Kevin Sites  /  NBC News
Marine Lance Cpl. Carlos Gomez in Fallujah, Iraq.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/17/2004 11:20:43 AM ET 2004-05-17T15:20:43

At the age of 9, Carlos Gomez crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico along with his father, mother and two sisters. They had heard stories about the opportunities in the United States, dreamed about them, wanted them so badly they ran through oncoming traffic on the I-805 freeway to get to them.

The family didn’t stop until they reached San Diego as fear, fatigue and the Border Patrol faded into the southern horizon along with their homeland.

The Gomez family stayed in the United States, overcame the slurs and paid back the opportunities with hard work for menial wages.

Now, 12 years later, Marine Lance Cpl. Gomez has paid a heavy price for his adopted country, sacrifice on the Iraqi battlefield.

Fallujah surrounded
The scene was Fallujah, a hotbed of anti-American violence where U.S. forces have engaged in a tense and often violent showdown with Sunni militia groups.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which took over responsibility for the Al Anbar province from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, surrounded the city after four American contractors were brutally murdered in late March.

Gomez was a team leader for second platoon, Echo Company of the 2-1 Marines, whose job was to cordon off a portion of Fallujah’s slums known as the Joan region.  It is where, U.S. military leaders believed, most of the insurgents were clustered.

It is also the area where Marines and insurgents slugged it out with the greatest intensity — even after U.S. officials declared a unilateral cease-fire two weeks into the siege, stopping offensive operations but reserving the right of self-defense.

Still, almost daily, Gomez said, he and his company took fire from insurgents using the minaret tower of a nearby mosque.

Injured during a pitched battle
By April 26, Echo Company’s commander ordered Gomez’s platoon to take houses adjacent to the mosque on the northeast side.

With almost no resistance, they reached one of the houses next to the mosque and went inside. But it didn’t take long for the trouble to start. As soon as three of the Marines moved up to the roof, insurgents fired on the house with a rocket-propelled grenade.

“Then,” Gomez said, “Lance Cpl. Fincannon comes running down the stairs, yelling, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ and I can see that he’s missing his left arm from elbow down.”

The other Marines took shrapnel too, but their wounds were less serious.

The members of the platoon knew they had to knock down some of the insurgents’ firepower and fast or they would all be slaughtered. Some of the bullets, armor-piercing rounds, even penetrated the concrete walls.

Gomez, along with two other lance corporals, Cruz and Austin, climbed back up the rooftop. They used the height to lob grenades at the other house. But the insurgents were laying down withering fire.

“As we’re going up the stairs I can see the rounds impacting the step in front of me every time. The cement was flying in my face,” Gomez said.

Once on top, they waited for a lull in the shooting.

“Lance Cpl. Austin pulls the pin on his grenade and then throws it,” Gomez said, “but as soon as he tosses it, he gets shot in the chest to the left of his heart. He takes another round in his stomach. I try to pull him back with my right arm, but his flak jacket got caught on the steps. So I move out of my cover position and use both hands. I was exposed for five seconds.”

But that was all it took.

“I got shot in the shoulder, and then I got shot in the face.”

But Gomez had so much adrenaline pumping, he didn’t even know that the AK-47 round had pierced the front of his cheek and continued straight through, missing his skull completely. He did know, however, that he had been hit in the shoulder.

“The round went in, and when it came out, it took out a chunk of my shoulder. I was missing a fistful of flesh.  It just felt like somebody punched me, somebody punched me really hard.”

But instead of to himself, Gomez turned his attention to Austin.

“I asked Cruz for his knife and cut open Austin’s shirt. Cruz covers up the wounds, but we’ve got no pulse or breathing. So we began CPR. I beat his chest 10 times with both hands, and Cruz gave him mouth to mouth, still nothing, so we do it again — after the second time, he comes back to life.”

Gomez and three other members of his squad carried Austin back to Echo Company’s original front line position. Despite their efforts, he died on the way to the combat field hospital. Along with Gomez, 11 other Marines were wounded that day.

According to U.S. Central Command, since the invasion of Iraq more than 571 U.S. troops have been killed in hostile action and hundreds more wounded — although one-third of those returned to active duty within 72 hours.

Gomez was not one of those who returned. His shoulder wound will require intensive physical therapy — so for him, this war is over. He returned to Camp Pendleton in California, his wife, Samantha, and his 2 1/2-year-old son, Jose Carlos.

Respect of a veteran
But while he waited at the field hospital in Camp Fallujah for his helicopter ride out, he felt mixed emotions about his departure. He was looking forward to seeing his family but sorry to leave the men he fought with both during the invasion of Iraq last year and now during these postwar hostilities. “They’re my family, too,” he said.

Gomez also reflected on his adopted nation, for which he was willing to fight a bloody war.

“This country gives you a lot of opportunities,” he said. “That’s why you see so many Mexican immigrants cross the border. Maybe this is the only way I can pay it back.”

After his unit returned home following its participation in the invasion of Iraq, Gomez and three other members of his company were naturalized as U.S. citizens by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But even as a war veteran and a citizen, he said he still faced prejudice in his adopted land.

“I know this last year, I couldn’t stand the way some people looked at me, especially cops. When you’ve been through war, you can look into people’s eyes and see what they’re thinking. I could tell the cops were looking at me, they didn’t know where I had been, didn’t know I was a Marine.”

He pauses for a moment, maybe wondering if it will be any different this time now that he has earned his place with blood.

“As long and you and your family know what you’ve done, I think that should be enough. But sometimes it’s not, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

NBC's Kevin Sites is on assignment in Iraq. More of his reports from Iraq can be found on his personal blog www.kevinsites.net.

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