Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedded in Iraq with the 1st Squadron 4th Cavalry out of Fort Riley, Kan. – the 1-4 Cav – has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never heard.
HURRICANE POINT, Ramadi – If you head west from this small forward operating base located on Route Michigan, you’ll reach a bridge that crosses a peaceful river. It would be easy to spend an afternoon walking along the riverbank, and many Iraqis do.
But the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines out of 29 Palms know complacency kills. In fact, that adage is written on the walls near the exit as a warning to Marines about to go outside the wire and into town.
Speaking to any member of the 3/7 Marines is like talking to a history book. For those who were here last deployment, the chapters on Ramadi are written into their memory. And when asked to recall the last deployment, the Marines of the 3/7 all seem to pause, as if staring at a photo of the past, trying to match up the old image in their minds with the reality right before them.
Marine Cpl. Mickey Schaetzle was a Ramadi veteran. Back home in Colorado, he played high school football; here in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, he was in charge of the convoy transporting me and a dozen other Marines downtown. I often find myself comparing young men like Cpl. Schaetzle – capable, in charge and responsive – with the students on the Columbia University campus and campuses across America. Instead of going off to college like most kids his age, Schaetzle joined the Marine Corps “to get a little discipline” and see the world. He saw Ramadi from 2005 to 2006, where he remembered a constant state of alert and the threat of violence everywhere.
I forgot to ask Cpl. Schaetzle exactly how old he was, but he graduated from high school four years ago. He was probably about 21, which is a bit older than the average age of servicemen in Iraq, yet men like Schaetzle were anything but average.
Marines have been around as long as the United States itself, and from the beginning, “the few good men” who join the Corps have been a bit different. As a tiny unit of “soldiers of the sea,” scrappy Marines struggled to prove their worth throughout every single conflict in American history. From the shores of Tripoli where they defeated Barbary pirates in what today is Libya, to the battlefields of France where one Marine officer shouted, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here,” you could make a case that Marines have something to prove – to themselves, and maybe just as important, to the Corps.
The Devildog is in the details. The Marine EGA, Eagle Globe and Anchor, are present anywhere you find a Marine. Marines are the smallest of all the services, but the symbol of the Marine Corps is one of the most recognized in the world
Half out of desperation and half out of sheer bravado, the Marines distinguished themselves for being “first to fight.” Recruitment posters for the “Great War,” World War I, showed an indignant, well-dressed man pulling off his suit jacket. The caption at the bottom: “Tell That to the Marines!”
You don’t just end up being a Marine by luck, or accident – it takes a concerted effort, a willingness to subject yourself to hardship in the hopes of something in return. Camaraderie, distinction or duty – defining that “something” is difficult, but if you don’t know what you want, the Marine Corps will kindly make some great suggestions. Every night before going to bed, Marine recruits will stand by their racks and, on cue, shout at the top of their lungs, “honor, courage, commitment.” Recruits bang the thin government-issued mattresses after every promise, so that the physical body will conform, retain and respond to each verbal pledge. For the Marines, muscle memory applies to the heart as well.
VIDEO: 1st Lt. Mauro Mujica, 3/7 Marines, Lima Company, lives and works with Iraqis daily
All members of the military have sworn to protect the nation, but Marines brag they’ll do it first, in fact they insist. It’s one thing to flirt with combat, it’s even more daring to become an “03″ Marine infantry rifleman during a time of war. When Schaetzle enlisted, that’s what he decided to be.
“Things are a lot better now,” Schaetzle said of the new Ramadi where Marines did not have to run on foot patrols trying to avoid fire from rooftops.
Up in the morning with the rising sun. Regulations state members of the military, in a combat zone, are to do PT (exercise) voluntarily. These Marines get up and train before the beginning of a long day
The “new” Marines of the 3/7 – the ones who were not around for the first deployment – will sometimes gripe that the current state of Ramadi is too boring. “Nothing happens,” said one private first class on his first tour to Iraq. Schaetzle’s just happy those Marines do not have to deal with what the media came to call “the most dangerous city in the world.”
In the fall of 2006, a very international and critical press ran headlines saying, “We have lost Anbar Province!”
The source of that leaked report was Marine Corps intelligence officer Col. Peter Devlin. With over 20 years in the Corps, Devlin’s assessment of the situation on the ground was alarming. Less than a year later, Anbar, a province named after the granaries and the abundance of its fertile land, is considered the fruition of success in the Iraq policy.
I contacted Col. Devlin via e-mail. Many members of the military have complained of being misquoted, so I’m reprinting his statements precisely as he wrote them to me:
“Quite obviously, the situation in the province has improved dramatically since then, to my great relief. As I have maintained since this improvement became apparent this spring (2007), the assessments that I made last year were accurate for the timeframe within which they were written. Things were that bad and the prospects for improvement seemed very bleak. I do not believe that any other intelligence professional would have developed a much different assessment for al-Anbar last summer and fall.”
