Retired Maj. John Jacobs spent Saturday playing golf and attending a U.S. Marine Corps Ball in Richmond with more than 100 fellow Marines.
Jacobs, who lives in Bedford County, said the reunion's setting was quite different than exactly 15 years ago, when the Marines of Kilo Company "marched straight into hell."
"We crossed the line of departure into Fallujah on Nov. 9, 2004," Jacobs said. "For the next few weeks it was a muzzle-to-muzzle slugfest."
The Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines — who came to the reunion in Richmond from across the United States — fought together during the Second Battle of Fallujah, considered the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War.
The battle was the first major engagement of the war fought solely against insurgents, who had taken over the city months earlier. During the fighting in November and December of 2004, 82 U.S. service members were killed in the city and more than 600 wounded in action; about 2,000 insurgents were reported killed.
Jacobs, a 2nd lieutenant leading a platoon during the battle, said more than half of Kilo Company's 250 men were wounded and six killed during the fighting.
"It was intense," Jacobs said. "There was very little to no rest for the first couple of weeks."
Jacobs said the Marines fought house by house, street by street and block by block against the insurgent forces — stopping only at night to seek shelter in a secured building.
"The city had no power and it would be pitch black at night," Jacobs said. "As soon as dawn would break we would be right back at it until dusk."
Four days after Jacobs led his platoon into the city, Kilo Company became involved in the what is known as the Hell House battle, immortalized in a sculpture outside Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
That day, a group of Marines entered a house in the city and killed an insurgent hiding behind a bedroom door, which alerted two insurgents on the roof and another in the stairwell to the Marines' presence in the building.
Two insurgents fired into the house from a skylight and dropped grenades, wounding one of the Marines in the house. As reinforcements from Kilo Company entered the house they were fired upon by the insurgents inside and, within moments, at least eight Marines were trapped inside the house, six of them wounded.
When Maj. Jesse Grapes — a 1st lieutenant leading a Kilo Company platoon during the battle — called for backup, Jacobs and his men responded. They had spent the night before in a house about 75 yards away from where the firefight was taking place.
"That's how close the fighting was," Jacobs said. "You knew the enemy could be right next door or even in the next room."
Jacobs said he and Grapes devised a rescue plan where a number of Marines would take cover in a doorway and shoot up into the house's second floor at the same time, providing covering fire for another group of Marines to enter into the "kill zone" and pull the wounded Marines to safety. Jacobs said the plan was risky, but necessary.
"The only thing going through our minds was rescuing our fellow Marines," Jacobs said. "We were not thinking about anything else at the time."
The plan worked and Jacob's men were able to rescue several wounded Marines while he provided covering fire. On the other side of the house, several Marines knocked down a wall of a bedroom sheltering more Marines trapped in the house and rescued them.
In the span of a few minutes, 11 Marines were wounded and one killed in the Hell House, Jacobs said.
"That was a lot of gunfire going around in a house that was only about 1,100 square feet," Jacobs said. "It was pretty rough. However, we got our guys out and then turned our attention to the insurgents inside."
After the Marines were rescued, Grapes sent an explosives expert inside with a satchel charge of C4 explosives, which destroyed the house.
Photographs of the Hell House fight, which were taken by photographer Lucian Read, became the most iconic images of the Second Battle of Fallujah and the inspiration for the Camp Lejeune sculpture.
However, Jacobs said the Hell House fight was not an isolated incident during the house-to-house fighting.
"Lucian's photographs made it famous, but there were things like this happening all over the city," Jacobs said. "That happened during our first few days. There still were weeks of fighting ahead of us."
Jacobs said during the next few weeks, he and his men often took shelter in the same building they stayed the night before the Hell House fight.
"We were constantly having to go back and clear the same houses and streets," Jacobs said. "Some days it seemed we were fighting up a street in the morning and fighting back down the same street that afternoon."
During the weeks of intense fighting, Jacobs said he was comforted by the knowledge that supplies coming to the Marines in the city were being sent by his wife Veronica, a Marine officer stationed a few miles outside of the city.
"Whenever we would get food, medical supplies or cold weather gear I knew that Ronni was the one in charge of sending it to us," Jacobs said.
Direct communication, though, was not possible.
"We couldn't get any communications out for about two weeks," Jacobs said. "I knew she was pretty stressed out because she could stand on top of a bunker and see the explosions all over the city. One day Lucian was emailing some pictures out so they could get into magazines and newspapers and I was able to send my wife a quick email letting her know I was OK."
Jacobs’ wife said waiting to hear news about her husband during the fighting was “excruciating.”
“It was awful,” she said. “It was hard to communicate even at that close a distance because there was no power and the city and the electronics they did have were closely monitored for security reasons.”
What was even worse, she said, was seeing the casualty list each day when she reported for duty.
“Every morning when we would have our meeting I would see the casualty board,” Ronni said. “Not knowing whose name I would see on that board each time I saw it was nauseating.”
Fifteen years later, she is still amazed at what the men of Kilo Company experienced during the battle.
“It takes time to reflect on how monumental what they went through really was,” she said. “John and those men are simply amazing.”
Members of Kilo Company were awarded two Navy Crosses, six Bronze Stars and a number of other decorations during the Second Battle of Fallujah. One of the Bronze Stars was awarded to Jacobs for his actions during the Hell House battle.
"Two Navy Crosses and a handful of Bronze Stars came out of that one fight," he said.
After his deployment to Fallujah, Jacobs was deployed two more times to Iraq — the first to the city of Haditha and then to city of Ramadi.
Jacobs, a native of Santa Cruz, California, now works for Genworth in Lynchburg, a city he had never heard of until he was deployed to Iraq in 2004.
"I was assigned some combat engineers that were in the Marine Reserves out of Lynchburg and I didn't even know where that was," Jacobs said. "Years later Genworth moved me out here to the same place those guys that helped me clear mines and explosives out were from."
Jacobs said 15 years later, he often thinks back on his experiences in Iraq and during the Second Battle of Fallujah.
"It's impossible not to," he said. "However, after leading men into something like that it is hard to feel challenged. Nothing will ever match the challenge of that time in my life."
Jacobs said his thoughts also frequently turn to his former comrades from Kilo Company as well.
"It was a very seminal time," Jacobs said. "The weak and the cowardly were not there with me. The men I was surrounded by were the brave and stout of heart. Being surrounded and serving with people of that quality and caliber is not something that will ever be duplicated."
Jacobs said he and Grapes — who now lives in Richmond — started planning this weekend's reunion about a year ago, reaching out to as many Kilo Company members as they could through social media.
"A lot of the guys would really chat with each other about November of each year," Jacobs said. "We knew we wanted to do something for our 15th anniversary."
Jacobs said large donations from Smithfield-based Smithfield Foods, the Hope for the Warriors veteran organization and a number of organizations in Richmond allowed the reunion to be held at no cost to the Kilo Company veterans and their families.
"We are so grateful to have received so much support," Jacobs said. "Everyone has been amazing and they are the reason this reunion happened. This is bringing a lot of people together that are like family and that is a good thing."