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How 1 scared Marine redeemed himself

Matt Sanchez

Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never seen.

Young Iraqi girl from Haditha. I’m always amazed at how quickly the children in Iraq smile and laugh

The 1st and 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Reserves out of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas were just “ripping in” to the little base in downtown Haditha, where they were replacing the gleeful and departing 1st battalion 3rd Marines out of Hawaii.

Camp Haditha, with its lonely road and soccer field converted into a helicopter landing pad, was a refreshing change from all the huge FOBs, or forward operating bases.

Literally in the middle of downtown Haditha, this small outpost offered none of the amenities that have become so typical of the bigger bases. A “shower” consisted of water dripping out of a bag. The “heads” – trailers equipped with toilets – were even more basic: A pipe pushed into the ground helped with one problem, and an old-fashioned outhouse was the solution to the other.

“Wagbags are a Marine thing,” I remember an Army soldier telling me in Baghdad. “We don’t use that stuff.”

The system was simple. You went outside when you had to go, and grabbed a “Waste Bag Disposal System.” You ripped the wagbag open and put the first bag over the port-o-john seat, the way you’d line a garbage can. The bag itself had powder at the bottom, which looked a lot like laundry detergent with a slightly sweeter smell. I think this was the “bio-degradable” stuff the instructions on the bag referred to.

A former drill instructor and company commander, 1st Sgt. Peter Ferral with the 1/3 Bravo Company celebrated leaving Haditha. After a tour at the prestigious Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., where duties include every type of official ceremony, Ferral, an infantry leader, knew he had to serve in Iraq. “It was becoming a legitimacy issue,” he said. “Imagine training all this time for the event and just warming the benches.”

Once you were finished, you put one bag inside a second zip-lock bag and threw the whole package into a pile that someone had designated the burn pit. Hopefully the burn pit was far enough away from where you spent most of the day, but like I said, this base was limited in size.

Burn-pit duty was possibly the least favorable assignment on any base. On the big FOBs, private contractors take care of waste disposal, but the little Haditha outpost was small enough that Marines had to fend for themselves.

When waste reached an unacceptable level, someone volunteered or was “volun-told” for the duty of getting rid of the waste. Some diesel fuel is splashed on the pile, before the whole mound is set aflame.

Sounds easy, right? But in order to properly burn all of the refuse, someone has to take a stick and move all the waste around. The smell of the burning fuel, bio-degradable agents and the contents of the wagbags is something not to be forgotten and was what I noticed the most, the first day I came to Haditha. After that, I got used to it.

Of course, waste-disposal duty lends itself to all sorts of nicknames, none of which I can repeat here. Needless to say, no one is too happy with the assignment, but there are exceptions.

This is the true tale of one Marine who spent much of a 7-month deployment stirring around the burn pit. As the 1/3 Marines were about to depart Hawaii for Haditha, a Marine who had never deployed claimed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, and refused to go.

Some might be surprised to learn that one can claim an “anxiety disorder” before ever even stepping into a combat zone, but that’s exactly what this Marine did, and almost got away with it. Let’s call him Lance Cpl. Stew.

The city of Haditha itself is a beautiful little town that apparently served as a vacation spot for many Iraqis. The town, as seen here on the right, is experiencing a new boom as Iraqis are moving back and looking for good jobs like those provided at the dam. Danger is, however, still a possibility. At night, illuminating rounds light up the sky to discourage any nocturnal mischief.

Lance Cpl. Stew told pre-deployment screeners he had gotten word of his boot camp buddy dying in Anbar. The information was so traumatic that he requested a medical waiver from serving in Iraq.

Unfortunately for Stew, there was a former drill instructor in his company who contacted the basic training in San Diego just to verify the claim. When civilians lie, it’s an omission, misrepresentation or something “everyone does” to save their hide; when members of the military lie, it’s called an integrity violation and has actionable consequences.

On three entirely separate occasions, Marines and soldiers complained that some have used PTSD as an excuse to avoid deployment.

In 2005, the Department of Veterans Affairs began to review compensation for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That same year, there was a 30 percent increase in claims for PTSD. There are currently more than 72,000 veterans drawing funds for PTSD and the number is rising.

It’s good to be heading home. Ferral and one of his Marines joke about the ups and downs of the deployment. The new guys listen carefully. We had just “gone firm” and were in an uncompleted Iraqi home. Two years ago, in the Haditha area, a team of snipers were killed when they set up a fighting position in a home not unlike this one.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen PTSD, it’s real, but the hyper-focus on this serious issue has become so political – like so many other things surrounding Iraq – that it’s impossible for military higher-ups to ignore the possibility of PTSD without compromising their careers and standing.

One officer who had served with a medical unit in Fallujah and Ramadi felt PTSD had become a type of copout, although he admitted to feeling the textbook effects of paranoia and stress when he returned back home.

So what happens when you fake an illness and try to get out of deploying to Iraq?

“He had to win the confidence back of his fellow Marines,” said Bravo Company 1st Sgt. Peter Ferral. The 40-year-old former Marine Corps drill instructor’s father had also served 34 years in the Corps. This was young Ferral’s first time in Iraq, but he had served as the gunnery sergeant for the famous 8th and I Marines, the ones who perform at ceremonies for the president and visiting dignitaries. As the company drillmaster, Feral well understood the power and influence of discipline.

Lance Cpl. Stew was demoted to Pvt. Stew and given open-ended waste-disposal duty for his deployment to Haditha.

As a DI, or drill instructor, it was Ferral’s job to deliver hardship in order to prepare his men for the duties demanded of a Marine in a dangerous place like Haditha, where previous units had come under serious attack, with deadly consequences.

When children are allowed to play in the streets, things are safe. This photo makes me think of how many parents back home would allow their small children to stand outside their home, unsupervised, and greet armed men.

Stew’s story does not end with a Marine losing some rank – that happens all the time.

What made the tale of Stew different was the outcome. Like some sort of military parable, Pvt. Stew became a figure of redemption and “really grew over the seven-month deployment,” said 1st Sgt. Ferral. There was some concern about taking a Marine “under duress” to a combat zone, but “when Marines or any group incur hardship together, they will bond,” said Feral with a Solomon-like wisdom – the trademark of a good DI.

I thought about how this statement related to our country.

After 9/11, America didn’t go to war, the military did. If you’re serving overseas and have made sacrifices, you’re going to bond with those who have suffered likewise, including your family. If you’re back home and have not felt hardship, sacrifice becomes a very relative concept.

This is the current dilemma between civilian America demanding security and fighting America duty-bound to protect it. Those who have participated the least in a place like Iraq are the most cynical, while those who have risked their lives seem to be the most optimistic.

With the 1/3 Marines “ripping out” and the 3/23 Marines replacing them in Haditha, Ferral suited up to go out for one of his last foot patrols. This was the hand-over phase, when the new guys led the old guys and soaked up as much advice and experience as possible before they would have to take charge themselves.

New guys from the 3/23 Marines, a reserve unit that pulled infantrymen from Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, benefit from the experience of the outgoing group. Reservist Marines have the double task of snapping into the military mindset after recently leaving their civilian lives. Gunnery Sgt. Allan Steer, 33, an active-duty Marine who served during the Battle of Fallujah and oversees the 3/23, said Marine reservists are “extremely committed because they accept Marine duties on top of their civilian lives.”

When the 1/3 Marines out of Hawaii came in, they had their initial problems. Haditha had a reputation for corruption and violence. In the marketplace, we met a vendor who stopped the 1st sergeant and asked him what could be done about the local police.

“They come in and wave their rifles around, pushing people,” the man said through an interpreter. “They are not professionals. We need better police.” The 1st sergeant wrote down the man’s name and place of business. He promised they would look into it. The man thanked him and we continued on the patrol.

In the neighborhoods, Ferral said goodbye to some of the people he had come to know in the past seven months, and he also introduced them to his replacements. The more experienced Marines said the Iraqis of Haditha knew there was a change of guard coming, and this was a vulnerable moment.

Going “firm” means choosing a building or firm structure where the patrol can regroup. The average Iraqi home is built like a small fortress. The stone walls are perfect for deflecting small-arms fire and the easy access to the flat rooftops makes them ideal look-out spots. Marines quickly assumed their positions in the abandoned home, half-under construction.

This was the moment to communicate, to discuss what they had seen in town. A radioman relayed our coordinates, while some Marines sat down and took off their helmets. We had walked for over an hour and yet no one seemed tired.

There were some jokes about how the time had gone by so fast. The Marines of the 1/3 are stationed in Hawaii, and despite the obvious differences between a tropical island and a city recuperating from war, Ferral looked as if he was sincerely going to miss Haditha.

Miss a place like Haditha? This was, of course, the paradox of Iraq and what’s so difficult to understand. Despite bad plumbing and the threat to personal safety, a tour in a city far away meant unique memories and experiences. For many servicemen and women, for better or worse, a place like Iraq was bound to leave a mark, indefinitely.

During the seven months in a place where violence could flare up on a street as quickly as a traffic light changed from yellow to red, only five Marines out of over 100 discharged their weapons.

Many of Pvt. Stew’s fellow Marines had forgiven him, and the rumor was that he proudly served out his punishment by becoming a burn-pit expert. The fear that Pvt. Stew would crack or compromise the mission was a real one, but it never happened. I have the feeling Stew’s pretend PTSD was cured by his true bravery. All the 1/3 Marines were finally leaving Iraq, but Haditha would never be far from their minds.

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Previous stories:

Bill O’Reilly storms Afghanistan

‘Medevac, medevac, medevac!’

Soldiers fighting for U.S. become citizens

Making Haditha safe from car-bombs

A day with the choppers

Inside Saddam’s ‘Lion’ mega-base

Hunting al-Qaida in Iraq

A tale of 2 ‘massacres’

Life with the Marines in Ramadi

Marines guard Iraq’s gradual transformation

Real heroism, real martyrdom

Life in Saddam’s palace

Marines trade bullets for compassion

Secret cause of sectarian violence in Iraq

‘General’ public should provide real support

U.S. soldiers befriend Iraqi children

War secret: Iraqis actually like the U.S. military

Previous commentaries:

‘Awakening’ musters Iraqi courage against al-Qaida

Democrats: Desperate for defeat

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.