NEAR MONARCH — Hard work is nothing new for the Marines of Apache Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance battalion. All 163 members of the unit fought and survived the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in late 2004.
"We initiated, we engaged with the enemy to get them to deploy and develop,” said retired Captain John Griffin, who was the company commander. "So then the larger force that we're supporting has an opportunity in time and space to maneuver to a position of advantage."
Now, for the first time in 17 years, 65 members of the unit have reunited in the Little Belt Mountains of Montana thanks to the non-profit Warrior Reunion Foundation.
"We got tired of getting together just for funerals of guys and sad reasons,” said Bart Cole, the foundation’s director and a decorated Marine veteran.
Cole helps organize these reunions, and says they never get old.
"It's validation that I'm doing the right thing,” said Cole. “And I have confirmation on top of that on the backside where guys are like, 'This changed my life because I got to see my brother I haven't seen for 15 years and we've been able to reconnect.'"
The reunions also feature recreational excursions, including a visit to the Sluice Boxes State Park, learning about veterans services, and a public service project.
"These veterans, they might be missing parts, we might have holes in us, and we might be burned, but we're not broken," said Cole.
Cole says some reunions also feature memorial services for soldiers who during or after their time in combat.
The Marines of Apache Company 2nd LAR were tasked with dropping off beams on a mountainside for eventual construction of a bridge. In Iraq, they excelled on the battlefield, and beyond.
"After we did this high kinetic fight, then it was about stability operations and returning voting opportunities to the city of Fallujah," said Griffin.
Most of these Marines were compelled to enlist as a result of 9/11. Ironically, that same day in 2004 was when they crossed into Iraq. Seeing each other for the first time in so many years, they didn’t skip a beat.
"You have family and then you have the brothers that you served in combat with,” said veteran Jared McGowen of St. Louis. “We've all seen some crazy things we've been trough some really hard things together. No matter how long you've been apart, when you finally do get together and you connect, all the old stories coming up, all the memories that you've put aside that you haven't thought about in 15 years.”
Griffin, who retired in 2015, says not losing a single Marine in the Battle of Fallujah was nothing short of miraculous.
"When we left, in my mind everything was perfect, so when you come back to these things, my fear was it wouldn't be perfect,” said Griffin. “It didn't take long to realize that the bonds transcend that so just as we accomplished and got over our fear in combat because we were with another, the same thing happened for me here. The moment I saw their faces after 17 years, I could still see it was them and the bond was instant again."
"You got people from the city, people from the country, mountains, flatlands, swamps, black, white, red, blue, it doesn't matter, you're all brothers again," said Cole.
This is the Warrior Reunion Foundation’s fifth reunion of 2021. They have plans for six more this year, including another one for Afghan War veterans later this week at Camp Rotary.
To learn more about the foundation, click here to visit the website.