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Chapter 5 – Karbala01 Feb

Chapter 5 – Karbala


1987. “You want to be a grunt?” asked the recruiter. “If that’s a grunt, that’s what I want to be,” said Sandor Vegh, a high school wrestler, pointing at the picture of a Marine in combat gear against a jungle backdrop. He had taken some steps towards going to the Air Force Academy. When he asked the Air Force recruiter, “how do you defend yourselves,” the recruiter answered, “that’s what Marines are for.” He walked over to the Marine recruiter shortly thereafter.

His father defected from Hungary in the ‘56 revolution. He and a few of his buddies made their way out of Hungary during the war into the Czech Republic. They got onto a barge and made their way into the United States, through Ellis Island. They went through West Virginia, and found his grandparents, aunt and other extended family who took them in. His grandmother taught them how to read and write, and got them started along the way to being productive Americans. His family members were masons, architects, and construction workers. Each started their own businesses after they worked their way up through the company. They moved to Ohio, and started their own village. They had a combined garden. He was raised as a Hungarian child, but definitely to be American first.

He found that the Hungarian immigrant values of hard work and discipline translated well into the Marine Corps. “If self discipline didn’t work, you always had father discipline,” he recalled. His father would put popcorn kernels on the floor, and have him kneel on two piles of pop corn and have him kneel with head on the floor. “Some people think that’s horrible,” he says. When he went to sniper school, though, this discipline helped him to graduate. Those disciplinary techniques translated very well into certain training in the Marine Corps, especially sniper school.

According to Sandor Vegh, Sniper School teaches everything necessary to live in the field. As a two-man team, you are taught to do everything that an infantryman needs to accomplish. “It is difficult to simulate what is going on in Iraq,” notes Vegh who is one of those not-so-rare, true philosophers about the Art of War that one finds in the Marines. “The Marine Corps does not do sniper on sniper training until the advanced course. We set up pins and steel targets right next to where the observers are, and we know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether you hit the target. That’s as much as we can do in peace time training.”

Gunnery Sergeant Vegh joined Lima Company, 3/7 in Karbala and would become one of its most capable leaders. As he notes, “my fitness report doesn’t say anything about my being a logistician.” His official billet for much of his tour with Lima Company was Company Gunnery Sergeant — a role primarily designed as the chief supply Staff NCO for the Company. At the same time that Gunny Vegh joined Lima Company as its Company Gunnery Sergeant, First Lieutenant Dominique Neal joined Lima Company as the Executive Officer.

[Section 2, 3]




1990. Irish Pride! The ethos of Sacred Heart Football, emblazoned on the t-shirts of students and players alike on the t-shirts worn by students at the San Francisco, Catholic college prep didn’t sound so great just now. Coach Lee made the whole team do an extra, punishment workout on the Polo Grounds in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park when one of the players blew off a bus driver. Dominique Neal paid for his buddy’s misconduct along with the rest of the team in another endless round of up-downs, monkey drills, and Alamo runs – and whatever else the coach could dream up. He’d never quit, never let it get him down, and he’d always come back from adversity. That lesson would stay with him later through the US Naval Academy and Marine Basic School because they were heavily academic environments where he struggled – but he would never quit. That lesson would stay with him too at Marine Infantry Officer’s Course (IOC), where he struggled with operations orders, but excelled in relationships with fellow Student-Lieutenants with whom he got along great. His heart and attitude were fully committed to success at IOC, which made up for any initial proficiency short falls. He remembers it as a 180 degree turn around from The Basic School — the 6 month course that all Marine Officers, regardless of specialty attend. As Neal went through IOC he became more confident, and felt that he became part of a brotherhood — at home in the Marine Infantry community. Major Schreffler was an adviser at IOC when Neal attended the course. Neal recalls that Major Schreffler reprimanded him during a urban operations exercise when Neal was in a Platoon Sergeant’s billet. In the coming year, Major Schreffler’s praise for Neal’s performance would mean a great deal to him because of the length of the relationship in different roles — instructor/ student at Quantico; and then S-3/ Lima Company XO in the fabled Fleet Marine Force. According to Neal, Marines would always feel a sense of ease because of Schreffler’s presence. Both Schreffler and Rick Gannon were team builders.

