The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

IN THE FIGHT |

December 27, 2011

Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward 
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Keeping An Eye on Afghanistan

Here is some great first-hand footage from Kajaki, Afghanistan of our mighty US Marines in the fight and what they deal with day in and day out.

DID WE WIN? |

December 23, 2011

Name: Matt Gallagher
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Kerplunk

"Did we win?" That's what my Twitter feed wanted to know in the wake of President Obama's announcement that our troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. I couldn't be more conflicted about the news.

It's all dust in the mind now, but I called the desert in Iraq home only three years ago. As a scout platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division, I'd deployed to a remote outpost north of Baghdad, a last-chance gambit for a country on the brink of civil war. We went as volunteers, and went with a messy, if coherent, mission statement -- buy the Iraqi government and security forces time to stabilize. We did the best we could, pouring blood, sweat and tears into a strange land. We left 15 months later, some of us swearing never to go back, others champing at the bit for just such an opportunity to do so. For better and for worse, it remains the preeminent experience of my life.

While there's no clear answer to the question of whether America "won" or not, some things are irrecoverably clear.

In the aftermath of 9/11, with two wars raging, less than one half of one percent of Americans served in uniform. And yet, despite our collective reluctance to fight, more than 4,400 American military personnel died during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. More than 32,000 more were wounded in action. At least 100,000 Iraqis have died, with another 1.3 million displaced.

Those numbers, as damning as they are, don't linger with me the way memories do. Upon hearing the President's remarks, I thought about the many people I met in Iraq who changed my life, like my platoon's interpreter, Suge, a loyal man who risked his life every day simply by being seen with American soldiers; and a rural sheik named Haydar who taught me the subtleties of Arabic culture; and the teenage bomber with American blood on his hands, captured but subsequently released because the jails were full; and the bleary-eyed Iraqi widow who felt she had no other means of income than to pimp out her eldest daughter

What started in 2003 as a quick invasion begat an insurgency and inflamed age-old sectarian battles in ways we clearly were unprepared for. The American military has spent the past eight years largely making up for the blunders of those initial months; history will likely savage the decision to ban members of the Ba'ath Party from the government, for example. Throughout this war, I've concurrently thought we shouldn't be there and that we need to stay until there's peace. Hence my internal conflict. What about Suge and his wife? What about Haydar and his children? What about the 17-year-old kid in basic training now, whose life will be spared because of the President's decision?

As T.E. Lawrence wrote in 1922 about his own Arab war, "This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought." Which, in a way, is a fancy version of "time will tell." Indeed, time will tell.

Just as the American exit from Iraq won't end the battles over there between extremists, this withdrawal won't end the war for the combat veterans who weren't able to shed their experiences before returning home. Post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and burns won't magically go away on Dec. 31.

An unforeseen byproduct of the all-volunteer force was that many people were allowed opinions on the Iraq war, but very few experienced it firsthand. Some of those who did experience it will need help in practical, meaningful ways: finding a job, adjusting back to civilian life, talking with someone who cares. Until those things happen for every veteran, the Iraq war will live on in the minds and souls of the men and women who fought it.

The above piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News. Matt Gallagher is an Iraq veteran and senior writing manager at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He is the author of the war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, and was a frequent contributor to The Sandbox during his deployment, posting as "Lt. G." His contributuions include DEAR JOHNPICTURE US ROLLIN' and CRANK THAT IN IRAQ.

In this recent CNN interview, Gallagher discusses U.S. withdrawal from Iraq:

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.  

THE WAR IS OVER |

December 18, 2011

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

I returned home from a trip to Georgia just in time to watch the breaking news online as the last US troops left Iraq and closed the gate behind them. Closed that rust white symbol of the end of a war. It never made it to the top of the “news pulse” on CNN’s website, which seemed about right to me.

My girlfriend is gone back to Mississippi for the holidays and I found myself alone in my apartment and jet lagged. I had a party with all of my dead friends last night. We drank and danced and they told me about what could have been, that they wished they could live my life, simple. I told them that I wished we could be together, and they laughed and sang“Only the good die young, you stupid sonofabitch.” When we had had too much to drink they began to lay into me for bitching about their sacrifice on a blog as the highlight of my day; some things were not for me to say.

