Other Men’s War

It’s funny what triggers a memory.

Hurrying out of Kroger recently on a warm afternoon I was nearly struck by two grocery carts. Irritated, I looked behind the carts to find a slightly overweight young man in a navy blue Kroger vest, anxiously fumbling with a strap on one of the baskets. His head was bent in awkward concentration and I realized he was mentally handicapped. Immediately, my irritation turned to empathy and I suppressed a paternalistic urge to help. As I carefully sidestepped his roadblock, the young man looked up and beamed sweetly at me with friendly innocence.

That smile. Unexpectedly, I was back in a blasted town on the banks of the Euphrates, looking down at the frozen smile of a man as he trembled in the grip of two big Marines.

Thursday 28 April 2005 – Operation OUTERBANKS – Haqlaniyah, Al Anbar Province, Iraq

It was a bad intersection – in fact, one of the worst in Iraq.

Curled up like a surly dog between a mosque, the river, and a handful of crumbling houses, the roundabout linked the western desert road with the river road between Bani Dahir to the north and Haqlaniyah to the south. There really wasn’t any other way to move men

bani dahir

The author (r) as a 2ndLt in Bani Dahir with an unidentified Iraqi Recon Warrant Officer during Operation OUTERBANKS in April 2005.

and material between the main base at the Hadithah Dam and a unit conducting operations along the west bank of the Euphrates river – the upper road was mined so badly it was considered a “black route” or complete no go for Coalition traffic – so as my three-vehicle element closed the distance to the intersection, we kept 20 meters of spacing and looked hard for roadside bombs. Exploded cement curbs and twisted bits of metal and rubber marked the places where looking hard hadn’t been enough.

We were on a speed run to drop off detainees at the battalion Advanced Logistics Operations Center (ALOC) in the desert fringe and extract a sniper team from their hide position covering the mosque. I was in the lead trac with Marines posted out the back cargo hatches as security and I was worried. The insurgents knew exactly where we were after three straight days of dismounted clearing operations and they knew what chokepoints we would have to pass when we finally used vehicles to move. So as we roared into the intersection at 30 miles per hour, I almost expected the jarring, screeching stop when it came.

“Hey sir, looks like there could be an IED up by that curb. Better call EOD.” The trac commander’s voice was pitched flat and matter of fact through my headset. A novice might have mistaken his poise for unconcern. I knew better. Roadside bombs were the top killer in Iraq. Standing orders from Division were for all potential IEDs to be cordoned and destroyed. We had found and detonated three IEDs in Bani Dahir on the first day of OUTERBANKS alone. Even though this intersection was possibly the worst place in the Middle East – and therefore in the whole world – to be stopped, it didn’t matter because we were here and there was an IED and that was that.

“Roger. We’ll keep the snipers in place for over watch until EOD gets done.” I hadn’t finished the order before the tracs herringboned (pivoted outboard in alternate directions) and took up overlapping fields of fire. A dozen Marines remained standing in the troop compartments with rifles balanced on the open cargo hatches, scanning their sectors with a combination of eagerness and uneasiness unique to men in the profession of arms. They were ready for a fight but unhappy that it might be here.

I understood their concern. Armored vehicles are famously vulnerable to dismounted infantry in an urban environment. Two days prior a tank had taken an RPG hit from a gully after I failed to provide infantry for its security. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice, but I also didn’t want any Marines to dismount and clear houses to establish security positions. Two months into my first “combat” tour, I still hadn’t seen any combat. My natural preference for order, control, and limiting the decisions I had to make meant roving fire teams of Marines were not yet in my playbook.


A view of the main street in Bani Dahir. One of the tanks in the photo later was hit by an RPG fired from a gully to the right (obscured by palm trees).

With the snipers in over watch and the call sent out for an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, there was nothing to do but wait. Men hunched down in turrets and hatches until only darting eyes were visible between armor plating and dusty Kevlar helmets. There were no known enemy snipers in the area but it wouldn’t take a trained marksman to open up on automatic and hit a vehicle in the open – and we were definitely in the open.

My neck prickled with the shrinking feeling of being watched. Scanning structures fifty yards across the intersection, I noted cinder block walls crumbled from repeated explosions, building facades cross-hatched by machine gun bullets, and the frayed black scalps of severed electrical wires dangling from rusted iron poles. The visual evidence of previous violence was sobering: men who had expected to live had died here. I wished I was somewhere else.

The wait lasted for more than 2 hours: unforgivably long to be stopped and completely exposed in a cross-compartment danger area. In the decayed streets and structures around us only tatters of shredded plastic fluttered from scattered coils of concertina wire to give movement to the scene. I half expected to see a tumbleweed bounce by. This was unmistakably a bad place and we were unmistakably not welcome in it.

Added to my nervousness was a growing sense of self-consciousness due to unmet responsibility. To some degree, I envied the Marines around me with their narrow mission of covering avenues of approach or monitoring the radio. While equally exposed to danger, they did not share my angst about the next decision. At what point should we reposition to gain better cover? There were no obviously better locations from which to observe the intersection while maintaining mutually supporting fields of fire. On the other hand, it didn’t take a Rommel to realize bad things were bound to happen if we remained in place.

As the sun climbed directly overhead the temperature crept past 100 degrees. Sweat pooled in the small of my back between body armor and belt, then diffused into my undershorts. A special kind of throbbing ache – part thirst, part sleeplessness, and part Kevlar helmet – pressed against my temples. My feet felt squishy inside dirty boots; I flexed my toes absentmindedly, repelled by my own filth and depressed by the knowledge that we were less than halfway through the operation. My mind wandered to cooler, cleaner places.

“Hey! I’ve got movement to the south about 200 yards. Looks to be a MAM.” I jerked upright and realized I had zoned out. There was no mistaking the urgency of the sniper team leader’s report, as he had foregone call signs and normal radio procedure to warn us of the contact. I wondered if the sniper team had been lulled into a stupor, too. The thought was unnerving.

A MAM was any military-aged male. We treated them differently than other Iraqi citizens because the insurgency was almost exclusively conducted by the dislocated former soldiers of Saddam’s army and by angry young men who freelanced as mujahideen for financial, religious, political, or personal reasons.

“Roger. What is he doing? Over.” A lone MAM poking his head out of a building to check us out would not be unusual in a town the size of Haqlaniyah. In fact, I was surprised we hadn’t yet seen anyone during the whole time we had been at the intersection. It was odd. Eerie, even.

“Uh, he’s moving this way, over.” The trac commander in the hatch next to me cursed and stood up, accompanied by the hydraulic whirring of his turret-mounted heavy machine guns reorienting south at the approaching man.

“Does he have a weapon? Over.” I was playing for time, processing information while trying to decide on the right course of action. Of course he wouldn’t have a weapon. But at this stage of the war, every reasonable person in Iraq knew not to walk up on a cordon of Marines. I couldn’t fathom a reason why an innocent man would pop out of nowhere and stroll towards us down an abandoned street as we grouped around a known ambush spot. On the other hand, it didn’t make sense that an insurgent would approach us so brazenly. None of it made sense, really. I was left with the thought that this was a ruse, intended to lure Marines out of armored positions in order to expose them to hidden explosives or gunmen.

“Negative. He’s just walking normally, over.” Then immediately, “What do you want us to do? Over.”

