when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

There’s No Going Back: Iraq Ten Years Later

with 23 comments

After my last trip to Iraq in 2006, I told myself I would return. I’d go to the places I patrolled with the marines and to the homes I stomped into and out of as an appendage of their squads. As an embedded journalist, I learned little about Iraqi people’s lives, other than what these lives looked like when instantly disrupted and upended. Next time, I would go without bulletproof vest or Kevlar helmet — and without the retinue of troops. I would listen and learn. I figured I’d be able to make this trip in five, maybe six years, once the the conflict ended or at least ebbed. But there is no end or ebb on the horizon.

U.S. Marine convoy north from Kuwait to Iraq, July 18, 2004

U.S. Marine convoy north from Kuwait to Iraq, July 18, 2004

A decade ago to this day I was rattling around the belly of an assault amphibious vehicle just a few miles into Iraq. I had overnighted with a U.S. Marine section at Camp Scania, a giant way station for military and contractor convoys heading north from Kuwait. Minutes before folding myself into the AAV, a gunnery sergeant briefed his men. “Ninety-nine percent of the people want us here,” the gunny said as I hovered with my cameras. “The other one percent, we’re going to fucking kill… Stay sharp the rest of the fucking way. Trust your training and trust your fucking senior marines.”

 

Marines from during north to Iraq from Kuwait, July 20, 2004

Marines from 1/2 AAV section during convoy north to Iraq from Kuwait, July 20, 2004

Iraqis harvest salt just across the border from Kuwait, July 21, 2004

Iraqis harvest salt just across the border from Kuwait, July 21, 2004

I remember rumbling past a family of salt harvesters, a young boy and girl begging, a plot of sunflowers, then a group of men washing cars along the roadside. “We pass through the first real city — buildings with stores and homes; folks on the street. I hear birds singing,” I wrote in my journal that night. ” I had prepared myself for pure desolation. This town was beat up and dusty, but still alive.

Minutes later, we pulled into Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah. It was 1430 hours, July 21, 2004.

1st Battalion/2d Marines AAV section arrives in Iskandariyah, July 21, 2004

1st Battalion/2d Marines AAV section arrives in Iskandariyah, July 21, 2004

On my second full day at FOB Iskan, mortars dropped from the air onto the far end of the base, where I was staying with the battalion’s weapons company. Grunts hustled me into the bottom of a packed bomb shelter. I heard shouting and bellowing from the entrance 30 feet away and above me.

Later, I learned that Vincent Sullivan, a marine sniper, had been killed. Others, among them a sergeant named DeBoy, had been hit by shrapnel. I asked myself then, if I had moved just one second faster, would Sullivan be alive, DeBoy unscathed?

I spent several weeks on base and off in surrounding towns—Musayyib, Haswah, and Iskandariyah. Each day, I observed the troops with Iraqis. I watched these young American men struggle and improvise without guidance, on the fly. I watched Iraqis, men and women, shrink and submit, stand up to and challenge the marines. A good day was when no one got hurt or killed, even if nothing got fixed or solved.

Boy on construction team building birthing center funded and then defunded  by U.S. Army. Marines promised to resume support — if local leaders cooperated with them. Jurf-al-Sakhar, Iraq, August 8, 2004

Boy on construction team building birthing center funded and then defunded by U.S. Army. Marines promised to resume support — if local leaders cooperated with them. Jurf-al-Sakhar, Iraq, August 8, 2004

Marines from 1/2 Bravo Co., 2nd Platoon, checking for IEDs during a routine patrol, Babil Province, Iraq, August 20, 2004

Marines from 1/2 Bravo Co., 2nd Platoon, checking for IEDs during a routine patrol, Babil Province, Iraq, August 20, 2004

I made two more trips to Iraq to cover the unit, 1st Battalion/2d Marines, in 2005 and 2006, and the impact of the occupation on Iraq.

After coming home,  I scoured the Department of Defense list of troops killed in action for familiar names once a day, and I would find some. I Googled “Iskandariyah” and the other towns every few hours. And I kept Iraq war-related sites open on my desktop, from boot-up in the morning to shutdown at night.

A year later, I checked the casualty list once a day, Iraq news three or four times.

Five years later, I surfed my way to Iraq news and the DoD list once a week, maybe.

Now, ten years on, I peek at Iraq news only when it finds me through the throbbing headlines.

July 19: “Baghdad bombings kill dozens.” “Obama’s Iraq dilemma: Fighting the ISIL puts US and Iran on the same side.” “Concern and Support for Iraqi Christians Forced by Militants to Flee Mosul.”

I Google my old places. “Iskandariyah,” the city I spent the summer of 2004 with 1st Battalion/2d Marines: June 2, a car bomb killed at least two people and injured 10. May 12: “Two police officers were killed while trying to defuse a bomb in Jurf al-Sakhar, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Baghdad.” March 18: “A bombing in Haswa killed one person. Two other people were wounded in a separate blast.”

I don’t know what to say or to do as the always-simmering violence explodes and our policymakers and pundits debate taking the same well-worn and deadly paths once again, but I would at least like to know the names of these people we call “casualties.”

