Part 5 of a frontline account of Iraq’s liberation.
(Editor’s note: Mr. Taylor joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 1996 and was called up for service in February 2002. His enlistment expired in November 2003. He kept this journal while deployed with Fox Company, Second Battalion, 23rd Marines in Kuwait and Iraq. Comments in italics were added after his return to clarify and expand his account and to define military terminology for the benefit of civilian readers. Four-digit numbers followed by “Z” are time codes in Greenwich Mean Time; codes of the format “38RQU 29141756” are 8-digit MGRS grid coordinates indicating his location at the time. This is the fifth of five parts; click to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 or Part 4.)
14 Apr 03 0519Z 38SMB 54288753
I made a critical omission in this record a few days ago. On Thursday the 10th Staff Sgt. Ivers fell down a flight of steel stairs at the intelligence compound and broke his elbow. He was sent to the Regimental Aid Station, and then back to Camp Doha in Kuwait, the nearest large hospital. He was our platoon sergeant and we hated to lose him. He cried as he was being carried off because he felt he had failed us–a misplaced feeling but one entirely in keeping with his character and sense of responsibility for everything around him. We miss him. He cared for his Marines in the way an NCO should.
His replacement is Sgt. Ewert, who possesses few of the staff sergeant’s virtues, and who has performed the platoon sergeant’s job in Staff Sgt. Ivers’s absence before with poor results. We hope Staff Sgt. Ivers returns, but it seems unlikely.
0757Z–Yesterday we secured a water treatment facility near where we entered the city. It was a suspected WMD site but we find no evidence. We also find no fighters here, just a few families and employees. We gave rations to the families to thank them for their cooperation while we figured out what it might take to restart this place.
And today we are back here again to guard it from looters.–38SMB 56278339
Another critical omission occurs to me. In every operation we’ve participated in, the sound of Islamic prayer has provided the soundtrack. Mosques are everywhere and five times daily, including dawn and sunset, the musical chant of Islamic prayer rings out from the towers. During our terrible fight on the 8th, the sound was there. And the next morning prayer noise provided an eerie melodic counterpoint to the artillery barrage that reduced the compounds. Marines listen to the prayers with suspicion. After all, it was Islamic fundamentalists that sparked the war on terror by smashing 767s into the Trade Towers. And I have never been convinced that those were the actions of “extremists” and not in character with the true teachings of Islam.
Some Marines have a far more specific suspicion about the wailing imam in their towers. They suggest that they are broadcasting our positions to Iraqi fighters. But the prayers sound recorded, and our translators would surely notice such a scheme.
While walking a roving post around this sewage treatment plant (it smells awful here) someone drove by and threw a white phosphorous grenade at some civilians who had been helping us resurrect this plant. The grenade ignited some mortar shells left strewn along the roadway. The resulting blast blew one man to bits and his companion into several pieces. The second fellow was blown into a water-filled ditch. There was some hope of saving him, an admitted long shot, but we were prevented from providing any kind of transport to a hospital. Probably the right decision, but one would like to make an effort, particularly for people who risk their lives to help us.
After putting out the fire and describing what I heard on my ISR (individual squad radio) in my journal, the story about people blown to bits began to unravel. Most telling, Doc Parks did not treat or see any injured persons. The commotion about the wounded was just confusion compounded by burning metal, grass fire and excited radio traffic. Medevac was denied because there was no casualty, a fact that neatly blunts my criticism about not being able to help those who help us. The only portion of the story that remained believable to me was that someone had thrown a grenade from the window of a passing car. The explosion detonated some mortar shells, scattered debris, and sparked a grass fire.
The blast ignited a grass fire, which immediately threatened a pumping station vital to this plant’s operation. Marines mobilized a fire fighting effort and had it out in 20 minutes. This plant will probably be operational by tomorrow. The Seabees are on the job.
