A War (in) Pieces

CHAPTER I- Cotard’s Delusion

I Have a Rendezvous with Death-Alan Seeger, 1888–1916

(This poem is in the public domain.)

I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air —

I have a rendezvous with Death

When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand

And lead me into his dark land

And close my eyes and quench my breath —

It may be I shall pass him still.

I have a rendezvous with Death

On some scarred slope of battered hill,

When Spring comes round again this year

And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear…

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous

They say only the good die young. What does it mean about you if you were surrounded by death everyday and got out alive? Sometimes, I think I actually died fighting in Fallujah and every day since then has been something else. I feel like “Jake”-Tim Robbins’ character in the movie Jacob’s Ladder. I think at any second I might wake up in some dusty, bloody combat hospital in Iraq with my guts spilled out and have to watch my other self die-bloody, crying and begging to live.

There is a scientific theory called Complementarity. It proposes that the reality in which I write this and you read it is just one of an infinite number of other realities that exist independently and simultaneously- in this particular reality I survive but in other realities I don’t. My friends visit me in Arlington and are lucky enough to have the wives, children and life that I have had since the war. Maybe in the other places my friends live to write about what we saw. Watch Source Code if you need a better explaination.

In another universe all the time I’ve spent writing these words might also be the final minutes as my blood pours out onto the shitty plywood floors all the combat hospitals have. My dress blues wedding, watching both my daughters being born, and everyday since I came home from the war could be an illusion my mind has created. Can you ever “come back” from war? The me that went to war is not the same me that came home. I was fundamentally changed by my experience.

I swore in the middle of Fallujah if I survived the experience I would make something good out of my life. This is my attempt to honor that pledge and honor the Marines I fought alongside and for those who didn’t come home.

Everyone should visit Arlington National Cemetary. I visit Section 60 every time I go back to DC. I especially try to make it there during the holidays. I don’t know why I go except to keep my friends company. When I walk into Arlington, past the tourists and through the visitor’s center filled with boy scouts and foreigners I have to remind myself that what happened was real and that my friends died in Iraq. Usually, Section 60 is empty. Sometimes there is a wife, girlfriend, mom, father, brother or buddy in front of one of the graves. I visit for all the guys who can’t visit or won’t.

Dan M. is buried on the far side of Section 60. I once saw his graduation from the Citadel video on YouTube. Pat Conroy gave the commencement address, which I guess made it youtube worthy. Dan was a great kid- at Infantry Officer’s Course we called him “Lieutenant Dan” like the Gary Sinese character from Forrest Gump. His dad had actually been killed in Vietnam- just like the character in the movie- but only a few of us knew that.

Dan read Teddy Roosevelt’s quote about the critic and the arena at IOC graduation. He was barely 5’8” and 150 pounds and had no business being an infantry officer. He was the Bravo Company Weapons Platoon Commander. He died on the roof of the government center in Fallujah adjusting mortars to save other Marines under fire. I found out later his SGLI went to his handicapped sister. He is the first hero I ever met.

Brian L. is buried in the row next to Dan’s but closer to the road that leads into Section 60. We went to SERE training in Brunswick, Maine together. We had a lobster dinner with my family on Mother’s Day in Portland the day before we went to SERE. I took the free trip back to Maine just to see my mother on Mother’s Day. I got my ass kicked for three weeks. If I had to do it over again I would only because I met Brian. Brian died on his third tour at a vehicle check point when a car bomb exploded.

My IOC Instructor John M. is buried there also. He is in between Dan and Brian. Someone, probably his wife, laminated pictures that are always tucked in the grass next to the gravestone. The pictures are of Captain M. with his kids and his family. I always look at it. He died in Ramadi when the truck he was riding in exploded.

Major S. was the Operations Officer for the regiment that our battalion attached to in Fallujah. He died when a rocket went through the air conditioner in his office window at regimental headquarters. I met him a few days before he died. He briefed us when our advance arrived at the FOB and then I left to get started setting up our battalion area. He died before all of the battalion arrived. He was promoted posthumously to Lieutenant Colonel.

