Reading Gunner Fay's stories has me traveling back to my experiences of Iraq, although I always tried to keep this blog free of graphic details of a war time experience some remain with me. I would argue that all who have been in the military in war time have our own memories and our scars, for me I understand and know my scars and how I can be reminded of them. A simple phrase, song on the radio, picture or smell can take me back to Iraq in the blink of an eye and cause me to pause. Some habits I have kept with me, a bad habit I picked up in Iraq was grinding my teeth at night, I am sure stress related and I also recall the many sleepless nights I could not shut my brain off to gain some much needed sleep. When I did sleep my brain did not slow down or stop causing the grinding. Today I still grind my teeth and have trouble sleeping. In retrospect I look at how I walked through that war time experience and reading my old journals my state of mind at the time. I will not go into detail here the personal pieces of those entries but suffice to say as time went on and I moved from unit to unit the perspective and my mind set changed.
In many ways now I wonder about my role of historian and the constant move to head for the action, little down time but always on the move to where units are in contact with the enemy. The ability to gather the best interviews while still fresh from battle and then move once again. Also the perspective of always traveling alone, not with a unit you trained with and developed friendships, but solo on the move, join up with a unit for 3 or 4 days then move on. In many ways this was the perfect fit for me I have spent many weeks on the road alone traveling the globe in my current line of work. So for me it was a perfect fit and I felt very comfortable. This is why historians generally are senior Marines who have been around, can adapt, adjust on the fly and know the Corps and it’s working very well. The ability to join up seamlessly based on decades of experience and knowing the Corps culture and operations are key to a historian’s success. Also the ability to know how to fight and the unspoken trust that Marines have, when the lead flies, you cover me and I will cover you, if need be we may both die but I will do my part and I know you will.
I also know that the USMC left Iraq in Jan of this year, although surprisingly it was page 10 news, in a ceremony in Fallujah the USMC turned over command to the U.S and Iraq Army. In 2006 and early 2007 when I was prepping, training and finally got to Iraq, it was being considered a lost cause with the insurgents claiming Ramadi as their Capital and many Marines dieing daily. Within my first 24 hours in Fallujah 4 Marines were killed, 3 by IED one by a sniper, to grasp the significance of turning over that city to the Iraqi's to me is more amazing than the headline news of the day in D.C. which was about Metro problems. My guess is Iraq is dimming from the American skyline soon to become history except for those who went, and still today, think about it. The shift now is Afghanistan where the Corps has a strong presence, having been at the piercing tip of America’s sword and seeing the sheer muscle and effectiveness of the killing machine the Corps is I suspect we will be turning over Kubal to the Afghan Army soon - I just hope it is not page 10 news.
To me it was also a journey of self, questions about myself as a Marine and a man. Did I have the fortitude of former Marines I questioned myself? Would I have been able to storm the walls of Chapultepec in Mexico and earn my blood stripes? Could I have marched stride for stride with the Marines in France as they headed into Bellau Wood to fight the Germans in the killing fields of WWI? Was I cut from the same cloth as the men who landed on Guadalcanal and eventually took Iwo Jima? Or more personally could I have stalked the jungles with my own living mentors in Vietnam and stood shoulder to shoulder and fought the Battle of Khe Sanh with them? So I want to Iraq, did what was needed and answered my own questions. The compelling need to push myself and keep on the move to various units I think now was a way of testing fate and myself and not just my job, if something was going to happen, I would tell myself let it happen here, just make it quick and final I often thought. The worst thing that could happen was to lose a limb or get injured so that you would forever rely on someone else for your care that was worse than death. Rolling the dice and knowing first hand what can be the outcome is an adrenaline rush and a symptom of being in that constant state of knowing how fragile you really are but knowing you will also never feel more alive than after an exchange with the enemy which you can walk away from.
War is not like the movies, no music plays, time will not slow down and people die in many different ways. The truth is bullets and shrapnel make holes in the body, you bleed out and you die. The world will continue on, people will still stand in line at Starbucks and never know or maybe even care, and half a world away the fight will go on and people will die, the bullets will fly and a man's charector will be tested. Acceptance of that basic fact is key to a healthy mind and survival. For me the first few trips outside the wire my heart raced and my mind went through so many “what if” scenarios it was amazing my brain did not melt inside my helmet. As time went on I accepted the reality of the situation, who I was, and where I was, and to be clear what I was, I had no illusions about what we were doing.... Killing the enemy and in a violent way. The reality is many people talk the talk but to put another human being in the sights of your weapon and then pulling the trigger is another step few take, one not to be taken lightly or joked about just a simple fact of war that will be accomplished time and time again.
I think back to my last hours in Fallujah and 4 hours before I boarded the helo to take me out and on my southbound journey to Kuwait and eventually the States. A Marine walked into the chow hall in Fallujah calmly drew his pistol and shot himself in the head in the middle of dinner. I have no idea why but I can speculate what caused this young Marine to say he had seen and had enough. I had experienced many things and this to me was a final chapter in my war time experience as I knew it. Later that night as I put my flak jacket and helmet on and loaded my pistol for the last time. I quietly walked into that ink black night I had come to know so well to the turning blades of a waiting CH-46 and I thought to myself what had I asked for? and yes I got what I came for and in the end maybe more than I wanted. I also knew that I was never prouder or more humble than when I stepped into that Sea Knight and we lifted off and once again on the depart this time the clank of the door gunners coming off their safety on their weapons letting me know I was covered did I let my hand ease off my pistol and I came to realize this was my final trip from Fallujah and I would not be coming back this time. I came into Fallujah with death and so as fate would have it I would depart in the shadow of yet another Marine’s death. I experienced a different war than my uncle Ray of WWII but the question I asked myself in Al Asad midway through my tour, would I remember all of this and more is yes; some times I am reminded daily.
So lately reading Mike's blog I can not help but to go back to Iraq or when I am alone I tend to think about my experiences. I am not experiencing anything that millions of men through time who have gone to war have not experienced but we all deal with scars in our own personal ways, memories are powerful things. Lately I wonder about taking my journals and transcribing them with the added luxury of time to expand them a bit and tell the behind the scenes stories and save them so maybe when I am gone my family can look back on them and understand why sometimes on a nice starry night I would sit in the dark, smoke my cigar, pet the dog and stare into the night sky…… Remembering in my own way.