16 Apr 03 1123Z 38SMB 5568602
We left that sewage facility yesterday, but not before coordinating repairs to the freshwater pumping station with the local managing engineer. The freshwater reservoir had a 5-foot hole blasted through its heavy reinforced-concrete cover. The engineer and his staff were concerned that uranium had been introduced into the water supply and might taint the water for a million city dwellers. (Depleted uranium is used in some munitions.) We told him, “No uranium.” We also told him we would request appropriate testing of the water by the Navy Seabees who were arriving on the scene.
Staff Sgt. Ivers returned last night. He connived his way back by C130 against all theater policy regarding open-wound casualties. He superglued his arm wound shut, did some pull-ups for a general at Camp Commando (in Kuwait) and found his way back. We are nearly overjoyed.
Staff Sgt. Ivers’s elbow was not, in fact, broken.
Today we are at a power station. They complain of no looters and the systems seem intact. Our presence here has drawn some potshots; Pvt. Donnely returned fire without effect. We are waiting for permission to leave.
Last night we received a truckload of packages. I received two from Keith (my father) and one from Cathy Burton at HDR Architects, Keith’s employer–generous people. Batteries, wipes, sundries, junk food.
Gen. Mattis spoke to First Platoon yesterday. He said we are going home very soon. We should be driving back to Kuwait this week and we’re second in line for airlift to the States. God send that it is true.
18 Apr 03 0806Z
Yesterday we trucked back to the power plant to have a look at an ammo dump there. There were about 60 artillery shells (122mm) and some fuses, some mortar rounds. We were told by Capt. Schoenfeld that it was safe to move it all across town in the bed of our truck. Staff Sgt. Ivers, an FBI-trained bomb tech, said it was not safe. Sgt. McMullen objected to the order on the grounds that we are not trained to handle or move the stuff, it being of unknown age and condition. But we followed the order. EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) told Capt. Schoenfeld it was safe, therefore it must be safe. And indeed nothing went “boom.” We piled the stuff in an Olympic training gymnasium where Uday Hussein (sadistic son of Saddam) no doubt tortured Iraqi athletes into Olympic readiness. And there we left it.
Our departure is now scheduled for the 21st.
Today we washed clothes. We lined MRE boxes with plastic bags, Arnold produced some tablets of detergent, and we lifted a month’s worth of impacted grime out of our uniforms. They’ll be dirty again tomorrow, but for an hour we’ll feel great.
Staff Sgt. Ivers stopped me today to point my attention to Psalm 144, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s reported favorite:
Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle–
My lovingkindness and my fortress, my high tower and my deliverer, my shield and the One in whom I take refuge, who subdues my people under me.
Lord what is man, that you take knowledge of him? Or the son of man that you are mindful of him?
Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow. . . .
Stretch out your hand from above; rescue me and deliver me out of great waters, from the hand of foreigners.
Whose mouth speaks lying words, and whose right hand is a hand of falsehood. . . .
That our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; That our daughters may be as pillars, sculpted in a palace style.
I was struck by the words, and by the overwhelming knowledge that the Lord had delivered me to this place and this day in safety, that my children may be blessed and prosper.
23 Apr 03 0745Z 38SMA 65099432
The great tragedy of Marine Corps existence is that men who have fought and died together in honorable battle (or men ready to do so in the future) are immediately afterward abused with all manner of administrative and bureaucratic pettiness. We are in our “retrograde” toward Kuwait. This spot of desert is an assembly area for Marines getting ready to motor south.
Yesterday Marines produced a Frisbee and shed their helmets and vests for an hour of Ultimate Frisbee. Others wrestled and returned to the formalized combat of Marine Corps Martial Arts. In short, Marines were returning to their normal ebullient selves–a happy sight. But this morning we are warned against such activities, not because we’re still at war and need to wear the gear, but because they were unhappy with the sight of Marines playing in groups. No playing in groups. No wearing of trousers unbloused. No pissing where we eat–OK, I’ll give ’em that one. But give a battalion a four-hour operational pause and you’ll have a sergeant major screaming about haircuts, a first sergeant howling about benign slogans written on vehicles, “Wear helmets here but not over there.” Some Marines fight, and other Marines harass the fighters.
