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Old 05-31-2003, 12:19 PM
thedrifter thedrifter is offline
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Cool Novato Marine recalls firefight

Novato Marine recalls firefight
By Mark Prado, IJ reporter

On his 23rd birthday, Marine Lance Cpl. Fred Calonico of Novato found himself in the middle of a swirling sandstorm in Iraq, bullets whizzing around him from all directions.

"My whole life was flashing. I started remembering everything up until that point," the 1998 Terra Linda High School grad said yesterday at his home. "I put my head down in the dirt. We could see the bullets hitting five feet in front of us."

Calonico's squad had run into an ambush just north of al-Nasiriyah.

"Everyone just hit the dirt. I had all this equipment on, I was trying to run and had all this stuff. I was running and my goggles were fogging up. You'd take them off and get sand in your eyes. We jumped behind this little berm and all the bullets started hitting.

"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'I'm dead, I'm going to die here.' "

To make matters worse, the sandstorm caused confusion and Calonico and his unit started taking friendly fire.

"We were pinned, there was nowhere to go," he recalled. "We were getting shot at from both sides."

The U.S. troops were able to get their signals straight and the friendly fire stopped, giving the Marines a chance to return fire and turn back the enemy, Calonico said.

Calonico and others in his battalion had left their schools, jobs and families to travel miles along the hot, dusty roads of Iraq, exchange gunfire with Saddam Hussein's troops and help secure Baghdad.

On Thursday, almost 300 members of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines - the Marine Corps' only reserve battalion to see combat in the war against Iraq - returned home to the families and friends they left behind.

The troops flew from Kuwait on a commercial charter flight to Germany, then to Baltimore and finally to March Air Force Base in Riverside. Calonico arrived home Thursday night.

Calonico was a waiter at the Wild Fox in Novato and a College of Marin student when he and a battalion of about 900 Marines reservists were called to duty 15 months ago from their homes across the western United States.

They spent a year at Camp Pendleton training and providing Homeland Security support.

"Our battalion did so well in competition with the active duty Marines, the higher-ups said, 'these guys are locked on.' Our battalion ended up getting attached to the 1st Marine Division. We were the only reserve infantry battalion that saw action," Calonico said. "We had a lot of cops, a lot of businessmen and a lot of students."

That ability landed them as part of the "Tip of the Spear," the front-line divisions that invaded from Kuwait and moved quickly north through hundreds of miles of desert to their destination, Baghdad.

They deployed to Kuwait in February, drove into Iraq in March and entered Baghdad in early April in time to help secure the city and witness the fall of Saddam's regime.

Calonico was an automatic rifleman, providing cover for troops, able to shoot 200 bullets in a minute.

About 80 Iraqi prisoners were taken that day of the ambush, he recalled, some mortally wounded.

"We had to sit there all night and hear some of them die. We could not get them out, there was no capability to do that. It was freezing cold, but there was nothing we could do," he said. "It was hard to hear. They were helpless and dying."

After that incident, Calonico saw the horrors of war close up.

"It was the first time I saw mutilated bodies. It was difficult," he said. "After that day I didn't eat for four days."

Initially, Calonico said he and others cursed their captured enemies.

"But then you'd see these guys wearing Italian soccer shirts, and I love soccer. I'm Italian and I said, 'Italy is good,' and they all started smiling. That's when you realize these guys are human beings. They told us, 'we want to come to America.' A lot them had no choice but to fight."

But the situations were sometimes confusing as the soldiers moved on to Baghdad.

"We didn't know who was who. The white flags would wave, then you'd get shot at," he said.

For Calonico's mother, the war was unbearable.

"I didn't answer the door because if someone came to your door it was bad news," said Natalia Pedigo as she stroked her son's arm, still sporting a look of worry. "I was always worried. It was the worst time of my life."

Calonico was pleased with what the Marines and the military accomplished.

"In the streets of those towns, people came up to us and thanked us for what we did. People told us what Saddam did to them," Calonico said. "People held up their children. That's why we were there. The parents knew that their children wouldn't have to go through what they went through."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.Contact Mark Prado via e-mail at,141...427161,00.html


SSgt. Roger A.
One Proud Marine
Once A Marine............Always A Marine.............
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