So what is it actually like being on the front lines? What’s it like to be a Marine, Soldier, Sailor, or Airman in the thick of things on the daily. We get block buster movies, video games, and novels about the almost godlike heroes all the time. We hear about the Valor of Navy SEALS and courage of Green Berets, Rangers, and Delta Force. We can go to our local Books-A-Million (or Barnes and Nobles, but screw those guys and Starbucks for not supporting the troops) and read about the heroics of an Airforce PJ, an EOD team, or some other elite operator with the best training, gear, and intel available. Does this actually represent the hard working men (and a very select group of women) who bare the majority of the burden without getting the glory? Not really, and if I may speak for all of us, we don’t want any of that. We watch or read these amazing tales, and of course see a good bit of ourselves in these stories, but it doesn’t actually tell it like it is. I will give Evan Wright (one of my ultimate influences in writing, along with the Titans of immersive and long form journalism like Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and believe it or not Patrick F. McManus) credit for his nearly perfect portrayal of Marines during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, but even then it’s a recon unit and heavily edited for the safety and careers of some of those fine warriors involved. So, for those of you who don’t know what it’s actually like, and even for those that think they do, what is it actually like to be on the front lines of the War on Terror? How do we feel? How do we interact? How do we handle the stress, boredom, and lack of personal space? In the next few hundred words I’m going to try and paint a picture of the way things actually work at the most basic levels. I’m going to show what it’s like to be a lowly junior enlisted just trying to survive, and a low level NCO trying to be the backbone of their unit, bring their guys home, and not get in trouble with the higher ups. If you’re an officer, civilian, or other non-informed human this might all seem a little offensive, a little harsh, and a good bit endearing (or at least I hope so). Without further frivolous nonsense let’s get started:
When you join the military it can be quite jarring to the senses, and will forever change the way you think. The military has gotten how to teach farm boys, inner city kids, and everything in between to be killers down to an exact science. It isn’t nice, it isn’t pretty, and it is most definitely brain washing. Ever seen that scene in Game of Thrones where bald dude cuts off the Unsullied soldier’s nipple? Well, news flash, that’s the goal of boot camp. They want us to be stone cold killers, capable of following orders, dealing with hardship, and trudging through the worst the world has to offer with a smile on our faces. I can’t speak for all services, but boot camp for the Corps was the first place I ever learned to not only embrace the suck of a situation, but thrive on it. I often wished the suck could suck harder, and move on. Honestly boot camp isn’t that bad, just do what you’re told, when you’re told, and try your best. After this we all go into some form of schooling. Sometimes this can be truck driving, machine gun shooting, or other assorted jobs. Each one has a purpose and is expected to be done in an efficient and timely manner. It’s at school when we start to form the bonds of brotherhood. We learn the names of others finally, and get to learn some back story of our peers, but the thing we learn most is that none of that matters. In the military we are all green (or blue for the Navy and Coast Guard?) not black, white, or any other race. Our religions no longer matter, and our personal desires begin to take a back seat to the needs of our team. We also begin to adopt the morose humor and wide open attitude that is pervasive in barracks and FOBs all across the world. We begin to Crack jokes at each other’s expense, and establish a pecking order. Nothing is off limits amongst real warriors. We constantly rag on each other for any reason we see fit (race, religion, looks, penis size, the car we drive, girlfriends looks, etc.), and nothing is off limits or out of bounds (I’ve heard white Marines call black Marines the N word without either blinking an eye, and I’ve seen Soldiers rag on a dudes car so bad the guy traded it in the next day), because at the end of the day the differences are just fodder for establishing camaraderie and what really matters is that we will all be there for each other no matter what. It’s at this point we begin to develop a sort of codependency on each other, and the closer we get the less we give a shit about offending each other.