“Standby, over.” I had no idea what the sniper team should do. Or the rest of the Marines, for that matter. I needed more information, but more information was not a luxury I was going to get. I could feel the weight of expectation from the men around me. It was my job to give them direction and make this situation turn out right. Instead, I wished fervently for something to happen to make the problem go away.

By now I was tracking the movement of the approaching man through my Rifle Combat Optic. At 4x power he looked not much different than every other MAM I had seen over the past few months. Perhaps a bit more disheveled – his dark gray jacket looked dirty and stained, his hair unkempt. And his walk was unsteady and meandering. It occurred to me he might be drunk.
I had an idea.

Shifting aim 15 or 20 yards to the right of the man, I fired a single shot into a nearby wall.

“What do you see, sir? What’s going on?!” The trac commander pivoted towards me with an expectant look on his face. In the troop compartment behind me there was rustling movement and metallic scraping of Marines getting ready for a fight.

I cursed under my breath. It hadn’t occurred to me to communicate what I was going to do. I was so wrapped up in my internal conflict that my ability to think clearly and communicate had been compromised. Marine Corps policy prohibited firing warning shots at people. The men around me knew the policy and naturally assumed there was a threat.

“That was a warning shot, over.” I felt stupid and should have. Second Lieutenants had to work hard against a Fleet stereotype of overeager inexperience. My rash action did nothing to diminish that reputation.

Flushed with embarrassment, I turned my attention back to the MAM. He had stopped but not turned to leave. Instead, he stood somewhat aimlessly in the middle of the street and stared vacantly at our security position with a half-smile on his face. This was not the reaction I expected from someone who had just been shot at.

It dawned on me that for whatever reason, this Iraqi was not going anywhere unless we made him. The Explosive Ordnance Disposal team would not deal with the IED if they arrived on scene and found a random dude hanging out within 50 yards of their position – he might be a trigger man. My uncertainty and embarrassment crystallized into frustration at the lone figure swaying in the street.

“Go snatch him up,” I ordered a tall corporal waiting eagerly near the troop hatch behind me. In a rush, he and two other Marines were out the hatch and onto the street, moving quickly in a dispersed wedge. Gated windows, empty rooftops, and thickets of underbrush that might blossom into sparkling muzzle flashes blurred by the running men. I expected them to stop a few paces away from the MAM to order him prone and detain him. They did not.

Violently, the lead Marine slammed into the man and drove him into the dirt. I blinked. This was my introduction to kinetic energy applied to a problem, so different from my schoolboy track days or sand table exercises at The Basic School. A profound realization settled on me that I was a director of violence against other men. It mattered what I said and it mattered to whom I said it.

The Iraqi man lay crushed in the dust, unmoving.

Internally I winced as the Marine on top of the man rolled him onto his face, put a knee in his back and cinched flexcuffs around his wrists. Theoretically, the Iraqi was a possible enemy and therefore the Marine’s actions were well within our rules of engagement. But something inside me shrank from the force that had been used to subdue an unresisting man. I felt tension between my gentler sensibilities as a Christian introvert and my professional responsibility to deal swiftly and effectively with possible threats to my mission and to the Marines under my command.

In truth, it was a good thing most Marines were inured to violence and comfortable with its application. Marine Corps training was brutal by intent. The Iraqi being jerked back to my position between two grim Marines was no longer an unknown, uncontrollable quantity in our battlefield calculus. Whatever his reason for inserting himself into our situation, the man’s removal by force simplified things for me. In fact, his detention couldn’t have come at a better time: EOD was just now rolling onto the scene.


Marines from 3/3 detain a suspected IED emplacer in Haqlaniyah in June 2006. Photo credit: Sgt Roe Seigle / USMC

Handing over tactical control of the perimeter to the senior EOD man, I turned to deal with the man being shoved through the troop hatch behind me.

“He’s a retard, sir.”

The corporal was right, if harsh. Orange food stains smeared the Iraqi’s shirt. His hair was matted in places and drool feathered his cheeks. He smelled ghastly. I lowered my gaze and noted a wet spot darkening his leg. The man was terrified.

There are times when remorse, shame, and regret overpower one’s sense of professional adherence to duty. I suppressed those emotions. It would be weakness to release the man now, precisely at the sensitive moment when an EOD technician was examining what we thought might be a roadside bomb. The apparently random appearance of a handicapped man in the middle of this awful intersection was clearly not an accident. In fact, this was the first of many times during two tours in Iraq that I would witness Al Qaeda’s callous disregard for innocent lives, as they sent children, the disabled, and terrified civilians to probe Marine roadblocks; not infrequently, those episodes ended in death for the sacrificial lamb. Al Qaeda operatives, meanwhile, coolly observed each interaction from the shadows and adjusted tactics accordingly. The technique was barbaric, and very effective.

Directing my attention back to the trembling man in the troop compartment, I ordered the Marines to blindfold him, search him, and seat him next to the other detainees for transportation to the detention facility. Since we didn’t have a proper blindfold, the corporal grabbed an empty sandbag from the trac floor. As the bag went over his head, the handicapped man’s eyes rolled in terror and a mirthless smile froze on his face.

I felt like a schoolyard bully.

Deep in thought, I walked slowly across the Kroger parking lot to my car. I hoped somewhere in another place, a handicapped Iraqi man was being treated with kindness and gentleness and care. All of the things I had not done for him, when I had the power and he was caught in the middle of other men’s war.

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Worlds Apart

Author in the Company firm base, about a month after Operation RUBICON.

Author in the Company firm base, about a month after Operation RUBICON.

Author’s Note – Operation RUBICON took place from 23-26 August 2006 in East Husaybah and Bidimnah, Al Anbar Province, Iraq. The Operation primarily involved Marines and sailors from Company K, 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines, Regimental Combat Team 5, supported by elements of 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, tanks and amtracs. I was a 26-year old Fire Support Team leader (1stLt) attached to the Company command group on the first day of the Operation.

We entered the house quickly, crunching over broken glass on our way to the stairs. The Iraqi family shared anonymity with a thousand others as I brushed indifferently past a glaring old man. My foot was on the first step up to the roof when a flash of color in an adjacent room checked me mid-stride. Startled, I glimpsed a beautiful girl in her late teens or early twenties, staring at me with dark, coffee-colored eyes. My heart stopped. For a breathless moment I contemplated the dusky figure in maroon and pale blue, so out of place in a room of shattered windows and stinking men.

Her gaze dropped pointedly to my chest, where an M4 carbine was cradled loosely in my gloved hands. Flushing and feeling uncomfortably like a boy who has just delivered an awkward, one-liner to a group of haughty girls, I wanted to explain, to tell her I was sorry, that it wasn’t meant for her. But of course it was. It was meant for all of them. It had to be. Despite being smitten by the girl’s unexpected beauty, an impassable chasm of culture and circumstance stretched between us. Regaining my composure, I turned and stomped roughly up the stairs to catch up with the command group.

Emerging onto the blazing rooftop, I saw the captain pacing erratically, as was his habit when unsure, worried, or scared – that is to say, all the time. The practice struck me as unmanly and irritating. In this instance, the captain couldn’t raise any of his platoon commanders on the radio and he was alternately cursing, turning around like a diviner to gain better reception, and fiddling helplessly with the dials and knobs of his handheld.