They closed that rusty gate and America keeps on trucking. My grandmother wrote on a link I had posted that we should have never been there in the first place. Usually such bland sentences make me want to choke a random person, but I remember that it is the grandmothers of the fallen who have to continue on and that the way she feels is a sort of genetic transference from mothers and grandmothers that must date back to the beginning of time. “Why do these men go off to die when we spent so much time raising and loving them?” I hear her heart.

Alone in a cold apartment with imaginations of people who were once as real as me, and they whisper at me to stay away. “Go to school!” they all yell. And they are young forever but this war is over and I will not be for long. I found myself thinking that at least there is still Afghanistan so that my service will have some sort of prolonged relevance to American society, but I remember that it never did in the first place.

I pick up the phone in 2003 and my dad is back from his reporting of the initial invasion of Iraq, and he will make my high school graduation. I think about all of the parents who went to their sons' high school graduations to send them off soon to die and their story was always the same as mine. Some shrink will be forever questioning what I mean when I say that I don’t want to feel better about it. This is how I keep them with me, in a haunting feeling I let ferment, the feeling of the death of a good friend. “It meant something to me, Grandma!” I want to yell, but who is listening?

I will clock into work tonight and clock out when I am done. The dead dancers have left my building again with a message: “It is always like this, it was always like this. Now go home, kid!” No words will fill in between the lines, no tears will resurrect anything other than a void, and no news coverage means any more to a stranger than it does to me. I will wake in the morning cold to light a smoke and I will remember when you will not. The only thing that has changed is someone’s son does not have to die in Iraq tomorrow.

THE SAME COUNTRY |

December 14, 2011

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

A reader named CEB wrote a response to my previous post, THRILL KILL. His comments can be found at the bottom of that post. What follows is for him -- and for most of the protected people of the United States:

Combat and war is a harsh reality and I wish it were different. But I don’t wish everyone to go, as most modern Americans would prove worthless in combat. I do not subscribe to utopia as I don’t believe every human and every leader of humans can remain tame for a lifetime. I can’t say that my wars were just or sensible from the political perspective, but as a field Marine it was not my job or my wish to consider these things. I was sent where the voters sent me.

When I was young I did not want war, but I did want to serve my country and with a gun. Regardless of political affiliation, service is a tradition in my family, which has been involved in it since at least the Civil War that I can trace but with an oral and probably accurate history dating back to the Revolution from my grandmother’s maiden side of the family, the Doans. The Doans were of English Puritan stock and were rumored to date back to Plymouth Rock, which made my grandmother eligible for some creepy club of people who were not quite Native Americans but had been here since colonization.

I do not feel more “American” than anyone else, and I would not consider myself a conservative or a liberal, as the extremists in both of those parties equally make me want to puke. If CEB is concerned, I vote for Ralph Nader every election, not particularly because I want to see him as the president, but as a protest to a two-party system that represents minorities of logic in this country.

I joined the Marines a few weeks after graduating high school, and did not come from the poor or tragic background that most liberals would like to subscribe to. I was not a red-blooded flag-waving mindless patriot angered by racism against the “towel heads” that brought those towers down, as some conservatives would subscribe to. I came from Southern California middle-class suburbia; I read books in my free time, liked punk rock music from the eighties, and at one time sported a Mohawk.

My parents divorced when I was young, which was common where I grew up, but remained proactive in my up-bringing until I left for service. My father was a reporter and my mother worked in sales for most of my childhood. I frequented museums of art and science during odd weekends as a kid, and went to the movies with my family on others. I wanted to be a writer and a film director for as long as I can remember -- the same amount of time that I wanted to serve my country. I am a life-long atheist but respect the religious views of all cultures and always have.

I write this not because I am special but because CEB wants to counsel veterans and is currently a student. I fell in love with a girl when I was a kid and would write her when I was in Fallujah Iraq, waiting to die and fight but finding the romance in every sunrise of every day that I had survived -- marveling at that ball of light and wondering if it would be the last time I would see it or if I would feel the warmth of anything ever again.

I would write her about my observations of a strange place where people were trying to kill me, and with the expectation that we would be together when I got home. After that battle many of my friends had been killed. The girl had found another man -- the ancient story of the warrior. I was not bitter, I had a nice vacation back home where there was another woman and some rest with my family. Then it was time to leave again and start the process all over, but this time in Afghanistan and with new Marines who would see battle; and now I was very concerned about them, the same way a friend of mine (who was killed) had been concerned about me the year before.

