Saturday, June 6, 2009

When Men Made History

One of the more enjoyable experiences of my third tour in Iraq was the opportunity to fire an MG3 machinegun, a weapon notorious for its high rate of fire, deadly accuracy, and superb reliability. Of all the heavy weapons I’ve fired, the MG3 unquestionably stands as my favorite.

Today, however, I am reminded of a more tragic aspect of this weapon. Its near-identical predecessor, the MG42, was one of the primary weapons whose withering fire was used to pin down allied troops on the beaches of Normandy exactly 65 years ago. This weapon’s fire, combined with that of mortars and artillery, killed thousands of allied soldiers wading through the surf to the beachhead.

When I look at this photograph, I wonder what was running through these young men’s minds as they crouched low, waiting to hit the sand. I wonder how many were seasick, how many were praying, how many, having just heard General Eisenhower’s epic speech to the invasion force, were firmly convinced they weren’t going to live through the day. I also wonder how many of them were right.

In the culmination of months of planning and astounding military preparation, British, Canadian, and American soldiers sailed across the English Channel from England and simultaneously hit five French beaches at 0630 on Tuesday, June 6th, 1944. Naval guns and allied planes were still bombing Nazi fortifications as they approached. The troops’ landing was preceded the night before by thousands of allied paratroopers in a poorly-executed mission that left their ranks scattered and disorganized. Perhaps 40% of these men survived the week behind enemy lines.

Waves of British infantry hit Sword beach with relatively light casualties and while falling short of their desired objective for the day, were firmly entrenched by the time the second and third waves of soldiers hit the sand. To their west, the Canadians landed on Juno beach under heavy fire. The morning’s bombardment had been ineffective in destroying Nazi positions. Unscathed, the Germans unleashed hell on the Canadians. More than half of the first wave died, but by the end of the day they had advanced nearly 15 kilometers and landed more than 15,000 Canadian troops. The Canadians fought fiercely, and were successful.

Further west, the British encountered heavy casualties at Gold beach, due mostly to a delay in their armored support. Despite their staggering losses and encountering a town heavily fortified by the Nazis, they had advanced far inland by the end of the day. Aside from the Canadians at Juno, the British at Gold were closest to achieving their D-day objectives.

To the far west, the Americans hit Utah beach with minimal resistance, yet still sustained 197 soldiers killed. By the evening, 23,000 troops had landed there, providing the foothold the allies needed in France to maintain their momentum.

The worst beach, however, was Omaha, which was assigned to the Americans. With most Nazi fortifications undamaged despite heavy bombardment, the first wave of soldiers was virtually slaughtered outright. Within ten minutes of landing, every officer and NCO was either dead or lay wounded. The official record states that “it became a struggle for survival and rescue,” not the high-paced assault that was originally intended. General Eisenhower actually considered evacuating the beach altogether, but eventually chose to persist.

Chaplain Burkhalter, an Army lieutenant who landed among the first wave, stated it matter-of-factly:

"The enemy had a long time to fix up the beach. The beach was covered with large pebbles to prevent tank movements, and mines were everywhere. The enemy was well dug in and had set up well prepared positions for machine guns and had well chosen places for sniping. Everything was to their advantage and to our disadvantage, except one thing, the righteous cause for which we are fighting - liberation and freedom. For the moment our advantage was in the abstract and theirs was in the concrete. The beach was spotted with dead and wounded men. I passed one man whose foot had been blown completely off. Another soldier lying close by was suffering from several injuries; his foot was ripped and distorted until it didn't look much like a foot. Another I passed was lying very still, flat on his back, covered in blood. Bodies of injured men all around. Sad and horrible sights were plentiful."

Of the sixteen allied tanks landed on Omaha that day, only two survived. The remainder were destroyed by the heavy Nazi fire. At one point, the troops were so badly pinned on the beachhead by German 75mm guns that destroyers were ordered to move in as close as they could to the beach and provide direct naval gun support to the men trapped in the surf. One ship, the Frankford, made full speed for the beach itself. Many on the beach thought the captain was intending to beach her. But just before grinding to a halt into the channel sand, she cut hard west and began decimating the coastline with her main guns.

