It turned out I was wrong. In mid-December, word came down that we wouldn’t be leaving in April, May, or June as we had planned. It would I be more like early February. We’d be heading to a still-undetermined location somewhere in the heart of the volatile Anbar province. To make matters worse, our standard two weeks off at Christmas would count as our predeployment leave (the two-to three-week vacation that every Marine unit gets immediately before it heads overseas), and all of our gear would have to be packed and in boxes by the first week of February.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, we had just received our second huge wave of boot drops, roughly fifteen new Marines, every bit as green as the last bunch, who filled us to nearly 100 percent fighting capacity. The standard period for a new Marine before deployment is six months; we’d been hoping for at least half of that. The new timetable handed to us allowed Golf a little less than two months to get the first wave of new joins ready for combat, and the second would have only four weeks to integrate, train, and settle all of their domestic affairs before shipping off.
As the new Marines poured in, we tried our utmost to process them as quickly as possible. NCOs stormed about all through the barracks, measuring pants, assigning men to squads, and shepherding their new Marines to dozens of different administrative appointments. Every morning, long lines formed outside the medical offices as hundreds of boot drops waited for their anthrax and smallpox inoculations, and our Navy dental officers had their hands full trying to clean and repair hundreds and hundreds of teeth. Every afternoon, Marines queued up outside the armory or the supply shack, waiting to draw the equipment and weaponry they’d be using in training and in combat. Meanwhile, the platoon leaders, Hes, Quist, Flowers, and I, spent hours assigning and reassigning weapons, night vision equipment, and all the other specialized gear specific to each Marine. We debated responses to different types of enemy attacks in an attempt to come up with a platoonwide set of standard operating procedures, and we studied, as best we could, the reports coming out of Habbaniyah so that we would have some idea of what to expect when we got there.
By the time Christmas break rolled around in late December, Golf Company had completed almost all the administrative groundwork necessary to enable us to focus entirely on training when all our Marines returned from the two weeks off. Personally, I was looking forward to the break, because my hectic schedule and Christy’s work as a night shift nurse in a pediatric hospital had allowed us very little time together over the past two months. Indeed, we had, on occasion, passed each other going opposite ways on Interstate 5—she headed to work, and I returning from it. Even when I wasn’t in the field overnight, it was fairly common for my wife and I to go for four days without seeing each other. We communicated via notes left on the kitchen counter and hurried phone calls snatched during quick breaks. It wasn’t ideal, but it was all we had, and I was eager for more time to pour into our barely year-old marriage.
However, only a few days into the Christmas break, I realized it was impossible to try to treat this as just another relaxing vacation. All I thought about was how I’d be leaving again in under two months and that my newly formed platoon had, at best, six or seven weeks to prepare ourselves for combat. It didn’t help that Christy was working twelve-hour night shifts, meaning that during those two weeks our time together was sporadic and disjointed at best. Indeed, my wife had to work on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, so I volunteered as the battalion’s officer of the day on both those days. As the rest of California opened presents and counted the seconds until 2004, Christy put IVs into dangerously sick children, and I walked the empty barracks and continued to diagram responses to enemy IED ambushes.
When everyone returned to work in the first week of January, I was almost relieved that the charade of time off had ended and that real life had begun again. Finally at full strength, Golf Company ramped up the training as rapidly as possible, focusing initially on all of the standard combat techniques common to the Marine Corps infantry. We did mock all-out urban assaults in a bizarre five-block “city” in the middle of Camp Pendleton. Several-day events, these exercises taught house-clearing techniques, city-patrolling procedures, crowd control, and other things specific to operating in an urban environment. We practiced combat shooting and reloading on the ranges available to us during the day and night to get our new recruits comfortable moving with and using loaded weapons under all conditions. Ranges and urban assaults take a lot of lead time and logistical support to set up, so when those weren’t available, Hes, Quist, Flowers, and I grabbed our platoons and patrolled through the surrounding woods and through the barracks, working on tactical movement across danger areas like road intersections and endlessly reviewing 360-degree coverage of the patrol formation so that no one could attack us unawares.
