Existential Crisis


One of the things about being new to a unit, and a retread, and a lateral mover is that you already had three strikes going in.  So each one needs a word I think before we move forward with this one.  Being new?  Nuff said.  A retread means you got out and came back in, which was true in my case.  The lateral move was not my choice initially.  When I came back into the Marines Corps they said they had openings for infantry.  I was an Admin clerk.  So a step up  in some cases.

That was one of the weird things about the Marines I never got, “the Needs of the Marine Corps” was always a thing.  So when I first went in I didn’t exactly pick my job, instead I was offered a “group” of jobs that included Legal services, air field services, and administration.  I was thinking legal clerk or air traffic controller would be tight.  After taking my ASVAB, Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, and seeing my scores I had high hopes.  After boot camp when I was told what my job would be.  Needless to say I was perplexed, mainly because the job I was given was based on a score from my test that was also my lowest.

Needs of the Corps my ass, I bring this up because when I went back in I wanted to be an intelligence analyst.  They had made me retake the ASVAB, which I got a perfect score on, and I already had a Top Secret Clearance, so I thought it was a no brainer.  Nope.  I was offered infantry, and only infantry.  So I did what any guy who had a wife and two kids to support would to, I took it.  I later found out they still had over forty openings in the job I wanted.  I can say going infantry was good for me, but at the same time it’s a matter of principle about not getting what I wanted and what they had.

The silver lining was I was offered 0352, anti-armor assaultman.  We shoot big ass missiles at tanks, so that was cool.  The other bonus was that it wasn’t a job that was in a line company.  You know the rifleman you think of when you hear infantry?  Well a Marine Battalion had three companies full of those.  We call them crunchies because that is the sound they make when they get run over by tanks and other big vehicles.  My job was mobile, we were in the weapons company.  Where if you can’t truck it, fuck it.  We put our missile launchers on top of HUMVEEs and drove around being supported by machine gunners.  Plus you needed a Secret clearance.

We were the “smart” grunts.  The ASVAB had a high score of 99.  You only needed a 33 to be a grunt, to be a TOW gunner (our fancy title based on the weapons system we shot) you needed at least a 50, a driver’s license, and not be color blind in addition to the clearance or ability to get one.  The additional down side for me was that even as a Sergeant they made me go through the entry level training with all the boot camp fresh Privates.  That was an experience.  The class was also tougher than I thought it would be, mostly because they crammed so much into three weeks.

The worst was the armor identification.  We had to know over 50 different vehicles not only by their picture, but also heat signature, because our weapon had a cool thermal site that was like a really bad Virtual Boy.  The same colors too, but blurrier.  It was a hoot though.  This was a case where rank did have its privileges.  I mean I basically outranked most of my instructors, but since I was a student they could tell me what to do.  It didn’t much matter, I got to eat with the regular Marines during chow and when the boots (new Marines) were getting thrashed I got to sit back and chill.  I also got to keep my cell phone.

When I graduated I did have some words with an instructor or two that were kind of pricks when I was a student.  Once that ended though I got to have my own fun.  Ahh, the uber macho systems that we have.  They can be stress relieving if you know what to do.  Sorry, I got side tracked there, it does have relevance to the main story, which we will now get back too.

I had gone through a lot of shenanigans so far.  Well, I thought after my new job training I could get back to the business of being a Marine.  I wasn’t in bad company, they were so hard up for TOW gunners that I think we had about seven lateral movers in my unit.  So the shit I got for being one didn’t last long once all the others started to show up.  What I did do though, was show my prowess for learning and adapting.  The addition of already having a combat deployment under my belt didn’t hurt either.

Soon I found myself in charge of a team.  Each platoon in the company had six trucks, made up of two three truck teams.  I was moving up the food chain.  There was that one guy though, isn’t there always?  Gunny Vice, we’ll call him.  He was always riding my ass.  Most of us saw him as a giant douche, but I got the brunt of his focus.  Not a good place to be.  I never did find out why, I always assumed he saw me as a dirty retread and thought I lacked the skills to lead Marines.

