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A soldier’s experience in war

Andrew DeBerry | Thursday, October 9, 2003

We’ll call him Joe. As a part of a force protection – security forces – unit in the United States Marine Corps, he helped protect a camp that had a medical unit and provided supplies to operations elsewhere in Iraq. This was his war experience in Iraq.

Joe arrived in February 2003. The troops wanted to get the job done and return quickly, but for the present wanted to contribute to something they felt was worthwhile.

They endured the field conditions and could go weeks without showering, living off of three Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) daily. For their work, the government gave them an extra 700 dollars per month.

On the first day of war, the troops didn’t know what to expect and kept gas masks on hand. The Navy doctors had shots that could keep chemicals from spreading through the body.

While his unit was still crossing the border, the Iraqi military shot four SCUD missiles at them. People ran everywhere, jumping into their trenches and thinking that they were going to die. “It was pandemonium.”

A lot of non-religious people suddenly got religious in different ways: They prayed to Allah, cast Wiccan spells and cried to Jesus. “We had to hit all of them.”

The Army was prepared a few miles away and sent Patriot missiles that destroyed the SCUDs overhead.

Unity across the services kept the soldiers alive. “All you have is each other. You never know who you’re going to die for. Everybody was one.”

Enemy Prisoners of War were kept at Joe’s camp and the wounded Iraqis were treated. Some soldiers thought it would have been better to kill them to conserve their limited medical supplies. But the Navy doctors kept them in line, reminding them that they were there to help.

Other Marines recognized that some of the soldiers were forced to fight. They didn’t want anyone to die and hoped that they would surrender.

Some Iraqi soldiers even rebelled. Joe heard of one group who rounded up their officers and shot them before running off.

Chaplains provided moral support to the troops. Some soldiers felt guilty about how badly they were defeating the Iraqi soldiers. Some were relieved when the chaplain clarified the commandment as forbidding murder and not killing, although Joe thought it was hard to explain the difference.

He was with a group that entered a town that the United States military had won control over, and the Iraqis welcomed them on the streets with celebrations. He thinks that Iraq is better off: “The majority of the Iraqis are glad we’re there.”

But he also thought the war was all about oil. When asked if he thought God would approve of what was done in Iraq, Joe deliberated and said, “You know, I don’t know.” But no matter what their thoughts, soldiers were more focused on just staying alive.

When Joe’s time in Iraq was done, he spent some time in Kuwait City and felt a little closer to home with its American fast food chains and cars. After 65 days in Iraq, he returned to the United States.

Joe’s group came home after the first wave of soldiers had returned. There were no parades, cheering crowds, or bands to welcome them. He had four days to adjust and then went back to his old job.

The hardest part of Joe’s homecoming has been the people who have no real idea about war and make no effort to understand. He appreciates those who ask him about his experiences and how he is doing. He’s glad for those he’s met who have supported the troops even if they didn’t support the war.

Joe doesn’t watch the news. “I didn’t want to hear about stuff anymore. War changes you. War changes you forever.” But his intent remains fixed: “I would go again for what they’re trying to do – freedom.”

And so are the ironies of war. Soldiers try to get away from the experience but wouldn’t hesitate if called upon to do it again. Once there, they may feel guilty about their actions but are too focused on survival to think about it. Prussian military philosopher, Carl von Clausewitz, rightly said, “War has its own grammar, but not its own logic.” It’s a part of a process where some are torn down and others are built up. For the soldier, it leaves him or her changed forever.

No matter what your views are about the war, remember those who have given themselves in unparalleled devotion toward causes they have pursued with hopeful hearts. If there’s someone you know who went to Iraq, ask about his or her experience, listen to his or story throughout, and return some of the devotion that soldiers have shown in their hope for freedom.

Andrew DeBerry is a fifth-year senior studying aerospace engineering and minoring in Middle Eastern studies. His column normally appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at adeberry@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Observer.