You know, I was put up for two NAMs [Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal] on my second tour. But both times somebody shut it down, for some stupid reason.
By the time I left for my second tour, I’d done two full Iraqi Arabic courses at the community college near base. It was taught by a former Shiite, Iraqi General that somehow came to the states. I think he was instrumental in keeping the Iranians from completely overrunning the country when during the Iran-Iraq War. His name was Ali Wa Selan. We just called him Chemical Ali, but it was okay with him, I guess.
I loved those courses. We were officially detached from our units and reassigned as students in college. So we partied like we were college students. We got wasted every night and showed up barely sober. A couple of times we slept in the car in their parking lot just to get out of field day stupidity [Field Day – Thursday evenings when everybody cleaned the entire barracks from top to bottom].
After we did about two months of patrolling, recon [Marine Reconnaissance battalion] borrows our company to help them do a patrol through this area they called “gunfight city.” They’d get into bad firefights every time they went through, so they asked for some help doing a systematic house-to-house search of two small towns.
I got stuck in the company commander’s vehicle – manning the .50 while a Slovakian buddy of mine rode along. It was boring as hell and I hated it. If it wasn’t for family, religion and stuff, I’d have shot myself and pelted my CO [commanding officer] with my own brains. Maybe he’d be horrified or something.
After one day, we’d searched almost the entire area we were assigned. We’d be done late that night, so we need to find a place to stay so we could leave in the morning. Recon, by the way, wasn’t even half done.
I told the company commander, Sir, I speak a little Arabic. I can get us a place for the night if you give me a chance. And much to my amazement, he let me go.
That Slovakian guy and I walked up to a school compound. It was surrounded by a high wall and really secure. We just walk in and go to the headmaster’s office and talk to him. Seriously, within 15 minutes, I’d negotiated a place to stay that night – for the whole company. We’d be safe, secure, and since we were right next to a mosque, we knew we wouldn’t even get mortared. We’d even pay the headmaster reparations for his troubles. Everybody was happy. The CO was amazed. How’d you do that, he asked me. I dunno. I’m just good, I guess.
Awhile later they told me that I was going to get a medal for it – a NAM with a V [for Valor – always attached to the device when awarded in a combat zone – regardless of merit]. So anyway, did I get it? Nope. The CO was killed and everybody forgot about it. I didn’t get anything.
Before long, they disbanded weapons platoon and attached us to other platoons. I got stuck with the stupidest of them all. It’s not they were really idiots, but they followed every order to a T – to the point of absurdity. Even if the orders were stupid, dangerous, and horribly dumb. They’d just do them anyway – even if it killed them. They couldn’t think for themselves and improvise.
Anyway, we did pretty well despite that. I was still acting as provisional terp, too, so I had to interrogate them and determined if we’d even take them in. We captured about 200 or 300 of them, and I did spot interrogations of all of them. Believe it or not, 2/3s of them got sent to Iraqi court for prosecution. I guess my interpreting was pretty decent. I could spot a bad guy.
Whenever we were out on extended missions, we’d commandeer locals’ homes and stay there at night, which was really screwed up. Since I was interpreter, they’d send me to talk with the family and explain why we were kicking them out of their houses in the dead of night and telling them to just get scarce for a couple of days. I felt really badly doing it but I still had to. I had the hysterical women screaming at me about how we’d destroy the house, take their money and their guns, and then my platoon sergeant barking orders at me in the other ear. I was chaotic, and I felt bad. They all hated me for it – even though we were always very respectful of their homes, paid them money and everything. We were still kicking them out in the middle of the night. But I had to do it. Our mission came first. I still didn’t like it though. Thankfully, I ran into most of them later and they were still friendly with us.
So by the end of the deployment, I’d done this to like 40 houses. Just stormed into their homes in the middle of the night and told them to leave – sort of politely – at gunpoint. I was conflicted, but it had be done. They told me that I was going to get a medal for an entire tour as a provisional terp. Well, when I was up one day in headquarters, I dug through all the award citations sitting in the office, and then I found mine.
They were giving me a CERCOM [Certificate of Commendation – just above a letter of appreciation]. And it wasn’t for working as a terp. It was for doing a SINGLE spot interrogation of a guy that allegedly had some involvement in an attack that killed five Marines. That was like 15 minutes of the entire deployment, and that’s all they remember. A CERCOM. Those things are worthless. Just a shitty piece of paper. A written “thumbs up.”
Meanwhile, every radio watch guy, got a NAM just because they worked close to the command element. They were liked, so they got medals. And guys that weren’t even involved in operations got NAMs – for those operations. The officers just thought it was the right thing to do.
All the company commanders got Bronze Stars, too – with Vs [for valor], just because they were company commander and WE did such a good job. In Vietnam, a Bronze Star with a V usually meant you were a hero – or more likely dead. Guys that got shredded doing something amazing. But now, all the COs got one, even MY CO [commanding officer].
And that was the most screwed up thing about it. He had died doing something stupid – against the judgment and advise of the other four Marines in his humvee. They said there was an IED ahead, but he ignored them. He insisted. And he was killed, along with four of my friends – and good Marines.
But they gave him a Bronze Star, too. We were back in the states by then, and the guy’s family came down, so we had to do a memorial service for him – which was dumb. And when they read the citation [the account of the event that earned the Marine the award], they recounted something that happened THREE WEEKS after he killed himself and my friends. They’d just made it up out of guilt or something.
So all these guys that come back and show off medals, I don’t care. I don’t believe any of them. Chances are, they didn’t do anything. They might not have even been there when it happened. But somebody just handed them a medal. Maybe out of guilt. I don’t have any medals still, and neither do my four dead friends, but I know what they did, and I know what I did. And I don’t think anybody cares.
The Gunner's Dream
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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