That all seemed to change though in the Summer of 2005.  We were in California at 29 Stumps, the Marine base where all the fun desert training took place.  It was during a training evolution that simulated IEDs and an ambush that my bosses in the platoon were hit and “killed”, I had to take charge.  At the end of it the Gunny came up to me and said I did a fine job.  That was a good day.  Of course, if something didn’t happen later I wouldn’t even be mentioning this.  On to that part.

We get back to North Carolina and are getting ready to deploy to Fallujah, Iraq for the first time.  Remember early when I said if someone was asked to give up bodies they usually went for who they saw as not their best?  Well, three weeks before we are set to deploy we get a new guy.  He was a reservist that had volunteered to go active for a deployment.  He was active duty and was in the invasion and was also a TOW gunner and a Sergeant.  Well he joined our platoon.  A couple of days later Gunny Vice told me I had been reassigned to Headquarters Company and that the new guy was taking my place.  I guess I didn’t impress him that much in training.

The new guy Sgt Buck, was a nice guy and had actual combat experience.  I don’t knock him, but I was and in some ways still am butthurt.  I had busted my ass to prove myself and earn my position.  Now I was being relegated to possible shit duties, like Camp Guard, the shittiest assignment that an infantry Marine can get while on a deployment.  Luckily? I didn’t.  Instead I got to man an Entry Control Point (ECP).  So we got to check papers and cargos of commercial vehicles going into the city.  Talk about a waste of training.

This is where the sad part comes though.  About two or three months into out stint in the sunny deserts of the ass crack of the world, I find out that Sgt Buck had died from shrapnel caused by an IED that his truck hit.  At that time and to this day I still wonder if that would have been me had I not been sent to checkpoint duty.  It’s one of those things that stick in your mind long after the events happened.  The thing was, it didn’t really hit me until about a week after words when I finally got to talk to the guys in my former platoon.

It was sad that he had passed, and it still kicks me in the gut, but knowing that the person that took your spot may have taken something you would have gotten kind of makes you rethink everything.  Thus my existential crisis.  All the what if’s and should have been’s linger in the back of my mind.  Also, where would he be today if he didn’t make the choice to come back?  All the little choices that were made for the events to unfold as they did just make me think, and not nice thoughts.

What security?

One thing about working in the security field, especially after 9/11, was that everyone was paranoid.  And they had a right to be, we were just attacked and a lot of people died.  That also meant that security measures all over the country were being increased.  In my case that meant a lot of additional training.  I attended a lot of courses and my responsibilities went from a few to a fuck ton.

This covered personal security, physical, communication, information, operational, and a lot of other keywords.  Training is one thing though, using it in the states and then during the invasion meant I had a lot of knowledge and practical experience when it came to matters of staying safe.  One would think that this kind of expertise would be useful to a Marine or his superiors when looking at check points.

Where are our weak spots?  Where could we be hit by the enemy?  Which of our policies can be improved to ensure more safety?  Questions like these always seemed like they would be a constant factor in a hostile environment where people will just walk up to you and blow themselves up.  Giving them fewer opportunities to do so was a good idea.  Apparently not for everyone.

Since I was passed off to Headquarters Company I always assumed they saw me as the weaker link.  Just look back to the reference I made to being the one picked when asked for bodies.  I can’t say I blame them in this regard, it was SOP.  That being said I was more untested so passing me off at face value might have been the best thing in my previous company’s eyes.  In any case I was now working for people who ran the two main checkpoints for Fallujah.  One was for regular traffic the other was for commercial traffic.

I had the fun task of running the Commercial one.  I guess it was cool in the fact that I was running it.  Even though I was sent over the guy I worked for saw I wasn’t a total moron and basically gave me my own little command.  I had six Marines and about a dozen Iraqi Army Soldiers (IA).  So a good amount of bodies.  I had taken an Arabic course so it kind of made sense too.  I think I was the only guy out of the forty Marines working the check points that had taken it.  We had a translator too, but only one and he was oat the main post.

