War stays in mind long after leaving

  • By Will Cole Special to The Washington Post
  • Friday, March 22, 2013 4:04pm
  • OpinionCommentary

Ten years ago this week, the Iraq war started. I remember picking up our light-armored vehicles from Port Doha in Kuwait as the war kicked off. Our company of Marines unloaded the “pigs” — as we called them — and packed them up as fast as possible so we could catch up to our command unit, the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. Our company was about 24 hours behind 1st LAR, but we caught up quickly. For the next seven months, however, we fought and we endured boredom.

I remember Gen. James Mattis, then the commander of the 1st Marine Division, always calling us his “fine young men” when he flew in to visit forward troops in remote locations. I and my fellow Marines and sailors felt inspired by his words and his demeanor. The general stressed moving toward Baghdad as quickly as possible – “speed, speed, speed.” The Marines responded by whipping through eastern Iraq, toward Baghdad, in less than a month. Mattis also emphasized the importance of being a friend to the Iraqi people and being the worst enemy any of our foes had ever seen. “No better friend, no worse enemy,” he told us.

It was mid-June when I bought a shirt from a mobile PX that said “Who’s Your Baghdaddy?” on the back and “Mission Accomplished” on the front. With a Sharpie, I crossed out the words on the front. At this point, the president had deemed major combat operations over and had said that the Army had secured Baghdad. I knew, however, that more violence and suffering were on the way, and I did not want to exist under false pretenses. I still have the shirt in a drawer, though I never wear it.

Toward the end of our seven-month deployment, our company lived “within the wire” but on the outskirts of an Army logistics base just west of the southwestern tip of the Sunni Triangle, which was west of Baghdad. We patrolled and fought in nearby towns so Army logistics convoys could make it safely to the capital. The convoys were constantly getting attacked, often by rocket-propelled grenades, on a stretch of highway the troops nicknamed RPG Alley. Our mission, our very life’s purpose during those days, was to make RPG Alley go away. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it had to be done.

One night while we were not on patrol, I slept outside on a cot to avoid the dilapidated, bat-infested buildings we had commandeered. For most of our deployment, Sgt. Mike Roberts served as the commander of the vehicle we served on together. As the company left the gates of Camp Pendleton in California in mid-February of 2003, my dad told him to “take care of my son.” He did. One hot summer night, sleeping on that standard-issue cot, I had a dream that Mike was shot and killed while on patrol. I dreamt that the guys came back and broke the news to me and that I flew off the handle, breaking objects around me until they calmed me down. I woke up and realized it had just been a dream.

The next day was uneventful. At the Army logistics base, we formed what we called Phantom Platoon. Its members would conduct reconnaissance operations in the middle of the night to try to add to the understanding of how insurgents were working in our area of operation. Mike was in Phantom Platoon, but I wasn’t.

The next night, I woke up to the guys telling me that Mike had been shot but that they thought he was going to be OK. It was surreal because of my dream the night before. I felt somehow responsible for not stopping the shooting, almost as though I had known what was going to happen. In contrast to the dream, I was angry but calm.

A few days later, the platoon visited the sergeant in the nearby Army field hospital after he had undergone surgery. He was in good spirits. He gave me some of the personal effects he kept in his cargo pocket to send home to his wife.

Mike was flown to Germany and then back to the States, where he received a Purple Heart. When we returned to Camp Pendleton a few months later, he was waiting for us to get off the bus. In the days and years that followed our return, however, Mike became a stranger. Shortly after our return, he was honorably discharged. I hope, wherever he is, that he is well.

For many of us, the war will never be over. We think about it every day, in our own ways. We think about the things we did and the people we served with. Even 10 years later, those days and nights spent with fellow Marines and sailors still define part of who we are.

Will Cole served two tours abroad with the Marines and was discharged as a sergeant. He is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he co-founded the student veterans association.

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