Well, Shit this will be different for everyone. I will start with things I noticed about myself after each Combat Tour. Once I go through those I will list a few things my Buddies have dealt with and I have seen first hand through there words and my observations. As I said before, I am no doctor so all I can do is describe myself and my direct observations. I won’t blow smoke up your ass with shit I don’t know or haven’t seen.
Thinking back on my time in the Corps., there were a few instances which happened before my Combat Tours that stood out in my thoughts. The first memory I had of shit going wrong my thoughts immediately flashed to two training accidents. Both of these lead to the KIT (Killed In Training) of men I knew and worked with. The earliest was a vehicle rollover which killed the gunner and broke the pelvis of the assistant gunner during tactical field driving operations. The last and largest tragedy was another 7 Brothers KIT, lost their lives in a helicopter crash while boarding a ship.
The mind plays strange games on people when they have people around them or in their profession killed. In those moments thoughts of it could have been me, or it should have been me there pop up daily. At times even extreme anger and disappointment with yourself for not being there thinking you may have been able to save a life. The mind is a mysterious thing, it can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
Jumping forward to my first Combat Tour, I had deployed with an Infantry Battalion to Iraq in mid 2004. Anyone who remembers that time frame would recognize it was just after the first Battle of Fallujah and we would be there all the way through Operation Phantom Furry, the second Battle of Fallujah. Our unit was spread to hell and back. We had Teams of our guys and Platoons and Companies from Fallujah all the way to Syria. The distance from Fallujah to Syria is around 469 kilometers or around 291 miles. While that may not seem that far of a driving distance, I can assure you it is a hell of a task for roughly 900 Marines to secure the area roughly 40 miles high by 291 miles long. A little basic math comes up with 11,640 square miles, which would come out to nearly 13 square miles per Marine. Now, this may not be an exact number and it was not for the entire deployment. This was during the push of all units to Fallujah for the Assault. You have to remember, while that was the main focus we still had to secure the rest of out AO (Area Of Operations) as well.
This tasking lead to nearly nonstop operations and Combat Patrols. We would live, if you could call it that, outside the wire for nearly three months. It was an endless series of Operations back to back. First we went through Operation Phantom Furry, then Operation River Blitz followed by River Bridge and as we left Operation Matador.
Prior to Operation Phantom Furry kicking off, we had a major engagement. As a Commander was headed to Al Asad Air Base his convoy was attacked with a broadside ambush of IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devises) and direct fire. They broke contact and pushed through to Al Asad. I’ll be damned if the Commander wasn’t a little pissed at the ambush, as his convoy came aboard the base he looked for the only available unit to exact some karma. Although we were spread thin, our Sniper Platoon was on hand and we got the tasking. As anyone with any knowledge of FRAGO’s (Fragmentary Orders) would know they are brief and to the point usually with a direct tasking. Ours that day pretty much consisted of Go Fuck Those Guys Up!!!! So this was quickly packed into a rapid one-two punch. Our on hand Teams where launched, inserted on foot miles away for the engagement area and moved in. The set up local control base and deployed teams to maximize effect on the area. Once the teams hit the target area they immediately began to engage Tangos (Bad Guys). The fighting was heavy and while this was going on the closest Force Recon Unit and a SF (Special Forces Detachment) tasked out all their Sniper teams as well as their FAC (Forward Air Control) Team to join the Party. Our guys pulled back slightly to a FOB (Forward Operation Base) HIT. All members joined up, refitted with Ammo, Chow and Batteries. We quickly came up with a Joint Operations Plan with all the different Snipers and redeployed.