After a few fruitless minutes, the 81mm mortar forward observer – a streetwise Corporal with an established reputation for competence – cast me a pleading glance before surrendering his larger, PRC-119 radio to the captain’s outstretched hands. The CO needn’t have bothered exchanging radios: his platoon commanders could hear him just fine, but had ordered their radio operators to ignore his worthless and sometimes dangerous orders.

Annoyed that I was stuck with the captain and remembering the beautiful girl downstairs, I walked slowly over to the opposite side of the roof and leaned against the baking mud wall. Ten feet below a fragrant vegetable garden sent vines creeping around green melons while enormous yellow sunflowers beamed cheerfully at the early morning sun. The cool, blue-shadowed trellis was softness and silence, compared to the rooftop’s hard glare. My head hurt and my sweat stained flak vest bit achingly into the muscles of my neck and shoulders. Hunching forward to shift some of the armor weight onto the crumbling brick wall running the length of the roof, I was startled by a sudden movement below. It was the girl. Gliding delicately in bare feet, she began to sweep the polished concrete walkway between the house and garden.

Without warning, I was seized by an immediate, intense longing to stop – to throw off my weapons and armor and responsibility – and for a moment, once again be a young man in a world apart from war. The garden, the flowers and the girl were intoxicating. Where enemy action over the course of two tours had failed to pierce my martial resolve, a pretty girl with a palm frond whisk stopped me in my tracks.

Fleetingly, it occurred to me that should I want to, I had the power to order her family into a room and be alone with the girl. The thought was easily dismissed. That would mar the purity of the moment and besides, for some irrational reason I wanted her to like me.

For a few moments I did not feel like an invader in an alien land. The girl’s light movements and quiet grace made my heart swell with memories of youth and beauty and peace. I wanted to kiss her.

The girl must have sensed she was being watched, because she suddenly straightened and looked up. For several heartbeats our eyes met and her features softened into an odd little half-smile. In that instant I was home. Then she shyly dropped her gaze and disappeared into the house.

Amphibious Assault Vehicles - better known as "tracs" or AAVs - cover avenues of approach while Marines clear the house of a high value target on Day 3 of Operation RUBICON. August 25, 2006

Amphibious Assault Vehicles – better known as “tracs” or AAVs – cover avenues of approach while Marines clear the house of a high value target on Day 3 of Operation RUBICON. August 25, 2006

Somewhere far off a pair of helicopter gunships stalked wickedly through the morning haze. The grinding, clanking roar of armored vehicles throbbed from a nearby road. My heart slowly beat down to its normal rate. Exhaling sharply, I pushed myself away from the wall and turned back to the command group. The Operation was just beginning.



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Do The Missing Medals Matter?

The White House recently announced medically-retired Marine Corporal Kyle Carpenter will be the 15th veteran of the War on Terror – and only the eighth living one – to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan in November 2010. Grievously injured by the blast of a Taliban grenade he smothered to protect the life of a fellow Marine, Corporal Carpenter is most worthy of the Nation’s highest award for valor.

While we honor one Marine’s act of supreme courage, it is appropriate to ask whether the

The Nation's top medal for valor has been awarded 15 times during the War on Terror - far less than in previous major conflicts.

The Nation’s top medal for valor has been awarded 15 times during the War on Terror – far less than in previous major conflicts.

courage of other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has been overlooked or taken for granted. Nearly thirteen years after opening hostilities — and approximately 55,000 physical casualties — the incidence of approval for the top three valor awards (the Medal of Honor, Service Crosses, and the Silver Star Medal) for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, is dramatically below the rate from previous conflicts [See Table 1].

Where are the missing medals?

Table 1: Top 3 Valor Awards Approved by Conflict

Inherent in that question is the assumption that something as apparently subjective as courage under fire can be measured and compared across different times and very different environments to arrive at a reasonable rate of exchange between combat and courage. Can it be so measured? I suggest one approach to quantify courage.

Quantifying Courage

Observe Purple Hearts awarded for combat killed and wounded as a proxy for the incidence of enemy contact; then use valor awards as a proxy for the incidence of courageous action against a determined enemy.

As records for valor awards below the Silver Star are not readily available, we will assume lesser awards for valor will follow similar patterns to any we might find in the top three awards. Equally, enemy action that did not result in casualties will probably follow recognizable patterns. Note: This methodology excludes Air Force data as the Air Force did not exist as a separate branch until 1947; Army Air Force data was retained for World War II. This is not intended to diminish the courage of many hundreds of Airmen after World War II, but it does help to unify the data across 70 years of conflict.

Patterns of Valor in the Iconic Wars of the Mid Twentieth Century

When the methodology described above is applied to the data in Table 1 for long-duration conflicts (>1 year in length) in the twentieth century, we see the following results.

Average Number of Casualties per Award in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

Average Number of Casualties per Award in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

The charts yield some interesting data points. For World War II and the Korean War, Service Crosses were awarded at about the same rate and Silver Stars were awarded at precisely the same rate. For those who might suggest that courage under fire is without pattern or predictability, this remarkable congruence from war to war would seem to indicate to the contrary.

The Medal of Honor was awarded at twice the rate (remember, this is based on number of casualties per award, so twice the rate equals half the casualties) in Korea as it was in World War II, which is probably best explained by the unusually desperate position of the undermanned, underequipped US forces during the opening months in Korea, followed by

A Marine shows the strain during bitterly cold weather during the fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950.

A Marine shows the strain during bitterly cold weather during the fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950.

the surprise intervention of Chinese armies at the Yalu River and subsequent “human wave” attacks that literally overran and annihilated entire US units. The higher rate of award in Korea makes sense when the percentage of posthumous (awarded to deceased recipients) Medals of Honor in Korea (73%) is compared to the percentage of posthumous awards in World War II (54%). In fact, only Medal of Honor winners from the war in Iraq have had a higher mortality rate (100%) than did the recipients from the Korean War (more on this later).

With the exception noted above, why did courage look the same in Korea as it did in World War II? At the risk of oversimplifying, we see broad similarities between the combat in both wars: conventionally armed and equipped forces, engaged in wars of territorial conquest or defense against a uniformed enemy operating distinctly from the civilian population (this is not to say large numbers of civilians were not killed during these wars, but civilians generally did not play an active belligerent role on the battlefield.) Largely absent from both wars were substantial unconventional forces ranged against the US military.

In summary, when the American fighting man of the mid twentieth century fought a uniformed enemy in open battle, he was recognized for valor at a generally predictable rate.

Changes to the Pattern: Vietnam

The war in Vietnam introduced a change in the nature of conflict and a slight change in the pattern of valor awards. For the first time, US service members confronted not just conventional enemy forces, but a wide scale, long duration insurgency as well. In Vietnam, the Medal of Honor was awarded at a rate almost exactly between the World War II and Korean War rates, with a posthumous rate (63%) also almost exactly between the rates for

A soldier guides in a medevac helicopter in this iconic photo from the Vietnam War captured by Art Greenspon in 1968.

A soldier guides in a medevac helicopter in this iconic photo from the Vietnam War captured by Art Greenspon in 1968.

the preceding conflicts. Given the desperate nature of jungle fighting by isolated US units cut off from immediate support (and a small arms casualty rate that was nearly four times the rate of fatalities caused by artillery and mortar shells – a complete reversal of the proportion of fatalities caused by artillery and small arms in World War II and Korea) the rate of award for the Medal of Honor in line with historical precedent seems to make sense.

