Wednesday, September 19, 2012

War Story Wednesday: Still Catching Hell...

I was up at the VA Medical Center yesterday, and while waiting to see a doctor who was unfortunately unaware of my appointment, I struck up a conversation with a fellow Iraq veteran. For the most part, our chat followed the typical model for these kinds of casual introductions: what branch did you serve with (mine is of course the Marines, his the Army), what was your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS - mine being motor transport/LVS operator, he claimed 'recon'), where you deployed, etc. However, when he initiated the obligatory trading of war stories, I was painfully reminded of why I don't generally seek out my fellow veterans or have many veteran friends. What with his being infantry, and belonging to a scout platoon, he had much more exposure than I did to actual combat. Or, at least he claimed to - I'm not trying to call the man a liar, but, when I meet younger veterans from the Army they all claim to have been some kind of sniper, ranger, special forces, or otherwise deadly bad ass. Where are all of the Army truckers, cooks, and engineers? I know that the Army is big, but, they certainly aren't all snipers...

Anyway, in an attempt to find common ground, I truthfully stated that most of the 'action' I saw was in the form of raids - missions to seek out and capture potential enemies or disrupt suspected insurgent activity, based on either human intelligence (i.e. information proffered by informants), or less frequently as the result of hostile behavior observed first-hand by friendly forces. The Army vet happily volunteered that he had been a party to many raids, taking many prisoners, and was also quite happy to share the brutal manner in which he and his unit handled said detainees:

"Yeah, we'd lock 'em down, zip-tie and blindfold or bag 'em, kick the shit out of them - a little or a lot, you know it depends man; maybe get our translator to interrogate 'em some, if we thought they were lying we might kick 'em in the ribs or maybe just slap 'em around a little. Then we'd pile all their dirty asses in the back of a humvee..."
Now, I would have been mildly appalled by his description, except that I've been 'over there' and seen this go on myself, many times. One of my earliest missions was a late-night raid to an isolated homestead that was suspected of producing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Now, I'll admit that it was kind of cool and very exciting the way our vehicles swept down and surrounded the compound, an assault team breaching the door and tossing in flashbangs (stun grenades, for the uninitiated) before securing the main house. Word flew quickly that we had indeed found what we came for: a whole bomb-factory setup. However in reality the search had turned up no guns (save one pistol for which the owner produced a license) and no bombs, but, a substantial length of wiring. The 'wiring' uncovered in the search consisted of a spool of telephone cord and a box of cut and crumpled wires, loose wiring terminals, and phone jacks. I want to stress that this is not something that came to me after the fact as hearsay; the infantry platoon commander had me setting up my truck to transport detainees and so I was right there when the results of the search were relayed to him. I saw the single pistol; I saw the box of wires. I was right there when the interpreter questioned the compound's head Iraqi male, who stated that he and his family had been wiring their house for phone service.

Here is where it starts to get a little disturbing.

Deciding to err on the side of caution, all of the males except one old man were to be detained and taken back to our base to be questioned more thoroughly by our battalion intel shop and the Human Exploitation Team (HET), so those males not already zip-tied and blindfolded were prepped and loaded into my truck. Two of the infantry Marines were chosen to ride in the back with the detainees, the platoon commander explaining that there had been instances of prisoners escaping by jumping out of moving vehicles. The infantry Marines chosen were somewhat upset by their assignment, expressing their concern over the filth and stench of the Iraqis and worried that they might 'get pissed on'. Someone, I don't remember who exactly, assuaged their trepidation by encouraging them to deal with their discomfort by beating the detainees. Further, I was instructed by the two infantrymen to make it a rough ride. Having finished the loading, our vehicles assembled and drove back to Camp Korean Village. I am ashamed to say that I went along with the excitement of my assistant driver and gunner, hitting every pothole in the road, slamming on the brakes when the convoy slowed, and making abrupt jarring turns...while we guffawed like madmen and cracked jokes about the pathetic natives that were our cargo. When we arrived, the situation turned from unpleasant to downright awful.

The rest of the vehicles from the raid proceeded to the 'fuel farm' to top their tanks while I drove my truck over to the camp's small detention center. We were met by the detention NCOIC, a Staff Sergeant that I didn't know, who showed the guards who had ridden in back and myself how to get the detainees down from the truck bed; MTVR 7-tons are rather large and even without being handcuffed and blindfolded one can have difficulties dismounting. We unloaded the first detainee by having him sit on the edge of the bed while a Marine on either side supported his legs and back and lowered him to the ground. The Staff Sergeant then demonstrated proper detainee handling: with one hand on the zip-tie cuffs and another firmly on the arm, the detainee is sort of 'pushed' along, given a nudge to indicate any steps up or down. However, this Staff Sergeant took twisted pleasure in his job: he guided the first detainee to the detention center steps, but didn't nudge him in preparation, letting him fall on his face as he tripped over the step. He helped the detainee up, but at the next step, gave him a vicious knee to the back of his thigh, yelling "STEP UP!"directly in the man's ear. Upon reaching the detention building, the Staff Sergeant purposely tried to shove the detainee through the doorway off-center, ramming the man's left arm into the door frame. He did this repeatedly, each time screaming at the detainee "GO THROUGH THE DOOR, STUPID! GO THROUGH THE DOOR, STUPID! YOU'RE TOO FUCKING DUMB TO EVEN WALK THROUGH A DOOR!" The infantry Marines on guard detail found this highly amusing, each rendering their own variations of the Staff Sergeant's performance, further humiliating and battering the Iraqis - who each emerged from my truck with conspicuously fresh blood and bruises not present when I had loaded them in. When we had unloaded about half the detainees, the Staff Sergeant approached me with a maniacal grin, asking me enthusiastically "hey, you wanna take this one?" as we lowered him down out of the truck. I obliged, but I did it the right way: with a firm grasp to maintain dominance and discourage resistance, but without brutality. After I had escorted the Iraqi into his cell, the Staff Sergeant actually berated me for not being rougher with the "terrorist rag-head". I passive-aggressively refused to help after that, with the excuse that I badly needed to take a piss. When the unloading was finally, mercifully  over, the infantry Marines and my gunner left the assistant driver and myself to return the truck to the motor pool. As the assistant driver walked out in front of the truck, guiding me back to the staging area, I started to cry...until I sucked it up, pushing those thoughts waaaay down and out of my mind; better to bottle it up for later than let it overwhelm me in the present, when I still had the majority of my deployment to muddle through. It was then, as I wiped the tears away and choked down the sobs, that I started to acquire the hard resolve that results in the fabled "Thousand-Yard Stare".