In the surf, a single disabled tank still fired at targets on the cliff face. Gunners on the Frankford, following the lead of the lone tank, began obliterating whatever fortifications the tank targeted. As she steamed past the beach, rather than heading back into the channel to come about again, the Frankford ground her screws into full reverse and continued firing along the coastline. There were men to save, and her crew would do everything in their power to help them. Many other destroyers ran aground acting similarly.

On the beaches, crouched behind bodies of fallen comrades and huddled beneath beach obstacles, the situation was dire. The ocean itself was red with the blood of the dead. Fish flopped in the surf, stunned or killed by the concussive waves of artillery from both sides. A young Army colonel strolled forlornly through the ranks and declared, “Gentlemen, we are being killed here on the beaches; let's move inland and be killed there.” And they pushed forward. Few in that first wave survived.

And I think about the MG42 machinegun again, and wonder how I would have acted when faced with a near-inevitability of death. I wonder if I would have crouched behind the men in front of me and hoped they were hit instead of me. I wonder if I would possess the fortitude to do what they did. I wonder if I would even have time to think about it.

There were bigger battles fought in that great war, by far. There were heavier casualties over smaller plots of land. There was astounding heroism in innumerable battlefields against insurmountable odds, and not just on the beaches of Normandy. And in the grand scheme of the war, this was a relatively minor event.

But its historical significance does not go unnoticed. These were waves of young men who, for a cause they barely grasped, ran into a hail of bullets for millions they would never meet. Yet it is the sacrifices and the bravery of these few that brought an entire continent out of bondage.

And now, sixty-five years later, as the veterans of this great battle fade quickly into history and legend, those who fell at Normandy and throughout Europe lay there still. There are fields of well over 100,000 small marble crosses resting on acres of lawns inside perfectly-tended hedges. They fell to purchase countries they would never inhabit, for strangers, for foreigners, for men and women who thirsted for freedom. And those they freed still remember. No single nation is indebted to them, but a continent. They were our youth, our finest and greatest generation, and they bravely dismantled evil.

Nobody can love God better than when he is looking death square in the face and talks to God and then sees God come to the rescue. As I look back through hectic days just gone by to that hellish beach I agree with Ernie Pyle, that it was a pure miracle we even took the beach at all." Yes, there were a lot of miracles on the beach that day. God was on the beach D-Day; I know He was because I was talking with Him.

-2nd Lt Burkhalter, Chaplain, US Army, 6 August, 1944

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, June 5, 2009

For Consideration

We were on base in Habbaniyah one day getting some work done when, without warning, the ground shook with an enormous explosion. Of all the guys in my unit at that time, I had the most experience with explosives, and I estimated that the explosion was within a kilometer, and absolutely huge. After all, even over half a click away, the concussive wave had enough force to ruffle our clothing like a gale force wind. It may not have been on base, but it was close. I asked my staff sergeant if we could check it out, and to my surprise, he declined. I kept pestering him until he relented.

When we drove to the far side of the base we encountered utter chaos. Whether the explosion was on-base or not I still didn’t know, but all the Iraqi casualties were being evacuated to the Iraqi Army clinic adjacent to our compound. It was a bloodbath.

In a panic, the Iraqi soldiers would back up a truck full of casualties to the clinic steps and start unloading. Some climbed down on their own, but a number were carried on stretchers. Several more were wrapped in blankets and already dead. As they were unloaded, another truck would pull up with more injured. The drivers, in a panic to unload their casualties as quickly as they could, were unintentionally running over the line of bodies slowly accumulating at the edge of the lot. Almost everybody was yelling at everybody else, too. We had grabbed gloves and started picking up blood-soaked bandages from the front steps of the clinic. A lot of the patients had been treated, and died, before they had even made it inside the clinic.

My medic friend was working on a little girl that had taken some shrapnel in her ribcage and probably into lungs. Every time he bent over and tried to properly assess her injuries, the older Iraqi man behind him would start yelling and impatiently pushing Doc to look at him first. His only injury was a small cut to his hand. I guess as an old man in a society that respects its elders above all others, he figured he deserved to be treated first.

Doc kept trying to explain to him that the little girl needed treatment first because she had more serious injuries, but the older man either didn’t understand or didn’t care. The cut on his hand took precedence, at least in his mind. After yelling at him again to wait for treatment like everybody else, Doc turned back to the little girl and discovered she had died. In frustration, he moved on to another patient and left the older man there to complain to some other doc.