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23 Responses

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  1. This is a heartfelt, beautifully written piece. I know how much going, going back and going back again to Iraq meant to you. As your mother, I also know what it meant to me. While I did not want you to go I realized that you had to choose your own path and I’m glad you did. So instead of saying , Please don’t go”, I hid my tears and and my fears and remember saying, “What do you need? Let’s go shopping.”

    You have been to war and the memories you have both positive and negative will always be with you. You will cherish the positive ones and continue to live, as best you can, with the others. They are all a part of you.

    As the violence continues and you hear the same weary policies and practices being espoused by pundits and policy makers, you may not know what to say, but I do. I am so grateful and so relieved that you returned to us. I continue to be proud of you for holding to your passionate beliefs about the dignity and worth of the world’s peoples, having the courage of your convictions and acting, in your own way, to facilitate and foster better understanding and relationships. You did it in Iraq, you did it in Afghanistan. You can do it here.

    So I say, I’m thrilled and relieved you’re not going back. There will always be wars, lesser or greater. There will always be issues to address but I know that you will always be involved in trying to understand issues and attempting to improve situations. I am happy that you are states-side and together with Erin , you have once again identified an important area of needed enlightenment and are working diligently to increase understanding and make us think. All my love, Mom

    Edith Palmer

    2014/07/21 at 19:30

  2. Thank you for sharing your honest thought here.

    nevaknott

    2014/07/22 at 17:35

  3. Reblogged this on bigcountrygal.

    bigcountrygal

    2014/07/22 at 17:57

  4. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    wakingofthebear

    2014/07/22 at 18:07

  5. Heartbreaking and beautiful piece. You say so much, without having to say so much. ‘ “Ninety-nine percent of the people want us here,” the gunny said as I hovered with my cameras. “The other one percent, we’re going to fucking kill… Stay sharp the rest of the fucking way. Trust your training and trust your fucking senior marines.”’
    Such hubris. Like you, I don’t know what to say or do as the always-simmering violence keeps going on and on. But yeah, these nameless, faceless people deserve something more than policymakers and pundits using them to prove a useless point.

    jethag

    2014/07/22 at 23:55

  6. Beautiful piece , “i would at least like to know the names of these people we call casualties.” , just brilliant.

    buttadavid

    2014/07/23 at 05:08

  7. A moving account of a place no one wants to be, but sadly a place where people find they have to be

    lifewithcarly

    2014/07/23 at 05:20

    • It’s wonderful to know that people beyond my immediate circle are reading and appreciating this post. Thank you.

      bxpnyc

      2014/07/23 at 08:13

  8. Excellent piece Brian. A very profound and heartfelt account and reflection on your experience and period of time through the present. Thank you.

    Hank

    2014/07/23 at 08:26

  9. It is amazing. Your thoughts are very earthy and fresh. A wonderful piece

    sheebamoghal00.wordpress.com

    Sheeba Moghal

    2014/07/23 at 11:39

  10. Doesn’t look like we learned anything in the last 10 years!

    segmation

    2014/07/23 at 14:28

  11. Reblogged this on Could you speak up, please?.

    huwjones

    2014/07/23 at 16:44

  12. Semper Fidelis brother, Thanks for sharing. Definitely brought back some emotions.

    ajros02

    2014/07/23 at 18:54

  13. Reblogged this on Essentially More and commented:
    Iraq is on a lot of our minds lately. Even being here in Afghanistan. I constantly wonder if some of my brothers and sisters will be shipped off to Al-Iraq, some of them not for the first time. Or if my husband will be made to do. I pray not, but our lack of choice in such matters is part and parcel of the life we volunteered for.

    kmsize

    2014/07/24 at 01:06

  14. This was a really good read, thank you for sharing your experiences.

    yrapoport

    2014/07/24 at 11:11

  15. Nicely done. Indeed. Regards

    toritto

    2014/07/24 at 22:31

  16. Reblogged this on Apps Lotus's Blog.

    appslotus

    2014/07/25 at 02:23

  17. Reblogged this on nasyriqnasir's Blog.

    nasyriqnasir

    2014/07/25 at 03:35

  18. Reblogged this on andrewdonkor601's Blog and commented:
    How Far Is Iraq Progressing

    AndrewDonkor.com

    2014/07/27 at 03:05

  19. Feel for you Sir. Both sides have had a horrid time, I particularly enjoyed reading your story and would be interested to read your views in the future.

    Regards.

    Baghdad Invest

    2014/07/30 at 17:35

  20. Guten Start in die neue Woche wünsch ich 😉

    w8screens

    2014/08/03 at 10:07

  21. Reblogged this on Of Words and Letters and commented:
    The numbers have names.

    Rachna Kiri

    2014/08/03 at 13:58

  22. Beautiful piece you wrote here and congratulations on being in “freshly pressed”.
    I’ve got to say this, that soldier who said “Ninety-nine percent of the people want us here,” the gunny said as I hovered with my cameras. “The other one percent, we’re going to fucking kill… Stay sharp the rest of the fucking way. Trust your training and trust your fucking senior marines.” – He seriously needs to rest. Actually all of them needs to go back home.

    Hugues

    2014/08/06 at 09:50


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