Service Crosses, paradoxically, were awarded at about half the rate in Vietnam as they were in previous conflicts. (Silver Stars, unfortunately, were not accurately recorded for the war and are therefore not included in this study.) I am unaware of an official reason for the change in rate of Service Cross awards. Although nearly 7,500 (16%) of US combat fatalities in Vietnam were caused by land mines and what we now call Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) – which eliminate the ability to fight back and therefore might be expected to reduce the incidence of valor awards by about 16% – this rationale would apply equally to the Medal of Honor and it is not obvious from the data that such a blanket comparison holds true. For now, we will note without explanation the increase in casualties for each Service Cross awarded in Vietnam.

Combat Valor in the War on Terror

In our examination of the rate of valor medals awarded across the three major US conflicts after World War I, we see a recognizable pattern for the Medal of Honor, a complete congruence (where the data is available) for Silver Stars, and an indication that Service Crosses might have trended upward in the cost of blood for each award after Korea. Do these patterns and trends hold true for Afghanistan and Iraq? Let’s add the data from Table 1 for Afghanistan and Iraq to our previous charts for World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Casualties Per Valor Award in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Average Number of Casualties Per Award in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

When viewed against historical trends, the data from Iraq and Afghanistan presents an astounding disparity between enemy contact and American combat valor. Service Crosses have been awarded at a rate 5 times less in Afghanistan and nearly 10 times less in Iraq than in World War II. Even when viewed against the award rate for Vietnam, Afghanistan veterans were half as likely to win a Service Cross and Iraq veterans were nearly 5 times less likely to be so awarded. Similarly, Silver Stars have been awarded at a rate five to eight times less than in World War II or Korea.

Cultural and Structural Reasons Can’t Fully Explain the Missing Medals

What happened in the 25 years between Vietnam and the War on Terror to cause such an enormous change in the incidence of combat valor compared to casualties? Examining the data side by side from Iraq and Afghanistan helps mitigate the temptation to overweight cultural and structural factors that might have partially contributed to the dramatic change.

For example, it is tempting to consider the post-Vietnam, All-Volunteer Force so well trained, led, and motivated that it rarely finds itself in extremis situations in combat, as did previous generations of US military draftees. No doubt, the extraordinarily trained and equipped US military that fought in Iraq and continues to fight in Afghanistan, has reduced from previous wars the incidence of desperate combat situations and by extension, reduced the opportunities to earn a top valor award. But if this reason could stand alone, there should be no substantial difference in the rate of valor awards between Iraq and Afghanistan. The data indicates otherwise.

Or, perhaps a professional military expects valor from its troops and so rewards acts of valor less frequently today than it did during the draft era. Anecdotal evidence of the internal military awards process suggests that many combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have, in fact, been denied valor awards because senior staff noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers chalked up battlefield exploits to an infantryman “just doing his job.” But the disparity between the rate of award in Iraq and Afghanistan (where, it should be noted, the same service members and units often served during separate combat rotations) demands a more nuanced explanation.

Hard Fighting in Afghanistan, Hard Targeting in Iraq

Why was a combat veteran of Iraq half as likely to win a Service Cross as his comrade in Afghanistan and four times less likely to win a Medal of Honor – this, despite Iraq veterans suffering 67% more casualties than veterans of Afghanistan? Why the enormous disparity between casualties and courage across two theaters of operation in the same war?

There is no perfect answer, but a reasonable theory relates to what we already discussed in relation to Vietnam: the ability to fight back when attacked. No matter how well trained, motivated, or courageous, infantrymen cannot fight against what they cannot see. Enemy contact in Iraq after April 2003 was nearly always in the form of insurgent activity and usually masked by a civilian population within cities and towns along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, while certainly subject to many of the same challenges associated with the insurgency in Iraq, was different in two important ways: enemy tactics and geography. The Taliban is an enemy who will stand and fight, sometimes in well-

Soldiers return fire from a mountain outpost in Afghanistan. Note the Taliban had the high ground.

Soldiers return fire from a mountain outpost in Afghanistan. Note the Taliban had the high ground.

organized units of company strength, against isolated American outposts in the maze of mountain strongholds and compartmentalized river valleys that comprise much of the Taliban heartland. The challenging geography and high altitude of much of Afghanistan has meant delays of sometimes days to reinforce or provide air support to besieged American units. As such, infantrymen in Afghanistan have been able to fight against an enemy who fights back, much more often than their comrades in Iraq.

Conversely, no unit of platoon-size or greater in Iraq of which I am aware, was ever subject to siege, ambush, or gunfight, without the possibility of immediate ground reinforcement and Close Air Support. Iraqi insurgents knew this and so limited their attacks – with few

Marines with 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines patrol past the location where two Marines were killed by an IED just days before. Over the course of 2 weeks, six Marines and soldiers were killed within 200 yards of the mosque in the background. East Bidimnah, Iraq 2006

Marines with 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines patrol past the location where two Marines were killed by an IED just days before. Over the course of 2 weeks, six Marines and soldiers were killed within 200 yards of the mosque in the background. East Bidimnah, Iraq 2006

exceptions – to hit and run incidents, IED emplacement, sniper attacks, and suicide bombers*. Casualties in Iraq from these less martial but no less deadly techniques multiplied over the long years without a corresponding ability for infantrymen to fight back. The inevitable and discomfiting sense, for many Iraq veterans, was instead of being a predator they felt like a target.

Misuse of Conventional Forces to Fight an Insurgency

The missing medals matter because they show more clearly than anything else the misapplication of conventional US forces to fight an insurgency. The US military was badly used in Iraq, and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan. It’s not necessarily that the wrong tool was used, but that the right tool was used in the wrong way.

Think of picking up a hammer and turning it on its side before pounding home a nail. The exercise is possible, but the hammer head will receive deep scratches and the wood around the nail will splinter and mar. The damage is largely avoidable by using the tool as intended.

How does this relate to the War on Terror? Some elements of the US military are better suited to fight a counterinsurgency than others. When those elements (Special Operations, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations units, among others)are overwhelmed or the scope of the insurgency is too large or when US government civil and political efforts with the host nation lack effectiveness, conventional forces are used to fill the gaps in capability. This may be appropriate, or, more accurately, unavoidable, for reasonable lengths of time until strategy can be adjusted or forces reallocated or capabilities developed. But that never happened in Iraq. For eight years, nails were pounded with the sides of hammers, which were eventually discarded as they lost their usefulness or became damaged beyond repair.

Now, our country is struggling to come to grips with sustained, post-9/11 veteran unemployment and possibly higher incidences of Post-Traumatic Stress and cognitive injuries like Traumatic Brain Injury than in previous conflicts. When looking at a combat veteran who felt like a target for months and years and saw his brothers and sisters sacrificed without a corresponding effect on the enemy, should we be surprised when he struggles to reintegrate into a society that so enthusiastically swung the hammer – or at least stood to the side acquiescently and watched the tool misused? The cultural chasm between the professional military and a non-serving society must surely have widened during the past 13 years. The situation is not hopeless, but it will take some determined effort to improve.

