We didn’t get into Kuwait until mid-February, 2003. Then all we did was just mope around in tents and hate life, bored out of our minds, waiting to go north, or wondering IF we’d even go north. Then they issued us our MOPP gear[mission-oriented protective posture chemical warfare clothing] – which was woodland camouflage. It was the stupidest thing you’d ever see. A bunch of Marines in desert camouflage, huddled under tan cammie netting, wearing woodland camouflage. Not only did it look idiotic, but it absorbed all the heat, too. One night I looked out and we could see all the scud missiles flying over and around us. I pretty much decided right then that I wasn’t coming home. Actually, it made me a better Marine. I figured I was dead, so mission really came first.
We started pushing north on March 19th, moving towards Al Nasariyah. We rode in ridiculously long convoys right up highway one. In southern Iraq, the whole highway was littered with blown out cars with the bodies burned and slumped over the steering column. There were oil rigs billowing smoke and fire in the distance, darkening the horizon in all directions. Whenever we drove pass little villages, we could see that half of the buildings were leveled and some were still on fire. There were refugees everywhere – all trying to get down into Kuwait. Before we saw them we were joking and just being stupid as usual, but when we saw them, everybody grew silent. I remember precisely what my buddy said then: “I know why we’re here now,” he said. It was a good way to put it, and we all agreed. We felt so sorry for them. They had nothing. I was thankful to be an American.
As we rode out of the total desert of the south, we started getting shot at a lot. We’d be just driving along, and then these Bedouins would pop up from behind the berms and fire a few potshots at us. Then they’d disappear. We weren’t really allowed to shoot back at them, which was bullshit. They were more irritating than threatening, though. They couldn’t shoot worth a damn.
One day we halted and set up camp some distance off of highway one. They’d put us next to a minefield for some reason. EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] had put out those signs that said don’t advance beyond this point or something. Way out in the minefield, one lone camel wandered around lost. And for reasons I cannot explain, they ordered us to load up a humvee and drive into the minefield to chase away the camel. I remember thinking, “hmm. Here’s a whole humvee full of Marines, driving through a minefield, just to chase away a camel. This is absolute bullshit.” And it was, too. If the camel was that disruptive, just shoot it. It’s not as valuable as a truckload of Marines. We got pretty close to it, too. It had the largest lips I’ve ever seen on an animal. It was pretty weird.
Right before we drove through Nasariyah, we’re driving along and suddenly we feel this enormous gust of wind, then we see a literal wall of dust and sand coming at us from the north. Everybody’s screaming, “get in your bivvie. Get in your bivvie.” And a moment later, we get hit with this sand and dust storm that permeated everything, filled our clothes and gear with shit, and choked us all day. We hunkered down for hours in this – completely blinded. Everybody was filthy and we looked like hell. Then it poured rain for the next day and a half. It was so bad we’d get vehicles stuck in the mud and have to abandon them, put all our crap in other trucks and keep going. Our convoy got split up into three groups by accident, got stuck a lot, and then the rain suddenly stopped. That was it. Now everything was covered in a layer of mud. We looked like pigs.
When we were just south of Nasariyah, we were out in the middle of nowhere and we got mortared badly. They walked the rounds all up and down the convoy, and we didn’t have much of anywhere to take cover. I didn’t get hit, but I did get knocked out and got a concussion from one. Somehow the shrapnel didn’t hit me. We had a couple of guys get shrapnel in the arms, and one of my buddies now has permanent damage to his frontal lobe. I think he’s a vegetable, actually.
We rolled through Nasariyah just after the initial forces pushed through, and it was still bad. We were rolling through streets littered with debris, bodies, burned-out cars and buildings, and all the sudden we ambushed from all sides by small arms. I remember like it was in slow motion. The gunners on the 50s and on the mark [Mk-19, 40mm grenade machine gun] never slowed down. You could feel the rounds pinging off the humvees, too. We were firing constantly, just trying to keep their heads down a little. There were guys in the windows, guys on the roofs, ducking into the alleys. Everywhere. But Nasariyah wasn’t our mission. We were supposed to get our convoy to northern Iraq. We had to keep going. I remember seeing bodies of Marines lying in the streets.
Not long after, we were going to cross the river, but because almost all the bridges were blown out, we all waited for hours in a traffic jam of military vehicles. Hundreds of them. We were just stopped in the wide open, parked. I remember wondering when we’d get attacked. Not if, but when. That was when I started crapping blood. I had doc check me over, and he said, “Dave, you’re looking kind of yellow, like you’re jaundiced. How do you feel?”
I told him I felt just fine, which was true. I guess between all the adrenalin and whatnot, the only symptom I was showing was the blood in my stools. I was still hyped up from the combat, I guess.
“Am I okay, though?” I asked him.
“Yeah, just be careful. Keep an eye on your condition” he told me. I was relived; I didn’t want to leave. I’d feel like I was abandoning my family. Some crusty gunny [gunnery sergeant – E-7] laughed at me and said, “Live to fight another day; you can die then.” It was funny at the time, but now that I think about it, it’s a really screwed up thing to say.
Eventually we crossed the river and headed up to Tikrit, and while we were supposed to stay there for awhile, we only did couple days of patrols in the city. It wasn’t much, but it was long enough for my buddy Jordan to get killed by a sniper round to the neck – right in front of all of us. It was pretty rough.
Next thing I know, we’re out on a patrol and I just collapsed. I guess my body decided it had had enough abuse. My eyes were completely yellow, I was bleeding from my mouth, my ass, and the blood was pooling everywhere. My platoon sergeant says, “Dave, you’re getting medevaced.”
“Like hell I am” I shot back. I guess I shouldn’t have been saying that to a staff sergeant, but whatever. He got quiet and told me, “You can either get out of here with a perfect record, or you can get out of here with an NJP [non-judicial punishment]. Either way, you’re going.” So I went; I had to, but I felt like I was betraying everybody.
