When the casualty incident described in this piece occurred, it fell to me to tend to the unit’s “family.” Beyond the families directly affected, the rest experienced these events through my messages. They chronicle a small piece of what happens on the home-front when casualties come home.  These events unfold regularly in our midst, more so in the last decade of conflict, but most in the general public have no experience of this aspect of war; they should.
Reflecting upon the conflict and mayhem that has been unleashed in Iraq since the instigation of the military operations to end the regime of Saddam Hussein, there are many issues to confront the scholar. As a military historian, most fundamentally for me I never believed regime change in Iraq was a good idea. Breaking states should only be a strategy choice of last possible resort, and even then it is probably best avoided. But as the spouse of a Marine Officer my professional and intellectual opposition would be challenged by personal obligations.
I was not unfamiliar with this internal conflict between scholarly and real world obligations. In 2004, as a Fellow in their Summer Seminar in Military History, I watched the veterans among the West Point uniformed historians experiencing both cognitive dissonance as well as resonance as they confronted their intellectual material. I could tell that they were comparing their experiences with their scholarship, but I did not understand what that meant at the time. Years later, humbled by my own small experience, I have a sense of how they must have felt and thought. My hope is that this glimpse into the wider experience of war and conflict will offer a similar bit of enlightenment for others.
The vagaries of the personnel system meant that my former husband missed the first several years of OIF. He spent its first year “Stop-Moved” in Okinawa – a one year unaccompanied tour doubled at the commencement of hostilities in 2003. Then a B-Billet tour in Newport, RI, followed, because the alternation between line units and administrative jobs is relentless in the Marine Corps, no matter the state of conflict. At the first opportunity, after only two years in Newport, the Fleet Marine Force beckoned once again, specifically for Iraq. After a three months’ preparation, in January 2007, as a Major, he deployed to Iraq in command of a Military Training Team (MTT). As a training cadre the team was small, giving the families in support an intimacy and closeness that would colour the experience of the deployment. Furthermore, I was the unit Key Volunteer, which made me the point of contact between the unit/Marine Corps and the families of the serving Marines and Sailor. For the most part this meant I was responsible for providing official and correct information about the unit’s movements and activities to the families on a timely basis. Secondarily, as possible, I tried to offer some measure of additional information and support, as well as to coordinate any assistance the unit or the families might require.  It is the sort of responsibility that anyone not afflicted with terrific arrogance will feel that they have done inadequately.
By way of background on the context of the deployment, Fallujah in the first half of 2007 was roiling. At the time of the casualty event the Marines and the Iraqi Army battalion they were training had already seen significant and regular combat action. Their AOR, an area of the city known as the “Pizza Slice,” was particularly dangerous, with regular and daily insurgent activity. The Lieutenant Colonel commanding the Iraqi battalion was experienced and educated, having served during the Hussein regime.  Pragmatic and hopeful that a new start could be made for his country, he was a willing and able partner in the rebuilding of Iraq. The battalion and its training team would endure several months of sustained attacks until the insurgency broke – of its own stupidity and the civilian population’s shifted allegiance – early in the summer.
However, before that break occurred, a sniper ambush towards the end of a day’s activities took the lives of one of our Marines, and wounded two others. On the afternoon of 29 April, an element of the battalion and its trainers had been conducting a dismounted patrol of Marines and Iraqi soldiers with vehicles in support. As the last task of the patrol, they had stopped to conduct a search. With the units’ vehicles deployed along narrow and twisted streets, the dismounted elements cleared a building which had been identified as a potential insurgent base. Finding nothing in the building, as the Marines made their way to their vehicles the attack opened with precision sniper and general supporting fire.
Within short order, no more than five minutes of fighting, the three casualties were taken. The remaining 15 to 20 of minutes combat was fought as the dismounted Marines struggled to safely remove the fallen to the vehicles while those in the vehicles provided cover. Unable to safely extricate from the killing ground on their own, the timely arrival of the QRF (quick reaction force) ended the engagement. It was a close run thing, as the Marines engaged on the ground were running out of ammunition to continue their fight.
I remember the day clearly. I was probably munching bagels and driving home to Newport with my son and dog after a weekend visiting family in New York, while these events were occurring. (Yes, you do stop to note the surreal aspects of such moments.) Or maybe I was reading the Sunday New York Times, which had a story on the turning tide fighting the insurgents in Ramadi. Although the deployment was not easy, things were not terrible, and I had just returned from the annual conference for the Society for Military History conference and was energized for my research.  We arrived home, safe and sound. And completely oblivious.
It was later that night when the Major sent me the following email:
Do NOT say anything/tell anyone. The worst happened. Notifications are being made. I’m still alive.
Brevity enhanced, rather than diminished, the impact of the news.
The identity of one of the casualties was the first detail I would receive regarding the incident. Shortly after the email arrived the phone rang. On the other end was the brother of the unit’s corpsman (Doc) who had been wounded the ambush. As awful as it was in its brevity I was now happy to have received the message. While there is no way to prepare for such things it was better not to be caught completely unaware. I spent hours on the phone with the brother that night, talking through what was happening to Doc and trying to get what information I could from the unit in Iraq. This effort was complicated by the fact that when casualty incidents happen a unit goes into communications lockdown – “River City”  – so as to avoid the unfortunate circumstance where rumour gets ahead of the official notification procedures of the service. Technically the Major should not have been in email contact with me. But as I was conferring with him on behalf of the family of a wounded service member, judgment and discretion were exercised to provide every support possible.
That night we settled the first round of issues and for the moment Doc’s situation was stable.