchell left the service in March 2005. He went on to study mechanical engineering at Arizona State and now works as a gas turbine engineer at Arizona’s largest public utility company.
Nicoll, who lost his left leg, joined Mitchell in Phoenix when he finished rehab; they took a motorcycle mechanics class together. In July 2006, at a ceremony at Camp Pendleton, Mitchell was awarded the Navy Cross, a military decoration just behind the Medal of Honor.
In May that year, Kasal was also awarded the Navy Cross, for his selflessness in the Hell House bathroom. Read’s photo of Kasal hobbling out of the Hell House, his pistol still in his right hand and knife in his left, has become an iconic image of the Iraq War. A statue depicting the scene was unveiled at Pendleton five years ago.
Kasal was made the subject of a biography produced by a military publisher but has otherwise said little about the events in Fallujah. According to the book, doctors operated on Kasal more than 20 times during the year following the Hell House battle, repairing wounds from seven gunshots and 44 pieces of shrapnel. When he retired last year after nearly 34 years in the Marine Corps, his speech was noted for its modesty.
After Fallujah, Kilo Company spent the spring and summer training in California. By September 2005, it returned to western Iraq, where it was assigned to the small farming town of Haditha.
If Fallujah brought the invasion period to a close, Haditha marked a new chapter: fighting an insurgency that blended deeply into a population Marines were supposed to protect, but which they viewed as hostile and knew little about.
Kilo Company is at the center of both stories. In Haditha, Marines from the company were implicated in the biggest war crimes case of the Iraq War.
The deeply scrutinized series of events began when a roadside bomb exploded beneath a convoy of Kilo Company Marines, killing one and injuring two more. The Marines rushed out of the other Humvees, opening fire on five unarmed men standing outside a taxi. Then the Marines separated into teams and stormed a series of houses.
They killed 24 Iraqi civilians in all, including women and six children, according to a naval criminal investigation opened only after the massacre was exposed by Time Magazine.
Four Marines were charged with murder, and four officers were charged with failing to report and investigate the killings. Charges were ultimately dropped against six, while one was acquitted and another Marine — the squad leader accused of leading a massacre that day — was convicted of dereliction of duty after reaching a plea deal.
Of the men initially charged with murder, two were Hell House veterans, leading observers, including author and veteran Bing West, to wonder if the house-to-house fighting in Fallujah pushed Kilo Company toward a single and savage approach to an increasingly complex war. The Marines were not trained on how to deal with the population, and they were hostile to it.
Kilo Company’s former senior members, like Grapes, have also pointed out that most of the leadership had rotated out by the time Kilo Company got to Haditha — which meant the junior ranks had more combat experience than the men tasked with directing and sometimes restraining the violence.
Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the accused mastermind, was on his first combat tour, but his defense relied on an interpretation of the Fallujah legacy. Wuterich’s lawyer told jurors that the Marines had been warned by commanders to expect that Haditha would be just like Fallujah. A defense witness told the court the Marines followed a dictum in Fallujah: “Enter every room with a boom.”
Wuterich told CBS News he and his men did just that, tossing grenades into doorways and then charging in and firing into the dust. Prosecutors said Wuterich misinterpreted the rules, and should have been able to determine that he and his Marines were killing non-combatants. In court martial records obtained by VICE News, Wuterich admits to telling his Marines to “shoot first, ask questions later,” acknowledging the command led to the massacre.
Wuterich was demoted and received no jail time. In the end, the most blistering official indictment came in an Army report generated in secret during 2006. The report accused Marine commanders of “willful negligence” in failing to report the killings promptly and accurately, and for failing to understand the significance of civilian deaths.
The Hell House photographer, Read, wasn’t in Haditha on the day of the killings, but he returned and rode with Kilo Company on a patrol two days later. He was invited by two Iraqi men into a house where the dead were awaiting burial; his photographs of shrouded human forms lined up on the floor became, like his Hell House photos the year before, iconic images of the war.
In an essay published a few months after the revelations, Read wrestled with having been unaware that the bodies were evidence of a massacre, and his bond with the Marines.
To Read, the killings were, in some sense, a byproduct of the unimaginable brutality the Marines were both subjected to, and forced to unleash, in Fallujah. “It's an indictment of war in general,” he said.
Reporting contributed by P.J. Tobia, Alexander Stockton, Judy Cai, and Griffin Baumberger.
Cover image: Third Platoon, Kilo Company patrols Fallujah in November, 2004. Photo by Lucian Read. Graphics by Alexander Stockton, Ana Simoes, Kris Cave, and Robyn Whaples.