On the plus side, we are getting hot meals daily now. In order to eat one must appear in flak vest, soft cover, gas mask carrier, with weapon. All others will be turned away.
Tomorrow we lose our trucks. Barkovich, our driver, goes with the truck. We are going home and “Barky” is going to First Battalion, Fourth Marines, poor bastard. We will get amtracs (flat-bottomed military vehicles that move on tracks on land or water) and soon move back to Kuwait.
Cpl. Lee was called back to talk to the CO this evening because there is a rumor that his wife is leading an assault on Congress to get us home swiftly. God bless that impatient woman.
26 Apr 03 0235Z
A dust storm harassed us all day yesterday and last night. I slept on my mat under my blanket without my bag last night. I must have ingested a pound of dust. The wind blew our net shelters down on us. Doc Vanderbilt (First Squad’s corpsman) was hit in the head by a falling pole and had to be evacuated. We hope for him.
We joked continuously about the luck of getting hit in the head with a tent pole. “Where’s my pole injury?” “I’m going to go hang around tent poles for awhile and see what develops.”
I learned yesterday that the pistol I captured at Numinyah was stolen from the S2 (administrative code for battalion intelligence) by an Army general who had been admiring it. Right now he’s probably telling lies about how it was surrendered to him on the field of battle. I would certainly go to Leavenworth for such an act. But generals can evidently behave like dishonorable scrubs and have their acts sanitized by the power of the star. Shame on him.
If that story is false, then those words are probably too harsh on generals everywhere. If true, then it all stands. If that general is out there reading this and he has my pistol, he should give it back to the guy who captured it. I’ll trade him his personal honor for it. Don’t forget to send along the cool accessories with it, Mon General.
First Marine Division is trying to chop us back to Fourth Marine Division as fast as possible. Sgt. McMullen put it best, “Thanks for fightin’ for us, Marines, but f— you. Find your own way home.”
It angers me how petty men can be to each other. (This after I just called some unknown general officer a dishonorable scrub on the merest evidence.) Fox Company is the only company in the battalion that rates a combat action ribbon as a unit, by the order. Selected members of Golf and Echo do, but most do not. As a result there is considerable jealousy and animosity toward Fox. Fox was supposed to provide one platoon to Golf for a foot patrol two days ago. We got ready to go. An hour later we stood down. Echo said, “We don’t want their help.” Poor guys. And we get called “cowboys,” a name suggesting we are casual and hasty on the trigger. But they didn’t see what we saw. Echo and Golf did get in a firefight–with each other. A few senior staff NCOs shot each other when they failed to positively ID targets. But we’re the cowboys. Go figure.
Today we are supposed to mount amtracs and motor to the First Division assembly area. We’ll wait there until the 28th and then bus to Kuwait. That’s the rumor.
One of the amtracs is commanded by a Staff Sgt. Barbie. His vehicle took a direct hit on the right front nose from a well-aimed RPG. Minor scarring, no penetration. He told us about the burnt amtrac we saw in An Nasiriyah. It had lowered its hatch and taken a RPG right into the opened rear.
One of my brother Greg’s law school friends, Patrick Daly, sent a very nice postcard. It arrived yesterday and features a picture of Wrigley Field. I also received a card from Greg with this poem, “Upon the War in Iraq” by Rob S. Rice (it was part of OpinionJournal.com’s “A Day of Poetry for the War”):
Our carriers loom off his coast
Our bombers fill his skies
And brave, skilled men with stealthy tread
Prepare his grim surprise.
Grant and Sherman, Patton, Greene
Have taught us to make war.
We now pick up their legacy
And free the world once more.
Greg wrote, “Now that’s some liberation poetry, Baby!”