As they finished transporting all the casualties to the clinic, it started to become clear just how many Iraqis had died. The docs wrapped the rest of the bodies in old, green sleeping bags and stacked them outside the clinic with the rest of the run-over ones. You could always tell which bags had children in them since they looked mostly empty.

We didn’t know the exact number until later, but the final count was 41 killed, including 15 women and children. More than 140 were injured, mostly as they were praying in a nearby mosque, working at the police station right across the road, or shopping at any of the dozens of shops, grocers, or poultry stalls also close by. The bomb had been a large Mercedes truck filled with explosives and then covered with a layer of large quarry stones to hide the bomb. The stones, of course, just made for more projectiles.

Because it happened right outside the wire, the Iraqis evacuated all the casualties into the Iraqi Army clinic, and an “all hands” alert was issued to any US or Iraqi medical personnel on the entire base. The Marines even scrambled emergency convoys to another nearby US base with a better trauma hospital. The severest casualties were choppered out from over there. We did everything we could. It still didn’t seem like much, though.

Whenever people here in the States loudly insist that we should just leave Iraq and forget about it, I think about the car bomb in Habbaniyah. I think about my friends and I on the front steps of the clinic, using squeegees and buckets of water to remove the pools of blood. I remember the line of sleeping bags holding all the bodies and I think of Doc and the little girl that died while he was working on her. I remember all four branches of the US military aiding the Iraqi Army and all of us doing everything in our power to help the injured and dying.

I believe that no human being, regardless of race, creed or ethic, should live in fear of such an attack as that one in Habbaniyah. And those who sincerely endorse us leaving Iraq and thus leaving the Iraqis to endure this sort of violence need to seriously examine themselves … and hope they find a soul.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Open Letter

Below is a letter written to stateside school children in 2007.

Habbaniyah, Iraq:

Imagine being born into a country and a culture that often requires that you quit school before you’ve completed the 5th grade. This isn’t because your parents can’t afford school, but rather because they need you to work – so the whole family can eat. And you spend the next ten years standing or sitting on a small hill of dirt and ensuring that your flock of cattle, goats, or sheep don’t wander off. Periodically, you move them from one brown patch of vegetation to a less brown one.

You have power for a few hours every day. You have one set of clothing. You draw water from a well or from the river, and it’s contaminated. You work from sunup to sunset.

Your future prospects are bleak. In you spare time, you’ve managed to learn to read, and you hope to go to college, but your parents are too afraid that you will be killed by bombs at the university and so they don’t let you go.

At least one of your friends has died like this – randomly gunned down or bombed while they went about their daily lives.

Iraq is not a country of great prospects. It is not a country of hope. At present, it is a country of mere survival. You worry about your next meal, being gunned down in the street or finding work. It is a country of fear. We are laboring tirelessly to change this.

We, as Americans, are more blessed that we can possibly know. We live in relative safety. We typically don’t worry about being shot while taking a walk outside our homes, while shopping or while worshipping. Americans have a future, and the luxury to dream, pursue, and realize those aspirations. And it is our dream that others be afforded similar hope. This is why we are here. To help ensure the safety and peace of a country that has known oppression and despotism for countless years.

But this is an investment, and not without cost. It separates husbands from wives, sons from fathers, and tragically, there are a few that will never return to the arms of those that loved them. Yet we cannot quit. We cannot give up and leave outright violence to seize the day. Why? Because the American dream is that others can dream, too.

So, far from home, we ask you for but one thing – your prayers. We ask that you pray for our wellbeing, for our success, that we find, capture, or eliminate the enemy wreaking havoc, and that in short order we may safely return to our homes and lives. For a love of country we left those we love, and it is to them that we wish to return. Pray for our efforts, and that we will have incomprehensible success.

Love your families. Love your lives. You may not like school, but be glad you know how to read. You may wish to spend your day doing other things, but be glad that at a tender age you aren’t spending it trying to feed your parents and siblings. It is our prayer as soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that our work will ensure that none of you are ever asked to serve here.

We pray that you all will be aware of your rich blessing. That you will recognize your near boundless freedom before its absence makes you aware of what you lost. Pray for us even as we pray for you.