My journey to Marine officer started in high school. I went to a summer music festival in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I was a high-school swimmer and swimming makes you perfect for pull-ups. Pull-ups require all upper body strength and skinny legs-that was me. I did at least 20 pull ups that day. The recruiter said I was the only person all day that did 20. I filled out a registration card. He called me endlessly and left messages for months.

I got a free USMC t-shirt that said, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

Is it the journey or the destination that matters? My real journey to Officer Candidate School began in a leafy suburb in Maryland. The houses we ran past during PT training were standard suburban ramblers and everything looked like middle class America. I remember the course we ran took us out to a turnaround point and doubled back to the starting point. There were leafy-treed gullies in the middle of the streets.

I remember shouting encouragement to the other runners as I saw them…but I was definitely out in the front. I can’t remember if I encouraged the others because I thought I was being watched or if it was genuine? I wonder how many of those guys made it through the officer selection program and then went to OCS? I became the top candidate in my OSO class after that run.

That run was when I was young and healthy and fast. I still did 20 pull-ups on my first PT test at the recruiter’s office. I had played water wolo at school so my shoulders weren’t what they had been in high school. The pull up bar in the OSO office was too tall for the drop ceiling- so when you got to the top of the pull up your head went into the ceiling panels.

Anytime I did anything with the recruiter I had to wear khakis, tucked in polo shirt and dress shoes. That was also the Marine 2nd Lieutenant liberty uniform- I still have the leather shoes I bought then. You have to wear that stupid outfit on weekends and on leave. Guys don’t have to wear it anymore… Not since the terrorists started looking for people wearing that shit.

I should have known there was something fucked up about a group of people who make you wear a uniform when you’re not in uniform. What’s even funnier is that it was how I dressed already. If you are sitting around reading this in khakis and a tucked in polo shirt you should call your local Marine recruiter right now.

My real journey to Fallujah began with two strippers at an epic graduation party in College Park, Maryland. My friend hosted a graduation party at Maryland. I think he just wanted to hire strippers- but he invited me so he could call it a graduation party. I brought my girlfriend. Guess what happens when you bring a regular girl to a stripper party? The only non-stripper girl becomes the entertainment for the strippers. I guess it takes some of the pressure off them.

There were two strippers at the party- one blonde with small tits and another with dark hair and big fake tits. There were also two “managers”-one butch female who was the girlfriend of one or both of the strippers and a dude who was the “security.”

Actually- the whole thing was less skeezy than it seemed at first. We all went to somebody’s house and watched the strippers fool around with each other for about 45 minutes. We got drunk. The chick with the big fake tits was dressed as a policewoman and made the small blonde come with a police baton.

I graduated from Maryland in December and went home to New Hampshire for a few weeks. I can’t remember any of that time off except I ran outdoors in the cold a few times to stay in shape. I flew back to DC a few days before OCS on my first official orders. I still have those. At the Manchester airport when I was getting my bags out of the trunk my Dad said, “Don’t forget- boot camp is just a game.” He was 100% right.

I went to my pre-OCS medical screening at the Ft. Meade MEPPS in Maryland. I stayed in a hotel on Route 32 that was the MEPPS hotel. My first night I could hear people fucking around outside my room- mostly enlisted Navy and just teenagers. I just stayed in my room.

That exam at MEPPS was probably the last time my whole body worked the way it was supposed to. As I write this my back and everything else that bends or twists is wrecked. The days at MEPPS were spent standing in line in my underwear- uncomfortably close to other dudes in their underwear and nobody talking. The medical staff made us do bends and squats and range of motion tests to prove we could walk and run. Every room we stood around in had white cinder block walls and the furnishings were government cheap. Every military and government building is always the same…depressing and a little bit like a prison.

