It is hard not to feel slightly out of place now that I have returned to Vanderbilt’s campus. War is a difficult reality to face, and the experience brings irreversible changes within a person.
I am a senior in the College of Arts and Science, with a major in history and minor in Islamic studies. I am also a recently returned veteran of the Iraq War.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves as a Vanderbilt student. During the 2007 fall semester, the Marine Corps ordered me to activate in preparation for a seven-month combat tour in Iraq. I withdrew from Vanderbilt in October 2007, underwent four months of theater-specific training, and finally set foot on Iraqi soil in late March 2008. Now I am back at Vanderbilt for the spring semester of 2009—my last before graduating.
Everything about war is dangerous. Deaths related to hostile fire may draw the most headlines, but enemy action is quickly being surpassed as the No. 1 threat to Coalition forces. Military experts refer to the current mode of warfare as “fourth generational”—meaning warfare that involves terrorism, guerilla warfare, and a blurring of the lines between peace and conflict, soldier and civilian. Fourth-generational warfare creates circumstances that form a perfect storm for accidental casualties not associated at all with combat. In recent months noncombat-related deaths from motor vehicle accidents, accidental weapon discharges and the like have claimed as many American lives as the Iraqi insurgency.
“I maintained my own frantic, paranoid vigilance for the first week or so. Every stray wire and tube was a potential bomb, every bulging stomach a possible suicide vest. I soon came to the realization that if someone is willing to die in order to kill you, precious little can stop them.”
Even the most rudimentary elements, like a soldier’s gear, create hazards. I served as a machine gunner in Iraq. With all my mission-essential uniforms, equipment and weapons, I weighed more than 300 pounds. Although much is now mechanized, combat still requires a great deal of maneuvering on foot. Daily jarring under loads far exceeding a soldier’s natural body weight leads to the breakdown of joints, ankles, knees and backs.
While the physical risk is substantial, the most intense and long-lasting effects of the Iraq War are psychological. The reality of being in a war zone first struck me during the plane ride from Kuwait to Iraq. The flight began like any other as the C-130 barreled down the runway and slowly lifted off. Then, once at altitude, all lights went out. The crew that had politely ushered us aboard donned night-vision goggles and went into an entirely different mode. Thirty minutes or so into the flight, the plane jerked and dived as if crashing. We continued to bank, twist and dive until dropping on the runway in Iraq. The dynamic flying is a standard operating procedure for pilots to make American aircraft hard targets for surface-to-air missiles.
At that moment I realized I was in a place where people wanted to kill me. You could say I was there because they had already killed 4,000 of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms. That harsh and unnatural reality confronts every service member head-on; how you deal with it affects how well you perform your role as an executor of U.S. policy and an ambassador of the American people.
The feeling of being in imminent danger produces terror, which feeds paranoia. You suspect everyone and trust no one. Even Iraqi security forces could be insurgent infiltrators. Whether patrolling on foot or in a vehicle, you feverishly scan the ground, cars and people, looking for improvised explosive devices, suicide vests, car bombs and small arms. Every minute or so you check rooftops and towers for snipers. The process is exhausting, but common sense and military training promise it will keep you alive.
While remaining alert and maintaining vigilance are critical to survival, sooner or later you must come to terms with reality. I maintained my own frantic, paranoid vigilance for the first week or so in-country. Every stray wire and tube was a potential bomb, every bulging stomach a possible suicide vest. I soon came to the realization that there was very little I could do to prevent an attack. The somber truth is that if someone is willing to die in order to kill you, precious little can stop them.
I spent my entire combat tour in and around Walid, Iraq. Walid is a small town of 500 people, less than a mile from Iraq’s border with Syria. Fewer than 50 yards east of Walid, a burgeoning tent camp is home to 2,000 Palestinian refugees. Outside the town are numerous scattered populations of sheep-herding Bedouins who scratch out a meager existence in much the same way their ancestors have for thousands of years. The local economy relies on travelers driving along MSR Copper, a major highway connecting Damascus and Baghdad that runs through Walid. The border crossing where MSR Copper continues into Syria is the busiest in all Iraq.
The security situation has improved so dramatically in Iraq that thousands of Iraqi refugees are returning after fleeing to Syria during the early stages of the war. Security gains have contributed to political and economic stabilization. Internal stability, helped by high oil prices, lit a fire within the Iraqi economy. The amount of commercial traffic ferrying imports into Iraq skyrocketed during the course of my tour. Agricultural products, appliances and automobiles from Europe, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon now pour into the country, while convoys, hundreds of trucks long, leave Iraq every week, their tanks topped off with Iraqi crude.
When we first arrived in late March, some 2,000 to 3,000 travelers came through Walid on their way to and from Iraq every day. By October the number had grown to 7,000. During peak times—summer and the month of Ramadan—the outdated Iraqi passport office and customs house cannot keep up with the increased volume. Long waits lead to angry travelers, often resulting in fights and occasionally riots. The presence of crowds and hundreds of Iraqi government officials in close confines presents an attractive target for insurgent suicide bombers. Added to that, much of the remaining insurgency is attempting to flee from American and Iraqi forces into Syria. My primary mission was to aid Iraqi security forces in securing and defending the crowds of travelers and government offices from insurgent attacks.
The single greatest obstacle to joint Iraqi-American operations is the language barrier. With the tour system in place, American troops simply do not spend enough time in-country to become functionally proficient in Arabic. The U.S. military employs thousands of interpreters, but there are never enough. Without adequate interpreter support, Americans and Iraqis are relegated to communicating via something akin to charades.
The bulk of my work at Vanderbilt has been in studying Islam, Arab culture and politics, and the Arabic language. In addition to serving as a military policeman, I also functioned as an interpreter. My Vanderbilt language training made a significant impact on my unit’s ability to complete its mission. Armed with two years of training in Modern Standard Arabic and considerable background knowledge of Islamic history, customs and traditions, I was able to bridge those broad linguistic and cultural barriers.
In addition to working one-on-one with Iraqi police, I interacted directly with crowds of travelers. This allowed the passport office to run more smoothly and presented a more favorable image of American troops. I fielded questions from the crowds, explained the long delays and, if needed, intervened in conflicts before things got out of hand. Once it was established that I could understand Arabic, rabble-rousers were far less likely to try to incite a riot. Elements of Islamic and Arab culture that I retained from Vanderbilt classes helped guide me in my interactions with travelers. I drew from classes about Islamic holidays, the significance of clothing and hats, Arab etiquette, and so on. The Iraqis, travelers and officials alike, assumed that I was a Muslim. I was asked on a few occasions, usually by puzzled Iraqi children, if I was an Iraqi soldier.
My Vanderbilt education came to life and played a vital role every day. I left Iraq in October 2008 with fond memories and a great sense of optimism for the future of that country. Iraq is on the rebound, though the scars of years of poverty and destruction remain.
The war has changed me forever, in ways good and bad. I feel much more confident and accomplished now. On the other hand, I cannot help but fear that the most meaningful work of my life is already behind me.
Everything in my life seems incredibly trivial now. I am easily irritable for the first time.
My wife says I have lost my youthful sparkle.
The body heals quickly from physical exhaustion; rest and good food take care of that. It takes your mind a lot longer to detoxify.