EIGHT YEARS LATER |
December 21, 2011
Name: Anthony D. Pike
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City / NYC
Milblog: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Do you remember where you were when the wars started? I do.
And I remember sitting at a bar in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego with my friend Nick. We were there to watch Ohio State play Miami in the college national championship game. We were also there celebrating -- he was about to go to war. The day was January 3, 2003. Within a matter of days I would be standing on the parade deck of the Fifth Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton seeing Nick and his unit off. At this time, the United States had already been at war in Afghanistan for 15 months, but now, seeing my friends and colleagues ready to deploy, I finally felt connected to the realities of wartime America.
On March 19, 2003, Nick crossed the Line of Departure, leaving the safety of Kuwait and entering into Iraq. Arguably, Nick was one of the first conventional American forces to enter Iraq. Nick’s war lasted for most of the summer. When he came home I could see he had changed. I knew better than to ask him too many questions; the tone of his voice would let me know when he was done talking about his war.
My own war began in January 2004. I was deployed as an individual augmentee, which meant I was going to war without my unit, without my friends. I was going by myself to join units already operating in country. I was also going at a time when many said the war was over. Indeed, war was never declared against Iraq, or Afghanistan for that matter. ”The end of major combat operations” had been declared some months earlier.
The truth is, the mission was far from being accomplished. The US had just found Saddam Hussein but the weapons of mass destruction had yet to be found, and the insurgency had yet to come to light. In my deployment, all was calm. Then Fallujah happened, and the insurgency seemingly appeared overnight. Back in Fallujah, Operation Vigilant Resolve was planned, undertaken and then aborted. My war was over and I was able to count the days left on my deployment on my hands and feet. I left an unrecognizable Iraq and returned to an America that had changed in more ways than even I had. The home I left had transitioned from a place that welcomed newcomers to a place that gave random screenings to all travelers that looked “too Muslim,” and had become a country that authorized torture by cleverly calling it Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.
I left the Marine Corps shortly after returning from Iraq, moving home to Salt Lake. My life was a giant juxtaposition -- I hated Utah but loved being around old friends, I wasn’t interested in going back to school but needed the GI Bill to pay rent and cover the expenses associated with partying too much. I missed the Marine Corps and was pissed that my war experience didn’t mesh with what I had envisioned it would be. I had never gone out on patrol, never felt like I was in any imminent danger and never saw a “bad guy.” Within a year I was back in uniform; I would be going back to Iraq, this time with a unit and with a mission that would have me out on more patrols than I could count.
Having switched over to Civil Affairs, I reported to Camp Pendleton to learn just what that meant. It involved a lot of weapons training, convoy training, cultural training, and language training. There is no easy way to describe exactly what Civil Affairs does in a counterinsurgency fight; we’re like customer service, but instead of taking merchandise returns, we take property damage claims on behalf of an entire infantry battalion. We also go out of the wire to inspect local infrastructure, schools, sewers, and water lines and maintain relationships with local community leaders. We were jacks-of-all-trades, in every sense of the term.
This second deployment to war wasn’t what I expected it to be either, but it proved a more fulfilling experience. I wasn’t fighting conventional forces; there were no great tank battles in Iraq. Instead, I took incoming mortar fire on an almost daily basis, faced the constant threat of improvised explosive devices, and came under small arms fire from AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and belt-fed weapons about a dozen times.
Early on in this deployment, I learned the real cost of war. One evening I sat in on a mission briefing with two guys I had come to respect in the battalion. The next morning they were dead -- killed by an IED while trying to help soldiers in a tank that was on fire. Later, one of my senior NCOs took a round in the leg. He was medevaced out to Germany. Two days later, another friend lost his leg after being shot in the knee. That night, I told my captain that our team should carry on the missions we had the next day. As the acting team chief, it was my job to look at the capabilities of our team and make recommendations to our team leader. Our team was emotionally drained. We were tired from running missions every day. We were grieving over medevacing two Marines we admired in two days. But we needed to push on. We did this for the remainder of our tour, knowing no other way to operate.
Upon redeploying back to the States, and after a few days visiting family, I returned to the parade deck of the 31 Area at Camp Pendleton. My team chief who had taken a round to the leg was there waiting for us, just like we knew he would be. My Corpsman and one of my Marines had refused leave in order to demobilize faster, so they were already civilians again. My team chief was in good spirits. He still needed a cane to help get around, but he was eager to show off his war wound. A huge scar covered his shin, and he showed us where he had a skin graft at the exit point.
Five years later, troops are again massing in Kuwait, this time for a departure rather than an invasion. Our newest generation of veterans will be returning home to an America where they face unemployment at record rates. And I remember that the fight isn’t over. It’s just beginning.
Anthony Pike enlisted in the Marine Corps in March 2000. He served his first Iraq tour in Baghdad beginning in January 2004. In March 2006, Anthony deployed for a second tour to Ramadi, Iraq. He currently works as the Membership Coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.