Once the school is done, and we have officially made (what we think at this point will be) life long friends, we get shipped off to the 4 corners of the globe, to all different units, and never speak again. It isn’t tragic, it isn’t full of hugs and good byes, it’s just a fact of life. Every brother we have is the most important person in our life, but we are also part of a well oiled machine that doesn’t have time to get attached. Every new unit is just like the old, and every new brother is just like the last. I’m not saying this to degrade the actual relationships we all form, but more to point out that the ultimate concern is effectiveness as a unit, and emotions get in the way (even though we all have them, it’s imperative we bury them deep down to avoid costly mistakes). We check into our unit terrified and excited. We meet the guys we will be deploying with, and get straight down to business. We get broken down again, just like in bootcamp. We are in a new pond full of bigger fish, and more levels to the hierarchy. We get treated like shit, but it isn’t for the enjoyment of the seniors, it’s for our own good. We get our egos put in check, and start to listen more. We get trained from the ones who came before, and begin to form a team that actually knows how to fight a war. We spend countless hours waiting to wait some more. We realize the little stuff that isn’t combat isn’t as well piled as we thought, and we get bogged down in customs, courtesies, power-points, and safety briefs. It sucks. At this point the new guys are ready to get going, and still love their branch (don’t worry, that’ll wear off), and the salt dogs are ready to get back to where life was simpler. As a new baby Marine, Soldier, or Sailor (No idea about Airforce, but I assume it’s similar) we learn that life in war is simpler, and easier in a way. Don’t die, and do your job. That’s it. You’re fed, you’re laundry gets cleaned, and your clothes are provided. All you have to do is show up and do what you’ve been trained to do. This obviously never happens, so we do countless gear inspections, long formations, and more lectures about drinking and safe sex than any reasonable man can handle (good thing we wouldn’t have ended up here if we were reasonable, and there is always a few who break all the rules, every time). We spend our free time drinking, chasing women, and above all else bonding with our brothers in a non-work setting. In case you didn’t know the military is the only job where you work with, live with, and hang out with the same people 24/7, and none of your interests personally matter. It’s all about the group. Like rap music and sneakers, cool, you get to room with a cowboy who wears boots and likes country. You will inevitably be best friends and make fun of each other about your differences constantly. Next thing you know it’s time for 30 days of leave, and you’re off to the sandbox for the actual learning to begin.
Little known fact: the signs and posters and other assorted good bye stuff families bring suck for us. We don’t say anything because we know it’s hard for you too, but it annoys us. We are now programmed to be OK with what we are about to go and do (Think the scenes from Gladiator, “Those Who Are About To Die, Salute You”). We made peace with us leaving and potentially not returning months ago. It isn’t a lack of love, or care for our families and friends, but more a defense mechanism for ourselves. You all have the gift of not dying should the emotions of us leaving get the best of you, we don’t have that luxury. We need to be focused and ready at all times. We know we seem harsh, and unmoved by it all. That’s a fucking lie. Every new guy going for the first time is terrified, and every guy going back over is even more so. Yes we all want to do it, and yes we are all willing to make the sacrifices expected of us, but any man who says he isn’t scared is a dirty liar (I’m looking at you Recon Ranger Marine Badass Keyboard Warriors). Fear keeps you on your toes, and arrogance leads to complacency. Complacency leads to dead brothers, or a dead you. Even worse complacency can lead to permanently injured brothers, and that’s a fate worse than any other. The burden that you caused your brother so much pain and hardship. It isn’t courage that leads men to sacrifice them self for their comrades, it’s fear that if they don’t it will hurt their brothers. Fear of letting eachother down, and the love we all share is what leads men to great actions. The trip over there is quite entertaining, as you get to fly in a normal airplane with guns, and stop for a few drinks in Germany or Ireland. If you haven’t flown with a machine gun under your seat, you have never truly lived. We arrive in Kuwait or Kurdistan, or some other staging country that’s like the PG version of where you are actually going. It’s our first taste of desert life, and the first time we begin carrying Live rounds at all times. We can no longer go anywhere alone, and no longer have freedom beyond going to basic necessities like showering or food. Our lives are now on the edge between safe normal life, and combat. It really isn’t that different than what my brother described prison as. We sign out any time we leave the tent, we have very strict hours of when we can be free(ish), and we begin to acclimate to the scorching heat. Staging before we actually get to our home for the next several months is the worst. No missions to distract you, and all the bullshit of being at home doing paperwork, but no down time away from it (Literally the farthest you can get away is a few hundred yards to the gym or chow hall). After a few days or weeks you are off again, headed to the actual sandbox. Frequently at this stage if you aren’t a shitbag you are being trusted more by your superiors, being treated like a child less and less, and sometimes rank or last names begin going out the window in favor of nicknames and first names. You are now part of something real, and it’s time to do what you have been chomping at the bit to do.