Devlin, the internationally quoted Marine intelligence officer, is glad things have changed, but he did call the publishing of a secret report “an absolute disgrace.”
This is a street corner in Ramadi after it has been cleaned. It’s difficult to see a possible IED buried in the trash. Would you notice a can with tiny wires sticking out of it?
The Marines of the 3/7 would have recognized the details of Devlin’s descriptions in the fall of 2006. Street-to-street fighting, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and ambushes characterized the Anbar Cpl. Mickey Schaetzle had known and would never forget, even after moving on from the Marine Corps.
Looking to the future, Schaetzle told me, “I want to go back to school and become a physical therapist.”
“Why do you think you’re ready for college now?,” I asked. Like many who enlist, Schaetzle just didn’t think college was for him after years in high school. For lots of young men and women, the Corps provided a different kind of education, with a lesson plan that just couldn’t be found in a textbook.
“I know more what I want,” he said with confidence.
VIDEO: Democracy in action, people who are not afraid to question authority. It really seems to come natural.
What will the effect be on American society when all these young men and women who have seen and done so much come home to live normal lives?
“You’re not going to be like everyone else,” I said.
“That’s OK, I’m not going to tell anyone I’m a Marine or anything. I just want to study in peace.”
I always ask troops what they’re going to do when they get out. Getting out, leaving the safety and comfort is a big step. I’ve met many servicemen and women who leave and then come back, after finding civilian life to be less satisfying. “Go to school” is the No. 1 answer – a lot of the 3/7 Marines want to take what they have learned and experienced, and apply it to other areas of a life they know has completely changed.
Situations and settings change, people change, but is it possible for former enemies to become friends, or at least to work together? The complaint of fighting alongside former insurgents who have American blood on their hands may distress people back home, but I’ve heard a different opinion in Iraq.
Infantry officer Capt. Dave Hart with the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines said he would “rather see a defection than a capture, even if these guys were fighting us two or three weeks ago.” A capture was a drain on resources, another person to arrest, guard and process through a system that began on its hands and knees and was attempting to take its first steps. A defection was a loss for the other side, an asset for the home team, a fighter not only trained, but intimate with enemy tactics.
“Every time we went out, we were going to get into a fight,” said Maj. Rory Quinn of the 3/7. Hurricane Point was no picnic, but the Marines of the “cutting edge” 3/7 are used to harsh conditions.
Almost every Marine I’ve met has an opinion, criticism or horror story about 29 Palms, even the ones who have never seen it. Nicknamed “29 Stumps” and smack dab in the Mohave desert, the vast 29 Palms is the toughest place for a Marine to be stationed, or at least that’s what they say. Mohave Viper, the training exercise “The Stumps” hosts for Marines to get training in preparation for deploying to Iraq, is said to prepare Marines the best and most realistically for conditions in the Middle East. No stranger to hard realism himself, Quinn, a native of New York, is serving his second tour in Ramadi.
Quinn is an all-around easy-going guy. He gets along well with the Iraqis, which is not surprising – he is part of the power structure. And from the younger Marines – the ranks below sergeant, the ones who are about to get out and have nothing to lose when they offer their opinion – I didn’t hear one unkind word about Major Quinn, a rarity.
VIDEO: The Souk had become a ghost town before the Marines set out to take it back.
“You’ve got to drink the chai,” Quinn said. I never saw him refuse a cigarette either, Iraqis will always offer before lighting up themselves.
“We made the mistake last time around of not focusing on the people of the city,” he said.
In the current “permissive” state of security in Ramadi, personality may be more useful than body armor. “Permissive” was one of those terms a lot of military types repeated just like “kinetic,” “tactical” and “malingering” – they sound really specific, but the vocabulary is subject to interpretation. “Permissive,” here in Ramadi, meant the threat was distant, but that Marines never relaxed.
The following morning we drove down Route Michigan to an Iraqi police station. The occasion was a Ramadi city council. As soon as Quinn arrived, the Iraqis swarmed over to meet and greet him.
“We try to stay in the background and let these guys do their job,” said Quinn. This was democracy at work – not Democracy with a capital D, the stuff political philosophers like Socrates, Locke and John Adams spoke of – but the democracy of local government where normal people sat in a town hall-style audience, listened to what politicians promised and then got up and gave the authorities sitting behind the table a piece of their mind. This was the practical democracy of people arguing, compromising, misrepresenting, accusing, arguing and settling on some sort of agreement.
One indignant man got up and accused the members of the board of stealing contracts. “The guys can be pretty cutthroat, they get really jealous when one contractor wins out over another,” an American from USAID told me. The council members, who are not eligible to bid on contracts, assured the irate man that the process was transparent. Marines supervised the transparency, and like referees in a boxing match tried to make sure everyone followed the rules, without taking a stray blow to the chin.
Another man in a white dishdasha, the customary robe many Middle Eastern men wear, sprang out of his seat and pointed a finger at someone across the room. Shouting started and the leader of the council tried to restore order. The interpreter couldn’t keep up with the back-and-forth, but as with a rushed text message, I got the gist of the problem: “My honor,” “He’s lying,” “You don’t keep your promise!”
“I call this man-drama,” said Quinn, referring to the public spats and intrigues that went on between Iraqi men. One police officer shot himself in the hand, apparently trying to show off to his buddies. Another contractor accused a competitor of being a terrorist to authorities, possibly because he lost out on a bid. A father insulted a neighboring family when he refused to let his daughter marry their son. And the list went on.
In a public culture where women have been almost entirely absent, many men in Iraq and throughout the Middle East take on an etiquette that could sometimes revert to the level of kids fighting on the blacktop during recess at an elementary school.
I never thought of how fortunate we are back home to have women who cannot only take a stand, but who temper the male behavior, no matter how crazy they make us. The only time you saw a man and woman together in Iraq, especially in the smaller towns, was when a covered mother carried her toddler to market and let her older son address the male vendors on her behalf.
The souk, or marketplace, had been closed down during much of the fighting. The threat of car bombs, suicide bombers and IEDs was too great, and if the streets were littered as they were before, you would find it nearly impossible to spot a “tomato can” IED, a dangerous little explosive that could easily kill a pedestrian or two.
3/7 Marines 1st Sgt. Scott J. Schmitt, Lima Company, of Caseville, Mich., is a 17-year veteran of the Corps on his first tour to Iraq. About 30 percent of Marines have not deployed to Iraq, a statistic often due to circumstance and just plain chance. After serving in the Marine Helicopter Squadron, the squadron responsible for the transportation of the president of the United States, Schmitt, a flight equipment technician, wanted to do his part in Iraq.
“We’re hiring locals to pick up the garbage,” said Capt. Marcus Mainz, commanding officer of Lima Company and on his first tour in Iraq. Garbage collection, construction projects and other public works are economic shots in the arm and part of the strategy for both improving the city and making it safer. But in typical Marine fashion, Capt. Mainz’ AO (area of operations) has gone above and beyond the call of duty. His lieutenant, Luke Larson, has participated in the organization of a 5-kilometer race down roads that pedestrians avoided.
The race is on
I stood on a bridge overlooking Route Michigan. One of the sergeants told me that, in the past, our military would never stand on this bridge – too easy a target for snipers. Runners, all male, lined up at the starting line for one of the first public events in recent history. There were easily 200 runners, even considering that tight security may have prevented neighboring athletes from entering the town. There was still a ban on vehicle traffic in the downtown area, there had not been a car bomb in several months and the mayor of Ramadi, Latif Obaid Ayadah, told me he was cautious about changing the situation, but he was really excited about building hotels to spur tourism.
“This is the capital,” he said, and “it would be a great investment.” The mayor knew the time was nearing when Ramadi could become a normal city, but the danger was nowhere near its end.
Lt. Larson: At the starting point of the first public event in Ramadi in almost a decade
The runners finished near a roundabout, a spot where several Marines had been wounded the year before. Musicians arrived after a happy mob engulfed the winner of the race. Police officers started to dance in circle, each following traditional steps that I’ve seen throughout the Middle East. The scene was about as jarring as the names of the neighboring streets: Moron, Firecracker, Botta bing. The people of Ramadi had not forgotten how to celebrate.
The announcer on the loud speaker called the names of Marines and I snapped pictures of Iraqis handing Capt. Mainz, Sgt. Humphrey and lieutenants Larson and Mujica trophies. It was a nice movie moment, the point when credits roll and only a few stay seated in the theatre to read the names. But life has never been like a Hollywood film and the Marines of the 3/7 are not actor on some stage.
VIDEO: Sergeant Brandon Humphrey has been designated a “lieutenant” because of his ability to manage a joint Marine Iraqi Police station.
The next morning at Hurricane Point, I woke up early and watched small groups of Marines running, doing pushups and pull-ups – or PTing as they call it. A Marine hanged from a bar pulling upward, a second struggled for another push-up while fellow Marines encouraged them both to keep going. At the same time a staff sergeant directed his Marines in meticulously eliminating the layers of fine dirt the Ramadi weather deposits in one day. There would certainly be more dirt tomorrow, but that day the streets of Hurricane Point were exceptionally clean.
Maj. Quinn told me, “It’s so obvious this is how you win this fight,” and he was not kidding.
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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.
A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.