Further, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that an enemy who was able to inflict such heavy casualties on the American military in Iraq — without corresponding casualties to its own insurgents — was winning. In the absence of the Al-Anbar Awakening, it is doubtful that we could have left Iraq under any reasonable premise of success. In other words, the US military did not win in Iraq, it simply avoided losing until internal Iraqi structures of power and authority gained sufficiency, with no small help from the historical animus between rival sectarian religious groups. As Marine Major Owen West explains in his book on US military advisors in Al Anbar, The Snake Eaters, the focus of the Iraq war after April 2003 should have been to build Iraqi capability, but this was rarely the case. As US military units struggled to fight an invisible enemy, casualties mounted with very little progress to show.


The missing medals show a failure in policy across political administrations and varying military leaders, a failure that I am not convinced has been adequately addressed and certainly not satisfactorily resolved. In 25 years, do we wish to add data from another conflict to the preceding charts and remark on the continuing trend of massive bloodletting and dwindling opportunity for action against an identified enemy?

This trend, if not reversed through careful consideration of military force structuring and a new theory on the proper application of force to achieve foreign policy– especially in today’s asymmetric and increasingly complex world – is likely to impact recruitment and retention in a nation whose eligible and interested military prospects continue to diminish.

Do the missing medals matter? In a world full of nails, ask a broken hammer.


*While the cause of causalities is not publicly available for Iraq, anecdotal evidence from Third Battalion Second Marines (3/2) during its two deployments to Anbar Province spanning 2005, 2006 and 2007, supports the theory that only a minority of casualties were sustained during actual gunfights with the enemy. Out of 17 Marines killed in the battalion, only 2 were killed during firefights. The remaining 15 Marines were killed by mines, IEDs, suicide bombers, and snipers, with not a single enemy target identified to return fire or capture.

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Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography

This is a paper about how infantrymen in the United States Marine Corps handle combat deaths. It was researched and written by Stephen Smith, Th.M., in partial fulfillment for a seminary course on Death and Dying. While Steve has never experienced the dark side of man, his twin brother – me – has. Together, we offer this paper in eight parts. Footnotes follow at the end of each section.

This post, Part 8, offers a brief conclusion and a list of references and resources for further information about infantrymen’s reaction to combat. The previous sections can be read by clicking on the titles below.

Part 1: Post 9-11 CasualtiesPart 2: The Link Between Combat and PTSDPart 3: Learning to Kill – Part 4: Preparing for DeathPart 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat – Part 6: Memorials and Unit Healing – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD – Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography


A Marine returns fire in Afghanistan.

A Marine returns fire in Afghanistan.

The purpose of citing so many statistics in the first part of this paper was to reinforce the reality that PTSD is a very normative experience for infantry Marines who have seen combat. The body naturally reacts to danger in ways which are not easily forgotten.[1] The personal anecdotes and stories shared by Marines in the middle portion of this paper shows that very brave and courageous people suffer from PTSD as a result of combat trauma they have experienced. It is important for both these Marines and the society at large which sends them into battle, to realize that there is a normal human cost to such trauma. Karl Marlantes writes:

Warriors will always have to deal with guilt and mourning. It is unfortunate that the guilt and mourning reside almost entirely with those asked to do the dirty work. Choosing to fight for the right reasons can assuage this guilt. Mourning can lessen it. But all warriors or erstwhile warriors will need to understand that, just like rucksack, ammunition, water, and food, guilt and mourning will be among the things they carry. They will shoulder it all for the society they fight for.[2]

The society they fight for must never forget to remember and honor such wounded warriors.



Abbot, Sebastian. “Marines in deadly Afghan valley face combat stress,” http://news.yahoo.com /s/ap/20110306/ap_on_re_as/as_afghanistan_combat_stress, Accessed 11/12/12.

Armstrong, Keith; Best, Suzanne; Domenici, Paula (2009-05-01). Courage After Fire: Coping Strategies for Troops Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and Their Families. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

“Being a Marine.” http://www.marines.com/being-a-marine/roles-in-the-corps/ground-combat-element/infantry Accessed 11/19/12.

Burns, Robert. “Military Suicide Rate Surges To Nearly One Per Day This Year” Huffington Post, 6/7/2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/07/military-suicide-surges-_n_1578821.html Accessed 11/29/12.

Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (p. 195). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Coleman, Cpl. Damany S. “Camp Lejeune to receive premier facility for TBI, PTSD treatment, research facility,” From Camp Lejeune Globe, Posted June 21, 2012. http://www.camplejeuneglobe.com/news/inside_lejeune/article_e2ed138a-bae9-11e1-a475-001a4bcf887a.html. Accessed 11/15/12.

“Combat Operational Stress: A Leader’s Guide.” http://www.usmc-mccs.org/leadersguide/ deployments/combatopsstress/generalinfo.cfm. Accessed 11/15/12

“Death of a Unit Member: Leader’s Guide” http://www.usmc-mccs.org/LeadersGuide/ Deployments/CombatOpsStress/deathunitmember.htm Accessed 11/15/12.

Erickson, Judy. “Marine Corps Wages War on PTSD” Camp Pendleton Patch, July 14, 2011. http://camppendleton.patch.com/articles/marine-corps-wages-war-on-ptsd Accessed 11/15/12.

“Faces of the Fallen.” http://apps.washingtonpost.com/national/fallen/ Accessed 11/18/12.

Fick, Nathaniel. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Finley, Erin P. (2011-05-18). Fields of Combat: Understanding PTSD among Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (The Culture and Politics of Health Care Work). Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.

Grice, Lt. Col. Michael D. “Leading With PTSD: Suffering From What They Have Experienced” Marine Corps Gazette. From http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/article/leading-ptsd-suffering-what-they-have-experienced, Accessed 11/15/12.

Grossman, Dave; Christensen, Loren W. (2011-05-10). On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace. Human Factor Research Group, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Grossman, Lt. Col. Dave. On Killing. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1996.

“Helplessness Was the Worst Part, I Think” http://www.mycombatptsd.com/threads/helplessness -was-the-worst-part-i-think.16/ Accessed 11/16/12.

Hoge, Charles W., M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 266-270). Kindle Edition.

Kime, Patricia. “Report: DoD does not know if PTSD programs work” Marine Corps Times 7/13/2012. http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2012/07/military-report-dod-va-ptsd-programs-effectiveness-071312/. Accessed 11/15/12.

Lyon, Chris. The Soldier’s Load, http://thesoldiersload.com/guest-columns/

Marlantes, Karl. Matterhorn. New York: Grove Press, 2011.

Marlantes, Karl. What it is Like to Go to War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011.

Mokenhaupt, Brian. “A State of Military Mind.” From http://www.psmag.com/health/a-state-military-mind-42839/ June 12, 2012. Accessed 11/15/12

“Navy SEALs,” http://www.mycombatptsd.com/threads/navy-seals.815/ accessed 11/15/12

Petronio, Capt. Katie. “Get Over It: We Are Not All Created Equal” Marine Corps Gazette http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/article/get-over-it-we-are-not-all-created-equal. Accessed 11/19/12.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Military Statistics” http://www.demossnews.com/ ccci/additional/post_traumatic_stress_disorder_ptsd_military_statistics. Accessed 11/15/12.

Powers, Rod. “The Cost of War.” http://usmilitary.about.com/od/terrorism/a/iraqdeath1000.htm Accessed 11/15/12.

“Sadness,” From http://www.mycombatptsd.com/threads/sadness.1801/ Accessed 11/15/12.

