When Tom (not his real name) decided to enlist with the United States Marine Corps in 2008, he had been renting a bedroom in his older sister’s El Cajon home for over a year. His room was wedged between his three-year-old and seven-year-old nephews’ bedrooms. At the time, he was 27 and out of work. It had been over four months since he had been laid off from his job at Fry’s Electronics in Murphy Canyon. He attempted to land a job as a Border Patrol agent. He passed all the tests but missed a paperwork submission deadline. He didn’t get the job. He was frustrated.
The way Tom saw it, joining the Marines was his best option. He viewed it as a way of getting his foot in the door to eventually land a law-enforcement job. That was, after all, where he wanted his life to head. His brother had served in the Army for nearly a decade and is now a cop with the San Diego Police Department. Tom picked the Marines specifically because of their reputation of being the toughest military branch.
He walked into the Marines’ recruiting office on East Main Avenue in El Cajon and signed up. He didn’t hesitate, he just did it.
“The recruiter loved me because I was the right age, I didn’t have any tattoos, have never done drugs, and I have a high school diploma. He didn’t have to try to convince me. My mind was already set.”
Tom’s mom Rita (not her real name) wasn’t happy when she learned that her son had joined the Corps. He had tossed the idea around with her, but she hadn’t realized he was serious. It came as a bit of a shock.
“I was worried,” she tells me.
“I wasn’t,” says Tom’s father Jim (also not his real name). “I think being a Marine is good for young men.”
Now, Tom’s mom has a SEMPER FI bumper sticker on the back of her Toyota Tacoma. When I last spoke with her, she had just returned from a ceremony honoring five men in Tom’s battalion who lost their lives during her son’s most recent deployment. While sitting in the bleachers at Twentynine Palms, one of the other mothers leaned over and whispered, “We are so lucky that our sons came home alive.” This rattled Rita: there was a heavy truth in that statement.
While Tom was gone on his last deployment, Rita watched the news constantly. If she heard about an explosion in the province where Tom was deployed, she imagined the worst. She would scour the internet for information. She even joined a Marine-mom website where other mothers exchanged information. The way Rita saw it, the more knowledge, the better.
“In the first three months of Tom’s last deployment I worried all the time,” she says. “It got to the point where I started getting sick. I used to cry really easily. Finally, I decided that I had to give it over to God. I had no control over the situation. That’s when I calmed down and relaxed about him being over there.”
She asked her congregation to pray for Tom.
Tom’s dad was of the opposite mindset. “I never worried about him. What good is worrying going to do? Besides, nothing bad ever seems to happen to people I know.”
During Tom’s first deployment to Afghanistan, his parents heard from him constantly. “I would look at my phone and there was Tom, instant-messaging me on Facebook,” Rita says. “He would send us email updates. It made it easier.”
“But this last deployment was different,” Jim says. “There was a lot more action. We heard from him less.”
Tom’s Facebook page lists his hobbies as: “Dodging bullets.”
Activities: “Shooting people with guns, and being shot at by people with guns.”
Tom writes: “Joining the United States Marine Corps…good initiative, bad judgment. Because doing something that makes sense, well…just doesn’t make sense.”
Tom was one of the older guys during his three-month boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. He feels he was able to see through some of the mind games they played on the recruits.
“The worst part was three months [of] having angry men telling you what to do, when to do it, every second of every day, except when we were asleep. I knew it wasn’t gonna last forever, but it sucked at the time.”
Because of activist groups putting pressure on the military, Tom says that there are now restrictions on the way drill instructors deal with recruits. For instance, recruits are required to get a minimum of at least six hours of sleep each night; drill instructors are not allowed to touch the recruits; they cannot swear; recruits have to have three meals a day; and they are allowed to shower.
“Basically, these groups put their noses in what the military does. Because of them, the Marine Corps’ new recruits aren’t as tough as the old ones.
“Showering was the worst,” he says. “There would usually be two, sometimes three, guys per shower head. The drill instructor would command us to wet our left arm, turn off the water, lather up, turn back on the water, and rinse. That’s how we showered. It was annoying. Everything during the recruit training was timed like that, even eating.”
When the recruits used port-a-johns, drill instructors would shake them from the outside.
“Because of this, we would look around before getting into one. We would try to run in before anyone could see us going into it.”
Tom’s four-year contract with the Marines is up in April 2012, at which point he’ll do four years of reserve duty. He was deployed twice, both times in Afghanistan.
During his first deployment, from late 2009 until early 2010, Tom was a driver. He and his crew had the task of making the Marines’ presence known. They would do armored patrols, confirming to civilians and Taliban that they were there.
There were many explosions from IEDs but far less enemy fire on his first deployment.
“We got used to the explosions. As soon as one went off, we’d say, ