Military history

Part 2 - New


Istepped out of the plane and onto a jetway in the middle of the barren Kuwaiti desert. After thirty-six hours tucked away in a dark passenger cabin, the sun and the sand blasted my eyes, and I flinched. I fumbled for my sunglasses, stowed somewhere in one of my many pockets, and inhaled a lungful of the sandy air. I coughed. Kuwait was still the bleak, windswept moonscape I remembered from my flight out just four months previously.

Cautiously, I descended the stairs. With my long M-16 slung across my body, my pistol strapped to my right leg, and other bits of gear weighing me awkwardly down, I didn’t want to take a tumble in front of my men. Once I hit the sticky asphalt-and-concrete tarmac, I hustled over to our assembly area, designated as such by a shouting transportation NCO. Behind me, Noriel, Leza, and Bowen went into action, chivying their men off the plane, marshaling their squads, and checking that all the important gear was still with the Marines.

It was, so Joker One hustled off the tarmac and into the plywood-and-canvas structure that was the designated Kuwait reception area. Quickly and efficiently, my three squad leaders streamed their men onto the benches inside as I stood and watched, observing my platoon on its very first day in-country. Bolding, as usual, was smiling and joking with the men around him. He didn’t betray even a hint of nervousness. Mahardy wasn’t talking at all, which was highly unusual—perhaps he understood better than most the enormity of the task in front of him, or perhaps he was just tired. Carson stood a full head taller than the rest of his team as he stolidly herded them into place. Feldmeir fell asleep nearly as soon as he hit the bench. Without breaking stride—and without even needing to look at his Marine—Teague quickly slapped Feldmeir across the back of the head as he walked past the snoozing kid. The slap had apparently become the standard Feldmeir maintenance procedure, and my narcoleptic Marine sat up so quickly that he very nearly fell off the bench. It was hard to tell how Noriel, Bowen, and Leza were doing. They were too busy and too focused on their men and their tasks to have any time to reflect on their own feelings. After the entire platoon settled into their places on the benches, I took my seat behind them.

The standard “Welcome to Iraq” briefings began. I tuned them out. I’d heard it all before and didn’t need to be reminded to take my antimalaria pills or to refrain from drinking the local water. Instead, I thought about my men and what we had to do together. I was nervous but cautiously excited. For the first time since joining the Corps nearly two and a half years ago, I had my own platoon, and we were about to start doing our jobs for real. In spite of our short time together, I trusted my squad and team leaders because I knew that they were strong, and that strength gave me hope for the job to come. Besides, the Iraq to which we were headed in early 2004 didn’t seem all that dangerous. Though U.S. newspapers had raised the specter of a nascent insurgency, many people, including us, debated whether it even existed. The city of Ramadi had been quiet recently, so I expected to do far more school building than street fighting. I looked forward to establishing a rapport with the locals, to learning the Iraqi culture and working together to improve their lives and their country.

And this time around, unlike the last, I knew my exact position and the people with whom I’d be working. I was terrifically nervous about how I’d do as a leader, about whether I had whatever it took to properly take care of my men, but looking around at Joker One, I was comforted. The thirty-seven Marines who sat there were mine, and leaving home as part of a defined unit was much less lonely than deploying as an isolated individual had been.

When the series of briefings ended, Joker One and I rose and made our way out of the darkened tent and back into the blinding sunlight. We quickly wound our way through clumps of Marines and soldiers scattered haphazardly throughout the small cluster of reception tents. My squad leaders moved all along their men, hustling them through the crowds like nervous shepherds. All around us stood thousands of other people with the exact same haircuts and the exact same clothes as we. After all, Golf Company and 2/4 had arrived in Kuwait as part of America’s largest rotation of troops and equipment since World War II, and hundreds of different units were simultaneously flowing into and out of the small desert kingdom. After an hour of looking, we found the vehicles that would take us to our new temporary home, a desert camp about fifty miles away, still well inside the Kuwait border. Twenty hours after we arrived in the country, an exhausted, bedraggled Golf Company made it into Camp Commando.

It was no different from the several other staging camps I had been to. Row after row of giant white tents sprouted out of a desert plain, housing thousands of troops headed the two days’ journey north into Iraq. Artillery pieces, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and other assorted troop carriers staged in one huge, flat corner of the camp, away from the living areas to minimize the chances of accidentally crushing someone to death. Bisecting this small city in the desert ran a large, crushed gravel road, and surrounding the whole thing was a gigantic dirt mound, about fifteen feet high, with guard towers placed every hundred meters or so.

