Military history


In the days leading up to our mid-February flight, the stress of the imminent deployment started to take a toll, and Marines across the battalion began behaving strangely. Fortunately, my problems were confined to only two men, PFC Joshua Guzon and Lance Corporal Todd Bolding. Shortly before our departure, nineteen-year-old Guzon decided that he didn’t want to come back to Camp Pendleton after a three-day weekend with his fiancée. Somehow, Staff Sergeant tracked him down and convinced him to return, and once he did so we demoted him to a buck private. It didn’t matter—Guzon did the exact same thing the very next weekend, just two days before we were scheduled to depart. This time, Staff Sergeant had to call Guzon’s future father-in-law—a former military man himself who understood well the severely negative implications of desertion before a combat deployment—to get him to send our private back to us.

With only two days to go until deployment, we weren’t taking any chances, and as soon as Staff Sergeant had corralled the now Private Guzon, he put the reluctant Marine under the 24/7 care of Corporal Teague, who would confide to me that he had serious concerns about Guzon’s mental stability. Staff Sergeant had also begun to worry that Guzon would shoot him in the back the first time he had access to live ammunition.

Staff Sergeant’s nerves gave me pause, but after thinking it over I decided that Guzon was just a nineteen-year-old kid who had made a very stupid short-term choice without considering the long-term consequences of his actions. I believed that he would behave normally once we got him out of the States.

Guzon never got away again—the rest of my Marines saw to that. Sometime later, I asked Teague how they had managed to corral our slippery little private. “You don’t wanna know, sir, trust me,” came the reply, but I did, in fact, want to know, so I pressed until the full story came out. It was about what I expected: As soon as Guzon returned, Teague and a few others had zip-tied him to a heavy chair and taken turns standing guard until it was time to depart.

Lance Corporal Bolding was much more subtle about his unauthorized departures. Sometime over the winter, the twenty-three-year-old Bolding, one of our team leaders, had married his longtime girlfriend, and the endless training days were taking their toll on the new couple. So, when Joker One wasn’t staying overnight in the field, Bolding would leave the base at random, unauthorized times—usually a few hours before the rest of the Marines were let go—to spend time at his new off-base home with his new wife. We finally caught him when we had to draw equipment—more helmets and flak jackets—early one morning, and Bolding never showed up. Away from my wife more often than not myself, I sympathized with the new husband’s plight, but it didn’t matter. We couldn’t rely on Bolding to complete even the most basic assignments if they fell either at a day’s beginning or its end, so shortly before we left for Iraq, I relieved Bolding as a team leader and gave his two men to another lance corporal. Bolding took it well, saying that he understood, that he’d work hard to make up for his shortcomings, and that he’d respect whoever his new team leader happened to be. When our conversation ended, Bolding walked away with a big grin spread widely across his face. It was his default expression, his trademark, and I hoped that it meant the demotion hadn’t embittered him.

However, no matter how challenging these problems seemed to me, others had it far worse. One morning shortly after Guzon’s first unauthorized absence, Flowers was standing watch as 2/4’s officer of the day (OOD) when he received a frantic call from the barracks that one of the Marines from Echo Company, our first unit scheduled to fly out, had hurt himself somehow. Rushing to the scene, Flowers found the Marine lying in a pool of his own blood—he had tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself with his Ka-Bar fighting knife. Flowers called an ambulance and immediately administered first aid. Thanks to his and others’ quick thinking, the Marine lived through the suicide attempt, but that incident was our first taste of the unsparing mental strain that the anticipation of war places on its participants, and from then on out the platoon commanders were on high alert for any signs of instability in their men.

In the midst of all this tension, we got one piece of good news. Instead of Habbaniyah, 2/4 would be going to Ramadi, a city that seemed relatively stable and that, we were told, had well-developed U.S. bases with at least a few of the comforts of home, such as running water and intermittent electricity. Hearing our destination, I searched all the recent news articles I could find for mentions of the city, but there were very few, a good sign in and of itself, for less news generally (but not always) meant less violence. The articles that did include Ramadi usually did so only in passing—the city was primarily referred to as the capital of the “volatile” Anbar province in articles that focused on Fallujah, a wild no-man’s-land even in the winter of 2004. Indeed, the longest quote I could find in reference to our future home came from one of its American overseers, who declared in an interview that Ramadi was “on the glide path to success.” As long as U.S. forces didn’t screw things up, the city, it seemed, was fixing itself.

Our battalion intelligence officer did his homework as well, compiling a list of all the hostile incidents that had occurred in the city over the past several months. The most serious of these was a single RPG attack on an Army vehicle-mounted patrol, and the attacker was so incompetent and the Army patrol so responsive that they had run down the would-be insurgent and sent him off to prison for quite some time. We also noticed that occasionally weeks had gone by without any enemy contact at all.