I served four years and came back home to watch many of my friends struggle with their journey, and I would think to myself how strange they were and wonder why they were having such a hard time. I would drink all day and stay up all night waiting for someone I did not know to kill me in southern California suburbia. Months after returning I began to smell dead bodies before I reached an REM sleep state, and would find myself immediately very awake and very alert. I still can’t sit for too long in a crowded room without breaking for a cigarette.

As for humanity, I never killed anyone and never wanted to. I spent my recovery from myself writing about my experiences in an attempt to explain what the world looked like to me as a Marine Infantryman teenager who did his job.

There are many CEBs in this world who will question our humanity through ignorance and I laugh for joy at what a pleasure it must be to go to school instead, and have such an easy life without ever having a legitimate question of mortality. Today the military is an all-volunteer force -- no draftees -- because people like me keep it that way. I have no shame for the city we leveled to the ground or for the people we killed. I am very aware that when I talk to a civilian psychiatrist who has never been shot at that I will be talking to CEB, and I hope that this post clears the air a bit. In my world CEB is a waste of space, same as the warmongers and the liberals who campaign for tolerance for everything except those things they do not agree with. The country I left to defend was the same country I returned home to.

INFINITE PROGRESS |

December 05, 2011

Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq
Deployed to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghanistan War Journal

Framed Grisham INFINITE PROGRESSI met with my social worker today for a counseling session and to give him a sense of where I am. We came to a few conclusions that I want to share. He helped me understand why I made a few decisions that I made in seeking out another deployment.

As many of you know, part of my PTSD comes from an artillery strike in the early days of the war in 2003. The Iraqis were able to walk artillery in on us by virtue of our convoy being stalled on a high road and unable to turn around expeditiously. I had the pleasure of basically having to sit there and hope it didn’t hit me. It did.

Throughout the war, numerous explosions and detonations occurred near me that led to my symptoms. RPGs whizzed literally inches from my head. 7.62 AK rounds cracked the surrounding air, violently shoving their way towards their target. The sounds of war are unmistakable. If you’ve never experienced it, the closest thing to reality that I’ve seen are the opening scenes to Saving Private Ryan. To fully gain perspective, though, you’ll need a good surround sound system. You probably also shouldn’t live in a townhouse. Turn that sucker up just enough to make it uncomfortable and you’ll get an idea.

Anyway, I had explained to Doc one of the reasons I wanted to deploy was to, I think, gain some closure. I felt like I needed to come back and experience combat again in order to deal with the experiences of last time. My initial intention was do what I’m currently doing and eventually weasel my way back into the fight. By fight, I don’t necessarily mean actually having to pull the trigger, but just to be able to walk the streets and conduct my normal mission.

Even without coming under fire, my job can be a stressful one because it involves walking through the neighborhoods and speaking to people that may or may not want to kill me. There is a heightened sense of attention to detail out there. Every day is a thrill and Doc said that many folks with PTSD want to relive that as a way to overcome their anxiety issues.

It made perfect sense, even though I may not have recognized it. In order to cope with getting shot at, blown up, and barely surviving I had to get shot at, nearly blown up, and fight for my life. Turns out, I came to the right place anyway.

In the first few nights here, I heard the sounds of combat I came to expect from my experience. Bombs exploding, A-10s rocking the Gatling, and jets streaking across the sky. The first few weeks weeks were rough.

Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban so it made sense to me that there would be sustained and heavy combat around me. Turns out that our living area is near a major range where AC-130 gunships, A-10s and other aviation assets sight in their weapons. Controlled detonations also occurred on this range.

The sounds I thought were combat were coming from a range, not a real threat. But, before I recognized that, I was able to learn to process the sounds of combat and put to work the anxiety control methods that I had learned over the past two years. I no longer grab my rifle with the expectation of a phone call to man the perimeter -- though I’m always ready.

Another good thing about living on Kandahar -- if it can be called that -- are all the indirect fire attacks we have here. The Taliban are good at lobbing 107mm mortars and rockets at us. But a 107mm mortar has a much different sound than a 155mm artillery shell. But the explosions that I’ve been near when they landed (not unsafely near) also added to my recovery.

I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but it's true. The Lord has a funny way of helping us. Initially, I was complaining at having to be stuck at KAF for my entire deployment. However, it turns out that being here has actually been quite therapeutic. I’ve been able to face the very things that have chased me since 2003 and resolve them in my head.