Smith, Nathan A. “A Legion of Shadows.” The Soldier’s Load, http://thesoldiersload.com /2012/03/06/a-legion-of-shadows/

Smith, Nathan A. “Explaining the Inexplicable.” The Soldier’s Load, http://thesoldiersload.com /2012/01/16/explaining-the-inexplicable/

Smith, Nathan A. “Fallen Angel.” The Soldier’s Load, http://thesoldiersload.com/2012/08/30/ fallen-angel/

Smith, Nathan A. “The Greatest Good.” The Soldier’s Load, http://thesoldiersload.com /2012/01/04/the-unpardonable-decision/

Smith, Nathan A. “The Sound and the Fury.” The Soldier’s Load, http://thesoldiersload.com/ 2011/09/01/the-sound-and-the-fury/

Smith, Nathan A. “Walls.” The Soldier’s Load, http://thesoldiersload.com/2012/05/03/walls/

Smith, Nathan S. “What’s It Like?” The Soldier’s Load, http://thesoldiersload.com /2012/03/27/whats-it-like/

Smith, Nathan A. Personal conversation with Stephen Smith, 5/20/10.

Smith, Nathan A. Personal conversation with Stephen Smith, 10/29/11.

Smith, Nathan A. Personal conversation with Stephen Smith, 10/28/12.

Smith, Nathan A. Phone interview with Stephen Smith, 11/16/12.

Michelle Tan, Marine Corps Times, 12/18/09. http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/ 2009/12/military_deployments_121809w/. Accessed 11/18/12.

Wood, David. “Iraq, Afghanistan War Veterans Struggle With Combat Trauma” Huffington Post, 7/04/2012 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/04/iraq-afghanistan-war-veterans-combat-trauma_n_1645701.html

Wood, David. “U.S. Wounded In Iraq, Afghanistan Includes More Than 1,500 Amputees.” Huffington Post, 11/8/12. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/07/iraq-afghanistan-amputees_n_2089911.html Accessed 11/16/12

[1] “The limbic area of the brain is designed to make sure that you never forget any memories having to do with serious danger or disaster that affected you personally. These memories form the impetus that forces you to respond instantaneously when you encounter a similar situation at a future time. Limbic memories in the form of criterion B symptoms can be triggered by any reminder of the war zone, even very minor things, like dust, the smell of diesel fuel, the name of a buddy, the sky, war movies, news, loud noises, a calendar date, an offhand comment someone makes, crowds, trash on the side of the road, an overpass, traffic, a helicopter, kids yelling, dogs barking, raw meat, smoke, a reflection from a window, going into a porta-potty, or being in an enclosed or secluded place. These memories can come flooding back unexpectedly, making you feel like you’re back in the war zone again: body, mind, and soul. Memories having to do with survival are extremely vivid, the most vivid of any of our memories: full color, sound, smells, and feelings with almost the same level of intensity as if they were actually happening now. The limbic part of the brain does not give a damn how miserable you are as a result of being overwhelmed (flooded) with these memories. The job of the limbic system is to ensure that you survive by not forgetting anything that happened during dangerous or threatening situations. These memories are not bound in time. They can be as vivid twenty years later as they were right after they happened.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 580-585). Kindle Edition.

[2] Marlantes, p.60.

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Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD

This is a paper about how infantrymen in the United States Marine Corps handle combat deaths. It was researched and written by Stephen Smith, Th.M., in partial fulfillment for a seminary course on Death and Dying. While Steve has never experienced the dark side of man, his twin brother – me – has. Together, we offer this paper in eight parts. Footnotes follow at the end of each section.

This post, Part 7, relates anecdotes and statistics to demonstrate that Post Traumatic Stress is a normal response to abnormal circumstances. The behaviors and thought patterns precipitated during combat to enhance personal survivability can be gradually unlearned or mitigated over time. As proof of point, it should be noted that my own PTSD triggers and responses related in the following article have since lessened considerably. There is hope and there is help.

Part 1: Post 9-11 CasualtiesPart 2: The Link Between Combat and PTSDPart 3: Learning to Kill – Part 4: Preparing for DeathPart 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat – Part 6: Memorials and Unit Healing – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD – Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography

Sometimes the War Continues: PTSD

But not all Marines are able to fully integrate their feelings related to combat death while deployed. While it is true that caring for casualties, contextualizing their death, telling stories about combat losses, and planning and attending memorial services for dead Marines all provide ways for fellow Marines to integrate feelings of loss and grief, it is equally true that many infantry Marines still carry a burden of un-integrated loss in conjunction with fallen comrades.

As we have seen, this relates to Marine infantry training which emphasizes desensitization toward combat deaths, both inflicted and incurred, and an aggressive tempo of combat which prevents Marines from taking the time to effectively process grief. Not only so, but the body’s own physiological responses to combat—increased vigilance, adrenaline, and the flooding of the limbic system—are all normal responses to danger.[1] The result—especially when combined with other traumatic events experienced during combat—is a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among infantry Marines.[2] U.S. Navy Commander Charles Benson, psychiatrist for the 1st Marine Division operational forces at Camp Pendleton, California, acknowledges that emotionally shutting down during combat is normal for Marines, and that PTSD is not usually diagnosed until at least six months after a Marine has returned from battle.[3]

While we have already discussed the high incidence of PTSD earlier in this paper, it may be helpful to include anecdotal evidence from a number of former and current combat infantry Marines who have wrestled with PTSD. While not all infantry Marines suffer from PTSD, many do. The following stories provide a snapshot for how some Marines are coping with combat loss over the long term. Natasha Young is one of them. David Wood at the Huffington Post writes of Young’s experience:

She went to war twice, the last time five years ago in western Iraq with a close-knit team of Marines who disabled IEDs…. It was nonstop work, dangerous, highly stressful and exhausting. Six of the Marines were killed in bomb blasts, each death a staggering gut-punch to the others. After they returned home the commander took his own life. Staff Sgt. Young broke down, too, spent physically, emotionally and mentally. Eventually, she was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, last October, was medically discharged from the Corps.[4]

Lt. Colonel Michael Grice served two tours in Iraq as a platoon commander and one tour in Afghanistan as a Special Operations augment. All three tours were highly kinetic and involved up-tempo combat operations. After his third tour, Lt. Col. Grice began experiencing some of the symptoms of PTSD: trouble sleeping, hyper-vigilance, short term memory loss, and reliving traumatic events. A toughened warrior, Grice had trouble admitting that he had PTSD: “I was always of the macho opinion that only losers had PTSD—weak-minded or weak-willed misfits who were too effete to stand up to the rigors of combat,” he writes. “People like that ended up on the side of the road holding up cardboard signs asking for handouts, didn’t they?” But he learned that most of them didn’t. “Instead, they were just like me—professional warriors who carry the responsibility of leading others into harm’s way with the specter of their life-altering experiences constantly looming overhead.”[5]

Chris Lyon, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq as a machine gunner for Kilo 3/2, still has recurring visions of a dead friend:

Every day I relive Sgt. Z’s death, his screams for his mother while I helplessly raged in my turret, trying to find someone, anyone to shoot at. At first I tried to run from it. I couldn’t stomach Arlington [National Cemetery] even though I gave [Z’s] eulogy in Iraq. I tried to exorcise his ghost by telling his parents what really happened, and like a wild animal in a trap lashed out at friends and family, anyone who hadn’t “been there.” I drank like a fool, chain-smoked, and still every day I would see Sgt. Z’s smiling face in the doorway of Voodoo CP in East Husaybah, telling me we had another run to White’s position. Every day I would see the same face disappear around a cinderblock wall and never come back…. My wife eventually made me quit smoking. She made me go to counseling. And now I don’t scream in my sleep or get drunk or snap at my kids or go ballistic on strangers. But I still see Z every day. Every day.[6]

He acknowledges that the memory of the men who died proves both a cause of PTSD and a

The destroyed Humvee of Philips and Johnson.

