Friday, November 16, 2012

Happy Marines Come From Connecticut

Happy Marines could be found throughout the battle of Fallujah. They would usually start at it early in the morning when their dirty faces could get away with it, a smile and a laugh, usually at some other Marine’s expense, the energy was strong in the morning and everyone could only be happy before an operation. After that the smiles appeared only in brief short bursts, behind the gunfire and fire, the smoke that choked the young men with their black lungs. I met Paul Stewgots during his first day assigned to our Infantry unit; he had transferred over from security forces and the Marine Corps’ elite fleet anti-terrorism force (Fast Company). I was mopping the floor in the Alpha Company office.

I had been in the infantry a long three weeks and even to “the field”, our slang for the real infantry training I participated in the week before. I had been around the block and I wanted to make sure that Paul was on his game after he arrived. I introduced myself and told him that we would be in the same platoon; he was waiting in our reception room before being introduced to our Captain. Paul noticed that I was as new as his fresh socks but kindly humored my advice anyway. He asked me to program his watch to make up for his time change and once again I found myself frustrated that even the new guy was telling me what to do. I programmed the watch and babbled on all about the things necessary for “the field” which I had become an expert in and we would be leaving again for shortly.

Most transfers from security forces would have spent their previous two years guarding nukes, or the president, and others came from the historic drill team based in Washington D.C., therefore I assumed that Paul had either been standing in front of a missile or marching smartly. Our infantry unit was preparing for a deployment to the Philippines that we would never sail to aboard our Navy ships, which changed direction and headed for the middle-east. The only Marines in our unit that had been to Iraq were the older enlisted Marines, who deployed to Desert Storm thirteen years before. A strange thing had happened while my class was in the school of Infantry in January 2004, our instructors were replaced later in the cycle with instructors who had returned from recent deployments in Iraq, like a cheesy war movie the eighteen year old me was pretty sure the war in Iraq would be over with soon but in hindsight the instructor switch should have rang a loud bell.

Paul sat in his chair, a naturally quiet man. What he did not say was, “Shut your boot mouth kid, I just got back from Iraq.” He would be the only Marine in our platoon who had been to combat in less than a decade. Paul was a weapons expert and a professional Marine. I assured Paul the word that had been handed down to me, not to worry about that Iraq shit, Hawaii Marines go to the Philippines. When we made it to those ships that kept sailing everything changed as we crossed into waters known as the straits of Hormuz, off of the coast of Iran and the gateway into the middle-east. Our platoon was tasked to provide security along the perimeter of the ship; I stood next to Paul, loaded up with live rounds and curiosity. Small Iranian speed boats constantly flirted with our ship’s standoff distance; their small vessels would speed toward our ship and quickly break away before we started our two warnings and a sunken speedboat policy, nevertheless they were testing us and Paul stated that matter of fact when I asked him what the deal was with the speedboats? We stared at the boats and coast of Iran for hours, any time before I would have been water-skiing off of the back of a speedboat in air so hot, the water was emerald and would glow at night. Paul was preparing for round two.
 During the first full-fledged firefight I found myself involved in, a squad of Marines were caught in a gunfight with thirty enemy fighters in the house next-door to us. Nathan Douglass recalled from the perspective of our third squad, that Paul Stewgots sent a hail of grenade launcher fire down the street. The launcher requires the operator to load one round at a time, Paul was getting a hand cramp but Douglass explained it was a sight to behold, he just knew what to do, Paul Stewgots was a real life war machine. Some of this would have come from his advanced training in the elite FAST Company but most of it came from a warrior finding his place in the world. I was naturally clumsy, very young and my operating looked a world opposite of Paul’s.

Paul’s squad was blown up inside of a corner house later in the battle. Paul and his best friend Donnie were guarding a stairwell outside of the house when they heard the explosion followed by the moaning of wounded Marines. Today Donnie and Paul live close to each other in Connecticut; I went fishing with them this summer. Paul recalled that as he entered the house he asked his squad leader to help him pull bodies out of the house, his squad leader rasped “I’ve been shot,” and collapsed. Donnie and Pauley began dragging Marines out of the house that was also engulfed in flames. One Marine was lying on a stairwell and was too badly wounded to crawl out of the house. The smoke grew thicker by the moment and when Donnie and Paul found the injured Marine, they had a hard time moving him. Donnie recalled that they looked at each other and Donnie said, “We are going to die in here.” Paul recalled, “But it was like we were all going to leave this house or none of us were.”