So, greetings from the desert, where the summer sun, even now, begins to redden the backs of our necks and leaves us parched. We wish you well, and hope we will rejoin you stateside before we know it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 1, 2009

Mortar Mondays

We used to get mortared all the time on our base – especially when we first got there. The unit that we relieved never did much about it, so it basically encouraged the insurgents to keep doing. The guys on base just hung out in bunkers and waited for it to pass. To them, Monday was “Mortar Monday.” That didn’t fly with our unit, though. When the insurgents tried mortaring us, we’d fire back with everything we had – almost immediately. Our own 81mm mortars, 120mm mortars, and often howitzers, too. After awhile, it diminished a bit. But they'd still lobbed rounds at us here and there.

A lot of guys never got used to it, so the second they heard some sort of thud or explosion, they’d instinctively grab all their gear and sprint for bunkers. I guess most of them had been close enough to an impact to take it seriously. We found it more annoying than anything else. Compared to the IEDs we were getting hit with, the mortars seemed like firecrackers.

It got bad enough that whenever we started taking incoming, we’d all just slowly set down our books, begrudgingly pause our movies, and head to the bunkers. The only reason we ran at all was because they were yelling at us to. Frankly, we were almost as safe in our buildings as we were in the bunkers. And we had to dash some distance out in the open just to get there. We would have slept through a number of attacks if people hadn’t been beating down our doors and screaming at us. We just got used to it. Things blew up a lot. That’s the way it was…

I remember we’d just arrived back on base after a 24 hour period in and out of “contact.” We’d had a couple guys hit, lost a vehicle to an RPG round, and also got into some pretty serious firefights. When we finally made it back to base, we were tired, cranky, hungry, and all we wanted to do was eat and rack out for a few hours. It was a holiday or something though, so the chow hall was serving halfway edible food – crab legs.

They never thought it through completely, though. We had cheap plastic silverware that broke whenever you tried to pry open the crab legs, so a lot of guys would just bite them, pick at them, or beat them on the table in frustration. I always used my Leatherman, which may or may not have even been clean. But it worked perfectly.

So we’re sitting there, and we start getting mortared again. It wasn’t really close, so while everybody is running for the doors, knocking over chairs and fleeing in terror, I was just sitting there. I wasn’t leaving. I was hungry, the mortars weren’t near enough to bother me, and I wanted to finish my crab legs. As some staff sergeant ran by and said something like, “devildog, you need to get your ass into the bunker; got it?” I just sort of looked at him wearily, Leatherman in one hand, crab parts in the other, butter dribbling off my chin, and then I answered:

“I’m finishing my crab legs. I’m hungry. I don’t even care about the mortars. I just wanna eat.”

Sure enough, I got yelled at for it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 31, 2009

To Be Heard

I’ve never really liked it when people come up and tell me thank you or try to shake my hand. I can’t prove it, and maybe I’m being too harsh, but I think a lot of them are condescending. Somehow, thanking me “makes it all better” or something. And with a lot of them, you can tell that they’re not thanking you because they’re thankful at all. They’re shaking your hand because they feel so badly for how the Vietnam veterans were treated. They’re trying to get over their guilt. So supposedly shaking my hand just erases the abuses endured by an entire generation of veterans? No way. I actually don’t usually even talk about being in the military. It’s my private life, and my private story – not something I’m trying to get attention for doing.

On Veterans Day one year, I did wear my desert digital trousers and a USMC hoodie with my ribbons on it, but that’s because it’s sort of our day. Besides, the VA director encouraged veterans to wear our medals proudly. I just wore the ribbons to class that day – stuck on my sweatshirt. I walked into class I little late that day so everybody was already there. As I stepped in the door, everybody fell deathly silent and stared at me. And you know, not a single person in that class talked to me for five weeks. Nobody. That sort of bothered me.

Usually, though, I’m minding my own business and things just happen to me. There was a student protest one day on campus – the one where they draw chalk outlines of bodies on the concrete to represent innocent people killed in war. They held this thing two days after my buddy Troy was killed in Iraq, too, so I was pretty frustrated when I saw it. But I was polite. I went up to the lady in charge and told her that while I do understand they message they’re trying to convey, it’s one of the unfortunate aspects of war. People die, innocent people, too. It doesn’t make it right, obviously, but it’s the way war works. She looked pretty annoyed at me for a second, but then I told her that one of my good friends was just killed by an IED over there two days ago. To my surprise, she told me she’s sorry and hugged me, which I thought was pretty respectable.