When we weren’t patrolling, I gave class after class on topics ranging from how to paint your face for maximum concealment to why we put our dog tags in our left boots (no matter how severe the explosion, usually the boots survive) and our first-aid kits on our left sides (you can’t waste time hunting for a Marine’s tourniquet when he’s spurting blood out of a severed artery). Where I left off, Teague, Leza, and Bowen began, teaching their new men the basics of life in an infantry battalion. Long after the training day had ended and I had returned home for the evening, the three squad leaders remained in the barracks with their teenage Marines, teaching them things like how to pay their bills while overseas, how to balance their checkbooks, and how to lay down ferocious covering fire in response to an enemy ambush. Leza had a pregnant wife and one small boy, so eventually he too would leave the barracks for the comforts of home, but Teague and Bowen were single, and they stayed available to their men literally all night long. As NCOs, both could have moved to more comfortable apartments off the base—as many of their friends had done—but they didn’t. Instead, they chose to stay in the barracks with their new men because, as Bowen put it, “Sir, we’ve got little enough time as it is, and my Marines need all of mine if we’re gonna be ready. I just want to be there for my Marines in case they need me, sir.”
Even Staff Sergeant pitched in, trying to teach the men how they too could shoot like the USMC Rifle Team, until I caught him and focused his efforts on more relevant matters. I didn’t mind these off-topic discourses too much, though, because at least Staff Sergeant was making an effort to teach the only thing he really knew. If my platoon sergeant had to instruct (and he did if he wanted any credibility with the Marines), I preferred him erring on the side of sticking with what he knew to pretending to know what he didn’t, because the Marines immediately sniff out this kind of deception and never fully trust you afterward.
Above all else, though, the squad leaders and I tried desperately to instill in our Marines the proper combat mentality. Throughout my training, my instructors had hammered home the idea that the most deadly weapon on the modern battlefield is not a tank, a jet, or any other exceptionally high-tech combat system; rather, it’s a sharp and flexible mind combined with a decisive and creative mind-set. “War is inherently chaos,” our instructors had told us. “You, young lieutenants, must embrace this concept and prepare yourselves to think creatively and independently, because, more often than not, conditions on the ground will change so rapidly that original orders and well-thought-out plans become irrelevant. If you can’t manage chaos and uncertainty, if you can’t bias yourself for action and if you wait around for someone else to tell you what to do, then the enemy will make your decisions for you and your Marines will die.” Ultimately, then, the best way to keep men alive on the battlefield is to instill in every Marine a decisive mind that can quickly separate the crucial from the irrelevant, synthesize the output, and use this intelligence to create little bubbles of order in the all-out chaos that is war.
Bowen, Leza, and Teague understood this concept intuitively—perhaps they had picked it up from their years spent as riflemen in 2/4, or perhaps they were just that good—and throughout the month of January, the four of us set out to teach this combat mentality to our new joins. Simultaneously, we tried to convince them that they now had great worth in our eyes, that their input was always necessary and important, and that everyone in their chain of command respected them enough to take their thoughts seriously. After all, when you’re fighting an enemy that uses the civilian population as just another piece of terrain (as we knew the insurgents did), quick input from the most junior Marines can save many lives, but they’ll give you that input only if you take the time to convince them that you’ll use it. And our new joins were still so robotic, so scared of taking any action without instruction, that we worried they’d completely freeze up under fire or be incapable of independent action if anything happened to their team leaders.
As January and our training days slipped by all too quickly, I continued to learn everything from the mundane to the profound about both my NCOs and my new Marines. Nothing about them was too small to be overlooked and filed away for future reference. In addition to his previously demonstrated leadership, and not to mention the ability to carry two backpacks up a hill while pushing another Marine, Carson could instantaneously put an M-203 grenade anywhere you wanted him to without using his sights. Not only that, but his wife’s name was Sarah, and he had a huge tattoo that read “one shot, one kill” across both shoulder blades. Carson’s highest ambition apparently was to become a Marine sniper. Bowen, the picture of the professional Marine NCO, moonlighted as a licensed tattoo artist who practiced his craft on himself. When I saw my third-squad leader in his Marine-issued, tight green PT hot pants for the first time, I nearly fell over: Crazy designs spilled out of Bowen’s sleeves down to his forearms and out of his pants down to his calves. The one I remember most vividly was the many-eyeballed, screaming, writhing skull that wrapped around Bowen’s right forearm. Teague caught me staring and said simply: “Oh yeah, sir, Bowen’s crazy. Don’t worry about it.” Clearly, there was always more to my men than met the eye.
