When I lost my first Marine in Echo Company, I was 36 years old.
We’d been battling in Ramadi, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. Echo Company was made up of 248 men. But they were my men. Each of them was my watch, my responsibility. I trained them hard hoping that it would protect each and every one of them from the dangers of combat.
I knew it was impossible in reality. I knew in my head that Ramadi was a dangerous place. I had prepared myself for the inevitability of losing Marines—or at least I thought I had.
Now one had died, and it felt like a part of me had gone missing. Cpl. Dustin Libby—22 years old from Maine—had taken a fatal bullet during a grueling four-hour firefight in Ramadi. He had died fighting to protect his platoon. Our company. My company.
Libby’s death hit me hard. It was almost incomprehensible to me to think about it. There was so much chaos that night. His death stunned us all; when we heard the official report, the blur of fighting throughout the dark hours had distracted us from expressing any real emotions. But as the morning came, so did the reality that Libby was gone.
On that fateful night, Lance Cpls. Jonathan Neris, Christopher Muscle, Jonathan Yenglin, and Hospitalman Nate “Doc” Dicks sat with Libby in their room at Entry Control Point 8, their battle position in the heart of central Ramadi.
They were interrupted when gunfire snapped against the walls. Their adrenaline surged. Fourth Platoon was completely engaged in one of the most complex attacks we’d faced to date.
They raced to the rooftop. A blaze of intense small arms fire lit the air. Deafening bursts from machine guns made it impossible to communicate. The battle raged on, and the Marines fought side by side.
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Neris caught Libby out of the corner of his eye. He heard Libby say, “I’m reloading my M-203.” But then Libby didn’t come back up. He looked down and saw that Libby had fallen.
With rounds still smacking the walls of Entry Control Point 8, Neris took a knee in the middle of the roof. Tears came down his face, his chest heaved, and he tried to stifle the short audible gasps.
As the firefight wound down in the early morning hours, every Marine in 4th Platoon found out about the loss of Libby and began to feel it. The next day, I carried their pain and mine, and I moved about numb and willing myself to not break down. I couldn’t because my Marines were looking to me for strength.
I rifled through my breast pocket. The dialing instructions for the phone and my CACO (casualty assistance calls officer) sheet with family notification phone numbers sat tucked inside. The papers were damp from my sweat, and I pushed the tiny power button of the phone on.
The keypad and screen lit up with a greenish glow. My stomach began to knot tight as I dialed the number for Libby’s mom. As the phone rang, my throat tightened from nerves as a hundred thoughts of how this speech was going to sound ran through my head.
I thought for sure she wouldn’t even want to talk to me. I thought that surely everything I had to say would sound so canned and insincere as if I was reading off a pre-written government script.
On the fifth ring, a frail-sounding, sweet voice came on the line. “Hello.” Geni Libby. Cpl. Dustin Libby’s mother.
I introduced myself. “Mrs. Libby, this is Captain Scott Huesing, your son’s company commander and … ” My voice began to crack. I had to take a moment and find the words. “ … I can’t tell you how truly sorry I am at the loss of Dustin.”
Tears came quickly to my eyes, and a lump rose in my throat as I uttered that first sentence. I had not felt that afraid to speak since I was a child and endured that uncontrollable terror of having to tell the truth after something bad happened—I struggled with it.
I tried to imagine what Geni looked like as I spoke. I wondered what she was doing and if her family was around her at the time. I didn’t expect it to be so hard, and I tried to hold back the pain, but I couldn’t seem to get a grasp of my emotions. I knew she could hear it in my voice.
As the conversation continued, I tried evading some of her questions, but she pressed me for specific details about that night. She already knew that he had died from a single gunshot wound to the neck, having been told this by the CACO.
I told her that Dustin had fought bravely in the face of a tough, well-organized enemy, and that his actions saved the lives of countless Marines in his platoon before he was wounded. I told her how we rushed Dustin to the battalion aid station at the Combat Outpost in my Humvee.
“Thank you for telling me the truth,” she said. “Dustin meant a lot to me,” I said. “He was truly one of my favorites in Echo Company. I know there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his Marines.”
Geni was silent for a moment. “Dustin loved being a Marine more than anything. I’ll pray for your continued safety. Please continue fighting.” I told her we’d stay safe and that Dustin would be with us in spirit as we continued our mission. “He won’t be forgotten. He didn’t give his life in vain.”
We spoke for several minutes more, and she kept telling me how proud she was of all of us and they’d be thinking of us and praying for us.
She thanked me for calling. She was thanking me? Tears spilled freely down my face, through the layers of dust, as I listened to Geni’s soothing voice speak to me not as a Marine or commander, but as a mother would to any son.
It was humbling beyond words. I felt cared for so much by this lady whom I’d never even met. A sense of relief, compassion, and forgiveness came over me all at once. My breath began to come back to me as I felt the love she had for her son and for all of us fighting in that miserable place.
“If there’s anything that you and the boys need, you just let us know. We love all of you, and we’re proud of all of you back here.” Geni, in all of her pain, and as only a mother can, knew how hard it was for me to make that phone call. In her compassionate way, she thanked me again.
Where do people like this come from? They’re not ordinary people—they’re extraordinary. They lose so much, yet can still care so deeply for others like me and the hundreds of others that Libby died protecting that night. I was—and remain—in awe of the strength she possessed.
This excerpt has been republished with permission from “Echo in Ramadi: The Firsthand Story of U.S. Marines in Iraq’s Deadliest City” (Regnery Publishing, 2018).