Back to my conversation with the Army vet: I actually didn't relay the above story to him. I told him about a later raid wherein we drove through the night to search an entire small village, but upon arriving shortly after dawn, the Captain in command of the mission realized we were about fifty miles too far north and consequently at the wrong village. Figuring that we had lost the element of surprise, and that the time it would take to drive the fifty miles to the correct village would allow insurgents there to flee or otherwise cover up their activity, he decided to go ahead and search to village we were at anyway. It was an all-day affair, the women and children separated from the men, and the men questioned one at a time. While the infantry searched each building, and the intel boys interviewed each detainee in turn, us motor transport Marines were tasked with keeping vigil over the males awaiting their turn to be questioned. I told the Army vet (omitting the previous story above and how the barbarous handling of civilians had so impacted me) that my fellows had wanted to brutalize this set of detainees, but that what with it being the wrong village, I intervened and stopped them. To which he replied, with an incredulous look:

"Why the fuck did you do that? They're all the same over there, fucking scum. They all deserve a beating..."
 While he halfheartedly accepted my reasoning that the village was not our intended target and the search revealed no contraband, I could tell from his expression and the changed tone of our conversation that he had lost any respect for me. This isn't the first time I've ruined a fellow veteran's perception of myself with this story, but, at least this guy didn't call me a faggot or a pussy. So I can be thankful for that. 

Still, it discourages me from being involved with my veteran peers when I am still catching hell for behavior that they perceive at best as simply 'being soft', or at worst as 'aiding the enemy'. I want to make the distinction, though, that 'detainees' are NOT the same thing as 'prisoners'. A detainee is a civilian who is, for whatever reason, merely detained for some period of time so as to be questioned - comparable to the difference between one who is taken in for police questioning and one who is sentenced to prison. In both the raids I've described, no outright damning evidence was found to incriminate the Iraqis, nor were they captured whilst involved in an action against friendly forces. In the case of the earlier raid, with the telephone wiring, I found out later that further investigation confirmed their account of wiring the house for telephone service. In fact, most of the phone cables found in their compound were a type not really suitable for wiring artillery shells into IEDs. The second raid I described, on the wrong village, turned up no weapons, no explosives, and no practical intelligence. None of the males that were questioned were further detained - everyone was released at the end of the day as we left the village. Imagine how we would have turned that village against us if, in addition to disrupting their day, we had beaten and brutalized them? 

It is not "scared little bitches," as I've been formerly derided, that give the military a bad name - it is overly zealous, prejudice, indiscriminate meat-heads like the Army vet I spoke with yesterday. And one last idea along that point: it has been my experience that people who eagerly present themselves as "recon" or "S.F." or "sniper", who indulgently talk up how many they've killed, and like to use words like "bitch," "pussy," and "faggot" to describe everyone who doesn't fit their idea of 'manly'...they are probably lying. Everyone I've known that is legitimately some form of warrior elite is haunted by the lives they've taken, speaking about it only with great difficulty, with the purpose of illuminating the horror of war rather than glorifying their own person. 

But who knows, maybe that Army vet from yesterday isn't a liar...maybe he's just a sociopath?


  1. Just as an addendum - yes I do think that the Marine Corps is superior to the other branches of the armed service, but, I didn't mean to deride our comrades in the U.S. Army. I was just stating that it has been my personal experience that veterans of the Air Force and Navy don't seem to exaggerate something as basic as their MOS. I haven't yet met a Navy vet who claims to have been a SEAL, and the Air Force special forces - Para-Rescue - aren't all that well known. These two branches only have support MOS positions; there is no infantry/recon unit to claim to belong to. I *have* observed the boasting behavior among my fellow Marines, but far less often, as there are fewer of us in general and we all train extensively and doubtless served in some combat capacity...that is what being a Marine is all about. Even the Marine Corps Band deploys as machine gun platoons. So I am sorry if there are Army vets out there who felt slighted; I would encourage you all to correct your fellow soldiers if you catch them lying about their service. Maybe *I* am the asshole who has it all wrong; maybe I run into so many Army vets that actually *are* some kind of Ranger or Green Beret because those are the soldiers requiring care at the VA, and their multitudinous support personal are relatively well-adjusted and therefore aren't around the VA so much...

  2. That is just fucking awful. No wonder the rest of the world despises us. American behaviour on and off our native soil is for the most part despicable. You did what you had to do otherwise they probably would have made your life hell too, but thanks for being a much more decent human being than the apparent majority of our armed forces.