During our urban assaults, Corporal Raymond, a new team leader in Leza’s squad, told me, “Sir, if you can’t be smart, you’ve gotta be strong,” shortly before turning himself into a human cannonball as he used his entire body to smash through a barrier that I had previously considered impenetrable. Mahardy, who had kept on the straight and narrow since being accused of underage drinking, had a gift for talking incessantly and loudly, but he was also extremely intelligent (1370 on his SAT and a dean’s list student at Syracuse University before the Corps) with a knack for thinking one step ahead of his orders and asking insightful (and sometimes sarcastic) questions thereof. In a clever move, Teague combined this love of the spoken word with twenty extra pounds and made Mahardy our backup radio operator. By contrast, our primary operator, Yebra, still rarely spoke, but he had wholeheartedly dedicated himself to his machine and had turned himself into a technical wizard capable of teaching others the radio’s most esoteric inner workings.
Feldmeir, alas, could fall asleep walking. I had never seen anything like it. One moment he would be patrolling, and the next he would be sprawled over on his side, fast asleep with arms and gear akimbo. However, Feldmeir tried so hard to be a good Marine and to be accepted by the squad that watching his painful eagerness, particularly since his squad mates remained standoffish toward him at best, hurt sometimes. After all, the platoon was probably the first real home he had ever had. Teague spent hours working with Feldmeir, desperately trying to get him ready to save and protect lives in combat, but nothing seemed to work. For a time, I debated whether to try and pawn our narcoleptic off on the Ox and his small company headquarters staff, but eventually I decided against it. Feldmeir had been given to me, and he was, therefore, my responsibility to develop. Besides, we were going into combat slightly shorthanded as it was. We were going to need all the trigger pullers we could get, even if they were narcoleptic. Like Feldmeir, but for different reasons, Staff Sergeant also had trouble walking; he demonstrated this shortcoming very visibly to the Marines by falling to the back of the company on his first hike out with us. But he never quit, and I began to realize that he was fiercely loyal to me—never once did he contradict my orders in front of the men, and whenever the Ox questioned my actions, my platoon sergeant was the first to leap to my defense. By now, Staff Sergeant’s initial fear of the Gunny had developed into full-blown terror, for the Gunny continued to ride my platoon sergeant mercilessly.
Meanwhile, the tattooed Bowen got better and better with every passing day. As each training event followed hard on the heels of its predecessor, I became overwhelmed with the responsibility of it all. Bowen somehow managed to pick up on this, and would devise ways to help shoulder my load, usually without me knowing. When I had to assign and reassign weapons, Bowen would do it for me. When it came to after-hours PT sessions for our laggards, he would take them on himself. When any discipline issues cropped up with his men, he would handle them well before they reached me. If I ever needed anything, no matter how Herculean or how last-minute, I could ask Bowen for it, and somehow he would have the job done two hours quicker and three times better than I imagined—my squad leader had that rare gift of fulfilling not only the task that I had actually assigned him but also the task that I should have assigned him. His men clearly responded to his unswerving dedication and he quickly became one of the best leaders in the platoon, myself included. So, as per the Corps’s propensity to punish its most competent performers, in mid-January I separated Bowen from his squad and packed him off to an Arabic immersion course.
This brand-new course was part of a larger 1st Marine Division program to prepare 2/4 for a mission that none of the platoon commanders had ever heard of before: SASO, short for Stability and Support Operations. The acronym’s relative obscurity had a simple explanation—it was an Army term coined to describe the duties of foreign occupation. Ironically, at the same time that the Marines chose to adopt the Army’s terminology for our future mission, my division was busily engaged disparaging the Army’s performance in its current one. “The Army is all screwed up,” we were told in a speech by Colonel Kennedy. “They’re too hard on the Iraqi people—it’s no wonder that they’re having problems.” Our division commander, General Mattis, clarified this point in a number of different newspaper articles, the gist of which was the following: “The Army is always bringing down the iron hammer on a timid and abused populace, but the Marines will be different. We’re going to extend the people the velvet glove. We’re going to make the Iraqis our friends. We’re going to be nice to them and win hearts and minds.”