The destroyed Humvee of Philips and Johnson.

comfort to him: “I see them all, the Voodoo boys [who were killed]. Luke, Eric, Ryan, Phillip. I have to recall them now, because it is the only way to keep the walls [of sanity] standing. They are the stones of those walls, the men standing in the breach against the countless, faceless screaming hordes of nightmares.”[7]

Other Marines are thankful that at least they can feel something after combat, since they were trained to be desensitized to trauma.[8] PTSD for these Marines means that their emotional numbness is beginning to thaw and that there is hope for them to re-integrate their emotions, even their painful emotions in order to become emotionally whole. A Marine on an online PTSD forum for veterans says, “You spend so long holding it all in and then it’s like the dam has burst. I’d say for me it actually feels good to actually feel something.”[9] Another veteran echoes that sentiment: “I’ve cried more in a year and a half than I have in the last 22. It’s good to get this shit out.”[10]

Former Marine Captain Nathan Smith realized he had PTSD seven months after he returned from his second combat tour in Iraq. He had initially chalked up his symptoms—constant anxiety, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating—to moving across the U.S. to another military billet. But standing one night near Puget Sound, he saw the sunset clouds which looked like smoke, and which triggered a memory:

I went to the beach tonight because I wanted to forget the pain and to feel. I needed to forget a past that clawed at my mind like a demon. I needed to feel alive….Gray clouds scudded across the sky like smoke from a thousand burning fires. Like smoke from 3 September 2006…“Where is that medevac? It’s been twenty minutes and I haven’t heard anything on the radio! Tell them to follow the smoke in!” Marc’s voice was tight with fury and fear. The smoke. Painfully, I unclenched my sweating hand from the radio handset and walked heavily to the Command Post door. Peering out towards the west, I could see a thick column of black smoke coiling into the dusty sky. Later, the recovery vehicle would follow the smoke in and find only pieces of the Humvee. The medevac would find only pieces of the two dead Marines. Wearily returning to the radio, I continued to coordinate the company maneuver elements as dusk deepened into night. But that was the day the headaches started… and the choking.[11]

Smith found himself feeling nervous in crowded places. They made him feel out of control or in danger. “Anywhere there is no rank structure can be difficult for me,” he says. “Civilians are like cats running around with no one in charge.” He once fled from a large home-improvement store after suffering a panic attack. Traveling on crowded planes causes him great anxiety, though prior to Iraq he never had a problem. He sleeps at night with his phone turned off—in Iraq unexpected radio calls usually meant that something terrible had happened.[12] When he walks through the woods here in the States, Smith sometimes likes to hold his arms in the position he used to carry his M-4 rifle in Iraq. “It is a comfort thing,” he says. “I wish I could bring an M-4 with me, or do facing movements [military drill] in the parking lot, just to get some instant feelings of safety and structure. But you can’t do that at the mall.”[13]

Smith knows that he is not alone: “You can spot veterans suffering from PTSD as they sit uneasily in the back of classrooms, shift uncomfortably on the edge of pews, and scan the room nervously at family gatherings. Alcohol often becomes the unofficial medication that allows veterans with PTSD to feel ‘normal’ or to relax.”[14]

Staff Sergeant Ammon Jay Cornwell, an elite Force Recon Marine and a veteran of Somalia, recalls the death of his friend which led to his own PTSD: “My best buddy Gunny Bohr was a vet of Grenada and served with me in Africa. He saved my life there when a grenade blew up in my face and he drug [sic] me to safety. He lost his life in the invasion of Iraq when his platoon was hit hard and he rushed to the front lines to give guys medical aid and then held off attacking forces single handed… he was a great Force Recon Marine and I will always miss him. Why war in general…I’ve lost so many good friends and for what!”[15]

Some few Marines, in a place of desperation with their PTSD, resort to suicide to end their

In Memory of James "Rooster" Dixon III

James Dixon III

painful memories.[16] James Dixon III was one of these. Dixon served three combat tours with the 3/2 Marines in Iraq. Nathan Smith writes of James on his blog, The Soldier’s Load:

James “Rooster” Dixon III was killed by a State Police SWAT team on the steps of his house early on a quiet Sunday morning in Baxley, Georgia. The Purple Heart recipient left the Marines after his third combat deployment to Iraq and went on to earn his MBA at Georgia Southern University in the spring of 2011. But friends and family noticed a sobering difference in the once gregarious and still tousle-headed veteran: although James had left the service, the effects of his service hadn’t left him. James sought treatment from the VA for his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but was unable to shake the constant anxiety and depression that are hallmarks of the disorder. On February 19, 2012 James decided to end his struggle by walking into the bullets of law enforcement: as much a casualty of the war as any service member who died in Iraq.[17]

Karl Marlantes, a Marine Lieutenant in Vietnam, returned from his combat experiences with PTSD and his society’s ingratitude. It took him many years of counseling to reach a point of emotional and psychological health. Part of his healing process involved writing a fiction novel about the Vietnam War, Matterhorn, which actually served as a thinly-veiled memoir. In his non-fiction book, What it is Like to Go to War, Marlantes says, “The Marine Corps taught me how to kill but it didn’t teach me how to deal with killing.”[18] He suggests a process for reintegrating combat Marines into society:

Before being discharged veterans should be gathered in small groups with career veterans who have had some training in group dynamics and be allowed to talk themselves down. Just talk, in a safe place, with other veterans. It gets the talk started, breaks the damaging code of silence that stops the integration process. This process could then go on in civilian life, because now it’s legitimized and the young veterans know how to do it. Some veterans will always be afraid to bring back their nightmare. They need to know early on that the nightmare can be faced. All veterans fear being misunderstood. If war detox is required while people are still in uniform, the shame and fear will be faced cleanly and won’t have to come out twenty years later.[19]

What the Marine Corps is Doing about PTSD

While it is beyond the true scope of this paper to talk about treatment of PTSD, it feels irresponsible to discuss how infantry Marines handle combat death without describing what the Marine Corps is doing about it. There are several ways that the military is trying to help veterans who have PTSD.