Anyway, we were split into two shifts.  Each shift had about twenty Marines, when they took over the main post, six would be sent to the smaller checkpoint, then our day long shifts would start.  We worked day on, day off.  Not too bad a gig really, aside from the fact people in the area wanted us dead.

There was a weird way that all of this was set up though.  It kind made of sense, but not really.  This is the point where it can get kind of boring, but the setup has to be clear.  Entry Control Point – 1 (ECP1) was the main entry into the city for all regular traffic.  It was right at the meeting point of two major highways.  One road ran straight through the city, we called it Fran.  We had names for all the roads to make it easier than trying to learn all the Arabic names.  Well, as Fran entered the city it ran under a bridge that had the main highway going over it.

The on ramp to that highway off of Fran started right before the checkpoint and went up to merge with it.  The couple of buildings that made up the checkpoint were in the space between Fran and the onramp, which is again elevated as it goes up to meet the highway.  We had eight foot concrete barriers making a wall around the ECP, but the height of the on ramp made it so even going on it in a sedan, you could look down inside of our area.

It might seem obvious from the description what could go wrong here, but Marines in general are not known for shall we say their intellectual prowess.  To be fair when we first got there in September of 2005 it wasn’t that big an issue, because the on ramp was closed.  Then someone had the bright idea of opening it.  Something about convenience for the locals.  The command had met with local representatives and it had been brought up, at least was my understanding.

I personally understood their point, but being a former security guy I raised concerns about the problems that opening that ramp would present.  Simple things like a car load of insurgents could drive slow and spray us with small arms fire, or the worst case of stopping there with a bomb.  I brought this to the attention of the two Gunnery Sergeants, one ran each shift.  They of course saw my concerns and agreed with me, because it seems that enlisted Marines in general can see common sense.

Now we start running into the problems and the start of the problems I would have with authority in the future.  It’s not like a lowly enlisted Marine can get anything done on their own, they have to bow down to the all might officers.  In our case our Company Commander.  We called him Captain America, because he acted like he was.  I can’t for the life of me remember his real name, but he was kind of an ass out for personal glory.  If that came at the expense of those under his command, so be it. The kind of Officer that would have been shot by his own men in Vietnam for being a liability.

That is one thing about an unconventional war like we were in, the opportunities for “friendly fire” accidents or blaming the enemy were far and few between.  When they happened it was usually sudden and you didn’t have time to set anything up.  I’m not advocating for anyone to be taken out, I’m just saying that some tales I have heard from Vietnam vets would have made this guy a prime target for a trip home.

The concerns were brought to him and dismissed off hand, I am talking about at the moment they were pointed out to him.  There were other occasions on which we told him again, each time he said no more harshly.  At one point he did say it would be a hassle to get the Engineers out there to do anything, which was bullshit as will be pointed out later.  I was even personally threatened with punishment when I approached him on the subject, so I dropped it, because that is what good Marines do.  I still regret it to this day, and I think he is still an asshole.

Shit, one time we were driving the perimeter of the city on the roads we used to take to our posts.  He couldn’t get a good radio signal so he stopped our little three truck patrol, got out of his truck and got on top with his portable radio trying to get comms.  I was praying the whole time he would get taken out.  We had sniper activity in the area and had already lost two Marines too it.  First off, stopping three vehicles on the edge of the city was stupid, we were in the old Humvees, no armor, no mounted guns.  Secondly what he was just checking signal, it’s not like he had anything important to call back about.

This was the kind of asshole we worked for, the kind that seemed oblivious at to where he was and what we were out there to do.  I still shake my head at how worthless this guy was, he came out to the checkpoints maybe once every other week, so he had no idea what we were even doing out there.  I guess the Marines will give any asshat with a college degree a commission.


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