If there were still any questions outstanding about how we were going to differentiate ourselves from the Army, General Mattis laid them to rest when he told his officers that when the Marines returned to Iraq, “One civilian death equals mission failure.” The division motto had even been changed to: “First Do No Harm—No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.” It was somewhat strange to see a line from the Hippocratic Oath adapted to fit our line of work, and we knew even then that the general had set a nearly impossibly high standard, but we believed in all of it wholeheartedly. After all, most insurgencies desperately need the support of at least some portion of the indigenous population, and if we could drive a wedge between the Iraqi people and the enemy fighters, we could cut our foes off from their lifeblood. The general knew bone deep that in any counterinsurgency the people are the prize, and he took every step necessary to instill this strange population-centric mind-set into a force oriented toward high-intensity combat against a well-defined enemy.
So, two weeks into January we shifted much of our time and effort away from proficiency in traditional missions and toward a new goal: learning how to avoid offending the Iraqis. My Marines, 50 percent of whom previously probably could not have named Islam as a major world religion, now learned the intricacies of the historical and doctrinal conflicts between the Sunni and Shiite Islamic sects. We crammed Iraqi cultural nuances down their throats as fast as they could swallow them. Showing the bottom of your shoes is a horrible offense, we told our new men, and touching people with your left hand is even worse. Don’t stare at the women and talk only to the men. Be polite and smile a lot. Wave when you patrol and don’t paint your faces in urban areas. After all, the Iraqis’ lives are scary and miserable enough; we certainly don’t want to make them worse. We are the friendly Marines, here to help.
The rationale underpinning this new training emphasis was well in line with our population-centric approach, but it was also very risky, because Marines always have default settings that inform their actions in those precious first moments of a firefight. By training as we did, we flipped our Marines’ default switches from “be fierce” to “be nice”; we told them to hesitate, to ask questions before shooting, and to assume greater personal risk to better protect the civilians. It was a calculated risk, and one that we suspected might cause us to take higher casualties in the short run in pursuit of longer-term aims.
But 2/4 hadn’t seen combat yet, so friendly wounds weren’t real to us in January 2004; we couldn’t truly feel yet what the words “higher casualties” meant. Besides, none of Golf Company’s leadership could disagree with the idea of trying to protect the innocent at our own expense. After all, it was why most of us had joined, only, in this case, the innocent were not our fellow countrymen; rather, they were citizens of a strange land, and they spoke a strange language and kept strange customs. In keeping with this sentiment, my CO made a bold decision to eliminate his weapons platoon altogether, a move that ran counter to at least twenty years of past standard organization but that made a lot of practical sense for our future success. We would almost certainly be deployed to an urban environment, and, given the counterinsurgency nature of our mission (and general morality), our company was highly unlikely to be firing mortars and rockets regularly into a densely populated city. So, with a little horse trading, the CO transformed Golf Company from three rifle platoons and one weapons platoon to four straight-up rifle platoons. We kept the mortars and the rockets, though, and if things got really bad we could always re-form the teams to use them.
It was a brilliant if unorthodox call, and it would make our company significantly more flexible in combat than the others. However, the decision came with a very personal cost: Corporal Teague, whom I had come to depend upon as one of my best young leaders and as one of my most competent individual Marines in general, would be replaced as our first-squad leader by a new sergeant from Flowers’s platoon whom nobody, including Flowers, knew. I had told the CO that I preferred to keep Teague, but I was overruled, so I had to break the bad news to my now-former first-squad leader. Fearing the conversation and tempted to postpone it, I managed to force myself to pull Teague aside fairly soon. When I told him that we were getting a new sergeant, and that my request to send the man somewhere else had been overruled, he nodded, then told me simply, “Sir, even if I ain’t called a squad leader, I’m never gonna stop acting like one. You need anything, sir, you can count on me. I’ll be there for you and the new guy.”
