“It is surreal for me to be here, given the circumstances of where I was a year ago,” said U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Michael Pretus, 30, in his address at the annual Veterans Day ceremony at Vienna’s American Legion post. Pretus then told a harrowing story of his platoon’s part in last November’s Battle of Fallujah.
The unit moved out for Fallujah the night of Nov. 7, he said. They had been working in the outlying town of Haditha to eliminate IEDs (improvised explosive devices). On the night of their deployment, said Pretus, his mind was on his responsibility to the parents of his men, many of whom were 18 to 20 years old, and also on his own responsibility as a father-to-be.
“All of that weighed on me,” he said.
His men, meanwhile, were repeatedly cleaning their weapons in preparation for battle.
When the military charged into the city to take the mayor’s complex, his unit was the tip of the spearhead, he said.
Pretus described celebrating the birthday of the Marine Corps during the battle, cutting pound cake from the MREs (meals ready to eat) with combat knives while Psyops blared the Marine Corps hymn into the city.
He told of a firefight on Thanksgiving, in which four marines were mowed down in a courtyard by enemy snipers. Two of them were still alive, he said, but his men were having a hard time eliminating the snipers.
Then one Cpl. Escobel, who Pretus described as “a little guy … the last guy you’d think to be a hero,” sprung into action. Escobel first leapt from rooftop to rooftop “like Spiderman,” until he was on top of the building containing the snipers and tried to throw grenades down into the building, said Pretus. Escobel then found an old, dry-rotted length of rope and threw it to one of the wounded marines, but it broke.
Finally, he laid down his weapon, ran into the courtyard and under fire, dragged one of the wounded marines to safety. He then went back for the second survivor and then made a third trip to put out the burning body of a deceased soldier, whose body had caught fire when a grenade in his pack exploded, and dragged his remains out of the courtyard.
Asked later why he did it, Escobel responded simply, “Sir, because they’d been in there too long,” said Pretus.
Pretus noted that today’s youth are sometimes referred to as “The Me Generation.”
“What I saw from these men was anything but themselves. They gave, and they gave all,” he said, mentioning another soldier who when wounded by a grenade, was offered the option of leaving Fallujah. He chose to stay and two days later was killed, said Pretus.
Following the ceremony, Mike Berger, the Post adjutant, said Pretus told “the kind of stories most of us have but most don’t talk about.” Berger’s 31 years of service included a one-year tour in the Korean War, among other tours.
He pointed out that, to traditionalists, Veterans Day is still Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I, but he said the day is about honoring veterans of all five military services and of all different wars. “And it’s kind of saying thank you to all our friends who have passed,” he said.
THAT SENTIMENT WAS echoed by Carl Morano, who said he came out for Veterans Day “more to honor the fellows that died over there than for myself. I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Morano volunteered for the Marines during World War II, but was told the quota was full, so he enlisted in the Army. “I’d always been interested in the service,” he said, noting that his father served in the Italian Army, and that eight of his father’s 17 children served in the military.
He recalled a winter he spent in what were referred to as “The Woods of Hell” near Metz, France. The weather got so cold the machine guns froze, said Morano. “I didn’t tell the guys because I thought they’d panic,” he said. He also mentioned that he and his men were given only one shower between September and March and were given only one change of clothes — British uniforms that were several sizes too small.
He was eventually injured by a German shell in those woods and was taken to a hospital just weeks before the war ended. “When I look back, it’s a miracle I survived, because so many didn’t,” Morano said.
Peter Kniskern was 13 when World War II swept through Tunisia, where his family was living. In spite of his youth, he was able to enlist in the Army Air Corps, where he served as an interpreter and then as a civil affairs officer. At 16 he joined the Marines. He was big for his age, he said.
Veterns Day “reinforces the meaning of freedom,” Kniskern said. “We take our liberties very lightly.” We need these reminders “if not for ourselves then for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “And the only way to reinforce it is to celebrate these events in history.”
Ed Gonet, who was a radio operator in a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, also said he thought the greatest importance of Veterans Day lay in educating the young about U.S. military history. For his own part, he said, he came out because, “Seeing what’s happening today with all the involvement around the world, I felt it was my duty to come out here to render my support for what’s happening in our country today.”
Gonet told a story that testified to the lasting bonds formed between soldiers in wartime. He recalled his plane’s engineer getting hit with antiaircraft fire on one of the 28 missions Gonet flew over Germany. He took the engineer to the back of the plane and put sulphur on his wounds to stop the bleeding. He called an ambulance to pick the man up when they landed, he said. “I never saw or heard from him again for 53 years.”
When he saw the man’s name in a military newsletter, he set out for Pittsburgh to pay a surprise visit. However, the man’s wife slammed the door in his face when he did not immediately reveal his name, he said. He knocked again and insisted upon speaking with the husband, who came to the door saying, “Sir, didn’t my wife tell you we don’t talk to strangers?” At this point, Gonet became enraged, he said, and the man immediately recognized him and pulled him into the house.
One of the veterans at Friday’s ceremony was also a Town Council member. Maud Robinson served in the Navy during World War II, working to crack the Japanese code.
“I think it’s important to keep ceremonies like this and days like this in everyone’s consciousness so that young people have an appreciation of the sacrifices that have been made so they can enjoy the lives they live today,” she said.