From November, 2000, to May 2002, Neal commanded 2nd Platoon, Lima Company. There he established relationships with many of the key Marines in Lima Company. Sergeant Wilder, one of his squad leaders, lead the “Super Squad” competition squad which prevailed at higher echelon competitions and provided superb training to the Marines, like Peter Milinkovic, who were in the squad. After command of 2nd Platoon, Neal was transferred to the S-3 Operations section of the Battalion Staff. A Battalion Staff is comprised of several sections, or S-Shops, including the S-1 (Administration), S-2 (Intelligence), S-3 (Operations), S-4 (Logistics) among others. Among these sections, the S-3 and the S-2 must work hand-in-hand in warfighting tasks in the field. The S-3 is lead by a Major, who is senior to the other heads of S-Shops, and includes the Battalion Gunner (a Chief Warrant Officer) or Weapons Expert, a Chemical Weapons Specialist (also a Warrant Officer), as well as several assistant S-3 Officers, or S-3A, sometimes know as “shitty little jobs” officers.

While in the S-3 Shop, Neal was the Officer in Charge of Super Squad. In that role, Neal was able to observe Staff Sergeant Wilder’s training and Milinkovic’s performance. Super Squad (along with Crew Served Weapons competition) are unit competitions for competence in basic infantry skills such as marksmanship, map reading, and executing orders which are held at the Company, Battalion, Regimental, and Division level. Marines place a high premium on such accomplishments. Neal even has the Super Squad badge and Commandant’s coin as proof of his involvement.

But the administrative aspects of the 3-Shop were more of a challenge for Neal. Neal felt like he was being inundated with tasks beyond his competence in that job. It was really a billet that required the training that Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS) provided to more senior officers. Yet, Neal never gave up – it was just like football. His experience in the S-3 would prove invaluable later when he returned to Lima Company. Captain Rick Gannon, noticing Neal’s unease in the S-3 assignment, came up to him one day and offered him the job of XO of Lima Company.

“Take a few days to move your stuff over,” Rick Gannon said.

“I was over there in 25 minutes,” recalled Neal.

Dominique Neal would fight for the respect of his fellow Marines. He would fight for the respect of his peers in Infantry Officers Course and Basic School. At root, he would fight for the respect of his friends from Navy Track, and Irish Football. He would fight so that he could return to bars with names like Yancy’s and Kezar Pub and Larocca’s in San Francisco. In the insular world of the Catholic prep schools in San Francisco, the Scots-Irish emphasis on the value of military service endured. The Sacred Heart Irish played Saint Ignatius every year for the Bruce-Mahoney Trophy, a prize named after two alumni who had died in World War II. Whether Operation Iraqi Freedom represented 4th Generation Warfare was an academic question. Whether Dominique Neal did his duty as a Company Commander in a combat environment was a more elemental question that involved the pride and honor drilled into him from the early stages of high school football. Dom Neal would have to carry the flag for Lima 3/7. He was also carrying on so that he could tell a good story at Yancy’s to guys like Paul Bugler – a graduate of Saint Ignatius who served in the Corps and coached at Sacred Heart – and Ed Cota – a graduate of Sacred Heart who was a SFPD Lieutenant who coached at Saint Ignatius.


[1994]. Finish the Race. Rick Gannon was disappointed that his father stopped due to a pulled muscle three quarters of the way through a marathon, but he ran the last 6 miles of the marathon by himself. This quality of endurance would characterize Rick Gannon throughout his Marine service, up to and including his final hours in Iraq. He had been born into a Marine Corps family. His father served as a Marine Officer in Vietnam. In fact, his father was a Lieutenant and Platoon Commander in 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (1/7), which is one of the other Infantry Battalions with 3/7 in 7th Marine Regiment. Brigadier General Michael Neil remembers sitting in a foxhole as a Lieutenant with Richard Gannon, Sr., in Vietnam.

A native of Escondido, California — a suburb of San Diego — Gannon studied political science in college and had already served a tour as a Rifle Platoon Commander. He was married with [number] children, and Schreffler was the Godfather to his [son]. He had served as company officer at the US Naval Academy and is remembered as .

While Lima 3/7 was in Karbala, Captain Gannon assumed command of the Company. [He interviews all Marines in company.]

[Section 5]


32 26’26.7” N 43 44’33.9 E elev 47 meters Karbala, Iraq
Local GMT 4 May 2003

Carpenter was angry. The new skipper, Captain Gannon, wanted to talk to every Marine in the Company, and to spend time talking to every Staff NCO and Officer in Lima Company. Gannon had come from Headquarters and Service Company. Carpenter admired Captain Schreffler, who had been moved to the Battalion S-3 Operations Section, largely due to reasons of seniority. Blade 6 and Blade 3 were transitioning out of the Battalion, and George Schreffler was next in line to assume the role of Battalion Operations Officer, the 3d ranking officer in an Infantry Battalion.