On February 15, the night before Golf Company flew to Kuwait, I held Christy tightly and assured her that Ramadi wouldn’t be that bad, that nothing of significance had happened in the place for the past few months, and that we as Marines would certainly make it even better. It made some difference, I suppose, but not much. After all, I’d only been home for four months, and by the time I returned from this new deployment, if I ever did, I would have spent as much of our marriage in Iraq as I had at home, and Christy knew it. I didn’t know how to explain to her how conflicted I felt about leaving; on the one hand, I was really excited about leading an infantry platoon overseas, but on the other, I loved my wife deeply and hated to be away from her again, and so soon. Somewhere, a part of me also questioned myself for being so happy and excited about a job that would put her through the horrible experience of waiting for that dreaded knock on the door that every military wife fears more than almost anything else in the world. So I just held my wife, and together we prayed and cried throughout the night.

The fateful next morning came far too quickly. At about 8 AM, Christy and I once again loaded up my backpack and canvas duffel bag into our Jeep and drove out to the parade deck, a large, flat, asphalt-covered square where all the departing Marines and their families assembled before loading the buses and heading out. The poignant, heartbreaking scene is one known by every American who has gone into combat. In the center of the parade deck, nervous young Marines staged their gear in neat, well-aligned rows under the watchful eyes of their platoon sergeants. Wives, children, and parents, some crying and some not, stood on the periphery, waiting for the work to be done so that, one last time, they could say goodbye to the men they loved, the men whom they couldn’t be sure that they would ever see again.

When the staging was finished, we let the Marines wander off to wherever they wanted. Those that had families went to them. Staff Sergeant’s three children clustered around his legs, tugging on his pants, asking him why he had to go and when he was coming back. He had to go to work, he said, and he didn’t know when he’d be coming back. Hopefully soon. The CO’s two kids, Cactus Jack and Caroline, were asking the same questions. Captain Bronzi promised the Cactus that he’d bring him back a desert rock. He told them that he’d think of them every day. Caroline was inconsolable—“I’ll miss you, Daddy” was all she said, over and over again, as the CO’s wife, Amy, tried hard to shush her and be strong for her husband. Sergeant Noriel held his two-year-old daughter, Brianna, with one arm and his tearful wife, Nicky, with another and alternated kissing the two of them. Sergeant Leza put his hand on his pregnant wife Martha’s stomach. Be strong, he said. I’m coming back to be a daddy to the little one. I promise. The Ox held his newborn daughter tightly and asked his wife, Melissa, to please, please, send him videotapes of her first birthday party.

Those Marines without family present, which was most of them, milled about nervously in the middle of their respective platoon’s staging areas. Most were smoking. Characteristically, Bowen, who had returned just one week ago from the Arabic immersion course, was there with his squad, walking around and reassuring them with a quiet word of kindness here, a brief pat on the shoulder there, giving them all a final once-over before departure. The platoon commanders’ wives all clustered together until their husbands were done with their work. From time to time, I glanced over at their little huddle to see how things were going. Christy, Lyndsey (Hes’s wife), and Lisa (Quist’s wife) seemed to be holding up well enough. They were chatting with one another animatedly, and every now and again a small smile even shone out. Relieved each time, I would turn my attention back to the Marines.

Finally, all the gear was staged and all the Marines were squared away, so the other platoon commanders and I walked over and held our wives one last time. I don’t know how long that bittersweet moment lasted, but it certainly wasn’t long enough. Then, like thousands of Marines before and after us, we said goodbye, grabbed our gear, and boarded the buses. As they pulled away, I stood up and stared out the back window at our wives for as long as I could. As soon as they thought we weren’t looking, their brave faces crumbled. Christy had her arms wrapped around herself, and silent tears streamed down her cheeks. Lisa looked much the same, but Lyndsey was the worst. All the blood had drained from her face, and she suddenly looked as if she no longer knew who or where she was. She was just standing there forlornly, rocking back and forth, hands hanging limply by her sides.

Five hours later, we boarded a chartered 747 and strapped ourselves into our seats and into a completely alien life. As the plane winged its way over the dark ocean, for the first time in several months I had a few free hours to reflect. I hoped that I had done enough, that I had worked hard enough both apart from and together with my Marines to make myself into the leader they deserved, but I wasn’t certain that I had or that I was. I hoped that the short time my platoon had had together in the States had been enough to at least assimilate all of our new Marines, but I wasn’t sure. I hoped that Henderson’s heart wouldn’t stop in the middle of a mission, that Doc Camacho wouldn’t curl up into a little ball the first time he heard gunfire, that Guzon wouldn’t shoot Staff Sergeant in the back after all, and that somehow Feldmeir would be miraculously cured of his narcolepsy, because I had no idea how to fix him. All this and more I pondered and hoped as the hours ticked slowly by.

But hope is not a course of action, and, ready or not, Joker One was headed straight into the capital city of Iraq’s most violent province.

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