In Lieu of MPs

HHS (FWD) 2BN, 197th FA (ILOMP) musters for the first time in Berlin, NH. Photo courtesy MAJ (r) Matthew Boucher

In 2004, I was assigned to be a Platoon Sergeant for 2nd Platoon, Headquarters Battery (Forward) 2nd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery Regiment (In Lieu of Military Police). We were a bunch of highly skilled cannon cockers, fire direction specialists, wrench turners, and clerks. Some of us had experience in law enforcement but none of us ever trained to be MPs or Infantrymen. It did not matter. The Army needed MPs, not artillery, to fight the insurgents in Iraq so we received 10 or 14 days of training and became MPs. The training was squad-centric, nothing for platoon or company leaders. As a result, none of the Platoon Leaders, Platoon Sergeants, the First Sergeant, nor the Company Commander received any training to be or lead MPs. With our little training, we boarded planes and headed to staging areas in Kuwait determined to do our jobs to the best of our humble abilities.

When we arrived in the Middle East, our company was split and served in three locations, Mosul, Tikrit, and Baqubah. The Baqubah mission was to provide 24/7 force protection to the provincial police headquarters building downtown and train Iraqi Police. Everyone knew Mosul and Tirkrit were dangerous. None of us had ever heard of Baqubah. It had to be relatively safe, right? I had the opportunity to visit the newly renovated police training facility in Mosul. It was nice, rivaling the academy police officers in New Hampshire attend. Given the quality of the Mosul police academy, the perceived safety of Baqubah, and the opportunity to complete a mission that would help the locals develop security forces to protect themselves, I volunteered my platoon to execute the Baqubah mission. When we arrived at the Diyala Police Provincial Police Headquarters we all realized that not only were we not in New Hampshire anymore Dorthy, this place looked nothing like the facility in Mosul!

One of the Soldiers in my platoon, Aaron Marshall, is writing a book, Baqubah; Bones and Blood, about his experiences during that deployment. He provided me an advanced copy of his manuscript. He expects it to be ready for publication in 2020. Marshall reminds me of Medal of Honor recipient Maynard Smith who demonstrated exceptional bravery under fire, but always found trouble when the bullets were not flying. Marshall is a very brave person but always had a knack for finding trouble. Still, he was someone I wanted by my side when the shooting started.

Squad members training in the snow at Ft Dix to prepare to fight in the desert of Iraq in 2004. ibid

I have published a veteran based post each Memorial and Veterans Day since starting my blog. After reading Aaron’s manuscript, I thought he did an excellent job of describing many parts of the experiences of combat veterans. I asked permission to publish an excerpt of his book here for Veterans Day. He granted me that permission. What follows is a brief excerpt as written by him with a few edits for clarification. His writing is graphic and may be offensive to some readers. I decided to publish this post using his graphic words because war is both graphic and offensive. I will post when the book is published.

Please read and reflect on the words and experiences of PFC Aaron Marshall.

My call sign in Iraq was “Spoonman”. We were told to come up with our own call signs, and I loved the song by Soundgarden so I went with that. At that point I had never tried heroin and wouldn’t until my second divorce about 7 years later. But that’s a story for another time. An even darker tale of the human experience; loss, tragedy, insanity, and redemption. Now that I think about it, it was sort of a self-induced experience very similar to Iraq; to War. I relived the terror of death on a daily basis with that drug, but I was one of the lucky few who was able to kick it before it took me completely.

I had too many experiences with death. Too many. I’ve felt the breeze created by a snipers bullet gently flow by my face. I’ve been hit with anti-tank rockets so close it made me think the world had ended. I’ve had septic shock, pancreatitis, renal failure, and felt the peaceful calm that comes over you when you die. I’ve overdosed too many times and woken up to people standing over me crying.