Doc explained that what I’m experiencing professionals call “prolonged exposure therapy.” Many hospitals are using this method to treat Soldiers with PTSD across the country. Since many Soldiers have already left military service, they don’t exactly have the opportunity that I have to come back and face those experiences. So, programs have been created using scenarios in virtual realities to approach those same trauma-related thoughts, feelings, and situations that may have been avoided due to the distress they cause.

Another treatment is called “cognitive processing therapy." In essence, this type of therapy helps you to understand and cope with those feelings and thoughts that won’t seem to go away. It provides an alternative rational for dealing with what are essentially irrational thoughts. One of the problems of PTSD is the feeling that threats are everywhere. CPT helps to train your brain that these threats don’t exist and how to handle those feelings when they pop up.

Through both types of therapy, I’ve come to recognize nearly instantly when I wake up to a perceived attack every time I hear an explosion that the most likely cause is training. I usually take a few minutes to make sure and listen for any alarms. If none are sounded, I’m able to convince myself that there is no threat and actually fall back asleep.

This progress didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken me nearly two years (and about 60 rocket attacks since arriving in theater). I still get anxious during a rocket attack, but that is a natural reaction. I also understand that my life is in the hands of God. If it’s my time, it’s my time. I can’t shoot a rocket out of the sky and I can’t redirect its path. So, I have to do whatever I can to stay alive.

Another good thing I’ve done is that I recently fired Doctor Grisham. He’s the guy that keeps telling me it’s okay to stop taking my anxiety medications. My other Doc made the suggestion and I took his advice. I even had his “license” revoked so he doesn’t try practicing his destructive medicine on others. The medications have helped to regulate my moods, especially anger and frustration. And contrary to some ignorant people’s ignorant ramblings, this anger and frustration doesn’t make me violent.

On Thursday, I will restart group therapy as well. This is a necessity that I sorely needed in Ft. Hood, but never found. Not only do I need the camaraderie that comes with meeting with fellow veterans that have faced similar experiences to mine, but I think it’s the responsibility of survivors to share their stories and methods of success with others still struggling. That is one reason why I’m working on a proposal to develop a new program within the Army that focuses on using survivors to help the struggling. I also refuse to allow certain individuals to affect me emotionally, personally, mentally, or professionally in spite of their best failing efforts.

The bottom line is that progress is again being made. I’m dedicated to getting better and being there for my family. I think the military is doing it right with the programs available in theater to assure this progress for me and so many others. We’ve learned something over the years.

 

A MARINE PLATOON'S BATTLE WITH SUICIDE |

December 02, 2011

Name: Roman Baca
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: NYC, via CT and NM
Milblog: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Email: romanster2@yahoo.com

My fellow Marines and I stood in a parking lot in early spring.  We had not gathered together in such a large contingent since we were released from active duty following our combat tour in Fallujah, Iraq. It was a hot afternoon. Most of us wore wool Marine Dress Blue Uniforms, which are extremely unforgiving in the heat. A lone Marine held a shiny brass bugle to his lips as he stood atop a grassy knoll on the other side of the lot. The melody of “Butterfield’s Lullaby”, more commonly known as “Taps”, echoed crisp and clear as they faded into the hills. Six of us lined either side of a shiny wooden casket adorned with metal accents. We stood at the Position of Attention, our right arms raised in crisp salutes.  

Our platoon arrived in Fallujah, Iraq after some of the bloodiest fighting of the war in 2005, and Fallujah was brimming with insurgent activity. We were a small platoon attached to two other platoons, all part of a larger battalion. Part of our job included patrolling the local area surrounding the base. Even though we encountered Improvised Explosive Devices, conducted searches for weapons, and were involved in firefights, our platoon returned home with every Marine. Fallujah was a dangerous place and leaving unscathed was rare for any unit.  

Marines we worked with returned to Fallujah in late 2006 as contractors, and reported that insurgent activity had again spiked. Contractors, Army units, and Marine units were getting hit hard before and after our tour. We were lucky to return to the Unites States safe. But once we returned, another war began -- the war at home.