Carpenter was avoiding the new skipper around the Lima Headquarters in the Soccer Stadium in Karbala. “I wanted nothing to do with the guy,” said Carpenter, recalling his initial reaction to Captain Rick Gannon.

Gannon went about his task of meeting and learning as much as possible about every Marine in Lima Company with persistance.

“Staff Sergeant Carpenter, got a sec?”

“Yessir,” replied Staff Sergeant Carpenter, one languid night in the Soccer Stadium. Carpenter was still Weapons Platoon Sergeant. Lima Company had chosen the Soccer Stadium as a Headquarters because it had 15 foot high walls and was somewhat fortified. Lima further hardened the site by building guard posts around the Stadium.

Gannon engaged Carpenter in one of his trademark conversations, getting to know another vital player in his new command. Gannon was known to walk post in Lima Company and talk with many of his Marines late into the night, asking about where they came from, their families, and their experience prior to joining the Corps. Carpenter recalls Lima Marines who thought of Gannon as a father figure who filled a need for such a role model.

As Gannon and Carpenter talked, they found that they had much in common as the basis for a long term friendship. Gannon had 4 children, and Carpenter had 7. They were both Catholic. They belonged to the same Catholic church. Their youngest children were around the same ages. Carpenter’s wife, Beth, would become friends with Gannon’s wife, Sally. Sally and Beth were close from church, and Sally was very active in the community.

“One of my ambitions, one of my goals, when we get back off of this deployment” continued Gannon as the two Marines talked in the Soccer Stadium, “is that I want to be a better father.”

“Yeah, me too,” replied Staff Sergeant Carpenter. “But I say that after every deployment.”

“I have too in the past,” said Gannon. “But, you know, my dad was a great father. My father provided for us, my sister and I. I always knew that my dad loved me, never any doubt. My dad always did a lot of stuff with me. My dad was a hard working guy.”

Carpenter didn’t know exactly what to say.

“I want to be a fun dad,” continued Gannon.

“Really?” Carpenter didn’t quite understand what Gannon meant.

“I don’t just want to be a hard-working, providing father, who tells my kids I love them all the time,” explained Gannon. “I want to be fun to be around.”

Carpenter was a hard customer, having grown attached to Schreffler, but Gannon’s persistence, as well as his quality as a Man, leader and Officer won him over.

Over the coming months, 3/7 along with other Marine Battalions in Iraq were extended by decisions taken by the highest levels of the Department of Defense. 3/7 was not slated for another deployment for a year at that point. Marine Battalions 1/7, 1/4, among others were extended in Iraq during the same time while they were waiting for the Army to back fill their assigned areas. Marine Battalion 3/4 left from Iraq to the United States in April 2003 immediately after The Push ended because 3/4 was slated for UDP [Unit Deployment Program to Okinawa, Japan] in December 2003.

32 26’26.7” N 43 44’33.9 E elev 47 meters Karbala, Iraq
24 April 2003

Major General Mattis flew into Karbala, Iraq, to deliver the bad news in person. Wiry, and be-spectacled, the lean, thin 2-star General who was widely admired among the Marines, took it upon himself to give the Marines no reason to blame any of their intermediate leadership for the news that Battalion 3/7 would remain in Iraq longer than expected. The Push had succeeded, 3/7 had fought into Bagdahd along with RCT-7, but its turn to return to the States had not yet arrived.

All of the 3/7 Marines were gathered together for a series of talks from General Mattis, who made a point to deliver the word personally. General Mattis’ pre-war letters have been widely circulated, and his speeches on top of trucks to thousands of gathered Marines have been widely covered, but these direct communications of bad news were no less important as acts of leadership by the Division’s Commanding Officer.

“He was the bearer of bad news everytime,” recalled Carpenter. “He would not allow a Battalion Commander to tell us. General Mattis would tell us.”

32 26’26.7” N 43 44’33.9 E elev 47 meters Karbala, Iraq
13 May 2003

Mattis. Again.

Marines muttered, fucking asshole, when are we going to get the fuck out of this country?

But there he was, microphone in hand.

“Men,” Mattis would begin. “I am here to tell you in person that your Battalion has again been extended in Iraq.”

Marines left thinking, I never want to see that guy again. But they never faulted General Mattis. At least the Man had the decency to tell us the news in person.