I ate my last meal as a civilian at the McDonald’s next to the PX in Quantico. Then it was just an old dumpy looking mall and a cracked up parking lot. Every military base I ever visited was always depressing- cinderblock or brick buildings built by the lowest bidder that always have peeling paint and a generally depressing feeling. I knew right then there was no way I was going to live on a military base for the rest of my life.

CHAPTER II-Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:10–19:

Jacob left Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to the place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it [or “beside him”] and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

My first meal I ate at FOB Fallujah was lunch. Since I had just arrived I just sat by myself at an empty table in the mainside chow hall. I took my tray to the table but forgot silverware. I went back to line to find the silverware and when I came back to table there were lots of brass sitting there. I looked around at the group and saw one of them was the three star general James Conway. He is tall. He asked me a question about something and I said I just arrived also. Eventually, he became the Commandant of the USMC. He was the second Commandant I met. I met General Jones at the National Cathedral. He was tall, too.

My first meeting in FOB Fallujah was in Major S.’s office in the regimental HQ. I checked in as the ADVON and had Corporal W. with me. He told us when to be where and what tent city the battalion would bunk in. A few days later, a few days before Major S. was supposed to go home a rocket went through the air conditioner in his office window and killed him.

Bravo Company had been in their assigned tent only a few days when they burned it down with a cigarette. Which is doubly stupid because the tents were soaked in kerosene to keep the flies away…and there were “No Smoking” signs all over the tents. This is proof that you can’t fix stupid. They lost everything in the fire except their weapons…their replacement uniforms had to be flown in on C-130's.

The actual camp we got assigned were rows of one-story haji built barracks that we heard housed Iranian dissidents being trained by Saddam who were supposed to go back Iran and begin an uprising during the Iran-Iraq war. The American military had bombed the camp during the Gulf War so everything was gone except the walls. At some point, somebody bulldozed much of what was left for safety reasons and just left behind rubble piles everywhere.

All over the camp, in all of the buildings and everywhere on the ground outside was UXO- probably from the bombing during Desert Storm. I guess EOD did some clearing and left some engineer tape up to mark safe lanes but we saw fins and rockets and mortar shells everywhere. I was going to be pissed if I stepped on some 15 or 50 year old rocket and got blown up. There were dirt roads that surrounded the camp and they were our boundaries and PT routes.

EOD had to clear each building before we could move in. Everyday we found more mortars and more UXO. Everyone that found something had to report it to the CP where I was working. We would send the engineers to look at it while everybody just stood around outside waiting to go back inside. Inside was a relative term…the buildings were barely standing and the walls were more like brick piles than walls. The floor was the only defining feature that made the “structure” something different than the big fucking desert we were sitting in the middle of. It was a miracle nobody got blown up getting out of bed.

Haji rockets landed in camp all the time. I always thought a rocket was going to land near one of our “buildings” and the blast was going to knock the walls over onto us. I got everyone in my “building” to agree we would dig each other out if that happened.

The convoy with the first battalion serials arrived and I was at the gate to greet them. I had to direct where each company and platoon was supposed to go. I was a traffic cop all day. Sgt W. and SSgt D. brought in 7 serials of 100+ vehicles- 800 Marines- half of the battalion. The other half was staying in Haditha Dam- until someone decided Fallujah was going to be “the big game.” We got the Marines into the crumbling buildings and began building the rest of camp. We built a COC, chow hall, heads, chapel, motorpool and aid station from the ruins of the Iranians’ camp.

I knew our Battalion Commander was completely different and totally qualified to lead us in combat when he posted one Marine at the TOC hatch and said kill anything that wasn’t supposed to be there. Instead of the old BC and SgtMaj who spent three days reinforcing their CP a few clicks back from the line in Mosul- in Kurdish territory- with three strands of C-wire and a squad of Marines posted on guard.

The staff met all day every day. We worked on possible courses of action and ran TOC watch. We mostly watched and waited to see if anything would come down from the regiment since we’d seen several operations preceded by hype and rumor that came to nothing.