27 Apr 03 0259Z 38RMA 90873389
We mounted our amtracs yesterday afternoon and motored south about 50 miles to the First Division assembly area near Ad Diwaniwah. Third Battalion, First Marines are here. They are first in line to fly home, then us.
This place is another Iraqi military compound. There is a shooting range right on the highway by which we slept. The corpsmen designated a latrine, which we called a “sh– trench,” out on the range, but after dark Marines feel like they can eliminate wherever they want. One amtracker in sandals and shorts with e-tool (folding shovel) and paper in hand marched over the berm just five meters from where I was lying. He began scratching on the ground, digging his cat hole. I called out, “There’s a sh– trench 30 meters out in front of you! Go over there.” He grumbled and shuffled off in the dark.
I slept on my bag under my poncho liner until 2200Z (1 a.m. local time) when a fat raindrop landed on my forehead. It rained for just as long as it took me to scurry to my pack and retrieve my poncho. I moved my mat under the nose of the amtrac and slept there for the rest of the night. When I woke, Sgt. McMullen advised me to refrain from sleeping directly in front of tracked vehicles. Good advice.
I went to church services again today. We gathered under a pavilion that looked like a weapons cleaning station with concrete tables for cleaning rifles. Cpl. Hendrickson spoke about faith and hope, but once again I drew most of my enjoyment from the hymns. We sang, “How Firm a Foundation.” Capt. Schoenfeld said to Cpl. Christensen, who leads the singing, that we have time for all seven verses. Verses four and five stood out:
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow.
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design,
Thy dross to consume, thy gold to refine
And when the meeting closed, Cpl. Christensen asked what hymn we would like to sing. Cpl. Daniels called out, “The Babylon Song!” meaning “Ye Elders of Israel”:
Oh Babylon, Oh Babylon we bid thee farewell.
We’re going to the mountains of Ephraim to dwell!
29 Apr 03
Today we had an impromptu Frisbee football tournament. We assembled five five-man teams. I played on a team called “Cpl. Tomczak Thinks He’s Cool!” We made it to the final game but lost.
I interviewed Staff Sgt. Liles of Third Platoon regarding the death of Staff Sgt. Cawley, and Third’s actions on the 8th of April. He was very happy to be heard. He opened his journal and let me read his account of Jim Cawley’s death. I nearly wept again, but refrained, thank goodness.
The battalion stayed at Ad Diwaniwah for another three weeks waiting for transport back to Kuwait and the United States. We spent the time trying to keep cool and avoid the sickness that accompanied camp life. Marines played cards or, in the cool morning, sports. We talked to each other about our experiences or about anything but our experiences, according to preference. On May 21 we drove back to the greatly improved camps in Kuwait where we stayed for a week and then we flew home.
When we got off the plane at March Air Force Base near Camp Pendleton, Calif., there were two fire trucks on the flight line pumping great jets of water high in the air. I thought, “Don’t they know there’s a drought on?” But then I realized it was a tribute to us. We traveled by bus to Camp Pendleton, where our families waited. My brother Greg and my parents were there. My wife, Shari, and our three children were there. Fox Company marched down the road to where the cheering crowd waited and then the formation disintegrated as families found each other in the street.
Shari put three-month-old John in my arms. I held and kissed him for the first time while Jane and Keith climbed all over me. I kissed my wife. I held my mother for a time, and then my children pulled me down to the curb so they could have their turn.
Everyone should have a day like that. Parents should greet their children with undisguised affection as if they just returned from the war, the way I greeted Jane, Keith and John, and the way my mother and father greeted me. Husbands should regard their wives the way I regarded Shari, like a found treasure. The hardships my wife endured during my deployment transformed her into a stronger, lovelier woman.
I felt enormously rich, and I hoped all the Marines there felt as fortunate as I did. I suffered a flash of pain for Marines and families whose homecomings might be at all imperfect, and for those who would have no homecoming at all. But for the moment I was pressed on all sides by hugs and cameras, kisses and questions. It was a great day. It was my best day.