In Combat things can either seem like complete chaos when things go wrong or they can simply flow like water. This thankfully was the latter. All the Units thrown together where seasoned and complete professionals. Everyone where what many would consider Special Operations types who really didn’t stand for bullshit and who insured mission success by everyone pulling their weight. We reinserted pushing forward to an elevated railway line around 400-500 meters outside the City of Hit. It was an awesome spectacle, I’m not sure I have ever heard anything in the history books of anything similar. We deployed nearly a mile worth of Sniper Teams along the South side of the city. Almost as soon as we got into hour FFP’s (Final Firing Positions) we began to engage the enemy. The pre-Fallujah Battle was know to us as the 7 Days of HIT. For nearly all of the 7 days it sounded like the 500 meter line slow fire portion of the Marine rifle qualification course of fire. During some stages of the Operation we actually allowed the Enemy to send Ambulances out to pick up their dead and wounded, assuring them we would not fire on there “Medical People”. Our engagement ended with a Battalion coming down on their way to Fallujah and conducting a quick walk through of the City with not a shot fired by Insurgents as we where conducting overwatch.
While our Unit was spread dangerously thin, we knew we had to hold the AO together through the Operation Phantom Furry. We shifted to clean up Operations afterwords, it was a natural flow but non the less exhausting. We all knew that “Squirters” or Enemy who snuck out of the battle area where going to be a problem. It just turned out we were the lucky ones controlling the AO those Bastards where headed to. As Phantom Furry moved into clean up operations the Insurgents pushed into our AO in an attempt to regroup. Some reports said there where nearly a thousand Insurgents who moved into the City of Hit. Imagery reported seeing the build up of fighting positions just as they had observed in Fallujah prior to the Assault. It was our area and we went in.
Our Sniper teams took point on the lengthy movement into the City Center. We had been over the ground and knew the terrain to lead the rest of the Company in behind us. As we came to our last Covered and Concealed position before we moved into the City our air cover arrived. We where lucky enough to have a Spector Gun Ship in orbit as we moved in. Occasionally we would halt, take a knee while the Spector engaged targets ahead of us. I am not sure if it was in my head but I could feel the vibration through the ground as he hammered targets. Once our foot movement was complete and we set up a COP (Combat Outpost) our only long term fire support two M1 Abrams tanks came in and linked up with us. Our Assault was two-pronged, we came from the South with a Company and one of our other Companies along with a few Sniper Teams slid into position on the North side of the Euphrates River. This was the beginning of Operation River Blitz. The fighting during River Blitz followed by River Bridge was heavy at times and there was little to no rest for weeks on end. During these operations if you where knocked out by an IED or RPG blast you simply got back into the fight as you regained consciousness.
I am not sure if these long prolonged operations and time outside the wire the cause of some of my personal effects I later had or not. But for me personally after this I felt uneasy without laying on a hard cold surface either with my body armor on or used as my pillow. I literally felt naked, at times I would wake up back home and noticing none of these items where around me I felt almost panicked. Then there was the most common thing I have heard of guys coming back home with. I simply didn’t feel comfortable letting someone else drive and I hated being near the center median and right shoulder of the roadways.
There was also shock when a loud sound was seeming confused in my head with incoming direct or mortar fire. Also you became extremely alert around large numbers of people, you where always scanning hands and waistlines as those where the primary threat areas you kept watch on and any movement from those areas drew immediate attention and put you on alert. Strangely there was even a few times where I almost had a gag-reflex when I was at a barbecue and smelled a pig getting grilled. My mind flashed to a scene and the smell of burning human flesh. All of these where later described to me as events and triggers. The event is the situation that happened and the trigger is some type of external stimulus which “Triggers” the flashback or reaction.
Besides events and triggers I noticed how my body reacted. To me, my body seemed to have an adrenaline dump and wanted to fix things the way I fixed them in Combat. However, the loud nature and lack of acceptance of anything other than immediate following of orders I gave could be seen to outsiders as Rage. When in my view it was my body simply in a fraction of a second recognizing something had happened and already reacting faster than most people even noticed the situation. In my mind I was working at normal speed and those around me were sloths. This lead to my vocal expressions to them getting louder and more direct as my mind was saying “Shit, guys this should already be done”.