MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- A tank platoon commander led his company of Marines during the U.S.-led military push into the city of Baghdad nearly one year ago. Their mission was to isolate and secure the southern side of the Imam Al-Adham mosque.
“The streets were lined with people,” said 1st Lt. Keith M. Montgomery, Scout Platoon commander, 2d Tank Battalion, 2d Marine Division. “Some of the people were cheering—others [old men] were giving us the thumbs down indicating that we should leave as we had come.”
“All of a sudden, there was nobody,” he said.
The events that followed would result in Montgomery receiving a purple heart.
The platoon continued forward until they were given a grid coordinate not to pass, according to Montgomery.
“I bent down to look at the Global Positioning System,” said Montgomery. “The first rocket-propelled grenade hit where my head had just been.”
The tank behind Montgomery’s immediately took out the source of the initial RPG attack, stated Montgomery.
The platoon moved deeper into the city and came to a cross street.
“I instructed my gunner to survey to the right and we immediately noticed an RPG team,” said Montgomery. “I gave the command to fire but the RPG team fired at the same time.”
According to Montgomery, the RPG penetrated the tank rendering the 120mm smooth bore main weapons system inoperable.
“It was the luckiest and the most unlucky shot,” Montgomery said, because it was the last thing he did.
The impact of the RPG sprayed chunks of metal throughout the interior of the tank.
“The result of the impact was shrapnel in my arm and ribcage,” said Montgomery.
“However my loader took the brunt of the impact to his legs and my gunner got hit in the lower appendages.”
Montgomery and his Marines were unable to shoot due to the gunner’s M240 machine gun being inoperable; however, they could move and communicate.
“I tried to get word back to my company commander but could not speak because of the halon [fire suppressant] and black smoke inside of the tank,” said Montgomery. “I also wanted to maintain discipline and order, so I didn’t tell my Marines I was hurt.”
The team then moved into an alley with windows three to four stories high.
“As we were sitting in the alley we got hit by another RPG,” Montgomery recalls. “Then two more, but the damage was minimal.”
A final RPG hit the rear of the tank in the engine area shutting the engine down.
“My driver went through the process of trying to start the engine, but eventually stopped.” said Montgomery. “When your engine goes down this is not a good feeling. Everything was dark.”
As the company of Marines continued fighting, a recovery effort was coordinated.
“The platoon of grunts moved in, and after awhile, there was a silence,” said Montgomery with an expression of immeasurable satisfaction upon his face. “They took care of business and cleared out the area. Then the recovery team came in and pulled my tank back to the banks of the Tigris River.”
Montgomery stated that his adrenalin wore off as his wounds were getting treated.
“The doc took a scalpel and cut out the shrapnel,” said the Lake Arrowhead, Calif., native. “This may have hurt worse than getting the shrapnel. It felt like someone had beaten me down.”
Despite sustaining injuries, Montgomery believed that getting back into the fight was the number one priority.
“My driver, Cpl. Leonel Sanchez, and my gunner, Cpl. Ian Durham, were transferring gear from our tank to another tank,” said Montgomery. “I would not see my loader [Lance Cpl. Justin Elmer] until I got back to the states.”
Trying to describe the sights and sounds of combat would prove nearly impossible.
“Take every sense you’ve ever felt and multiply that by one hundred thousand,” said Montgomery. “Then a person who has never been there might understand. The events happen fast.”
“The training works,” said Montgomery. “Marines are trained to act rather than react. My Marines were superb. It was an amazing thing to see how things clicked.”
Feeling invincible is another sensation one feels, especially in a tank recalls Montgomery.
“As a Marine you do feel invincible. You are in 70 tons of steel, 10 feet off of the ground, with more firepower than a Marine rifle company,” said Montgomery.
The feeling of being invincible fell away as an RPG penetrated the tank.
“I remember feeling angry, because I didn’t like being out of the fight,” said Montgomery.
There can be no doubt, however, that Montgomery was in the fight, as his citation reads,
“For wounds received in action on 10 April 2003 in Iraq.” Participating in the ongoing war on terrorism has made him feel older, Montgomery stated.
“Every Marine wants to get into the fight, but you don’t know what is going to come of that,” said Montgomery. “This war gets a lot of negative press, but when you see how things were and how they are …”
“The kids loved us.” Montgomery continued. “All they wanted was food and water.
The point of this is the sacrifices Marines make like 1st Lt. Brian McPhillips, a TOW platoon commander,” Montgomery stated
“People like Brian put their lives on the line voluntarily,” said Montgomery. “And often times, like Brian, they make the ultimate sacrifice doing what they loved.”
Montgomery believes the amazing things Marines are capable of will also remain with him.
“There is a seal beneath the hub on the wheels of the tank,” said Montgomery. “If that seal breaks the lubricant will leak out causing the wheel to seize up which will affect the overall performance of the vehicle. When we were in a pause the Marines came up to me and asked me for chewing gum. I wondered why. Later I found out that when a seal was damaged the Marines would chew gum and use it in place of the seal.”
“You hear about Marines adapting and overcoming, and it’s true.”