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Marine Corps is currently trying to increase Marine resiliency to combat trauma through realistic simulated combat and specialized brain-training techniques such as guided imagery and meditation. Brian Mockenhaupt writes, “Though brain-training programs… are still gaining traction in the military, mental-fitness regimens may soon be as much a part of a soldier’s life as push-ups and running.”[20] In addition, the Marine Corps has begun to train Marines in how to prepare for and avoid combat and operational stress.[21] Yet the effectiveness of these programs is not yet known. Several military organizations are working on research in this area.[22]

Screening and Treatment

When Marines return home from combat, they are now evaluated within 30 days, and again within six months (a Post Deployment Help Reassessment) to identify any symptoms of PTSD. Marine units which have seen exceptionally heavy combat receive special attention.[23] For those Marines who have already suffered PTSD, the mental health arm of the Marine Corps, OSCAR [Operational Stress Control and Readiness], is trying to ensure that no Marine has to recover alone. Psychiatrists and nurse practitioners now deploy with combat troops and embed at the battalion level to experience many of the same hardships as infantry Marines. The goal is for Marines to trust the psychiatric staff since they share similar experiences. This hopefully will enable Marines to open up about how they feel in combat and medical professionals can then facilitate their healing.[24]

The initial route of healing involves psychotherapy and counseling. According to Dr. Benson at Camp Pendleton, usually 60% of Marines respond to this level of treatment and are able to integrate their feelings with the traumatic experiences they had in combat.[25] For the 40% who don’t respond to psychotherapy, medication is prescribed. For those who don’t respond to medication or therapy, about 20%, OSCAR will recommend them for medical retirement or a VA hospital, depending upon the severity of symptoms.[26]

Camp Pendleton also has a group for families of Marines who suffer from PTSD, called FOCUS (Families Overcoming Under Stress), under the Bureau of Navy Medicine Program. The lead family resiliency trainer, Tom Babayan, says that it is important to work with families of affected sailors and Marines, “because PTSD has a lot of effects not only on individuals but within the family, also. During wartime, routines and roles are disrupted. Deployments and reintegration may cause stress for children and spouses.”[27]

To promote research within the military, the Department of Defense recently announced that Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will receive its own National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICO) to research traumatic brain injury and PTSD. The main NICO center was built in 2010 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “This is about more than brick and mortar,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. “What we are really doing here today is building a commitment to our wounded warriors and their families. We’re rebuilding the lives of those who made a significant sacrifice for our nation.”[28]

[1] Dr. Charles Hoge notes that: “PTSD is essentially a manifestation of the natural mechanisms for survival and functioning under extremely threatening situations. Everything we label a ‘symptom’ of PTSD is an adaptive and beneficial response when there is a threat to your personal welfare or that of others, and the persistence of these reactions is the body’s effort to ensure that you’re immediately ready if the danger occurs again.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 639-641). Kindle Edition.

[2] Refer to section one of this paper for the relevant statistics.

[3] Erickson, Judy. “Marine Corps Wages War on PTSD” Camp Pendleton Patch, July 14, 2011. http://camppendleton.patch.com/articles/marine-corps-wages-war-on-ptsd Accessed 11/15/12.

[4] David Wood. “Iraq, Afghanistan War Veterans Struggle With Combat Trauma,” 7/04/2012. From http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/04/iraq-afghanistan-war-veterans-combat-trauma_n_1645701.html Accessed 11/15/12.

[5] Grice, Lt. Col. Michael D. “Leading With PTSD: Suffering From What They Have Experienced” From http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/article/leading-ptsd-suffering-what-they-have-experienced, Accessed 11/15/12.

[6] http://thesoldiersload.com/2012/03/27/whats-it-like/, Accessed 11/29/12.

[7] http://thesoldiersload.com/2012/05/03/walls/, Accessed 11/29/12.

[8] “Shutting down emotions is a necessary skill in combat, and it can sometimes be very difficult to turn them back on after coming home. Warriors often describe not being able to feel love, not caring about others, and feeling numb or detached. This is also essential for survival in combat.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Location pp.606-607). Kindle Edition.

[9] JarHed, Aug 31, 2012 #10, From http://www.mycombatptsd.com/threads/sadness.1801/

[10] Wagon, Aug 31, 2012 #9, From http://www.mycombatptsd.com/threads/sadness.1801/

[11] http://thesoldiersload.com/2011/09/01/the-sound-and-the-fury/, Accessed 11/29/12.

[12] From a personal conversation with the author, 5/20/2010.

[13] From an interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[14] http://thesoldiersload.com/2012/03/06/a-legion-of-shadows/, Accessed 11/29/12.

[15] From http://www.mycombatptsd.com/threads/navy-seals.815/ accessed 11/15/12

[16] The rate of suicides among active-duty military members reached almost one per day in 2012, according to Robert Burns at the Huffington Post. And the rate among non-active duty members or veterans may be even higher.“Military Suicide Rate Surges To Nearly One Per Day This Year” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/07/military-suicide-surges-_n_1578821.html Accessed 11/29/12.

[17] http://thesoldiersload.com/2012/03/06/a-legion-of-shadows/, Accessed 11/29/12.

[18] Marlantes, p.3.

[19] Marlantes, p.206.

[20] Brian Mockenhaupt, “A State of Military Mind” From http://www.psmag.com/health/a-state-military-mind-42839/, Accessed 11/15/12.

[21] “OSCAR [Operational Stress Control and Readiness] makes sure Marines are taught about PTSD and screened for signs of being at-risk before, during and after deployment. Marines can be at risk from extra or ongoing anxiety, mental illness, depression, ongoing PTSD from previous deployment, or from childhood experiences. So, officers look for signs of risk, and they recognize, understand and treat their Marines. If an at-risk Marine is identified, he or she won’t be allowed to deploy. Extensive preventive measures include building a small, highly cohesive unit that trusts each other and its leaders. Marines are trained on mental health issues through a Combat Operational Stress Continuum. They learn to recognize and self-monitor using a color-coded system. Green represents one’s state of mind when sitting around relaxing. But the stress continuum progresses through yellow, orange and red, indicating intensity of problems.” Judy Erickson, “Marine Corps Wages War on PTSD” From http://camppendleton.patch.com/articles/marine-corps-wages-war-on-ptsd, Accessed 11/15/12.

[22] “One of the many organizations that research PTSD and brain injuries, and look for interventions is the Naval Center for Combat Operational Stress Control, the research and education arm in San Diego. The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury in Washington, D.C., looks at the bigger picture for prevention and treatment.” Judy Erickson, “Marine Corps Wages War on PTSD” From http://camppendleton.patch.com/articles/marine-corps-wages-war-on-ptsd, Accessed 11/15/12.

[23] Judy Erickson, “Marine Corps Wages War on PTSD” From http://camppendleton.patch.com/articles/marine-corps-wages-war-on-ptsd, Accessed 11/15/12.

[24] According to U.S. Navy Commander Charles Benson, psychiatrist for the 1st Marine Division operational forces at Camp Pendleton. Judy Erickson, “Marine Corps Wages War on PTSD” From http://camppendleton.patch.com/articles/marine-corps-wages-war-on-ptsd, Accessed 11/15/12.

[25] Though a recent scathing report by the Department of Defense disputes the effectiveness of military treatment of PTSD. Cf. Patricia Kime, “Report: DoD does not know if PTSD programs work” Marine Corps Times 7/13/2012. http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2012/07/military-report-dod-va-ptsd-programs-effectiveness-071312/ Posted : Friday Jul 13, 2012 13:08:21 EDT, Accessed 11/15/12.

[26] Judy Erickson, “Marine Corps Wages War on PTSD” From http://camppendleton.patch.com/articles/marine-corps-wages-war-on-ptsd, Accessed 11/15/12.

[27] Judy Erickson, “Marine Corps Wages War on PTSD” From http://camppendleton.patch.com/articles/marine-corps-wages-war-on-ptsd, Accessed 11/15/12.

[28] Cpl. Damany S. Coleman, “Camp Lejeune to receive premier facility for TBI, PTSD treatment, research facility,” From Camp Lejeune Globe, Posted June 21, 2012. http://www.camplejeuneglobe.com/news/inside_lejeune/article_e2ed138a-bae9-11e1-a475-001a4bcf887a.html

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