'Iraqi Freedom Day' More than Falling Statue, Says Marine
By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 8, 2006 Three years ago, on live television, the world watched Saddam Hussein's statue fall in downtown Baghdad, but a Marine who saw it firsthand believes that image doesn't tell the full story he lived.
"It may have been a pretty amazing event to watch back home on TV, but (it) barely registers as a memory," Marine Maj. Matthew Baker told American Forces Press Service from his present assignment on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. Baker was executive officer of the unit that pulled down the statue during Baghdad's capture after a crowd of Iraqis tried to do it on their own.
"I think it was one of many images," Baker said, recalling the days surrounding that moment in Firdos Square. "I remember things like being incredibly tired or having an explosion go off very close to me and thinking, 'Wow, that was awfully close,' or things like that -- not, 'Well that was really cool. We pulled down a statue today.'"
Still, Baker said, he recognizes the falling statue has become an important image for many.
He recently spoke with a teenager who told him he believed the scene had been staged. Baker said, "He started talking about how it was amazing how the U.S. had been able to put that whole ... thing together and bus people in." That's one of the tallest tales Baker said he's heard in a long time. "That was as spontaneous an event as you could have," he said.
On April 9, 2003, Baker's infantry unit, the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, was ordered to secure the Palestine Hotel, across the street from Firdos Square. "There were a bunch of Westerners there, and the fear was that they would be harmed in some way, and so we kind of departed from a methodical clearing of the city and shot forward to the vicinity of the Palestine," he said. The unit was not told that dozens of Western reporters were staying at the hotel.
While most of the battalion secured the area, Baker and his group pressed deeper into the city before returning to Firdos Square to liaise with the rest of the battalion. By that time, people had gathered around a 20-foot statue of Saddam in the center of the square, and Baker stood by to watch the scene.
"When I came up on the square, the crowd had already formed, and the tank retriever was being hooked up to the statue," he said. "It had a massive crane on it and a very powerful engine."
After the statue slid off its mounting pipes, Iraqis crowded around it and hit it with their shoes, Baker said. "They took the statue apart pretty quick, and people hauled off pieces of it."
Baker admits he's no expert on measuring crowds, but estimated it at more than 1,000 people. "It was quite noisy because of the crowd being very excited," he said. Outside the square, the sounds of battle continued, although no one appeared worried or took cover. "It wasn't particularly close, but the battle was still very much going on," he said.
In the following days, Baker's battalion quickly found itself changing focus to stability and support operations, he said. Their area of responsibility included several hospitals, Baghdad's city hall, the central banking district and the water and sewer bureau.
Without any military police as part of their regiment, the Marines quickly started enlisting some of the local police, encouraging them to put on uniforms and help keep citizens from looting. "It was a pretty unruly time," he said.
The unit did its best to defend the banks in the area. The Marines used Amtrak personnel carriers to secure the buildings one at a time, sometimes filling the vehicles with money and valuables to move them to more secure locations, he said.
At one point, one of his platoons stopped a bank robbery in progress, he said. Instead of the usual denominations of Iraqi currency, this time the captured bag of loot contained $3.6 million in American dollars.
"I thought the great thing was (these Marines) brought $3.6 million and just gave it to me as the XO and continued on their way again," he said. "That's kind of an example of their integrity, and just trying to help people out."
Connecting with the local population went well. "We started making friends pretty quickly with that neighborhood," Baker said. When the battalion was sent home, many of his Marines, who had learned Arabic phrases and worked with the local population to secure their homes, were concerned for the people's safety.
Baker continues to work with Marines on Twentynine Palms as deputy for Marine Corps Community Services. He helps the troops transition between deployment, their return home and new deployments. Every deployment is unique, and the mission continues, he said.
"Each subsequent deployment has its own images," and it goes far beyond images of a statue being toppled, he said.
"(Reporters) want a lasting memory of this event," he said. "That's not necessarily the way that Marines focus in on it because when you've lived the event, there are other things that are a lot more important to you."