A “Gift of Desperation”: A Marine Reflects on Combat and bin Laden, Who Put Him There

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Bingham Jamison in Iraq

Standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the honor graduates from our Officer Candidates School (OCS) class, I accepted my award from the Commanding General with a crisp salute. My transformation from a frat boy trolling Rugby Road at The University of Virginia to a man deemed worthy to lead Marines was finally complete. It was August 2001, and for the first time since arriving to the Quantico Marine Corps base three months earlier, I could finally take a deep breath and relax.

My life changed the following month, when Osama bin Laden struck our country. It pushed me into war and brought me home in pain. Now that he’s dead, what have I learned?

Back in August of 2001, I figured that in a few weeks I would rejoin my classmates at the McIntire School of Commerce, UVA’s top-ranked undergraduate business school, to embark on my fourth and final year. And by my calculation, my character building OCS experience had just catapulted me ahead of my competition in pursuit of one of the limited positions at prestigious Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.

Since OCS is a non-binding commitment, I had the right, not the obligation, to be commissioned as a Marine Corps officer upon graduation. If everything went according to plan, after successfully completing OCS, I did not intend to join the Marines. Rather, I believed my experience at OCS would give me the necessary edge to earn a coveted job at a top investment bank, thereby initiating a successful career in finance. In fact, several of my father’s most successful friends had followed the same route, and later credited their remarkable success to their summer at OCS. I had it all figured out.

When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, the plan for my life that I had worked so hard to craft and to execute to that point vanished. Like so many others that day, my life was forever changed: witnessing the destruction of the heart of Wall Street, both literally and, for me, metaphorically; consoling loved ones in grief; and feeling that nauseating realization that America was at war.

Shaking with rage and overcome with grief, I felt utterly helpless as we sat and watched the horror unfold. I remember watching the particularly disturbing footage of people leaping from the burning buildings to their deaths, and at that moment I decided to put my investment career on hold. I was being called to serve my country in Her time of need, to join the Marines, and take part in my generation’s fight against terrorism. I had the rest of my life to sit behind a desk, but the opportunity to serve my country and a cause greater than myself was fleeting. I was ready to fight. And I was eager to join the warriors in the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt described them, “who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Carpe Diem.

Following the attacks of 9/11, my sense of urgency to join the fight was met with a seemingly endless game of “hurry up and wait.” Eight months to finish my degree followed by a two-year training cycle to prepare me for combat, I stepped foot in the Middle East to fight for my country almost three years to the day after 9/11. But when my chance to fight terrorism finally arrived, I was hunting Abu Musab al Zarqawi and his al Qaeda cronies in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, not Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan.

Fast forward to November 10th, 2004 – a day only fitting for the Marine Corps birthday. The infantry battalion my team was supporting conducted an intelligence-driven helicopter raid on an Al Qaeda compound located in a prohibitively dangerous area north of the Euphrates River from Al Qaim.

The mission was an overwhelming success. Not only did we capture the high level Al Qaeda operative, but his house was also chock full of weapons, munitions, and evidence of terrorist tradecraft. We found dozens of pairs of night vision goggles, three surface to air missiles, and one of Saddam Hussein’s personal and prized chrome-plated, pearl-handled AK-47s.

After clearing through the entire house and into the courtyard out back, we realized that a small storage room had not yet been cleared, and a small team of Marines kicked in the door to clear the room. To their surprise, instead of enemy combatants on the other side of the door, the Marines found three terrified Iraqi men chained to the floor. Victims of kidnapping, these men had been snatched by al Qaeda and were being held for ransom. Short of $10,000 payments from each of their families, these men would have been murdered within two days.

The three men flew back with us on our helicopters, where we fed them and gave them a phone to call their families for the first time since being kidnapped. I wept with them as I listened to their calls that night, and I hardly understood a word of their Arabic. I rejoiced with them. These men stared an almost certain terrible death in the face and somehow, someway escaped that fate.

I have never seen men more grateful in all my life – they hugged and kissed me, and told me that they would be indebted to me and to the Marines for the rest of their lives. (I was so moved by this incident that years later, after I left active duty, I pursued a career in terrorism finance, and developed a particular expertise in illicit financing methods such as kidnapping for ransom).

This was a resounding defeat of Al Qaeda in our corner of Iraq, but it was short lived. I think the evil of the movement proved much stronger than the power of one of its leaders, so our victory remained temporary. We must consider bin Laden’s death in this light – al Qaeda is not dead.

Bin Laden’s death is no more the end of terrorism than my homecoming was the end of my war. A body left hurting from the physical tolls of combat, I underwent two major hip surgeries and downed years of prescription painkillers to manage the pain. This intervention was successful only in making the pain worse and my becoming addicted to painkillers.

The longer I took the medication, the higher my tolerance became and the more and more dependent I became on the medication just to physically power through the day. Without them I couldn’t get out of bed; couldn’t go to work; couldn’t function as a father. I was in so much pain I could barely function at all.

And all the while I was convinced that I was being rightly punished for something that I had done in Iraq, or for someone that I had not, but perhaps could, have saved. I had always felt guilty for not having done more, so my suffering seemed to justify my guilt as proof of such culpability.

It was a negative feedback loop that drove me into a deep and dark depression, where suddenly I was both physically and emotionally vulnerable. The Marine Corps, the very institution that I credited for my source of strength, character, and integrity, was also now the source of my haunting physical and emotional suffering. Thus began the dichotomy that is life after combat.

During my darkest times, it’s easy to focus on the worst days in Iraq, when comrades were wounded or killed, and get stuck in the endless cycle of “What could I have done differently to prevent that from happening?” or “It should have been me instead.” Perhaps it’s human nature, but for the hundred lives you save, it’s the one life that you can’t save that you tend to remember, reflect on, and hold yourself to account.

So today I press on. I live with severe chronic pain in my hips, but I no longer take pain medication. I’ve sought out alternative forms of treatment to help manage the pain, such as acupuncture and meditation, and I’ll describe their effectiveness as a work in progress. The VA is helping me meticulously process through some difficult memories from Iraq so that I can try to move on with my life. All in all, it’s been five years since I returned from my last tour to Iraq, and Iraq is still an enormous, costly, and time-consuming part of my life.

Friends sometimes ask me, if I could, would I change any part of my past? My response is always the same: “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Despite all the hardship, all the anguish, all the friends that were killed in Iraq, all the lives that were forever changed, those experiences have formed a foundation from which I can live the rest of my life.

I talk to my wife all the time about how life is a matter of perspective. Lance Armstrong once said, “Suffering helps us further define our capacity for life and for love.” If what I’ve been through ultimately allows me to enjoy life more fully, or enables me to love my wife and my children more completely, then it will all be worth it. I have been given the gift of desperation.

Sometimes, years removed from our service, it’s far too easy to forget about the positive impact that we had. Big victories and small alike, it’s important that we continue to talk about and celebrate the accomplishments of our young men and women in the armed services.

Our military is filled with young men and women who, in response to the attacks by Osama bin Laden on September 11th, showed great resolve and moral courage by joining our ranks. As a country we owe a debt of gratitude to all those who stepped forward and chose to serve their country since 9/11. As a nation we tend to have a short institutional memory. Let us use bin Laden’s death as an opportunity to reflect on all those who have sacrificed both on and off the battlefield since 9/11, both the warriors who have served and their families and loved ones who know that not all battles end with the war.

Bingham Jamison served two combat tours as a Marine Corps Officer in Iraq. He earned his Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation after leaving active duty, and has worked combating terrorism financing and managing investments for non-profit endowments and foundations. A captain in the Marine Ready Reserves, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two children.