“That was his style,” remembered Carpenter. “He would be there to tell us in person. He flew in in April to tell us we were extended to May. Then he flew in in May to tell us we were extended through July. ”

32 26’26.7” N 43 44’33.9 E elev 47 meters Karbala, Iraq
10 July 2003

Mattis. Oh shit. He is just going to be the bearer of bad news.

Don’t even fucking tell me I am staying here another month. Fuck this. Marines circled around their General again, who, for a third time had the decency to deliver the word, man to man. At least the Man is still here, if I have to stay in this shit hole.

Despite his other duties as the CG, 1stMarDiv, Mattis again thought it was enough of a priority to tell each Private First Classs, Lance Corporal and above that he would have to remain in Iraq longer than he expected.

Finally, the Bulgarians and the Poles RIP-ed [conducted a relief in place] with the Lima 3/7 Marines in Karbala.

32 26’26.7” N 43 44’33.9 E elev 47 meters Karbala, Iraq
18 July 2003

The AllMar — All Marines Communication — was missing a name: Carpenter. The official bulletin of all Staff Sergeants (E-6) selected for promotion to the next grade, Gunnery Sergeant (E-7), was a closely watched piece of career news within the Marine Corps community, not only by Staff Sergeants like Matt Carpenter, but also by their seniors, in particular, who might use the news item as an essential opportunity in the continuous process of team building. Carpenter had been passed over for promotion to Gunnery Sergeant.

“Look, Matt,” said Captain Gannon one day out in the Soccer Stadium as Lima Company counted the days to returning to the United States. “I’m heartsick that you were passed over for promotion to Gunny. I can’t think of a Staff Sergeant in this Battalion who is more qualified for promotion.”

Carpenter was taciturn. “I appreciate that,” he said with no emotion.

“I don’t want you to go over to Weapons Company where you would probably be a Section Leader in Heavy Guns. It would be a waste of your talents. I want you to stay on in Lima Company and be my Company Gunny.” It was a ploy, and Carpenter knew it. Gannon knew it. But in the fraternity of the infantry, it was also a sign of respect, and Carpenter accepted it, since he had grown to like the man.

Carpenter had his heart set on going to Weapons Company since he arrived in 3/7 from Bridgeport because he wanted to be a Gunner, which was his long-term aspiration. In order to be considered for the Gunner program, a Marine needed to have Weapons Company experience. All of Carpenter’s time had been spent in Weapons Platoon in Lima Company, a Rifle Company. He needed to get some Weapons Company experience to be considered for selection to Gunner.

Therefore, Captain Gannon’s ploy was really a tall order. This is the biggest thing that anyone has asked me to do, thought Carpenter. I really want to go to apply for the Gunner program. This will really end up fucking me.

Gannon dropped the subject for the day, but brought it back up shortly. He pressed his case.

In the end, Carpenter agreed to be the Lima Company Gunny, however. “Why? Well, he’s just that kind of guy,” recalls Carpenter. “I never, ever, wanted to be a Company Gunny because growing up [as an Infantry Marine] Company Gunnies were nothing but water and chow guys, running log[istics], and in my mind, I did not want to be out of the fight, taking me away from the boys. But very few Company Gunnies are the tactical adviser to the commander, but it is all based on personality.”

A few days after their first conversation on the topic of Carpenter taking the job of Company Gunny, Gannon revisited the subject.

“Matt, have you thought about being Company Gunny?”

“Sir, here’s the thing. I want to be a Gunner. That’s my long term goal. So, I need to get over to Weapons Company. I need time in Weapons Company to be eligible for the Gunner Program.”

“Yeah. I understand,” replied Gannon. “But, I am asking you to take the job of Company Gunny. I will be up front with you. I need you, and the Company needs you. Look around. We are going to be losing alot of senior Marines when we get back to the Stumps. It would make a big difference to Lima, and I am asking you as a personal favor to be Lima’s Gunny.”

“OK, Sir. Let me think about it.”

“Sure,” replied Gannon.

Carpenter stayed on with Gannon as his Company Gunny, mainly as a favor to his new Company Commander. He realized that he could have the type of impact that he wanted as the Company Gunny. As a Staff Sergeant (E-6), Carpenter filled the role of Company Gunnery Sergeant, a billet normally assigned to an E-7.

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This is a website for writing a book about Lima Company, 3/7, during 4 deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2007.


This is a website for writing a book about Lima Company, 3/7, during 4 deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2007.