Whoever this new sergeant was, he had better be damn good.
If you had told me when I was a young undergraduate that, for the rest of my life, I would owe a deep debt of gratitude to a tattoo of a naked she-devil, I would probably have laughed in your face. It goes to show how much I knew as a college student, because I am, as it turns out, eternally grateful for one of the most tasteless tattoos I’ve ever seen in my life, for that tattoo combined with the CO’s organization decision to give me Sergeant Mariano O. Noriel, the man who would become my first-squad leader and the closest thing that I had to a confidant and friend.
Noriel was our mystery sergeant, and the reason that no one knew him was that until very recently, he had been stationed at a recruiting office somewhere near San Diego. With six years in the infantry and one straight year in Okinawa, Noriel had earned himself a break from the action for a while, and recruiting was supposed to have been it. However, shortly after starting his cushy new desk job, the good sergeant had to have all his tattoos photographed (the Marines have strict guidelines limiting the number and type of tattoos on a potential recruit, and they expect their recruiters to adhere to the same guidelines). When my future first-squad leader removed his shirt for the photos, his then-bosses were horrified to find that pasted across Noriel’s entire right shoulder was a tattoo of a squatting naked devil woman, complete with horns, tail, and all the other pieces that make for an anatomically correct female devil. Immediately thereafter, Noriel’s commanding officer pulled the new sergeant into his office to explain how such a tattoo might cause some to feel uncomfortable in a mixed-sex work environment. The senior officer ended the conversation by asking Noriel how he thought his female colleagues would view the reprehensible shoulder art. Noriel pondered the question for a bit, then shrugged and in the typical infantry fashion, said, “Sir, to be perfectly honest, I don’t much give a damn what in the hells anyone thinks of my tattoos.”
A screaming master sergeant immediately yanked Noriel out of the room, and within a week my future squad leader found himself kicked out of the recruiting office and sent back to Golf Company.
The only way that I can describe this utterly unique character is as a five-foot, ten-inch, 180-pound Filipino ball of fire with a perfectly shaved head and not a single ounce of fear in his body. Noriel had immigrated to the States at the age of fourteen, so his English was even more idiosyncratic than the Gunny’s in normal conversation—he assigned personal pronouns to all inanimate objects, for example—and usually completely unintelligible when he got worked up. More than once I watched first squad stare blankly at Noriel while he shouted a set of orders in a weird English-Tagalog amalgamation that only a cryptologist could understand; then, when no one responded, he screamed, “Well, what the fuck is wrong with you alls? The orders was simplified, so get him done!” It usually fell to Teague to tell him that no one was being disrespectful—they just couldn’t understand a word of what their squad leader had just said. The two of them made a terrific team, with Teague as the patient, laid-back tactical expert and Noriel as the motivated, can-do sergeant. As it was with Bowen, if I needed anything done, I could ask Noriel and it would happen, maybe not as cleanly or elegantly as Bowen would have done it, but it would most undoubtedly happen and happen quickly. Best of all, Noriel never hesitated to tell me or anyone else that what we were asking was all screwed up and that he had a few better ideas. He was fiercely protective of his Marines, and he defended their well-being against all comers, officer and enlisted alike.
By late January, our team was set, or so I thought. Then the division, in our first hint of things to come, sent my company ten naval corpsmen (“docs”), and I got two of them. This was a somewhat strange and disconcerting development because a Marine company normally rates only one doc, and all the platoons share him. If major combat operations were truly over, then why were we multiplying the standard medical capacity tenfold?
I pushed the incongruity and my own questions aside for the time because I was happy to have our naval brethren. The senior corpsman, Doc Aaron Smith, was a scruffy white kid who always needed a shave and who could barely run three miles. He could walk all day, though, and eight months previously he had been assigned to a rifle platoon in the drive up to Baghdad, which made him, ironically enough, the most experienced combat veteran in my platoon, myself included. I assigned Smith to second squad and made him teach everyone classes about physiological responses in combat. We all paid rapt attention, and it became pretty clear that this flabby naval corpsman with questionable personal hygiene was very good at what he did and that what he did was save Marine lives in combat.