Humvee of Platoon Leader, 4th Platoon/293rd MPs. ibid

And I’m still here. I’m still trudging forward, marching on. To what I haven’t the slightest idea. I have no idea why I’m still here. Dumb luck maybe? A purpose I don’t yet know? I would go with dumb luck over fate. Regardless, I give thanks to the people around me. If I gave thanks to a supposed god, I would be squandering an opportunity to make an actual difference in the world. That was one of the original ideas behind me joining the military in the first place. After September 11th 2001, most young men my age were jolted by a sense of duty to do something, anything. But still only a few signed up to voluntarily fight in a War that we all knew was coming. We all wanted it. There was that part of the collective unconscious of the country that needed war; vengeance, justice. The same type of situation occurred in Iraq in 2004 when a Sergeant (SGT) From the 3rd ID and a Lieutenant (LT) ended up both losing one of their arms during an RPG attack on a patrol. We all felt completely helpless immediately after.

Searching within ourselves for the answer to the question why? Why did it happen? Why did the RPG enter the front of the Humvee like it did? Why that road? Why them? Why not me? And every single man and woman at the Police Station wanted vengeance, justice. We knew we would get it but we just didn’t know when. It was part of all our collective unconscious at the station. We would get it. At least that’s how I felt about it.

Diyala Provincial Police HQ, our home for 13 months. Note that we used sand bags in the windows to keep out sunlight for those working the overnight sifts, and what ever projectiles came our way from the city around us. ibid

During one of our QRF (Quick Reaction Force) missions shortly after the SGT and LT were severely wounded, we would get our revenge. We needed to kill one of the enemy, a hundred if we could, to make us all feel like we were doing something good for our wounded family. My team got called out to pick up a soldier that had been wounded by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device, commonly called a roadside bomb) just down the road from us on what was called “RPG Alley”. When we went to pick him up, it was a dangerous feeling, a feeling like something bad was going to happen. I’d get that feeling from time to time, and I learned to trust it. Over time that feeling was correct more often than not, and at the very least that feeling would heighten your senses so you’d be even more ready for an ambush.

You never knew when and if another IED was going to be set off after the first one. But we had to get the wounded out. The soldier was in good spirits. Pretty bloodied but happy to be getting the hell out of there and onto a base with medical care.

A village along RPG Alley. author

Halfway to F.O.B. Warhorse we were ambushed by some AK-47 fire that pinged off the vehicle in front of me then skipped just over our vehicle. I got out of the kill zone by ducking down into the vehicle. When the gunfire stopped hitting our vehicle my SGT yelled, “shoot!” I popped up, unlatched the turret, swung it counterclockwise, locked the turret back in, and looked down the barrel of my M249 SAW. I didn’t even have to aim. I was looking directly at a man slightly crouched beside a wall, exactly where the gunfire was coming from, holding a weapon. I didn’t even think about it. I let loose as many rounds as I could and I’ll never forget how he instantly slumped to the ground when my first bullet hit, and stayed motionless (Marshall said that the gunner in the next Humvee behind him also engaged the insurgent. Karl rarely received credit for his role in that fight. Marshall remembers hearing the gun firing). I ducked back into the Humvee and said the SGT, “Holy shit I got him!”, and we called in the confirmed kill.

When I got back to the Police Station you could see the look of everyone had changed from a somber mood to a look of vindication. None of us ever had a conversation about these feelings. In fact, at least with those I associated with, we didn’t really talk about feelings at all, ever. The way I perceived, it was that we got our revenge for what happened to the SGT and LT. I think that helped us move past the incredible horror of being helpless for them. It helped me move past it and not dwell on the event so much. Of course there was nothing we could have done. But you still feel like, and always feel like, there is something you could have done to prevent it.

It’s still hard to piece everything together; the entire year. Where to start; how to finish telling it. It doesn’t help that I had multiple head traumas while I was there and multiple head traumas when I returned home. But I’m determined to tell my story, our story, the story of the 2/197th FA unit that went to Baqubahh, Iraq in 2004 as hastily trained MP’s. The Army owned us and we would all do our part to make sure every last one of us got home. We would do our best, and that’s exactly what we did, our best. I wasn’t trained to be a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee but by the end of the tour, I guarantee I was one of the best. That’s not cockiness in the sense that I thought I was better than anyone else, but a sense of confidence in my abilities. A turret gunner needs that confidence to do his or her job. Without it, fear can creep in and take over, rendering you useless. No, I wasn’t better than any other gunner in the war, I was simply one of the best. I hope that now makes sense.

