Lowell Marine back from Iraq tells of hell on 'Easy Street'
'Anybody who had a gun came out and played'
By DAVID PERRY, Sun Staff
There's a little "Welcome home!" sign perched among the Halloween decorations in front of the house on Chatham Street in Lowell.
Jason Gatto knows it well.
The 21-year-old Marine Corps sergeant, home for a few days this week, spent months in the thick of fighting in Iraq, dodging attacks from insurgents. He earned a commendation for bravery for his actions in April, when he charged headlong into a barrage of machine-gun fire, taking out the gunners and sparing his squad from further danger.
Gatto, who heads back to Camp Pendleton in California today, is with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, and spent seven months in Iraq. He's a Marine to the core, a wiry young man with a martial arts instructor's degree, and more than three years of military life under his belt. Over an hour, the blunt-spoken Gatto puffs Marlboros, offering details of battle.
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He joined during his junior year at Lowell High School, and left for basic training after graduating with the Class of 2001. The Marines has become his way of life, his family, but he's leaving when his stint is up in June.
Gatto spent time in Okinawa, Korea, Japan, Guam, Australia and Iwo Jima before joining Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"I got around," he says.
When his company got word they were headed to Iraq to help with stability and support efforts, they were told they'd be there to "keep the peace, win hearts and minds."
Not exactly what they had in mind.
"We're a totally different mentality. We're not about waving and smiling. We're the shock troops. We go in to destroy everything in sight."
But they are also trained to "adapt," says Gatto. So they did.
But once in Al Ramadi, on the western side of the Sunni Triangle, they renovated condemned houses, jerry-rigged electricity and helped build a soccer stadium.
Halfway through their deployment, they got the showers working. Until then, they'd poke holes in bottles of water and douse themselves.
At first, it was "relatively quiet." Gatto and the rest of the 130-man company handed out soccer balls and candy, put on smiles and waved.
But last April 6, as his squad patrolled the city, something hit the ground and went "boom!"
There was gunfire, "explosion after explosion," and, Gatto says, "anybody who had a gun came out and played."
After several hours, the shooting stopped and Gatto and his men made it out.
"We went out again the next day, to the same spot, and everybody came out of their houses, smiling and waving. It was weird. We kept going." Someone launched an explosive off a rooftop, followed by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, says Gatto.
Another squad leader radioed that half his troops were in a house, the rest piled between an 18-wheeler.
"And then this car comes around a corner, with a guy hanging out of the side, firing. I thought, are you serious? This never works," says Gatto. "It was like some movie."
They shot the insurgent, but the ensuing car crash took out the Marines' radio. The gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG's) were exploding "everywhere."
Gatto looked up and saw "like 3,000 people on the rooftops."
And with little ammunition and reinforcement ambushed, he thought, "we're finished."
When the shooting died down a bit, Gatto poked his head outside the house they were holed up in and saw "women and kids coming out, just before four RPGs hit the house. They were pointing us out."
The company of about 30 men finally made it to a street they ironically had dubbed "Easy Street," where they were again pinned down.
What Gatto did then straight out of a video game. He figured, "Well, someone has to bite the bullet on this one," so he grabbed a grenade launcher, ran out into the street and took out three machine-gun positions.
Later, he says, he learned a couple of things. While his platoon suffered a lone casualty, "we'd filled three hospitals and three morgues." And, "They'd declared a Jihad against us. It was supposed to last three days but we knocked it down to two."
While skirmishes continued over the months, the company didn't suffer another casualty until July.
And the insurgents "got smart," says Gatto. "They started blending in with the population real good."
On Sept. 13, Gatto got a thick commendation medal and certificate from the Navy and Marine Corps for his bravery and sacrifice on that April day.
The truth about the war?
"You got me," he says.
Gatto says he saw buddies maimed and dead, while insurgents fought on, killing civilians, threatening the city's residents with death "if they talked to us, or helped us."
"We went over there to help out. We gave them candy, food, water. But they bite the hand that feeds them. They don't want us there. Well, some do, but the majority don't."
He treasures his Marine training and service.
"It means a lot to me. It's not a job, it's a way of life. You live by a code. It's the guy next to you who always comes first." He was "pretty wild, always partying" before joining, "but the Marines gave me a direction."
When he leaves the service in June, Gatto is considering college, "maybe studying anti-terrorism, maybe the FBI.
"Over there, you definitely appreciate things we take for granted here. Right now, the trees changing colors, having a beer. There, those don't exist. Plus, there's nobody shooting at you here."
God bless him!!!
Outfuckingstanding! Great story.
Later, he says, he learned a couple of things. While his platoon suffered a lone casualty, "we'd filled three hospitals and three morgues."
That almost brought a tear to my eye!