Donnie and Paul were always a funny sight for tired eyes, they could make anything fun and the two were the heart of the platoon. They both received medals for valor that should have been higher. I talked to Paul about that last night. He had also been hit by shrapnel but never put in for a purple heart. I remember Paul and Donnie laughing in the desert, seared into my brain. Pauley Stewgots said to me last night that he recalled a flag waving on the back of a vehicle we exited to enter the battle, and how he thought that this was not the reason he was fighting, a piece of cloth. The Marine he pulled out of the burning house is breathing today.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Mexican Marine

Through heavily accented spanglish the first thing he ever said to me was, “I am your Corporal and I do not like the dick sucking.” I would come to later find that he had a robot black heart tattooed over his real heart. I was eighteen years old and standing at the position of attention. I replied, “I do like the dick sucking but to each his own Corporal.”  My roommate was also new to the unit and had Mexican heritage, he bit his lip in fear but I was confident that the Corporal would not comprehend my translation. The Corporal was a light skinned Mexican, he was built of lean muscle, he ran Iron Man competitions for fun and he was my first real squad leader. I was at home. Somewhere in the not too distant future both of the men standing with me in that room would be shot full of bullets in their legs, the squad leader’s leg almost blown in half and my roommate’s calf’s would look like a shark took a snack as he stumbled into our overpowered house with his finger laying down full automatic survival.
 Later the squad leader was moved to point-man, after the rest of the unit returned from advanced training. He loved the job and was good at it because he moved like a panther and was born lethal. I asked our point man “Bandito” how he came to America and he told me about walking through the border after several attempts as a teenager. His brother had taught him how to knife fight and he would teach me. He spoke of bandits in the streets of Mexico as a youth and how these bandits knew not to fuck with his knife fighting brother. During a training operation our unit participated in Okinawa the Bandito’s team was wiped out as he fought through the bottom story of a mock hotel with paint bullets. He called over the radio to inform us that he was carrying on. By himself the Bandito killed every member of the opposing force in the hotel working from the bottom floor to the rooftop. I was glad his service was in the US Marines.

I was his student. In Kuwait he introduced me to a Sergeant Peralta in 1st platoon. The Bandito explained to me and the Sergeant his outlook on the impending Battle of Fallujah in late 2004. He said, “I am here for the glory, nothing else. A million bullets can rain down and if Mary wants to take me it will be my time, if not it won’t.” I objected to this non-scientific approach and Sergeant Peralta laughed at my interpretation. Sergeant Peralta would later be nominated for a still pending medal of honor when after being terribly wounded he pulled an enemy hand grenade under his life-filled body, absorbing the lethal impact thus saving the lives of the Marines in the room with him. Regular guys who come from Mexico, the Mexican Marine Corps and an untold story of sacrifice by Mexican immigrants lives to this day in our military, which has always been filled with immigrants who yesteryear were white, giving generations of Americans a good excuse to avoid service.
This machinery is necessary to the American framework, it is not cruel, and tomorrow the Latino immigrants who served become politicians and can serve their non-serving white counterparts with a record that can’t be challenged.  This is the real America and a new wave of demographic will be our integrated future, like it or not. The truth is domesticated suburbanite teenagers like I was can’t be killing effective without the hard hand of the immigrant Corporal, who is hard through experience and a representative of every immigrant Corporal from every country to come to America, pick up a gun and fight in another foreign land.
After the wounded had been extracted, I picked up the Bandito’s helmet. I looked to a full moon and wondered if there was any significance in this? My hero had been killed and my teacher was off to the hospital. I reached in his helmet and picked out a Spanish prayer card he had tucked into the webbing. I stuck it into the webbing of my helmet and left the war an untouched atheist. I will visit the Bandito in Mexico next month for the first time since we were Marines, where he is fighting for his country in the drug war. He is my last interview for the film.