Monday, November 11, 2013

Happy Veteran's Day

This post is a republication of an essay that was originally published on Veteran's Day 2011 in the Opinionator blog of the New York Times. 
As a Marine Captain in 1991 I commanded Delta Company, First Reconnaissance Battalion in the Persian Gulf War.
Thinking about the war still brings back a flood of sounds, smells and mental images; most of them mundane and decidedly unheroic. The sound of heavy sand flicked off of a shovel into a sandbag. Burned JP-5 on an airstrip. Free-standing piss tubes. Camel-mac. The way the carbon from the chemical suit would turn your skin black. Dried-out Copenhagen newly arrived from the states. Little boxes of nuclear milk. A cassette tape from home. The sight of powdered detergent blossoming in a bucket of lukewarm water when I would hand-wash the only uniform I had for 60 days.
And I remember the guys with whom I served. Willie Thom, who was so serious the first week I knew him and so funny the rest of the time. Mike McCarley would take a big pull of an O’Doul’s and pronounce it foul and undrinkable before taking another swig. Lou Gregory got a Silver Star for personally sorting out a friendly fire incident at the second mine belt, but I remember him more for letting us use his stove to heat water for coffee and shaving. Martin Gallegos once made a radio work by holding a homemade antenna in the air with a shovel. Ben Jones often had a look on his face that asked, “I did good, huh?” Brad Delauter would try to kill me when we ran the sandy hills at Manifa Bay down near the First Marine Division Support Area. A tentful of guys lying on cots would laugh at Dan Bonham snoring at night.
In a short week in January of 1991 I went from seeing CNN’s “Line in the Sand” on TV to being there. I confess I was enthralled. Leading a company of reconnaissance Marines in combat was natural for me, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t the hardest thing I ever did. It was just natural. Even in the most critical and dangerous moments, I would be conscious of the fact that everything in my life, from reading Guadalcanal Diary in the eighth grade to my training at Quantico, had delivered me to that instant, to that point of leading those Marines in combat. I was living an infantry officer’s dream. We were, at times, thirty miles from higher headquarters and three thousand meters from the bad guys, and I had complete liberty and responsibility to make my own decisions, which I knew were monumental. We knew who the enemy was and we could engage him at the maximum range of our optics. It seems now like an obscenely benign view of war, especially compared to the experience of people who fought in Iraq and who continue to fight in Afghanistan.
My Gulf War experience made me successful and was, at the same time, my ruination. Since that time I have had a job where including the wrong person in the distribution for a routine e-mail nearly got me fired. I’ve had a job where my peers and I did not have the authority to make a Xerox copy or operate the coffee machine. In combat I was completely responsible for the lives of dozens of young men who looked to me to lead well and do my duty. I had millions of dollars of equipment and untold amounts of political capital entrusted to me. I was the eyes and ears of a Marine Division. I walked bolt upright through places where disaster was highly possible and death expectantly stood by. I spoke into a radio handset and mayhem rained down.
I was 27.
So to Phil Coutris, Jim Burns, and Dave Green; on patrol in the next life, to the wounded and the maimed, to those unreconstructed and unrepentant old Jarheads forever shaped by what we did, where we went and what we saw, to those who loved us and prayed for us; I owe my love and everlasting thanks.