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A Life In Conflict One Marine’s Journey

A Life In Conflict One Marine's Journey

Part One: Skin in the Game

The faces looked familiar — but of course they would.  Anyone who has been around Marines or soldiers for any period of time would recognize them – the shots of young men and women – some serious, others goofy, but all obviously proud – all somehow bearing the same stamp.  Or maybe it was my imagination, a product of my own conflated feelings of pride and sadness that imbued their pictures with a distinctive commonality that went much deeper than the uniforms they were wearing.  The names and faces spanned the broad canvas of the country they served:  Hoover, Nikoui, McCollum, Schmitz, Pichado, Soviak, Lopez, Page, Sanchez, Espinoza, Gee, Knaus, Merola. Their forebears had settled in places, as diverse by culture as they were by geography:  Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Indiana, Wyoming, Missouri, Tennessee, Massachusetts, California.

 The singularity of the event – the fact that their deaths had occurred not in the normal course of the war, but just as it was ending – brought their deaths an unusual amount of attention in the media, and with it, recognition of who they were and what they did during their short lives: sons, daughters, fathers, husbands, mothers and wives.   It was a far cry from how casualties were customarily reported during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — a terse paragraph on page 2 or 3 with the customary stock boot camp photo – poker faced and anonymous.

They were not all from the same unit, one was a soldier and two were part of a female engagement team attached to an infantry battalion – but that wouldn’t have mattered to them in the hours before their deaths. They’d been assigned a task on the outer security perimeter, a task that they all must have known was hazardous – and yet there would have been some banter, much of it probably quite profane, but not enough to disrupt their collective sense of purpose.

U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) conduct advise and assist operations during Operation Trojan Assault near Shaykan, Iraq, Apr. 18, 2016. Coalition SOF elements routinely work with partner nations in support Operation Inherent Resolve. Not submitted for release. (U.S. Army Photo by Cpl. Jake Hamby/FOUO)

I have seen countless such pictures, attended countless memorial services – seen Marines and soldiers, many of them under my command die.  And yet, inexplicably, something about this occasion, these lives lost, left a barb within me.  It wasn’t just the welter of incompetence – strategic through tactical – that led to their deaths. That was infuriating, but hardly unprecedented. Nor was it the number of casualties – 14 deaths had been an average day during the battle for Fallujah.  Perhaps it was instead the realization of how removed from such events the American public really was.   Five of those who died were only a few months old when the war started, the rest only toddlers. During those two decades, it was seldom easy to discern a link between military effort and any coherent overarching strategy. Nor, with the exception of a few brief flurries, has there been any real Congressional scrutiny into the conduct of the war. Of course, for such a debate to happen, there would have to be a level of collective interest fueled by a sense that the American public has something at stake

Perhaps that is what is missing. Relatively few Americans serve in today’s military – less than half of one percent — so it should be no surprise that they feel little personal investment in the wars currently fought on their behalf. Without that sense of investment there is nothing to drive media attention or Congressional action: ‘America is not at war; the Marine Corps is at war; America is at the Mall’ was an oft-repeated refrain by graffiti artists from Al Qaim to Sangin.  There’s no real bitterness to this joke, just a wry acknowledgement that this is the inevitable consequence of volunteering to do something very few others would choose to do.

Later that day, I checked in for a flight to Camp Pendleton. “I’m sorry for your loss,” said the airline employee at the check-in desk upon seeing my ID.  “Why my loss,” I thought, “surely, it’s our loss,” but knew of course that I was mistaken.  By the end of the week, the news cycle had moved on, and the administration was happy to let it do so. No one wants their reputation to be defined by the messy end to a messy war.

50 years ago, most Americans would have seen themselves in those pictures – regardless of background, most would have had in common the experience of service – the frustrations, discomfort, tedium and humor that define military life.  They would have understood that curiously strong bond that develops between young men and women in such circumstances, a comradery that is forged by a collective sense of shared grievance among those at the bottom of the great green pyramid.  Even in peacetime, the day-to-day tribulations of service life are enough to strengthen that bond far beyond the relationships that most civilians develop with colleagues.  In war, it becomes something quite profound – a type of mutual dependence in the face of danger that brings soldiers closer to one another than to their own siblings.

In such circumstances, many of the attributes that define and divide us in in day-to-day life, our education, background, ethnic origins, political and religious preferences become irrelevant. Only one question matters: Can I trust this person with my life?   If – as is nearly always the case —  the answer is “yes”, the preconceptions and prejudices of prior life are rendered irrelevant. In Fallujah, one of the advisors on my team, an Army Staff Sergeant, was – we had guessed, correctly as it turns out – gay.  During the nerve-wracking business of house clearing, he was more often than not, the first through the door.  Those spared this unenviable task by his willingness to take risk on their behalf could not have cared less about his sexual orientation. 

U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) conduct advise and assist operations during Operation Trojan Assault near Shaykan, Iraq, Apr. 18, 2016. Coalition SOF elements routinely work with partner nations in support Operation Inherent Resolve. Not submitted for release. (U.S. Army Photo by Cpl. Jake Hamby/FOUO)

Marines are often accused, perhaps with justification, of misogyny.  Marine Sergeants Nicole Gee and Rosario Pichado were both killed manning a checkpoint whose position on the outer perimeter was by any reasonable person’s estimation, extremely hazardous.  There was never any question of them being replaced there by men – only they could do the task assigned: screening Afghan women trying to get on the airfield.  After their deaths, the media made much of their gender – the Marine Corps did not. To all who wear the uniform, they were simply Marines.

Once subjected to experiences such as this, it’s hard to go back to the old ways, the mundane, petty grievances, the office gossip, the competition for attention, for recognition. Or the seismic political divisions that define American society today.  In retirement, I still travel extensively, and can’t count the number of times when, in various parts across the country, someone – from a scraggly surfer dude in LAX to a pilot boarding my flight in Detroit — has come up to me to ask if I’m a Marine.  But it’s their story they want to tell: “Semper Fi, man – I was in for four years, hated every minute, counted the days until my EAS.”  I listen, knowing how it will invariably end: “You know, every day since, I’ve missed wearing the uniform.”  Some try to explain why, but there’s really no need. If only we could apply that alchemy to society at large – but that is indeed a forlorn hope. I am not suggesting for a moment that we bring back mandatory military service. I don’t think that many of my Marine friends would want that to happen.  The headaches involved in such a venture – not to mention the political fall-out – would be beyond comprehension.   Perhaps some sort of universal service, with non-military options, wouldn’t be a bad thing – but it’s not my intent to make that argument here.  Instead, I would be happy if those who read this come away with a greater understanding of the collective responsibility that attends an all- volunteer force.  More important than the well-meaning but trite catch phrase “thank you for your service”, is the obligation to ensure that that service is directed towards some coherent purpose.  Most of us feel uncomfortable being thanked anyway – we’d rather that everyone understood that it isn’t just other people’s sons and daughters who volunteer to fight. We all have skin in the game.

To be Continued

More By Andrew Milburn

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Newslooks.com

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