Most of Marshall’s squad training at Butler Range in eastern Iraq. They managed to get an armored Humvee stuck in the only mud hole for a 100 miles! Author
Marshall’s book cover.

To paraphrase one of my favorite schools of Philosophy, the Stoics, and more specifically, Epictetus; there are things in our control like our opinions, desires, and inclinations. There are also things which are not in our control like our body, possessions, honor, and reputation. So why worry about the things that are not in our control? Well, that turret and anyone around it that wanted to do us harm was in my control for that year. I made it my mission to be the baddest motherfucker I could possibly be. It was out of my character. But like an actor that gets stuck in role after making a movie, I became a machine gunner. I became the turret. It was my home. That 2 inch wide strap for a seat was my bed, my home, my church, my religion, and baptism by fire is not an understatement. Some jobs you ask for in the Army, but for the most part you just do what you are told as an enlisted man. And I was told to get in the turret. I did my job and I did it well.

Veteran’s Day 2018

I was honored to be the guest speaker for the Woodsville, NH Veteran’s Day Ceremony this year.  I spent a part of my military life learning the basic art of artillery there and was humbled when asked to address the crowds knowing those who I looked up to years ago would be listening to what I had to offer.  This is what I said.

poppies-pxhere.jpg

Thank you. Commander, fellow veterans and guests:

I was asked to speak today about what it means to be a Veteran, and I will. However, given that at 11:00 am Paris time 100 years ago today, the final shot of the Great War, the War to End All Wars, was fired, I must recognize that event. WWI began in August 1914 as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Serbia. Before long, the nations in central Europe were at war, dragging their allies with them. In the four years of fighting around the world, 8.5 million Soldiers lost their lives and more than 21 million were injured. These numbers exclude civilian casualties. Even though the United States was involved in the war about a year, we lost 116 thousand Soldiers, 53 thousand to combat and 63 thousand to non-battle deaths such as disease and accidents.. Four point seven million troops served in the US armed forces during WWI, nearly 5% of the population. Today only 0.5% serve in our armed forces.

During this war, the world saw the first widespread use of submarine warfare with attacks on civilian passenger ships. The first widespread gas attacks caused panic on unprotected, unsuspecting troops. Before long both side were gassing the other. Commanders ordered waves of human, online attacks previously used to mass offensive firepower. The problem with the tactic in this war was a crew of three to five men armed with a new machine gun had the firepower of a division and mowed down line after line of troops. Artillery grew larger and projected shells farther than cannon crews could see. Forward observers called in corrections over great distances against enemy positions. Planes, invented in the previous decade, took to the sky to observe enemy movements. Before long they were armed and pilots were dueling each other for control of the skies. Pilots learned to drop bombs in trenches, the basics of dog fighting, and ground crews learned how to control the firing of machine guns in order to avoid shooting off propellers. Before long, large armored beasts crossed no mans land crossing trenches and brought another new weapon onto the battlefield.

In the last months of the war, a new killer emerged. Influenza cropped up in the winter of 1917-18. It followed troop movements around the world but was a nuisance rather than a threat. However, as the little germ found new hosts, it, like the other battlefield warriors, adapted and became increasing lethal targeting those of fighting age. In August, outbreaks began in several small pockets knocking out whole units and military posts. As infected Soldiers moved around the world, the new, more lethal virus moved with them causing even more death. Before this battle ended it was estimated 1/3rd of the world’s population became infected and at least 500 million people died from the flu.

However, Trumans-Battry_SM_Dominic-DAndrea.pngon the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918, the 11th Field Artillery Regiment of the US Army fired the last round of the war. This day has become a day to honor all those who served in our Nation’s armed forces. Today we recognize the sacrifices those individuals make to protect us all and keep us free.

What is it like to be a Veteran, the topic I was asked to discuss? I can only speak with any knowledge about what it is like for me to be a veteran. Every veteran has their own experiences and stories. They are all unique to each individual. Even Soldiers who fought in the same battle on the same day only yards apart have different perceptions about what happened. An example is April 9, 2004. I along with about 100 other Soldiers of which about 50 were from our company, were engaged in what some claimed was the largest attack on a fixed Army position since the Viet Nam War. I do not know if that is true, only what I was told.

Most of the things the other Solders tell me seem to make sense and match what I remember. I talk to others who were only a few feet away, and their stories about the same events sound like they happened in a different place and time. Still there are enough commonalities between those who served that with one or two words I can raise a response from other veterans. Those few words tell a whole story to them. The Army PT belt, drill sergeants, and basic training. Words that tell stories with those I severed with include, the rocket room, 40mm sponge, thee dumpster, and “light ‘em up” all have meaning. In my second deployment, I forbid my platoon to use the phrase “light ‘em up” because the near disastrous consequences from the term.

We were tasked to interdict mortar crew in The Projects that had just fired at our position. When we arrived we found lots of civilians out after curfew, but no obvious insurgents. It was dark and I wanted to see better so I instructed the squad leader to bring the HUMVEEs around and like them up. He refused and I repeated my order. He insisted that he was not going to shoot unarmed, innocent civilians. Silence. As I realized what he said and what I meant my heart stopped. He did shine the HUMVEE lights on the civilians after I clarified my order. It is funny now, but wasn’t then.

There are other things that have meaning in my career. Service members during the Cold War had their problems. Units stationed along the Iron Curtain lived with the fear of the Soviets racing through the Fulda Gap with divisions of tanks to invade western Europe. Decades later, I found myself in an airport in Leipzig Germany. TCheckpoint Charlie-USG.pnghere was a map on the wall showing where we were. I said to the young Soldier beside something like, “Holy cow, we are in East Germany!” The young Solider responded, “You mean eastern Germany Sergeant.” He did not know about East and West Germany nor of the Berlin Wall. His experience in that airport was different from mine even though we stood in almost the exact same spot.

Some veterans spend a career and never see combat. Others see much combat in a few years. Some come home and go on with life like they just went off to college. Others struggle from the unseen scars left by their experiences. 

Some of the veterans standing beside you out there returned home after defending freedom and democracy to be booed, jeered, and spit upon by protesters. They do not know the elation of the welcome home parades received by veterans of WWI, WWII and those from the Gulf War and GWOT era. Their experiences were different than mine.

Because of these commonalities and differences two things seem to hold true. Some veterans learn ways to deal the events from their military service and lead productive lives. Some veterans never figure out how to deal with those experiences. Those who learn to deal with those events seem to find strength by associating with other veterans. Those who do not isolate themselves thinking they are they only ones feeling what they feel and die at their own hand. Suicide is too common an experience for too many veterans. The VA reports on average 22 veterans commit suicide every day. There is help for those struggling. Find VeteransCrisisLineLogo.pngout the numbers for the Veteran’s Crisis Line ((800) 237-TALK (8255)). Put it in your phone. You may never need it, but someone you know might.

I’ve been fortunate to been able to serve my nation at the State of New Hampshire for over 36 years. Like many, I planned on doing 20 and getting out. Every time my end of enlistment neared I found new challenges to conquer and I extended. I’ve met and worked with some really great people I never would have met here in New Hampshire, across the nation, and around the world. I have seen and done things others only dream about doing. What is it like to be a veteran? For me, it has been great!

 


Photo Credits

Poppy field from PXhere.com

Truman’s Battery by Dominic D’Andrea, a US Government work

Checkpoint Charlie from US Government collection

Veterans Crisis Line from https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/