They had to drag me to the CH-53, since I was so weak I couldn’t walk. I was still bleeding from everywhere, too. As we were flying south, you could hear the rounds hitting the chopper and then the gunners would engage them back, so there was brass flying all over the troop area and making a mess.. I had an IV in both arms and was just lying on a stretcher, feeling helpless.
They’d switch us from chopper to chopper because of refueling issues, and eventually we landed in Basra [southern Iraq], where they dropped me outside of a hospital tent. They were so packed with people that they couldn’t even put me inside, out of the sun. They just started stacking us outside. Well, the base got rocketed and there I was, too weak to stand, just lying on a stretcher in the open, IVs in each arm, feeling completely vulnerable. I felt like a paper target on a shooting range, though. Like it was only a matter of time. Somehow, I didn’t get hit.
But the British took a bunch of casualties from the rockets, so they stacked them outside the tent with me – lining up like bodies just waiting to die. And the British guy right next to me did, too. He was gasping for air. All I could do was watch him go. Just watch him go… He’d try to moan or speak, and instead he’d just gurgle. Little by little, he got weaker and just died right there. Nobody came out to help us, not him, not the other British wounded, not any of us. They were too busy with the wounded guys inside I guess. I was completely alone, just lying on a stretcher outside a tent. Nobody talked to us, and I didn’t know anybody anyway.
Finally they put me on another chopper and fly me Kuwait, and then on another chopper out to sea – to get on the Comfort [hospital ship]. While we were flying along out to the ship the bird hit some sort of air pocket and started fishtailing. We dropped fast and hard, like we were going to crash. One of my IVs ripped out of my arm then; I still have the scar from it. I remember looking at the crew chief and he was grabbing a hold on anything he could and he was mouthing ‘oh shit, oh shit.” He caught me staring at him, though, and I guess he saw how terrified I looked. I really got to give him credit. He managed to pull off a smile and mouthed the words, “we’re gonna be fine.” I needed to hear that right then. I was scared out of my wits, sick as hell, doped out of my mind, and convinced we were going to crash, too.
When we landed on the Comfort, they put me in quarantine with all the other guys who had crazy, undiagnosed illnesses. I heard a lot of screaming and moaning, and all around me were stretchers with the sheets pulled completely over and covered in blood. As they started to work on me, they cut off all my clothes since they didn’t want to pull out my IVs. They cut my boot laces and pulled my boots, cut my trousers, then my blouse too. Then they ran me through the shower, and all I remember was this huge puddle of mud and filth in the drain as they washed me off. I was completely disgusting after that sand storm, all the rain, and just riding in an open humvee for hundreds of miles.
I stayed in quarantine for two weeks. They wouldn’t let me eat with anybody, talk to anybody outside of quarantine; nothing. Then they gave me a weird diagnosis. Apparently I had jaundice, jaundice, hepatitis A, anemia, and I’d lost 35% of function in my kidneys and liver and my intestines were so inflamed that they weren’t working at all. Why? They had no idea really, besides exposure to some unknown toxin. That’s all they could tell me.
When they had me stabilized, they announced that they didn’t have the right equipment to treat me, so they flew me back into Kuwait, then to Rhoda, Spain, where I stayed a month. After that, as I slowly improved, they flew me to Bethesda, then back to Camp Pendleton. Then they announced they were going to discharge me for a personality disorder; I have no idea why. I asked them why, after I was medevaced from a combat zone for toxin exposure, why they were going to kick me out for a personality disorder. Nobody could give me a good answer, obviously. They ended up giving me a medical discharge under honorable conditions in the end, and that’s the end of my Marine Corps story.
Three years later, I was sitting in a History of Africa, Post 1800s class in college, and the professor asked us what we thought of war. Nobody answered. “What do you all think of war,” he asked again, and then he singled me out, knowing that I was a vet. “Dave, what do YOU think of war.” So I told him.
“Sir, I think war is evil but necessary, awful but productive, unfortunate but essential, and for as long as humankind continues to exist, war will continue also. It was needed to stop people like Hitler and depose Tojo, to halt Napoleon, and to end slavery. It’s not perfect, and it’s full of atrocities, but it serves a valuable purpose.”
You know what he said back to me? He seriously said, “I don’t agree with you. I think your opinion is invalid. What do you know of war?”
So I responded: “Sir, I have been in combat, and I have lost friends. I have seen men do horrible things to innocent people. I have seen others blow themselves up for their cause and take children with them. I have had friends shot and killed in front of me and seen soldiers bleed out unattended as I, too, lay helpless on a stretcher next to them. I have been medically evacuated from Iraq and nearly shot down, nearly crashed, and had IVs ripped from my arms. I have been quarantined on a hospital ship and watched more death around me. I have been diagnosed with diseases most people have never heard of and nobody can explain how I got them. I have been exposed to foreign toxins that to this day continue to affect me and prevent me from living normal life. I have been discharged from the Marine Corps for being permanently and totally disabled, and I can’t continue with the life I once had. I can hardly walk some days from the pain. I have a whole bag of medications I take daily.
"After I was discharged and my unit went back for a second tour, I lost more friends than I did on the first. One friend survived two tours and then came back and killed himself. Part of me died over there, yet part of me was awakened. I volunteered for what I did, as did we all, and even after all my medical problems, I tried to go back again. I have watched my father kill somebody in front of me and seen a child killed by stray bullets from criminals. I have seen horrible things, and I have seen war. Not only that, I have experienced it, too. Sir, what war have YOU survived?"
When I finished, he just shook his head and turned his back to me. So I got up and walked out. I couldn't believe he said that...
If I don’t know about war and tragedy, then who does?
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved