I don’t really know why I am writing this. In some ways it is ironic. Less than twelve hours ago I was complaining to two close friends about how tired I am of reading Iraq war reflections. Yet here I sit in front of my keyboard with a stack of pictures and a bottle of scotch. I have never really written or talked much about my time in Iraq. Not because I find it difficult but mostly because I never really thought I had anything of value to say. The stories that are published online or printed in newspapers and magazines are usually written by officers, senior enlisted men or policy makers who regale readers with strategic and tactical adventures. They relive important moments in the war or walk through the thought process that ended in some critical decision. My war always seemed different than that.
Ten years ago today, as a nineteen year old private first class in the United States Marine Corps, I invaded Iraq. The words are still difficult to say out loud, they often stumble off the tongue. “I invaded Iraq.” What an odd statement. I graduated infantry school less than a month before my unit embarked on a ship and headed to Kuwait. I was a scout in the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. This meant that my war was mostly spent standing chest high out of the back of a light armored vehicle (LAV). Because I was just a private, I usually had no idea where we were, where we were going, or what we were doing. My job was to watch where I was told, get out and walk where I was told, and occasionally to shoot where I was told. It really wasn’t that sexy or exciting.
This is the point in the piece where most people begin a chronological retelling of their adventures. I can’t do that. For some reason, I have almost no recollection of time during my deployments to Iraq. Aside from a very broad sequence of events, I find it very difficult to recall the order in which things happened. I have absolutely no idea on what date anything occurred. From time to time, I have tried to gather this information and put it all together but I quickly lose the motivation. It never seemed that important.
My war, my Iraq, is relived through a collection of snapshots in my mind. Small vignettes of events that have always been vivid and manifest in no particular order. Still attached to some of these episodes are the memories of certain emotions. Not in the sense that I relive the emotion each time I think about it, but more in the sense that I distinctly remember feeling it. I often wonder why this is how I remember Iraq. My best guess is because every once in a while, for nearly a decade, I flip through a giant collection of old photos. I guess at some point as the memories began to fade, the photos took over.
One of the earliest memories I have is of sitting on the border between Kuwait and Iraq waiting to invade. I remember digging our first fighting hole. I’m pretty sure we spent the better part of two days sitting in that hole staring off into nothing. (Actually, I remember digging lots of fighting holes across southern Iraq. Probably, because I was always shocked at how hard the desert sand was. On more than one occasion we had to use the pick-ax.)
What I remember most about our time on the border was the SCUD missile alerts. It seemed like every few hours a frantic message would come over the radio warning us that Saddam had launched a SCUD in our direction. Almost always, it was a false alarm. But the first few warnings were some of the only times, in all of my deployments to Iraq, that I actually felt fear. We were convinced that Saddam was going to attack us with chemical WMD. The warning would come and we frantically donned our gas masks, piled into the LAV, and waited for the missile to hit and the gas to seep out. It never actually happened but I remember sitting in the back of the vehicle and wondering if my gas mask actually worked. I hear mustard gas is a bitch.
Oddly enough, I don’t really remember crossing the border and invading Iraq. I do, however, remember sitting on the border the night before and watching the missiles and artillery of “Shock and Awe” fly over our heads. I have never seen a sky full of shooting stars but I imagine that is what it would look like.
One of my most vivid memories is of my first real firefight. It really is like losing your virginity. I will always remember it, I felt like a bad-ass when it was over, and I probably wasn’t very good. It happened in a farm field outside of Salman Pak, southwest of Baghdad. We had spent the morning reconnoitering roads in the area and pulled into a field surrounded by trees to break for lunch. Earlier that day, we captured an Iraqi flag from atop a building and the first thing we did when we stopped was to pose for a platoon picture with the flag. I remember sitting down to eat lunch with someone about 15-20 yards behind our LAV. Before I could even unpack the disgusting MRE, we started taking fire from beyond the tree line. I remember jumping up, running as fast as I could and jumping in the back of our vehicle. Unfortunately, I really screwed up and left my light machine gun sitting beside my uneaten food. I had to jump out of the LAV, run back to my gun, and return to the vehicle. All under fire.
On this deployment to Iraq, I carried an M249 squad automatic weapon (SAW). It is a light machine gun capable of firing around 1,000 rounds a minute. Although, in 2003, the majority of the SAWs in the Marine Corps arsenal were old pieces of shit, the weapon was still useful in suppressing the enemy. The biggest problem with the SAW, next to its constant tendency to jam, was that if you held the trigger down for too long with gun would overheat and the barrel could melt. To stop this from happening on the battlefield the Marine Corps created a fail safe method of regulating the firing rate by limiting bursts of fire to anywhere between five and eight seconds. To ensure this was engrained in the mind of every young rifleman, infantry school instructors taught students to fire using a simple memory device. I was taught to hold the trigger down for as long as it takes to scream “DIE MOTHER FUCKER, DIE”.
I distinctively remember standing out of the back of my LAV and spraying the tree line in Salman Pak with rounds. It is still hard to believe but I remember standing there and screaming at the top of my lungs “DIE MOTHER FUCKER DIE” <release trigger> “DIE MOTHER FUCKER DIE” <release trigger> “DIE MOTHER FUCKER DIE”. This went on until my barrel still grew red hot and had to changed with the spare barrel I kept in the back of the LAV. Unfortunately, I know I wasn’t shooting at a particular target and was simply filling the tree line with a wall of lead.
During this firefight I also remember the very distinct sound bullets make when they whiz past your head. It was the first time I had ever heard it. It almost sounds like someone is snapping their fingers. I can also easily recall the ‘whoosh’ sound an RPG makes as it rushes by. One would expect this firefight to bring with it memories of fear, but i doesn’t. When it was all said and done, I remember feeling on top of the world, invincible. Don’t let this story impress you or fool you into thinking I was some kind of hero. I was only one among many. One of the guys with us that day was shot four times and lived to talk about it. He is the hero of that day in Salman Pak.
Another vignette in my mind is the night my platoon lost one of our own. He was the first KIA we knew during the initial invasion and the only one we would see until our third deployment in 2006. Every night in Iraq our guns were stuffed into our sleeping bags with us. The idea was that if anyone sneaked into our camp for the night they could not take our weapons without first waking us up. This practice unfortunately cost our brother his life. As he stuffed his SAW into his sleeping bag one night, it misfired, and shot him in the stomach. We were told later, much later, that he made it onto the MEDEVAC helicopter but passed away during the flight. Oddly enough, this memory evokes another emotion, nothingness. I distinctly remember learning about his death but feeling no sadness. Certainly, this was not because I did not care, we all grieved when we returned home. I image the nothingness grew from the subconscious knowledge that there was no time to grieve in Iraq. Unfortunately, this is an emotion that I would come to know well on my third deployment to Iraq in 2006.
There are many other snapshots from Iraq that often come to mind. Some that I can easily describe, like the image of a burnt out T-72 Iraqi battle tank, as well as others that will, more than likely, always remain between my brothers in arms and I.
Although I would make two more deployments to Iraq, my life changed forever when I crossed the line of departure on March 21, 2003. For starters, Iraq became my comfort zone. By the time I returned for my final deployment in 2006, I felt more relaxed in Iraq than I did at home. There was something comfortable about returning to Iraq each time, something familiar. Oddly enough, that feeling of comfort has never faded. My time in Iraq also sparked an interest in the Middle East. Four years after leaving the Marine Corps, I left my job in the banking industry to pursue a degree in Middle East studies at Dickinson College.
In the end, after three deployments to Iraq and nearly four years of studying the history, politics and society of the Middle East, would I do it again? The short answer is yes. Knowing what I know now, given the same opportunities with the same people, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. As unexplainable as it sounds, I would do it again for the experience. Although, I struggle to understand if this makes me a bad person as I know my experiences in Iraq came at the expense of many lives, both Iraqi and American.
Do I think it was worth it? To be honest, even after ten years, I still don’t know. I am sure that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein. However, I know that the invasion and ensuing occupation did not do most Iraqis many favors. Maybe more people died during the invasion and occupation than would have under another decade of Saddam’s rule. We will never know. An emotional part of me, a part that I try desperately to hide, hopes that my brothers who gave their lives did not do so in vain. As a good friend intelligently commented today, “I don’t think anyone can answer it objectively. I think in 50 or 100 years there will be a widely held historical view…but that’s about it.”