*Author note. I had originally written this piece in 2013, approximately 9 years after Operation Phantom Fury – the Second Battle for Fallujah. Lance Corporal Michael W. Hanks would eventually be awarded the Silver Star, our nations second highest medal, posthumously.
“”Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness.”
– Napoleon Hill
Tomorrow, November 17TH, is Mike Hanks Day. “Who is Mike Hanks?” Some of you may ask. Lance Corporal Michael W. Hanks was one of the most amazing Marines I have ever seen in my lifetime. He was just a regular guy, like the rest of us, from Michigan who at some point in time decided to join the Marine Corps. I knew Mike Hanks for only a short time; a matter of maybe eight months, but in those eight months Mike Hanks would change my life forever.
In April 2004 I was assigned to Company L (Lima Company) 3RD Battalion 1ST Marine Regiment. I took over third squad and shortly after we headed to the field to practice some basic infantry skills. Mike Hanks did not ride out with us but later showed up in the field. With my squad fully intact I assigned my three fire team leaders and for the next two to three months we would be preparing to deploy to Iraq in what would become known as Operation Iraqi Freedom II (OIF II).
Mike Hanks was one of the most charismatic men I had ever met; he was loved by everyone in the battalion. It is not uncommon to know a few guys in the other line companies but Mike Hanks knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was a joker most of the time but when it came to handling business, he was all business. One more background piece of information about Mike Hanks: he loved his Marines.
November 2004: We had spent the last week and a day slugging our way through Fallujah, Iraq. As calls came over the radio from other platoons and companies reporting they had enemy captives, my platoon, 1ST Platoon, was constantly being pounded by insurgents almost every step we took; an ambush on this block, a stray grenade from behind this wall. Small elements defending a weapons cache in one house, enemy shooters firing at us from a block away.
My squad had lost three men to the enemy and all three came from Mike Hanks’ fire team. This was eating Hanks alive; we all knew it but he never let it cloud his judgment and he kept charging on. My first fire team leader was fighting an ailment so I positioned his team in the middle of our formation and had my junior team leader bringing up the rear watching our six. Mike Hanks and I were always on point. On one occasion the platoon consolidated the remaining men (all but two members of 1ST squad had been MEDEVACED) and we proceeded to move down an alley way when suddenly there were shouts to disperse. An insurgent had heard us moving and began tossing grenades over a wall from a court yard. My squad pushed forward to strongpoint the next intersection while second squad pulled back and found a way to maneuver around the kill zone. We then began taking fire from behind us.
Moving with us was a squad of Iraqi National Guard (ING) and their Marine advisors from Combined Action Platoon – India (CAP – India). We tried to get a fix on the shooters but they were laying down fairly decent suppressive fire. We called up the ING. I briefed the sergeant on the situation and the ING and their advisors charged into the courtyard of the house. Just prior to the ING going in, a SMAW gunner positioned himself on an adjacent roof top attempted eliminate the threat but the geometry of fires provided restricted visibility and no clear target. A couple rockets were fired into the court yard but the enemy guns still rang out in a double time cadence. In went the ING and their advisors. A massive amount of automatic gunfire rang out and ceased only long enough for my squad to hear the ING screaming in confusion, and for my squad to hear a fellow Marine calling out for help. I quickly oriented my men to cover the high speed avenues of approach and without speaking a word to each other Mike Hanks and I advanced on the courtyard.
As soon as we crossed the threshold of the door to the courtyard we found ourselves on the receiving end of a blast of AK-47 fire. Mike Hanks dove behind a tree and I found myself seeking cover behind the charred remains of the insurgent who had initially been tossing grenades over the wall. Between and in front of Mike Hanks and I lay two Iraqi soldiers and a Marine. All three were alive but immobilized. We did not have much time to act. I saw Mike Hanks stand up out of my peripheral vision which was my signal to begin laying down suppressive fire. I still could not see the shooters so I called out to my man outside to fire in one direction as I popped up over the burned body and began firing in another direction. Mike Hanks, wearing his 100+ pounds of gear and ammo, rifle swinging from its sling, darted out exposing himself to enemy fire and in one fell swoop scooped up the Marine without even taking a knee or stopping, threw him over his shoulder, and ran towards a closed door leading to the street we had come down. As he ran with the man over his shoulder, Mike Hanks raised his foot in mid stride and kicked the door open, taking the Marine to safety. This restored confidence to the rattled ING and they quickly set up security around their advisor. I found myself a lone shooter, still lying behind the burnt corpse wondering how I was going to get out of the court yard. Before I could think again Mike Hanks came running in and dropped down behind his tree just long enough to take two breaths. He then jumped up again, I began to fire in the direction of the enemy (which I had now determined was atop a stairwell), and Mike Hanks repeated his run, scoop, and shoulder move with one of the ING. After dropping the ING off with the security element, Mike Hanks repeated this one more time.
Three times Mike Hanks exposed himself to intense enemy fire to not only rescue a fellow Marine, but two of our Iraqi partners as well. Mike Hanks came back one more time to help me out of that court yard. But when he came back it was Mike Hanks and I who needed rescuing. The enemy’s volume of fire had increased and we could not even get our heads up. Rounds were zinging and pinging, and whizzing all around us. I knew the body I was hiding behind would not hold out for long and Mike Hanks had nowhere to run. Suddenly a familiar sounding three to four round burst rang out and all went silent. Mike Hanks and I looked at each other as if trying to figure out if we should move or sit tight for a minute. “Hey sergeant, I got them.” Mike Hanks’ sole surviving team member, Jacob Delagarza had poked his head into the door to the court yard, was able to identify the enemy shooters, and with just a couple well aimed shots eliminated the threat and saved our lives.
We walked out of the court yard, took a sip of water, I put in a dip of Copenhagen, Mike Hanks smoked a cigarette and we just tried to catch our breath. Eventually a call came out over the radio.
“Leprechaun, Leprechaun. Did you guys search that house?”
My team leaders and I looked at each other and said, “F— that place!” And then we leveled the joint with rockets and C-4.
Mike Hanks actions in that situation were the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life. Such dedication, such devotion, such poise, such professionalism, such loyalty. I have served with many great men, only a couple I refer to as family, but to this day I have never witnessed anything like I did that day in Michael W. Hanks.