Tell Me a True War Story: J. Sleeman

Photo courtesy of Justin Sleeman.

Justin Sleeman is a law enforcement officer in the Washington Metro area. He spent eight years (four active, four reserve) in the United States Marine Corps, deploying for seven months in 2006 and again in 2007. Sleeman was in the Infantry. During his first deployment, he carried an automatic machine gun, and during his second he was a squad leader.

Justin was my first interviewee. We corresponded via email, and he patiently and faithfully answered my questions and follow-up questions. That’s a small thing, maybe, but I can see why you would want Justin to have your back. He seems steady, and he follows through.

What strikes me about Justin’s interview is the blend of humor and tragedy in his answers. The picture above is from a memorial service for the fourteen soldiers Justin’s team lost during his first deployment. Yet the story he chose to tell when I asked him for one is a lighthearted tale about a minor car accident while driving with a buddy. Really, who hasn’t been there?

Justin’s story makes me think of the terrible headlights on the old minivan my parents let me drive in high school. My brother and I were out delivering Christmas cookies to family friends one December night, and I (gently) ran into a light pole because I couldn’t see very well and I took a half-second too long to react. Okay, so the differences between our experience are obvious. The relative safety of our environments is starkly different, and so are the freedoms we each enjoyed at the time. But I think the similarities are obvious, too.

Read on for a short interview with Sergeant Sleeman.

G: Do you watch war movies? Do you keep up with other types of popular media about war?

J: I do watch war movies, but I do not keep up with any podcasts. Most of the stuff I watch or read about on current operations are from various Facebook groups and the Marine Corps Times.

G: What’s the best war movie or television show you’ve seen? Why? Do you think it tells a good story?

J: I think the best shows are the HBO series Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and Generation Kill. I think those are the best because they depict life in the military pretty accurately. I believe that they tell excellent stories, and they are all based off of true events and real people.

G: What do you think about how soldiers and veterans are represented in the movies and shows you watch?

J: I think the HBO series depict them pretty accurately. They also do a decent job of depicting combat in the HBO series.

G: What makes the HBO series you mentioned better than other shows? You mentioned that they do a good job depicting combat. What are they getting right that others don’t?

J: The HBO series do a good job with depicting how combat brings people together. I don’t think there is really any movie out there that can depict what truly happens in combat. It’s hard to replicate something like that. What they do do a good job of showing is guys using tactics like covering one another while moving and the weapons actually running out of ammo and the person has to change the magazine. Not like some of the movies where the guy stands out in the open for twenty minutes firing his rifle from the hip, never running out of ammo, without getting shot.

G: What’s the worst one? Why?

J: Jarhead 2. It was just a terrible movie. It was just really cheesy. The first one [Jarhead] actually was a decent movie that accurately portrays the life of a Marine and how Marines act on a daily basis.

G: Tell me a story. Any story.

J: On my first deployment, we were driving at night to another outpost. It was pitch black, and we had infrared lights on the Humvees that we would use to see with our night vision goggles. The problem was that our night vision goggles didn’t have any depth perception, and the lights on the Humvee sucked. We were driving through a serpentine made up of concert barriers, and my buddy driving goes, “Hey Sleeman, do I go to the left or to the right of the jersey barrier?”

I said, “What jersey barrier?”

As soon as I said that we crashed into the barrier. Cracked the hood on the Humvee, but there was no other damage.

I told my buddy, “I guess we should have gone to the right of the barrier.”

Tim O’Brien once wrote, “In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorry. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”

That’s a little more poetic than a story about a Humvee, but still it strikes a chord with what Justin has to say. Reading Justin’s story, I’m reminded that not all war stories are about tragedy, or regret, or death, or guilt. Sometimes, they’re funny. Sometimes, they’re simple. Sometimes, they’re just about the small consequences of living a life in any place or time. A wrong turn, a fender bender, a buddy in the passenger’s seat.

Thanks, Justin, for telling me a story.

Next up, we’ll hear from Jacquelyn, who served in the Navy for 12 years.


Have a war story to tell? I’d love to help you tell it. Email me at with the subject line: “Tell Me a True War Story.”