You usually fly in at night, (for me it was summertime in Fallujah,and about 105 °F at midnight), you are whisked from place to place until you find out where you are staying. You begin to meet your counterparts from the unit you are replacing. You start to learn the base or FOB, and get comfortable, but it’s still days before you get to leave the wire. You get assigned your vehicles if you are lucky enough and after a few weeks you start integrating with the outgoing people. Anyone who has been here before knows that this is the most dangerous time, one group is green and new, the other is just ready to go home. After the change over is complete it’s onto missions. Some are short, some are long. As time progresses you learn what it is really like. Shaving happens a little less often and uniforms begin to look tattered. Everyone except the most motivated of upper level leadership begins to loosen up the rules and let stuff slide. As long as the mission is accomplished, and you don’t look like complete shit you get left alone. Believe it or not the worst part is the boredom. If you’re lucky you may have a platoon or squad Xbox shared amongst 10, 20, or even more people. You begin to watch TV shows you would never consider since all the good ones get watched in the first few months. You don’t watch TV and movies because you aren’t busy, but because the little down time you do have is unbearable. Try going from a car wreck and then just sitting around… it sucks. Same idea over there, but it’s like being in a car wreck several times a day, and having nowhere to go afterward but lunch and movies. It isn’t uncommon to find a post 9/11 veteran than can quote Gilmore girls, or know the nuances of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Let’s not forget the desert goggles setting in, because in a world with men out numbering women 15 to one, even the worst looking ladies are beginning to look pretty good. I personally never gave much attention to this, but the line outside every porta-john after after a supply convoy with a girl on it leaves is a good indication it must be true (ask any War on Terror vet thinks of when he sees a porta-potty and the answer will be jerking off, passing out from the heat, or terrible and childish graffiti). I know it sounds crude, and ridiculous but you try going 6 months to 2 years without an outlet for sexual frustration, and no decent place for privacy. You’ll end up in a big smelly shit box with a magazine that every dude around has used as well. We all cherish the little contact we get with the world back home, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: we intentionally went longer than needed between calls or emails, it’s hard for you, but it’s devastating for us). As for the actual missions it’s about as simple as it gets. They all start blending together. One firefight looks like the last, one IED is the same as all the others. I would venture to think it’s our mind keeping itself from going bonkers with all the bad and boring that’s out there. We go and do our job, and in the worst of times is when we truly find humor and appreciation for life. I know a few personal stories of guys just saying fuck it after an attack, stripping naked, and walking into the desert. Believe it or not that isn’t even that weird compared to some reactions I see, but is it that crazy to imagine? Imagine living your scariest life event over and over every day for months. Like the groundhog day and hunger games had a baby. That’s life in the sandbox.
Want to see something crazy, ask a Marine or Soldier how many packs a day they smoked, or how many cans of dip they went through. Or even worse, how many cans of rip-it they drank. We all live off of nicotine, caffeine and junk food. It’s a staple of life in the desert. We all chain smoke, tell ridiculous stories, drink unhealthy amounts of caffeine, and do our damn job. It’s that simple. Everything boils down to caring about each other, doing whatever it takes to get everyone home safe (even at the expense of our own safety or health), and getting the job done. We doing hate the enemy, we love each other. Yeah, that sounds gay as fuck, but it’s true. Want to see true love, go find two drunk Marines who deployed together and lost someone, they’ll be all about telling you about their bromance. We curse a lot, we don’t give a shit about offending anyone, and we would all do it again. Without hesitation. I can’t answer the why, because honestly I still live it daily, and have no idea. Maybe love for the brothers we don’t know? Fear for the safety of others without us? Arrogance that we could do better? Sense of duty to our country, god, or branch of service? Honestly, does it really matter? Everyone who has ever left and gone to war never fully came back. It’s ludicrous to expect us to, because any sane human would be permanently changed by the way life is over there. If you ever find yourself wondering why a veteran you know only cares about getting the job done, or is made at dumb shit, or is willing to sacrifice it all for for another shot at glory. Now you know why. None of us want to die, but we would prefer it be us than someone else. Glory isn’t found in war, death or destruction. Glory is found in bringing your dudes home and having their backs no matter what. Glory is found in stories passed from one generation yo the next. Glory is always about what another man did for you, not what you did for others. Like I’ve heard it said before: “I’m no hero, but come to Arlington with me and I’ll show to a few.” SEMPER FI