The desert sand was ubiquitous. It was different from what I was used to on American beaches; it had a powdery rather than granular consistency, much like flour, and it got into everything—weapons, living areas, boots, underwear, toothbrushes. Whenever the wind kicked up, which was often, visibility dropped to less than a hundred feet. We covered our mouths and noses in handkerchiefs or scarves in vain attempts to keep the sand at bay. Within about a week, most of us had developed some version of a hacking cough as the fine particles rasped at our lungs. When I sneezed, sand came out.

Sandstorms couldn’t stop us from training, though, which was a good thing, because our still-green company desperately needed all the practice we could get. We would be in the camp for about two weeks before heading north in early March, and Hes, Quist, Flowers, and I planned detailed training schedules for our platoons each day. By now, the four platoon commanders had developed a smooth and amicable working relationship. We weren’t especially close—the short time together and the intense training schedule hadn’t allowed us too much interaction outside of work—but we respected one another as professionals, and at least three of us had easygoing personalities that made the inevitable give-and-take relatively painless.

Our first morning we set a routine we would follow for the rest of our time there, beginning at around 5 AM with a run through Camp Commando. Hearing the chants of the men and their forced bravado in the face of the sand and the heat, I was reminded of my first run with Joker One, one that I had taken back in Camp Pendleton just a few days after coming to the platoon.

After assembling on our basketball courts, we had begun a series of quick stretches together. When we took off running down the soggy dirt paths through the woods of base, I heard the following chant:

Loooowww right, your low right leh-oh …

Looww right right, your low right leh-oh …

When I get to heaven …

Saint Peter’s gonna say-ay …

How’d you make your living boy, how’d you earn your pay-ay …

Iiiiiii’ll reply with my kni-ife …


I had loved the fact that a group of teenage kids had felt cocky enough to threaten Saint Peter with a knife (never mind referring to him as a bitch) and, later on in the chant, to put Satan himself on notice. Their attitude had seemed amusing, foreign, and attractive all at once. I had never developed the chutzpah to talk about the sacred so casually, and some part of me envied my Marines their bravado.

Now, standing in the desert of Kuwait for the third time with the harsh reality of deployment all around me, I heard the same chants as I had that day in Pendleton, and I remembered that just a few short months before joining Joker One, I had been just like my Marines. I also had thought that scars were cool and that getting wounded doing heroic, leadership-type things wouldn’t necessarily be all that bad. In the Corps, we’re thoroughly trained on stories of its magnificent battle history, a history writ strong by people like Gunny Basilone in World War II, and, more recently, Captain Chontosh in Operation Iraqi Freedom I—both of whom single-handedly destroyed fiercely defended, numerically superior enemy strongpoints and saved lots of Marine lives in the process. Officer and enlisted alike pray that that kind of fortitude combines with that kind of opportunity to produce that kind of glory.

As I stood there in the desert sand, stretching and cooling down and reflecting on all these things, I hadn’t yet been shot at or returned fire, but I had been in a combat zone, and I had met plenty of blooded infantrymen. All the good ones had more or less carried themselves the same way, and the chest-beating machismo embodied in our chants was nowhere to be seen. The only words I can find that might come close to suggesting what had replaced that false bravado are “grim determination.” Nothing else can really explain that battle-hardened air, but you know it when you see it.

I had also seen a few of the lightly wounded brought back to my base; heard firsthand about the Marine who shot his friend in the face to prove that his weapon was unloaded; and stood and watched the flies congregate on the congealed blood outside the port-a-john where some nameless major had put his pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. My stupid, young machismo had been largely burned out of me. Death was no longer an altogether complete stranger. Glancing around at the high walls of the desert berms around us, it hit me more than ever that Joker One was headed north soon, headed into an area officially designated a war zone. I didn’t think that the fighting would be all that fierce, but I suspected that at least some would occur, and I suspected that someone, somewhere might get hurt.