Then she offered me a piece of chalk and asked if I wanted to write something for him on the sidewalk, so I did. I wrote out his name, “KIA,” and “OIF.” Just as I was finishing, some dude wandered up and asked, “is that your friend?” I told him it was; that he was just killed in Iraq. “Good, I’m glad he’s dead, and your other friends, too. They’re killing innocent women and children.” My friend dragged me away before I could do anything stupid. As we were walking away, he said to me, “Dave, we took an oath to protect these people, even if they’re ignorant, stupid and unappreciative.” As much as it hurts to admit it, he’s right. We served so they could stay innocent.

We had a Veterans Day parade once in town, but there were protesters all over the place waving signs and yelling about all these war crimes we’ve supposedly committed. A bunch of us went over to them and politely asked if they could just leave us alone for ONE day, so they started hollering and chanting at us even louder. Eventually, they just wandered away. I guess their cause is one they get bored of quickly.

A lady told me once that she supported the troops, but not the war. I told her that, since we all volunteered for this, that most of us knew that we’d be going to war, if she was supporting us, she was also supporting our decision to play a part in the war. She rolled her eyes and told me, “you don’t get it.” I didn’t know what else to say. Either you’re for us, or you’re against us.

My professors weren’t much better, either. I was discussing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam with one of them and telling him how even though it was horrible and by no means right, sometimes guys just snap. They lose so many friends and it starts to get to them. Not that it made it acceptable, though. It didn’t. It was still completely wrong. This professor said, “well, it SHOULDN’T happen. And it CAN’T happen.” I told but yeah, but it does. So he glares at me and says, “I know more about war than you do,” which baffled me. How, I asked him… He told me he’s studied war a lot. Right. But I went through one.

Another professor told our class that all the troops joined because they came from economically disadvantaged families and they couldn’t do anything else. Their choices were either poverty, or the alternative of the military. Never mind you’re required to have a college degree to be an officer. Apparently it’s the best we can do. We were all forced in – that’s what he said.

One professor, who was a self-described Marxist, told the whole class that he supports the troops because, like he, they’re the working class. They’re like brothers to him, he says. But then he announces, “I just don’t want them to fight and die in a war based on lies and misinformation. The government is taking advantage of them.” I told him we all volunteered, but he still insisted we’re being fed a bunch of lies and sent off to do the government’s bidding.

There was a girl in one of my classes who said that all the Guantanamo detainees should be released because they’re POWs and the Geneva Conventions say we have to let them go. I pointed out that the Geneva Conventions state that POWs are released at the END of the war and that this one is still going on. “You’d want OUR guys released, wouldn’t you?” Sure, I told her, but they’re not taking POWs. They’re beheading our guys, burning their bodies, and hanging their desecrated corpses in the cities. They don’t have any POWs to exchange. “Well, we still support our POWs,” she said. “We wear bracelets and say prayers for them.” I told her, “how about you send our guys some socks, or something. Bracelets aren’t going to bring us home. How about you write your congressman and demand that they give us better armor. Something like that.” She rolled her eyes at me.

You know, the person that’s been the nicest to me was actually my yoga instructor. A few weeks after I had a seizure, passed out, and screamed some stuff about Iraq, she invited me to Thanksgiving at her house with a bunch of other people. I was flattered, so I figured I’d stop by. We were sitting there alone and she asked me, “you were in the military, weren’t you?” I told her I was. Then she gently asks if she could ask me a few questions about my service; I said she could.

She didn’t ask me anything rude like did I kill anybody. She didn’t ask me about weapons of mass destruction, or about politics. She just asked about my experiences. She noticed that I was getting tense as I answered, so she sat behind me, wrapped me carefully in a bear hug, and quietly told me to breathe with her – slowly and deeply. It worked, actually, and I talked to her for a long time. It felt good to just have somebody listen.

When I was done talking, she simply said, “my opinions on the war aren’t important. I know you followed your heart, that you believe in what you did, and I also know that you’re a good man. You have a good heart. That’s all that really matters. You did a good thing.” I think that was the first time somebody had actually listened to me. It’s all I really wanted.

I don’t want people to feel sorry for us, or to apologize like the government or the military dealt us some great injustice. They didn’t. We volunteered to do what we did, and we believed in it. All we want, all I want is for somebody to listen to my story and not judge me. But it only happens rarely. It’s like we have to fight another war when we get back – one just to be heard.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved