I visited each one because I was directly involved in the decision that led to their deaths.
In late 2004, Marine commanders in Al Anbar Province and I, the State Department representative in Falluja, needed a strategy to secure polling sites in violent western Iraq so that Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, would be able to vote. I argued that Marines should be sent to far-flung villages to protect local residents as they voted. Gen. Dunford, who was back then a brigadier general, wisely pushed for keeping Marines concentrated in the largest population centers. During a final meeting, I pulled civilian rank and overruled the headquarter staff officers. Within a few days, the election-support mission was widened to locations across Al Anbar.
In the early hours of Jan. 26, 2005, one of two large Marine helicopters transporting troops for this expanded and therefore riskier mission crashed, killing all onboard: 30 Marines and a Navy corpsman. The accident would remain the single-largest casualty incident in either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. On polling day, Jan. 30, only a small percentage of Sunnis voted in the vast province, just as Anbari leaders had predicted.