A policy brief released by the Center for a New American Society outlines a theory on suicide: “One school of thought, known as the interpersonal psychological theory of suicide, suggests that the following three 'protective' factors preclude an individual from killing oneself: belongingness, usefulness and an aversion to pain or death."  At home, each Marine struggled to make sense of life when we returned to the civilian world. Each one of us encountered obstacles and problems. A few had problems at school or work. Some could not find a job. Others dealt with family or relationship issues. Two Marines disappeared, severing contact with the unit and the rest of the platoon. One Marine’s problems proved insurmountable. He chose to take his own life. After the news of his passing was disseminated by phone, the memorial planned, and the uniforms made ready; members of the platoon turned their attention to the glaring issue at hand: suicide.  

We were Marine Reservists, and when were finally released from active duty, we scattered to different parts of the world. “Time away from the unit, however, may result in a reduced or thwarted sense of belonging, as individuals no longer have the daily support of their units and feel separate and different from civilians. This is especially true for Guardsmen and Reservists.” We kept in touch, saw each other sporadically, and talked of a reunion. Planning for the unforeseen reunion started and we exchanged messages with other Marines. One of the Marines wrote that if any of us needed help, we had each other.  

As memories of Fallujah faded, so did fellow Marines. Some became police officers, students, actors, or business owners; and some went back for a second or third tour. One or two Marines reunited occasionally for beers or food. Small groups gathered and attended weddings.  

Marines, trained to be disciplined and aggressive, set their sights on a better future and were, for the most part, succeeding. If they had personal problems, they overcame them. Or, if they had problems, they kept the difficulties to themselves. “This stigma exists in both military and civilian culture. In the military, it prevents many service members from seeking help to address mental health care issues; 43 percent of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who took their own lives in 2010 did not seek help from military treatment facilities in the month before their deaths.”  

I cannot understand why the decision to kill one’s self is made. As I try to contemplate and understand our fellow Marine’s decision to take his life, I remembered how it felt preparing to leave for war. Before we left, I sat with my mother to complete two documents: a Living Will and a Power of Attorney. On white paper I outlined instructions, in harrowing detail, to be carried out upon my death. I remembered in Fallujah, when Marines were hurt or killed, we made more preparations. My battle-buddy and I exchanged letters we had written to be given to our loved ones in the event of our death. I also remember the other times -- the mortars dropping, the suspected bomb vest, the nighttime patrols -- when death loomed all-too-closely. A Marine at war doesn’t just face death; a Marine at war is forced to come to terms with death. The Marine and death make a deal in a Humvee in the desert, death sits down, and goes for a ride. The problem is, once the deal is made and the documents are signed, death never really leaves.

The Marine Corps preaches responsibility and leadership. It is the responsibility of the government to assist veterans, but it is also the responsibility of veterans to assist their own. “The military must take care of its own. Although a goal of no suicides may be unachievable, the increasing number of suicides is unacceptable. Additionally, although benefits and services available from the Veterans Health Administration will likely remain the best system of care for veterans, the DOD has moral responsibility to acknowledge and understand former service members. America is losing its battle against suicide.” Leadership, that was already built and tested in war, can aid the government in its fight against suicide. It is also through helping others, that we truly help ourselves.             

A recent New York Times article highlighted two organizations that set the example and are engaging veterans in ways that allow them to help themselves by helping others. “The Mission Continues organization provides stipends for veterans to work at nonprofit organizations and engages other volunteers in community outreach. Team Rubicon is a network of veterans and health professionals who travel to communities — from Haiti to Pakistan to Joplin, Missouri — devastated by natural disasters to provide emergency services. ‘To get the chance to do for others can be incredibly helpful in terms of providing perspective and giving meaning in life.’”

The night before the memorial most of our platoon gathered together for dinner. We shared stories of the past and plans for the future. We were allowed, for one night, to be the Marines that we were trained to be. We could feel camaraderie within the group again, and partake in the communal strength. We looked at each other and admired the leaders we had become in our respective lives. A promise was made to gather for a Reunion before the year ended. Most importantly, we all felt like we belonged again. It was that belonging that gave death the night off. Each of us must now strive to reinforce that feeling of belonging, through service large or small, and send death on an extended vacation.

Roman Baca is a Marine Iraq War Veteran and the Artistic Director of Exit 12 Dance Company in New York City.  After a career in dance, Mr. Baca served as a US Marine and was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq from ‘05-’06. He is also a spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and is active with The Mission Continues.  


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