Friday, June 4, 2004
I want to make clear that I have never served in the military. That is an experience that some of you may have had, and you know better than anyone about the commitment and sacrifice you madebut what I hope to do for the people who haven't served, is to give a little sense of what it is likeor at least looks like to an observer.
Over the last year and a half, I have spent some considerable time with U.S. troops in Iraq. In March of 2003, I embedded with the 3rd battalion, second Marines out of Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. They are nicknamed the Betio Bastards, after a battle in World War II where a large number of Marines died. I could not tell whether this nickname was a good omen or not.
When I first linked with the Marines in the Kuwaiti desert prior to the war, I was handed this list of media guidelines from a menacing-looking commanding officer....it was really a list of orders.. fairly menacing ones. Things like:"Don't bring too much equipment.""Don't get in the way." "Don't compromise operational security." And then buried somewhere toward the bottom was this:"Don't get yourself killed...you become a huge logistical challenge if you get killed or wounded."
With the Marines
As an embedded reporter, I went everywhere the Marines went, ate what they ate, and lived how they lived. When the Marines dug a trench to stay safe, I had to dig my own trench...assuming that I wanted to stay safe. Reporters are non-combatants, which means we don't carry weapons. The Marines used to ask me how I would protect myself. I told them that what I was hoping, is that they would protect me.
Before I tell you a few stories about what I saw during the war, there are two sayings the Marines taught me. First, nothing ruins a good war story like a witness. For my wife and friends and family who might have heard these stories before, forgive me if they change a little each time. And second, on a serious note, the Marines have another saying: all war stories should be terrifying, because that is what war is. And I can vouch for that. So there is a point to these tales.
The most action the Betio Bastards saw in Iraq was in Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq. It was early in the war and, if my memory serves, just a day after the Pentagon declared that Nasiriyah had fallen. It hadn't. An army convoy was ambushed; that is where Jessica Lynch was taken hostage. The Marines went in to fix the situationand it was some of the heaviest fighting in the war.
No safe place
Not long after that, the Marines moved into town. We drove in in the seven-ton trucks. I had asked the commanding officer what would be the safest place for my producer and me to go. The Colonel assured me there was no safe place. The Marines were seated in the back with their guns pointed out. My producer and I were ducked in between them... curled into little balls.
We pulled up to the banks of the Euphrates River...a grassy field with irrigation ditches that looked like rice paddies, surrounded by palm trees. One Marine said at the time, "The rest of the U.S. military is fighting Desert Storm Two, we are fighting Vietnam." We were told to run for the tree-line and leave our backpacks in the truck; we could come back to the truck to get our bags when the area was secure. Well, we jumped out and ran to the trees, and I turned around and saw the truck drive away. I did not see my backpack again for a week. No change of clothes, no toothbrush, no sleeping bag. I later had to buy three pairs of socks off a Marine for $20. He wanted to give them to me for free.
But I wasn't thinking about socks or my bag then; I was thinking about being in the middle of the worst single night of my life. It was getting dark. Not just dark; it was getting this strange dark red or orange. The skies opened up, and there was the biggest thunderstorm I have ever seen. Torrential downpour. Teeth-rattling thunder. While this was happening there were gun shots coming from the trees, tracer bullets streaking from the sky, mortars landing. The Marines called in air support. There were bombs falling, artillery rounds coming in and out. I could not tell what was thunder, bombs, lighting or explosions. Again, it was terrifying, and it went on all night. We filmed what we could — that was why I was there. But there was not much I could do except lie in a trench which was filled with water and mud, shivering, with no sleeping bag.
The next morning, the rain and the fighting stopped, and we were all milling aboutcaked in dirt and mud. My producer and I were trying to look as natural and non-plussed as possible, though were both nervous that we could not take many more nights like that. Luckily, a seasoned veteran Marine walked up to us, and said, "Man, that was the worst night I have ever seen" That was perversely reassuring.
Anyhow, he was right, that was the worst, though there were still some dramatic moments. Raids, afternoons in sniper's perchesthere was the time we all went to sleep in the entryway of a house that the Marines commandeered. When I woke up in the morning, I was the only one there, and all the windows were smashed. They had blown in during an artillery barrage nearby over night, and everyone else had taken cover outside, but they told me they didn't want to wake me.
Remembering the slow times
I gained an enormous amount of respect for the Marines I was with, and really for everybody who serves in the military. What they do, what they put up with, what they endure is absolutely extraordinary.
I know there are probably veterans here, and I don't mean to oversimplify, but I found there were a few different types of Marines. It should go without saying that they all do it because they are patriots and love our country. But beyond that there were those who joined out of family tradition, out of hope for adventure...A number were there to get money to go to college, and some — and this is the group that tugged at my heart — were there because nothing else seemed to work for them.
In the days before the war actually started, I interviewed one Marine who was writing a letter home to his two- year-old sona letter he was writing in case he never made it home. He said he was telling his son not to make the same mistakes he had. The Marines, he told me, were the only thing that had worked out for him. Now, whatever the reason they joined, all of these guys found themselves in the same situation. They were fighting a war. They were away from their families and children for months on end. Some may have supported the war, some maybe not, but they were there, like it or not, and their lives were on the line.
After five weeks in the desert, the most important lesson I came away with is this: there is a human cost to war. And that's what Memorial Day is about — recognizing the human cost of war, and honoring those who have paid it. Political decisions have very, very real human consequences. Lives lost. Our society recognizes that there are just and moral wars. The mission might be worth the price, but we should never ever forget the price that is paid, no matter how just the cause.
As each day passed that I was with them, and I began to grow closer to them, I began to worry more and more about how I might feel if some of them were killed and wounded. I began to feel what must be a fraction of the emotion that all the families of young men and women in Iraq feel every moment of every day. And these families deserve our respect, too. The Marines I was with were relatively lucky. One Marine was evacuated when he put his helmet on one morning and was stung by a scorpion that had snuck in. (I still shake out hats before I put them on now.) One Marine lost part of his foot from a landmine, and one Marine, Sergeant Nicholas Hodson, died when his Humvee ran off the road. He is now among the men we honor today.
I have been to Iraq three more times since the war, about a month each time, most recently in April. I have seen some inspiring things, and I have seen some horrible things. I have spent time with U.S. troops struggling to do their jobs, and Iraqis, hoping beyond hope for a small taste of peace and tranquility. If the mission in Iraq succeeds it will be because of the courage of our troops there, the sacrifice of those whom we remember today, and also for the unwavering perseverance of so many Iraqis, who have suffered so much.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito