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10 Years Later…

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Then…

In 2003, America began its first initial push into Iraq. I remember I was still in college at the time, taking courses at Kent State University for business. Shortly before September 11, 2001, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. Since I was still 17, my parents had to sign an underage waver giving me permission. I remember getting ready for boot camp at the recruiting center in Ravenna, Ohio. I was lucky enough to have a little more than a year to get ready and prior to June 2001 I left right after high school ended and while others were walking across the graduation deck, I was in Paris Island South Carolina getting screamed at by muscular drill instructors who taught me how to survive in combat, breaking me down and then building me back up the Marine Corps. way. The things that stuck out for me at recruit training were the swim qual and of course the Crucible. A lot of people ask me if boot camp was physically demanding, I would say yes but not as much as it is mentally demanding. Imagine 3 drill instructors waking you up at 3am and telling you to carry all of your shit and your bunks and remake them outside in the sand pit, or being told to throw the contents of your footlocker into the middle of the room and mix them up with everyone else and then go find all of your shit before the DI counts to zero. The crucible was three days of no sleep and obstacles along with a 25 mile hike with full gear. I graduated from boot camp and was assigned to 3rd Btn. 25th Marines as an 0341 (Mortarman).

When 9/11 happened, it was just a matter of time before our unit got its orders to be deployed to Iraq. I was trying to finish up college and got until my last semester when we got the call. Prior to that, I was waiting on the edge of my seat for almost 4 long years until they called me, it was very nerve-wracking to say the least. Some days I wished they would just freaking call me up already. So in January 2005, 3/25 was activated and order to go to Iraq. We spent 3 months at 29 Palms in California and then left in March 2005. After my tour in Iraq, in 2006 I wrote and published a journal style memoir about my time in Iraq called Every Other Four and recorded the events that 3/25 Marines experienced day-to-day.

Some Americans wonder whether going to Iraq was worth it and if we are safer since prior to going to Iraq. In my opinion, I think we are safer from a strategic standpoint in that Iraq harbored terrorists including al-Qaeda and mainly the Mujahideen (Arabic: مجاهد‎ muǧāhid, nominative plural مجاهدون muǧāhidūn, oblique plural مجاهدين muǧāhidīn “strugglers” or “people doing jihad”) network joined by mostly disgruntled Bath party members and other radical Muslims. A recent poll was conducted and found that 58% of Americans think that America is now safer having gone into Iraq in 2003 10 years later. Personally, I feel that our units efforts had made a significant difference to our lives and to life in the Middle East. Most significantly, 3/25:

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Map of Iraq

•3/25 secured Syrian Border

• Confirmed Enemy Kills: 125

• Detained and Captured: 39+

• Seized numerous weapons caches containing, IEDs, machine guns, rockets, mortars and various other explosive devices

•Trained Iraqi Army to secure democracy in the region

•Promoted peace and stability in civilian areas

46 Marines and 2 Navy were killed

Now…

It’s been about eight years since our unit got back from Iraq. I have been hearing stories about vets having trouble adjusting to life after their tours like Marine Corps Corporal Jason King (10 Years Later – Marine Corps Corporal Jason King) and Marine Seargent Litz. Cpl. King came back from Iraq, lost his job, house, wife, kid, and basically everything he had before the war. I also had some trouble adjusting and I am currently attending bi-weekly support group meetings called Warriors Journey Home and a Wednesday group at the VA in Akron, Ohio. Some of the problems I had were not being able to stop thinking of what happened while we were there and still even eight years later there are still little things that I notice, like being on guard, black and white thinking, being too passive and blindly following orders. Still, things are better than when I first returned in 2005, I remember driving without my headlines, snapping at people for no reason, irritability, trying to sleep more than 4 hours at a time, feeling numb and isolated. Not that I don’t feel some of this now, but I can say things are getting better just because I have learned how to cope with them. I am grateful to all who still remember our sacrifices in Iraq, to my family and wife Angela Wojtecki and for my Vet brothers for helping me through.

If you are feeling some of these things and are having some trouble adjusting you are not alone. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is common among many combat vets. In fact, one in five Veterans that came back from Iraq have it.  It’s been on my back for several years now, just keep moving forward and remember to take things one day at a time, do rely too much on self (there are people who want to help you), and talk about things with people you care about, they will understand.

-Cpl. Wojo

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Souvenir Gallery

All photography by Sgt. Daniel Dmytriw, Marine Veteran of Weapons Co. 3/25.

Bayonet

The story is known all to well. A man walks for days in the desert. Tired, exhausted and thirsty he comes to grips with the fact that he may not make it to nourishment alive. Suddenly a river of water appears on the horizon. The man uses the last ounce of energy he has to reach it, but the last hope he has, just within reach does not exist. This is kind of like the feeling that came to mind when our Mobile Assault Platoon (MAP) team traveled to a distant “Oasis” in the desert, a 20-30 square mile stretch of farmland in the middle of an otherwise barren desert of Iraq. It was the third or fourth day of searching the area for weapons and ordinance. The residences there, scarcely spread out over the island like mirage, mostly housed farmers. It is still a wonder how the inhabitants of this area sustain themselves with no other resources in site, aside from wheat fields, sunflowers and the neighboring Euphrates River. Everyone was now bitching up a storm, morale was low, especially among the 03’s who had to hump the entire stretch of land,  leaving no stone unturned and finding numerous weapons caches. The operation know as “Cache Sweep” was dragging on and on; the ability to call home and get a shower just within reach but never making it.

MAP 8’s (or as we liked to call ourselves “Crazy 8”) Humvees stopped next to a small farmer’s house and dismounted the vehicles for a routine sweep for weapons. Only a Marine that has been to Iraq would understand the mentality and demeanor of some Iraqis. It was as if though the guy had thought we were aliens coming to abduct him with our highly technological equipment, body armor, Kevlar and M-16’s. Two kids run out of the house and start approaching the high back where I am sitting. All of a sudden our gunner LCpl Rick Turner starts trying to talk to the kids, “Do you know what a frisbee is? FRISBEE, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? Here!” Turner shouts as he looks as his military issued Arabic to English dictionary.

LCpl Turner throws the frisbee and the kids watch it whiz by, absolutely clueless about what it is. There is a strange-looking Iraqi man, probably one of the brothers of the house, who was standing off to the side talking to one of his other brothers. They both were dressed in American cloths. A strange combination of sweat pants with early 90’s flannel shirts. From their body language they looked pissed off that we were there. All of a sudden Cpl. Stalker and others in Crazy 8 walk out of the house with some AK-47 rifles, grenades and other weapons, “Do you need these grenades for sheep herding?!?” Stalker shouts.

One of the items that we confiscated from the farm was this bayonet for an AK-47. I’m not quite sure what these Iraqi farmers were doing with it, but I would have to guess at one point, along with the majority of other Iraqis, were in the military and it was probably something the guy just hung on to. We could only dream of what they needed all this shit for. The guy still had the deer in the headlights look, “Why did you lie to us?” Stalker said in his thick southern accent. The truth was we could have arrested the Muj brothers, but we were so far from our base that it would take days to get these knuckleheads to processing, so we took their weapons including the bayonet and moved on, sweeping the rest of the area for ordinance and finding quite a bit over the next several days.

Today, the Bayonet sits on my shelf. I pull it out every once in a while and feel its dulled blade, smell the sand on it and play around with its pliers the blade and the sheath made designed for cutting concertina wire. A constant reminder to me of that story you always hear of that hopeless man in the desert.

HEDP Round

Shortly after a tank was blown up by an IED outside of Haqlaniyah, MAP 1 was assigned to overwatch positions within range of the crash site. I was assigned to the Humvee next to a mansion which was equipped with a MK-19 automatic grenade launcher. Having just experienced one of the most awful things in my life, witnessing the death of the Marines in a Humvee explosion, I wasn’t exactly feeling very well. I asked the Doc to give me something, anything to get my mind off things. He of course handed me a Motrin and some water. I swear to God my fucking arm could have been blown off and he still would have handed me a Motrin and water.

I was now up for firewatch. I got up into the turret with the MK-19 and PAS 13 (thermal scope). From my position I could see the mansion to the rear of my POS, just to the front was the crashed tank, its hulk still smoldering.  They were saying it was the type of IED to deliver an extra explosive impact due to the fact that the Muj used a combination of PE4 (like C4), oxygen tanks and old artillery rounds. To my 11 o’clock was the abandoned concrete factory that we just got out of hours earlier.

About 30 minutes into my watch, I was doing a routine scan of the area and saw a white Nissan car / truck (I forget which one) approaching. “Shit!” I yelled. The vehicle commander and others ran over after I described the car. Two MAM’s (Military Aged Males) got out of the vehicle and started fucking with the crash site. I suppose they were hoping to steal some shit from the tank in hopes of selling it. We ended up calling it in to battalion and got the go ahead to go hot. “Light um up!” I heard a voice say from the driver’s side. I racked back the MK-19 and got a round into the chamber. “BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!” The MK-19 fired 4 or 5 rounds in the general direction of the crash site. I kept trying to look for bodies or a crashed vehicle. I don’t think anything was ever confirmed but if I didn’t kill them I sure as hell scared the living shit out of them. One of them got into the vehicle and tried to drive away “BOOM BOOM BOOM” three more rounds. The vehicle started smoking. I picked up one of the empty shell casings,”I’ll keep this to remember”I thought as picked it up and felt it was still hot.

The HEDP round sits in a box with some of my other memorabilia. It is amazing how well you can remember the event just by picking it up, holding it in my hands, reading the writing on the outside of it. Gripping the round extra hard in my hands, I can almost feel the recoil of the MK-19.

Ring Holder

What the hell is this? I thought as I picked up the silver finger welded to the embossed plate. Later I found out it was a ring holder. I imagined what kind of rings were thrown onto the small item maybe near to a large amount of jewelry. Before I took it, it was probably used to hold an Iraqi ring or something similar. I try to imagine what type of person the owner was. Obviously rich and powerful, maybe a woman used it to keep some more important pieces of jewelry. Today it holds my Marine Corps graduation ring. The silver ring holder is tarnished, although I tried to use some silver polish to clean it up a bit a few years back. It looks so out-of-place on my dresser, but its a constant reminder of how different it was over there to say the least.

Brass Plate

One of the items I grabbed when we explored the mansion in Haqlaniyah was a brass plate. I just basically looked around the house for anything that looked valuable and although the house was well picked over, the brass plate stood out to me. What the hell does it say? I wondered as I put it into my cargo pocket. I tried applying some Brasso to it to make it shinier and that seemed to help. Later on that day I showed it to one of the terps (Iraqi interpreters). “Be Patient and Allah will Bless You” he said. Wow, that’s kind of cool, but at the same time kind of ironic. I’m here sitting in this shithole and some plate that I take from some Republican Guard asshole says, Just be patient and you’ll be okay. Okay, it’s a little odd and I think goes along with the whole superstition thing. But, for the rest of the deployment the words rung true. I still keep it as a reminder. Don’t get too worked up about things, keep calm, be patient and God will bless you.

Horseshoe

Shortly before our unit deployed to Iraq in 2005, I kept in touch with a fellow I used to work with from Russia. He used to design security and camera systems during the Soviet Era (I would only guess for the government). The man became good friends with my Dad. They used to hang out in the basement of my parent’s house, sip on Russian Vodka and talk about engineering and technical things above my knowledge level. My Dad ended up recruiting him to assist him at the University where my Dad was a professor. Yurik worked with me at a computer store, where I worked part-time while in high school and my freshman year of college. When Yurik heard of my deployment to Iraq he wanted to come over and have dinner with the family. After a filling meal my Dad, Yurik and I adjourned to the basement where my Dad showed off our proud military family. Portraits of my Uncles and other relatives lined the room. Yurik was truly impressed. He gave my Dad a bottle of Russian Vodka, the kind with the Russian writing on the label, you know, the good stuff.

Yurik reached into his coat pocket and pulled out this horseshoe. He said in a thick Russian accent, “this will bring you luck. Good luck Matthew.” I kept the horseshoe with me, along with other small items as it seemed that the farther into the deployment I got, the more superstitious I became. Don’t take showers after chow, keep your left leg tucked underneath you when you combat drive, keep a rosary with you on the dash, sleep with a bible were among the many odd things that we did that some how attributed to me surviving. Whether it was the horseshoe, the rosary, the St. Michael medallion, pure luck, or coincidence I managed to make it home alive.


-Wojo

FIRAS ABDULLAH

09 June – 11 June 2005 K3 District

I keep thinking what a fucked up couple of days that was. Cpl. Squires, Keeling and Seymour; three great Marines I know did not make it when a fatal IED attack devastated their Humvee. I remember being so incredibly pissed off, having been in that Humvee just minutes before it exploded. I was guarding three detainees we had arrested outside an abandoned concrete factory. I can remember them and they just stared at me, almost as if to say, “hahah they got what they deserved, hahah your next”. It took a lot of self-control and discipline to get through that night. Almost seven years later it’s still pretty fresh in my mind, it scares the shit out of me sometimes, that life is there one minute and the next it’s gone. Today, I think about how unreal it all is.

The Mansion

Shortly after the explosion we escorted the detainees to a nearby mansion at the edge of the city. Things were funny here because there was always one or two gorgeous mansions outside of absolutely terrible living conditions. The story that we got was that the owner was a wealthy republican guardsman that owned the factory here and they used to have parties here for Saddam and other RG. One picture I saw inside the house was a photo of the man sitting by a Hookah with Saddam Hussein. Every few seconds you could get a whiff of the lavender fields in the distance just adjacent to a vineyard. The guy was obviously at one point very loaded, although I also heard that he was killed fighting and his sister inherited this, but had a much more extravagant residence in the green zone in Bagdad. Walking around the house it looked like it had been pretty well looted. All the valuables, jewelry, designer cloths and amenities had been most likely all stolen. I laughed to myself when I went into the bathroom area. Marble floors, very nice silver and brass sinks, a hot tub and then a single “hole” in the ground where the toilet should have been. It just seemed funny to me. The other thing I remember was that one of the infantry companies had been there (Lima Co. I think?) and a bunch of them had been huddled around a large safe. A basket of keys were scattered about on the floor and as everyone lounged around, someone would go up to it and try one of the hundreds of keys that sat there hoping to unlock what we could only guess would be inside. I remember living the good life for a while, a temporary escape from the horrors outside. As we left to go back to our over watch positions I took a number of items, including a strange looking notebook. It was a light reddish color and it was mixed in with other novels, books and torn pages, all in Arabic.

The Notebook

The notebook sits on my bookshelf years later. Yesterday I decided to pull it out and take a look at it. Honestly, it scares the living shit out of me. Take a look at some of the entries. At first, when I found it, it looked more like some Iraqi‘s school notebook with math problems scattered about, some occasional doodles here and there and a couple of pages of practicing how to write your name. But I look at it more in detail —and maybe it’s just my own paranoia— but some of the drawings look like diagrams for how to design bombs and IEDs or at least some educated pieces on how circuits work. If we follow this logic, what other reason would this guy need to draw these types of pictures? Some of them, when I look at them, I think of several of the explosions where mines were strategically placed with metal bars and saw blades to double the explosion power. What if this was the scribbling of a crazy muj asshole? I don’t know, I’m just saying it looks that way to me now that I have pulled this thing out years later. But, having this notebook and not knowing what it means drives me nuts. Maybe eventually I’ll take it to someone who knows how to read this chicken-scratch.

-Wojo

 

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