Choices From Iraq
July, 2003
©Mary Geddry A few days ago, I received some photographs from my son, now a Lance Corporal in the Marines, who has been stationed in Iraq, of late along the Euphrates River in the southern region. He related a tale of one of his experiences that perhaps illustrates the huge, moral decisions forced upon these youngsters, decisions they will bear the burden of all their lives.John on patrol in Iraq

It was late August 2001, two weeks before the 9/11 attacks, when my eldest son, John, enlisted in the Marines. He was twenty-one at the time, a touch late for an enlistee, but they took him nonetheless and while his primary motivation in enlisting was for college money, he seemed genuinely excited to belong to something. To know John, would be to know that he was not someone you could ever imagine as a warrior. Soft hearted with animals and the downtrodden, certainly but also, always rebellious since birth. I tried to envision him taking orders as he left for boot camp late the next spring and couldn’t bring a picture into focus. Still, when I saw him at his graduation, that August day in San Diego, crisp in his uniform, a single stripe on his shoulder, the patent leather shoes, the expert rifleman pin on his collar, the pride on his face… there were still vestiges of the boy, he gulped down the homemade chocolate chip cookies like always, but he was changed, confident, even relaxed on that day.

We all knew the day would come when he would be deployed to Iraq, and on January 30, 2003, after several months of specialist training as an anti-tank assaultman, his battalion left for Kuwait. John is a part of Fox Company, 2 nd Battalion, 5 th Marines and it was the Marines of 2/5 that took the Tigris River a couple of weeks into the campaign and it was there, in battle, that John lost his sargeant. The story I have to tell happened not long after this event and not long after the news media was filled with the story of a Marine checkpoint many miles southwest of John’s position, where a van full of women and children had been fired on and killed.

John’s battalion had been taking fire all day and the war continued to rage in the distance as John manned a checkpoint that had been hastily erected out of two by fours, plywood and fence wire. Dawn was just starting to break and the chill was inescapable in spite of his gear, when a vehicle, (I forgot to ask what kind), absent any headlights was making its way toward him through the near darkness. He flashed the floodlights and the speakers blared in Arabic to stop but the vehicle continued, accelerating through the glare of the lamps. Still numbed by the death of his sargeant and more so from the catastrophe at another Marine checkpoint, he fired warning shots from his machine gun. The vehicle swerved but continued on toward him and so, praying that there were no children inside he focused on disabling the vehicle firing multiple rounds into the engine block and tires. Finally, the engine seized and the vehicle, immobilized came to a stop less than ten feet from where my son was firing. Almost sick at the thought of what might be in that car, he hoped with all his heart as he approached it, weapon ready, that he would not find a family of women and children. In the brief moments that all this was happening he couldn’t stop asking again and again, how he would live with the knowledge of having hurt ‘innocents’. These are the types of decisions these young warriors, eighteen and nineteen year olds are being asked and some would argue, been trained to make. These are very heavy decisions.

My son captured the sole occupant of the vehicle, a captain in the elite Republican Guard that was trying to run ordnance to his men hidden in a location not far from and in a position to have fired on John’s battalion. The captain, having been wounded by a few of John’s rounds needed hospitalization and John escaped, for the moment, carrying a life long burden of guilt and doubt.

In Shannon French’s book ‘The Code of the Warrior,’ Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2003, she discusses why warriors need a code to separate them from being merely killers, murderers or conquerors.

‘”Marines don’t do that” is not merely shorthand for “Marines don’t shoot unarmed civilians; Marines don’t rape women; Marines don’t leave Marines behind: Marines don’t despoil corpses,” even though those firm injunctions and many others are part of what we might call the Marines’ Code. What Marines internalize when they are indoctrinated into the culture of the Corps is an amalgam of specific regulations, general concepts (e.g., honor, courage, commitment, discipline, loyalty, teamwork), history and tradition that adds up to a coherent sense of what it is to be a Marine. To remain “Semper Fidelis,” or forever faithful to the code of the Marine Corps is never to behave in a way that cannot be reconciled with that image of what it is to be a Marine.’

My warrior returns home soon, mid August, a changed man, no doubt.