And what you don’t hear about in training is the anonymous officer who was crushed to death because one night he slept too close to the amtracs, or the PFC who got shot through the lower spine on his first week in country and who will now never walk again, let alone perform heroic feats in combat. And what you can’t see—and what no one can teach you and what you can’t really even envision until you get into it—are the wounds. Before they heal, most look more or less the same (if you can even see them through all the blood): like raw, red meat. Afterward they sort of differentiate themselves, but I have yet to encounter any combat scar that looked cool in any form or fashion. Mostly they look pink and jagged and discolored and puffy—accurate reflections of the trauma that cause them. Bullet entry wounds are often puckered and the exit wounds, if you’re unlucky, are swollen and deformed where the flesh has been blown out. Shrapnel wounds almost always look like someone took a jagged shovel and dug a chunk of flesh out of the body, then filled it in awkwardly with hairless, discolored skin that shouldn’t belong on a human being. Burn wounds are smoothly hideous, like the skin was turned into peanut butter and then spread in stretched, uneven dollops on the body. Or maybe you come back missing a finger or your face, or the whole or parts of your limbs. Maybe your eyes are gone. However, it’s hard to try to explain random, mundane death and wounding to unblooded college-age Marines, because—like having a child—some things you just have to experience to fully understand. Few people, especially at that age, truly comprehend the idea that tomorrow is by no means certain—they usually have to see a few tomorrows forcefully and tragically taken away before they understand the gift of time. And the Corps as a whole focuses on its heroes and on its magnificent battle history, partly to instill a strong service culture in its new recruits, partly to instill the values necessary to do the job, and partly to teach all Marines that they have the potential to achieve something beyond themselves. After all, young Marines can understand and aspire to valor and greatness; death and defeat they cannot.

It’s left to the small unit leaders, to the corporals, the sergeants, and the lieutenants, to gently tone down as much of the bravado as possible, to transform the lust for glory and the desire to be a hero into the deep need simply to take care of your buddy and to serve your team, squad, and platoon. With a partial understanding of combat already underneath my belt, I realized as we prepared for our trip north that I would have to slowly do my part to ready my Marines to assume the grim determination that would carry them through combat once harsh reality had ripped its way into their dreams. So, gently, Noriel, Leza, Bowen, and I toned down the screaming and the shouting during the training. “Dial back the volume, turn up the effort, and don’t focus on making yourself look tough and hard,” we said. “Don’t worry about how you appear, just do your jobs and take care of each other. That should take everything you’ve got and then some.”

After each morning’s run, we ate breakfast and then trained for every conceivable combat scenario, with a heavy emphasis on casualty evacuation (casevac) procedures during each. A Marine lying laughingly on the desert sand after he’s just been unexpectedly “wounded” isn’t the same as one screaming in the city streets with no hand and blood everywhere, but it was as close as we could get for now. We also cross-trained ourselves on our own equipment to emphasize forcibly that we might lose one of our rocket, machine gun, or mortar specialists.

One week into this training, Division sent Golf Company a lawyer who tried to explain to our Marines exactly when they could and could not shoot. We had just finished a patrolling exercise, so 120 dirty, sweat-soaked infantry Marines sat in a rough horseshoe in the desert sand with their weapons sticking up from between their legs as the slight lawyer in pristine cammies began his lecture. According to this lawyer, we had to be absolutely certain that our prospective target demonstrated one of two things: a hostile act or a hostile intent. Hostile acts were usually fairly easy to identify because they almost always involved a potential target either aiming or firing a weapon at us, the lawyer said. Hostile intent was a bit trickier, and the lawyer couldn’t give us an actionable definition of the term. Apparently, the concept allowed a lot of room for individual interpretation.

The lawyer also touched on what happened after the firing started. Apparently, our decision to stop shooting also hinged on establishing one of two things: whether the enemy was “still in the fight” or “out of the fight.” An enemy “still in the fight” was one who, despite wounds or suppressing fire, continued to demonstrate an active intent to kill Marines. Think of the insurgent who’s been shot but is crawling toward his weapon, the lawyer said. These people are fair game. By contrast, “out of the fight” referred to an enemy who no longer tried to kill you, whether through loss of will or loss of practical ability. To help clarify, the lawyer gave us the example of the insurgent who’s been shot and whose RPG launcher is lying twenty feet away, or the insurgent who drops his weapon and flees the fight. In both of those cases, we were legally obligated to stop firing.

