A Marine’s Anniversary Reflections

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A U.S. Marine in Fallujah, 2004.

It’s the little details you tend to remember about war, snapshots of time that have a grisly habit of creeping into your thoughts and dreams years after your service:

— The deafening silence of “roll call” during a memorial service for fallen comrades.

— A jagged piece of metallic shrapnel deeply-embedded in the whites of an eyeball of a friend who lay screaming on a stretcher.

— An insurgent’s shredded, infected calf muscle torn apart by an M-16, gaping open to the bone.

These are just some of the intrusive images from Iraq that visit me from time to time — each one a reminder of the gruesomeness that is war.

Ten years ago, full of preconceived notions and unrealistic expectations of combat, I watched the invasion of Iraq unfold from the confines of my barracks room in Quantico, Va.

Joined by fellow boot lieutenants from my Marine Corps officer basic school class,  we made cocky, off-hand remarks about Marines kicking ass and killing the enemy — frankly, that’s exactly what we were training to do. So at the time, it seemed like justified confidence for warriors-in-training like us with everything to prove.

But in reality, this group of alpha males was trying desperately to mask our collective insecurity with our uncertain, yet rapidly approaching, destinies in the corps. It was a strange feeling — almost out-of-body, really — to be in the middle of training for war and watching an actual war on TV.

We knew that in a few short months we would be commanding Marines of our own, but we didn’t yet know in what capacity. As part of our officer training, we had to compete against our fellow classmates for billets in each of the roughly two-dozen MOSs (military occupational specialties).

Some jobs were more coveted than others.

Most men boasted of their intent to be Infantry Officers or Intelligence Officers, but there were limited slots for each of these specialties — demand far exceeded supply.  The greater Marine Corps still needed its Adjutants and Supply Officers, so some of our classmates were inevitably destined to sit behind a desk — certainly no less honorable a job, but definitely not the sexy leadership opportunity that enticed most of us to join the Marines.

Watching the war on CNN gave me mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I felt like I was missing out on the action. As machismo as that sounds, the reality was that I had joined the Marines to fight for my country — the “opportunity” to fight, however, seemed fleeting.

Watching our bombers annihilate Baghdad during the initial phase of the war, I was convinced that the war was a forgone conclusion that would end long before my training did. At the same time, however, I prayed for the safety of our troops, hoping that our “shock and awe” campaign would quickly overwhelm and dominate Saddam’s forces.

It’s clear now that I wanted two vastly different, almost opposing outcomes — for a fast resolution of the war, but also for the hostilities to last just long enough…for me to get my shot.

I was fundamentally at odds with myself, conflicted at my very core — it was a moral dilemma that I failed to truly understand at the time. I’m sure many of my fellow lieutenants shared my emotional disorientation, but nobody had the courage to admit it.

Compelled to serve in the wake of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq was the second war I had watched unfold on CNN as I finished my degree and began my Marine officer training.  To be honest, I was afraid that my joining the Marines was going to be for nought, that the wars would be over by the time I was trained and ready to fight them. It’s not that I was hungry for blood or that I wanted to kill; instead, I just desperately wanted the chance to prove myself in harm’s way, to lead Marines in the purest sense. I wanted to truly serve my country, to be tested, and Lord willing to prevail.

Ironically, I didn’t give much thought as to whether I fought in Afghanistan or Iraq; I just wanted to fight.

The now infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner was a double-edged sword for me — as a human being I was relieved that the shooting war appeared to be over, that the fighting and suffering and dying had come to an end; but as a Marine, I was disappointed, jealous of the Marine officers only several classes before mine that had participated in the invasion.

I shuddered to think that perhaps I had made the wrong decision in joining the Marines — if I couldn’t fight for my country as planned, what would I do as a Marine during the remaining three years on my contract? What kind of leadership test would it be if I was relegated to remaining stateside?

I put my life on hold for this?

My consternation didn’t last long, as it became readily apparent that the war had only just started. Following Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi military, tens of thousands of pissed-off, middle-aged, Ba’ath Party-affiliated men suddenly found themselves without work or the prospect of work.

Motivated by the basic need to put food on the table, thousands upon thousands of men, with military training no less, were easily convinced to take up arms against the United States. Al Qaeda slipped into the country and quickly began exploiting the ensuing lawlessness, providing leadership to unite the disparate insurgent forces and funding to sustain them.

The insurgency subsequently exploded, and the U.S. found itself in a completely different war than it had planned for. Using munitions stolen from countless weapons depots that were abandoned and left unguarded following the invasion, insurgents quickly learned to build powerful, and often deadly, makeshift bombs. Responsible for the majority of US troops killed in Iraq since our invasion in 2003, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) changed the face of modern warfare forever.