The junior corpsman, Doc Geovanni Camacho-Galvan, could not have been more different. A week prior to arriving, Camacho didn’t even know where our Marine base was, let alone what a Marine infantry unit was like, let alone what he had to do to save lives in combat. For the entirety of his two-year Navy career, Doc Camacho had been taking care of newborn babies in a neonatal ward at a naval base in Balboa, California, and he was shocked when he was assigned to the infantry with absolutely no warning. Indeed, I was shocked when he joined us, because Doc Camacho was even smaller than the smallest of my new Marines—he stood about five feet, four inches tall and weighed perhaps 110 pounds soaking wet. He spoke Spanish as his first language and English rapidly and nervously in quick little bullets of tightly compacted words. Doc Camacho shivered a lot, and he constantly worried that his complete lack of training would fail him, that he would let the Marines down when they needed him the most. I shared this nervousness, but we needed the medical expertise, so I assigned Doc Camacho to Sergeant Noriel with the idea that if anyone could get the neonatal baby tender ready in time, it was Noriel.
Unfortunately, the only training that the young corpsman would get with the platoon was 2/4’s capstone exercise at March Air Reserve Base over the last week of January. As this was scheduled to be the battalion’s be-all, end-all culminating event before shipping out, each company was given a call sign by the battalion CO that would serve as its primary identifier from here on out. In a standard call-sign selection process, the company commanders usually pick the most manly, fearsome name they can think of, like “Warhammer” or “Reaper,” and then submit it up the chain for approval. If it succeeds, all the better, and if not then they move on to their slightly less alpha-male backups, for example, “Apache” or “Cold Steel.” Colonel Kennedy, however, had a solid sense of humor and other plans for his subordinates. The colonel had designed his own name-assignment process, one that hinged on first identifying an eccentricity particular to each company commander and then encapsulating that eccentricity in a single word. My CO, for example, had a laugh like a donkey’s braying, and when he was amused the entire battalion command post knew. Thus, our company’s call sign became “Joker.” It could have been worse—our sister company, Echo, earned the moniker “Porcupine,” abbreviated “Porky.”
My Marines and I were all Jokers now, and each platoon and its commander got their own company subidentifier. My platoon became Joker One, the same name that I took on when I represented my Marines corporately, which was more or less all the time. I became differentiated only when someone needed to talk just to me over the radio, at which point I became Joker One–Actual (usually abbreviated “One-Actual”). This simple renaming process expresses far more eloquently the relationship between a lieutenant and his Marines than anything that I could write. Quist, Hes, and Flowers became Jokers Two, Three, and Four respectively. The CO became Joker Six, and the Gunny became Joker Eight. Officially the Ox was given the title of Joker Five, but to all the platoon commanders he remained, as ever, the Ox.
With platoon and company call signs identified appropriately, the other Jokers and I trooped off to March Air Reserve Base to earn the official deployment stamp of approval from the 1st Marine Division. Even though the exercise took place in a condemned and abandoned base housing area, it was still the best, most realistic training that we had been through to date. However, the training had its limitations. No existing American housing complex could properly simulate the tightly packed streets and the long, walled city blocks of a densely populated Iraqi city. Also, when all is said and done, a nineteen-year-old Marine lance corporal from Idaho with a bed-sheet over his head has only limited success simulating a Sunni Arab woman, no matter how hard he tries. Some things we would simply have to learn on the fly.
The March Air Reserve Base exercise concluded successfully in early February, so we returned to our homes, packed up our gear, and waited for our turn as guinea pigs for the division’s new hearts-and-minds campaign. While we were waiting, I turned twenty-four, and two days after my birthday I got a present: The medical doctors cleared Henderson for full-time duty (and certified that he was indeed nineteen years old), and our man came back to the platoon. The only downside to the return was that Henderson hadn’t completed a single major training event with Joker One, but the Marines accepted him back with open arms nonetheless. After all, they certainly weren’t ones to throw stones. Fully one-third of our men hadn’t even been with the platoon for a full month.