The problem with the lawyer’s earnest talk was that, while it sounded good in theory, it was almost impossible to execute with any precision. Generally, when you most need to act on the specified legal conditions, you are least likely to be able to verify unquestionably whether they have been met. How do you tell if an enemy is crawling toward or away from his weapon when he’s two hundred meters away, your eyes are stinging with sweat, and the insurgent is surrounded by the thick cloud of dirt that always kicks up when an RPG-7 fires? How do you determine whether someone calling on his cellphone in the middle of a crowd of two hundred people is preparing to detonate an IED or talking to his mother? Maybe these questions were obvious to the lawyer, and maybe they weren’t. After all, the zero-defects mentality of the 1990s peacetime military hadn’t been fully jettisoned by the realities of our current war.

The lawyer’s precise, bloodless presentation managed to confuse a lot of the Marines—after all, training had taught us that theory and reality often wildly diverged. So the CO instructed the platoon commanders to simplify it. Since hostile intent was so hard to verify, we would keep all decisions surrounding that issue firmly in the hands of the platoon commanders. Better to take risks ourselves than to kill innocent civilians, the CO said, and we agreed. Once the firing started and once the targets had been positively identified, though, the in/out of the fight concept would get tossed out the window. Instead, we would stop our shooting according to the dictate of the Pine Box Rule: If there’s any question about whether it’s you or the bad guy who is going home in a pine box, you make damn certain that it’s the bad guy. Of course we wanted to avoid as many innocent victims as possible, but if someone had already tried to kill us, there was no way we would risk our own lives simply to meet a vague legal condition of extremely dubious validity.

With this issue clarified as well as it could be, and with most of the basics of foot patrolling well covered, in the second week of our stay in Kuwait we shifted our training to emphasize convoy operations. Golf Company’s first mission into Iraq was a three-day road trip north to Ramadi, and we wanted to be as prepared as possible. So each day I made Joker One practice jumping into and out of stationary Humvees and seven-ton trucks, the huge, fifteen-foot-high troop carriers that would be our primary people movers during the northbound convoy. To a casual observer, the sight of thirty-seven fully loaded Marines bouncing all around unmoving vehicles for hours in the desert heat might have seemed ridiculous at best and sadistic at worst. However, I knew that the little things we learned during this endless repetition might very well make the difference between life and death.

In our world, basic tasks have to be repeatedly rehearsed in conditions mimicking predicted combat scenarios as faithfully as possible. For example, you can never be sure which small detail might mean the difference between exiting a vehicle caught in an enemy ambush kill zone in two seconds or in ten. That kind of time differential can be fatal. Where is the door handle on the seven-ton truck? Do you have to pull it up or down to get out? How far is the drop out of the truck bed, and where exactly do you need to put your feet before you hurl yourself out the door? Once all the little questions have been answered, those answers must be practiced again and again until they become muscle memory. The Marines didn’t like the mind-numbingly repetitive nature of such drills, and they didn’t exactly love the squad leaders and me for putting them through the endless rehearsals, but every time we did something tedious and painful, we tried to lay out the reason behind the drills to everyone. I became amazed at how much my men would tolerate if someone just took the time to explain the why of it all to them.

To make things even more realistic, one day the Ox managed to scavenge enough vehicles from the battalion to mount up all four Joker platoons. Our company drove around in three-block squares inside the Kuwaiti camp for hours, rehearsing different enemy contact scenarios late into the evening. For lap after dull lap, we practiced responses to small IED ambushes, to civilian traffic jams, to herds of goats crossing the road, and to friendly vehicle breakdowns.

After two hours of pretending, I felt that we had exhausted the repertoire of likely scenarios and useful responses. The platoons were making one final circuit, and I was mentally preparing myself to head to bed, when the Ox got on the hook and announced a typical Ox scenario:

“All Jokers, be advised, this is Joker Five. We have an enemy platoon dug in, in the defense two hundred meters off our right flank. We need to fucking assault those bastards. Dismount the company and kick their asses. Over.”

I rolled my eyes. It was typical of the Ox to dream up the most hard-core scenario possible, regardless of whether his fantasy bore even a remote resemblance to anticipated reality. Unenthusiastically, Jokers One through Four ordered our men to dismount and execute the tedious assault. When the evening’s convoy operations were finally finished, each exhausted platoon commander took turns bashing the Ox. Flowers started off: “Did you hear what that dumb Ox was saying? What does he think we’re going to be fighting? The damn Red Hordes pouring into Eastern Europe?”

Quist, Hes, and I all chimed in with our own insults. Then, tired and filthy and muttering angrily to ourselves, we trudged back to our tent to try to get some sleep.

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