MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga. -- “We gave them freedom.”
That’s what Master Sgt. Leon C. Lambert says is the legacy of the toppling of a statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the push into Baghdad April 9, 2003. He and his crew aboard an M-88A2 “Hercules” tank retriever helped it happen.
And when the fourth anniversary of that event arrives next week, Lambert, now a fleet liaison chief at Maintenance Center Albany, will head back to Iraq for the third time.
He’ll be leading a 10-person civilian team to complete armor upgrades on light armor vehicles that were modified at MCA and are now arriving in Iraq.
But his first trip to Iraq began in Kuwait and was followed by 21 days of combat when the war started in 2003.
“We fought every day and slept very little,” said Lambert, who is nearing his 20-year anniversary of service in the U.S. Marine Corps.
When they reached the outskirts of Baghdad, his unit was involved in combat at a military compound that supported Scud missiles.
“It was a pretty vicious fight. We used the M-88 as a forward armored ambulance and moved in to evacuate critically wounded Marines, civilians and POWs,” Lambert said.
His company, B Company, 1st Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 7, was ordered the next day to move from the outskirts of Baghdad into town where a report claimed American citizens were being held hostage.
“They turned out to be journalists who were being held by a militia. But the militia scattered when we arrived. They didn’t want any part of us,” said Lambert, a Colorado native.
The events that followed led to one of the iconic pictures of the war in Iraq.
The Marines took control of the area around Ferdoos Square with tanks and infantry.
“I radioed my (executive officer) and said, ‘Hey, sir, there’s a statue of Saddam here. Can we go knock it down?’ And he said, ‘You can’t.’ And I said, ‘Roger.’”
More and more Iraqi citizens poured into the square to thank the Marines for being there.
“It was a very joyous occasion for them to see us. This was in addition to friendly Iraqi citizens who greeted us when we came in from the outskirts of town. I don’t remember any hostile fire on that move,” said Lambert.
He and the other Marines were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of civilians, many of whom gave them flowers as a gesture of appreciation.
An Iraqi approached Lambert and, in broken English, asked him to take down Saddam’s statue.
“I told them I wasn’t allowed to do that, but I could give them some tools and they could take it down,” Lambert said.
He then watched for an hour as one Iraqi, who had been a wrestler at the Olympics, beat on the statue with Lambert’s loaned 12-pound sledge hammer while 15-20 other Iraqi men tugged on a heavy rope tied to the statue.
It wasn’t going to work. And then Lambert’s company commander, with the battalion commander’s approval, came to him and said to prepare to help them bring down the statue.
The main winch on Lambert’s M-88 had broken several days earlier when his crew pulled an armored D-9 Caterpillar out of a riverbed, so Lambert tried the tank retriever’s auxiliary winch, designed for something the size of a humvee.
It couldn’t do the job.
Lambert then received permission to “do what he needed to do” to knock down the statue and decided to use the M-88’s boom, rated at 70,000 pounds.
“I was nervous because many of the news media we’d just freed and a lot of Iraqi civilians were swarming over my vehicle,” Lambert said. “All it would take would be one person dropping a grenade inside and that would have been it. I was really nervous for me and my crew, even though we had infantry on the ground all around us.”
He quickly decided it was time to clear the news media and civilians from his vehicle.
Lambert sent his rigger, Cpl. Edward Chen, up the statue to secure a chain to it. Then, a Marine showed up with an American flag and said the company commander wanted it put on the statue.
The story of that American flag revolved around a 10-year old Iraqi boy who had pestered the Marine company commander for an American flag. But nobody had one, except for a platoon commander who had worked at the Pentagon when it was attacked on 9-11.
The lieutenant had carried the Pentagon 9-11 flag with him from Kuwait and now it was hoisted atop the statue.
“We had received sniper fire just minutes before the American flag arrived and our Marines returned fire. But you couldn’t hear it over all the people chanting and cheering. The crowd was so loud you could hardly hear the diesel engine on the M-88,” said Lambert.
“When we took the American flag down, an Iraqi civilian showed up with an Iraqi flag of pre-1991 design, which they loved. And the crowd got even louder when that flag was put on the statue,” Lambert said.
When the Iraqi flag was removed, the Marines made the crowd stand back so Lambert’s crew could safely pull down the statue.
“We worked on it and then just popped it off the pedestal and the Iraqi’s were all over it in just seconds,” said Lambert. “That’s when I realized how oppressed these people must have been. They beat on it with the soles of their feet, which is a very disrespectful thing to do in their culture. And they were spitting on it. The anger they had toward this symbol of Saddam was just unreal.”
Lambert has a perspective on events of four years ago compared to what’s happening now.
“I knew we had given them something they had wanted for many years and how tormented and afraid they must have been. This was their first taste of freedom and the Marines gave it to them that day,” Lambert said.
He is also well-grounded in his reason for his support of the War on Terrorism.
“The Iraqis still want their freedom and that’s why I’m going back,” he said. “The majority of the people want us there. The terrorists just want to keep fear in the Middle East. Iraq is the focal point in the war on terror.”
Lambert has been interviewed on the History Channel, along with the Discovery Channel, PBS, media outlets in the United Kingdom and others. But he says people don’t stop him on the street because they recognize him from the Saddam statue story they saw on TV or in the newspapers.
“When people see the picture of Saddam’s statue, most of the time they see my rigger,” he said. “But I was there, too. I kept them safe.”