The media was everywhere. The two female reporters I had met Mosul that hadn’t showered in months were still better looking than anything running around FOB Fallujah- Camp Hunter. I guess the war wasn’t sexy enough to rate hot chick reporters anymore. Our embed was a dude from the LA Times. My dad said he read the articles in the LA Times everyday and he knew which phase line we had passed on which day…so much for OPSEC. The Marines trained and our staff planned. The Marines drilled tank integration with infantry troops- which meant trying not to get run over by AAV’s and M1-Abrams tanks in the dark.

The word we waited for was a declaration of D-Day. If I’d had any forethought or sense of the political games Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld were playing I would have figured out they were just waiting to tie the invasion of Fallujah to the presidential election in the states. Forget strategic principals or objectives- I figured it out later that the president had just used us for media coverage. I’d heard he used, “Changing horses in mid-stream,” as one of his arguments against Kerry. We should have just changed all the fucking horses.

Everyday we got new attachments- AAV’s, Recon, Army armored CASEVAC (Read Richard Jadick’s On Call in Hell if you want to read about real heroes) Tanks, Combat Camera, PAO and Iraqi Emergency Response Units and a SWAT team of Iraqi Police.

The Emergency Response Unit-ERU had been trained by American contractors hired out by CIA. The guys were all prior special forces- some Delta and SEALS mostly. Their senior trainer was Dennis Chalker. I had no idea who that was. I remember that he called me “LT” and he couldn’t hear shit from blowing up so much stuff as a SEAL so I was always yelling, “Dennis!!!” I didn’t even know he was famous until one day in the chow hall- a Marine walked up to him and asked for an autograph. I googled him and found out he was “Snake” from the Marchenko novels- plankowner in SEAL Team 6 and a genuine badass.

His team was professional, knowledgeable and cocky. They showed up at D-2 and we brought their Iraqi commander and Dennis into the pre-briefs. We were told the operation was going to have an “Iraqi face” and they would be doing the mosque takedowns and any “politically sensitive” sites. Again- I should have known that was a big clue this was a show as much as a strategic operation..

The ERU trained with the AAV’s and conducted simulated urban assaults in the AAV parking area with the AAV’s and 7-ton trucks being used as buildings. They showed some promise, the typical haji lack of discipline and a bewildered appearance overall.

I was told I would take the ERU and the advisors into Fallujah on the third wave after B and C companies moved through the breech created by the Engineers. I was grateful because until then my role had only been TOC battle captain and do-everything officer. I don’t regret getting the assignment- I am who I am today because LtCol. B trusted and belived in me.

We held the battalion confirmation brief the day before we moved into the city. Major T. and I were finalizing my scheme of maneuver in a series of whispers while the first three elements briefed their plan –Weapons, B and C companies. That’s how we rolled-we didn’t need to sweat the small stuff- we trusted each other and knew we’d make good calls on the spot. Major T. was a great combat leader who later took our battalion to Afghanistan and got them back home in pretty good shape.

I got my chance to brief my part in front of the CO, the company commanders and the news cameras. I briefed the plan we’d finalized 30 seconds earlier. I remember that I didn’t sound stupid and our plan made sense. There was another Iraqi force-the 3rd IIF- an Iraqi Army company- attached to our battalion earlier that day and they would also be in the third wave and precede the ERU into the breech.

I was definitely scared what might happen if I went to Fallujah leading untested and untrusted Iraqis but more scared that I might have to watch the assault unfold in front of me while I listened to it on a radio from a forward CP. Instead I had the honor and the horror of being part of it.

Waiting to go into the breech I said I hoped Fallujah wouldn’t be the most important thing I’d ever do. I also remember I said I would be disappointed if it was. I was completely, 100% wrong! Besides watching my daughters being born- fighting with the Marines in Fallujah was the most important thing I’ve ever done. Telling their story is my honor and my duty.

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