Employed in various forms dating all of the way back to WWII, the modern day IED was used extensively by the IRA in Northern Ireland, and later perfected by the Mujahideen fighting the USSR in Afghanistan. During Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the IED quickly became the enemy’s favorite weapon — insurgents detonated an estimated 50 to 100 IEDs per day across Iraq at the height of the war in 2006-2007.

A year and a half after the invasion, I finally got my wish.

I deployed to Al Qaim, a volatile grouping of towns situated along Iraq’s western border with Syria, a place where foreign-born al Qaeda fighters were crossing the border in greater and greater numbers. I had the privilege of commanding a small team of intelligence collectors, and for seven months straight we went full bore, operating around the clock to disrupt enemy attacks, to locate IEDs, and to take down terrorist cells.

Undoubtedly the most fulfilling seven months of my professional life, my first combat deployment was as exhilarating as it was demoralizing: no matter how well we did our job, it was never enough.

Despite our best efforts, Marines continued to die. It didn’t matter how many terrorist operatives we took down, there was always another ready and willing to rise up in his place.

Death was all around us it seemed. Housed adjacent to the Dustoff medevac landing pad, our living quarters rattled and filled with dust when the birds left, and later when they returned with wounded troops from the battlefield. We became accustomed to the pattern of things. First, a distress call would come in over the radio from a platoon that just took casualties; minutes later the birds would depart with empty cargo, and return with bloody Marines.

When my men were operating with a unit that took casualties, time literally seemed to stop for me — all I could do was wait for the casualties to be brought back to base and subsequently identified. From the time the distress call went over the radio until the medevac helicopter returned with the casualties, I felt utterly powerless and helpless. All I could do was wait and hope, praying that it wasn’t one of mine. The thought of losing one of my Marines was my biggest fear, one that I am grateful to have narrowly avoided.

To this day, I still dream about those helicopters, with the distinctive “whoop-whoop” of their rotors, and sometimes wonder why I escaped a bloody ride of my own.

My second combat deployment to Iraq, to the outskirts of Fallujah, is a total blur.

With only five months stateside between my two tours, I barely had time enough to decompress from my first tour before I left for my second.  Psychologists call it “layering,” when trauma from one deployment is overlaid with trauma from a second — whatever you call it, it becomes a heavy burden to bear.

I consider myself fortunate, having deployed only twice. Some of my Marines, those that, unlike me, had courageously decided to remain in the corps, deployed into harm’s way over and over and over again. These men have borne the brunt of this war, and I am grateful for their willingness to have shouldered way more than their fair share of our nation’s sacrifice in Iraq. To them we are all indebted.

When it’s all said and done, our country paid, and will continue to pay, a mighty price for our war in Iraq. Of the more than 1 million U.S. troops that served there, many of whom deployed multiple times, at least 32,000 suffered wounds from the enemy, and countless more suffer from the invisible wounds of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the two signature afflictions of the Iraq war.  A total of 4,486 warriors paid the ultimate sacrifice, returning home in flag-draped caskets.

Many of our nation’s proudest OIF veterans are suffering, too many of whom are fighting a wholly preventable battle with a backlogged and overwhelmed VA system to receive the healthcare and disability benefits they have rightly earned. Oftentimes waiting for over a year for their claims to be processed, many veterans are hanging in the balance, desperate for assistance and incredulous at the lumbering bureaucracy that is too often the VA.

A recent study out of Brown University estimated that the war has cost a total of 190,000 lives and $2.2 trillion so far. These costs could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next 40 years — simply staggering figures. While it’s impossible to know the true costs of the war, it’s certain that we will be paying for it for decades to come as our OIF veterans continue to generate enormous healthcare-related costs stateside.

Especially on occasions like this anniversary, many Americans will undoubtedly argue about whether or not we should have gone to war in Iraq in the first place.

I have no dog in that fight, so I will let history be the judge. At the end of the day, however, there is no debating the fact that we did invade Iraq, and that we owe it to the sons and daughters we sent half-way around the world to fight on our behalf to take care of them when they come home. To do anything less would be an affront to our country’s ideals and values, and to its very legacy.

For those of us who fought there, we have the rest of our lives to judge whether or not we made a positive impact, to decide whether our individual sacrifice was ultimately worth it. As for me, I am finally at relative peace with my service in Iraq. Although my war will likely never fully end, at the end of the day, all I know is that I am proud to be a Marine, honored to have led Marines in Iraq, and grateful to have brought all my men home.

And for that, on this anniversary, I give thanks.