This is the second post of three about the top things I learned in 2003 as a Marine in Combat (Top Things I Learned in Combat Part 1). I was part of 1st Marines and on the tip of the spear. There were times that I stepped foot where no American had ever been. My Company was assigned the job of taking Baghdad and was given flatbed trucks to transport us there. I was in over 11 gun battles during my first three months there. Here’s what I learned:
We moved through multiple places with a smell of death that was unmistakable. The burned bodies were the worst. Even long after the fires had been out and the bodies cooled, it was still the worst smell I’ve ever had assail my nostrils. The smell is so bad that you feel it affect you physically and even taste it. No matter what you did, scarfs, masks, or even gas masks, the smell was still there. It got into your clothes and I could smell it for hours after leaving the area. It’s a smell that I can’t and don’t have to explain. You will know it without a doubt when you are around it. I have pictures, but won’t post them for obvious reasons.
There are worse things than death
Lack of sleep, losing someone that trusted you to protect them, fear of letting down your team, fear of how the world will treat you, having your head chopped off on YouTube. It hit home for me when we did a raid looking for Saddam’s Fighters and found none. We set up an impromptu checkpoint and caught 15 fighters trying to escape. They were all in an 18-wheeler cab with a local driver. The driver helped us and then we helped him. We got to know him and he even gave us intel of enemy troop movements and areas to stay away from.
The next day I was tasked with a couple other Marines to go to the detention center to do paperwork (yes, even in combat there was paperwork) on the soldiers we captured. On the way, we saw that 18-wheeler parked empty by the side of the road. It hadn’t even been 12 hours since he left us. On the way back, I insisted (to my 1stSgt and Captain, I was only a Corporal) that we stop and check it out. They weren’t happy about risking the stop when there were only a handful of us, but I can be quite insistent. The driver was gone. It looked like he had been kidnapped while trying to add oil to the engine of his truck. I knew he wasn’t taken by any U.S. units because he wasn’t at the detention center. The enemy took him. The Iraqis taken by Iraqi fighters were lucky to only be executed. We found bodies mutilated by the enemy before being killed. All that guy talked about was getting home to his family. He had been caught up north when the war started and wanted to get back home. He helped us; trusted us; and hopefully it only cost him his life. It’s one, among others, that still haunt me.
The people you are with are worth more than your life
I never thought about dying. The truth was that it was a real possibility. The odds were against us. We were invading a country that had ample time to prepare, they had biological weapons, and we were out numbered about 7-1. Not good odds. But we went anyways. I knew that I was with some of the best Marines in the business and that if I died it would be because someone else got lucky or I screwed up. It wasn’t that my mistake could kill me, it’s that 20 Marines depended on me not to make a mistake and lead them into combat and bring them back. To be able to tell them what to do, how to do it, and make the right decision when it came to winning a fight.
On top of being responsible for the Marines in my section, we were the mortars section. The entire company depended on us to protect them with close in fire support. I was the FDC (Fire Direction Control), which means I directed the section on how and where to fire their mortars. If I messed up and missed when the Company was depending on me, lots of Marines could have died or worse, I could have miscalculated the other way and dropped rounds on my own Marines. That would have been a fate worse than death. We luckily lost no one during my first tour. But I would have gladly stepped in front of a bullet for any one of my Marines. I couldn’t face the possibility of making it back without them.
No matter how hard you are, there will be a time when you break down
The day we got to the outskirts of Baghdad, we found a traffic jam going over the river and into the city. It looked like the 405 Freeway just outside LAX on Friday night, only it was all armored vehicles waiting to get across the one bridge still standing. With nothing for us to do but wait our turn, we were tasked to head east and set up a blocking position to keep the enemy from attacking units as they crossed the river. Easy job. Only the best position for us to be in was already occupied by a destroyed Iraqi mounted unit. We took positions right next to what had been theirs. It looked like the Air Force had completely destroyed this unit. I set up my mortars next to three or four destroyed enemy vehicles.
We took turns sleeping next to the burned out vehicles for cover. The things that drove us all nuts was that the vehicles had burned to the ground, most with the enemy soldiers still in them. When we got there, the bodies and vehicles were still smoking. We held that position all night. I had the last sleep shift and slept next to a vehicle that smelled like death. It didn’t matter, I was so tired that I didn’t think about it. While I was sleeping, I got bit on the face by a spider or something. My helmet wouldn’t fit. I was brought to the doc who tried a Benadryl shot that failed. My world was in despair as we loaded up. It was a horrible night turning into a horrible day and the doc was worried that this could be my demise. A stupid bug bight! I got into the truck with all hope gone and just fell back asleep. My Marines were there to pick me up and took a picture to laugh about (the one above). When we moved away from the burned out vehicles, my fellow Marines were able to bring me back and the doc gave me another shot that actually worked. It was one of many times that I was just done and didn’t care what happened. I wasn’t going any further. It happens to all of us and I talked to many of my Marines during their down times. Some of those conversations still haunt me and I remember them like yesterday.
To be continued…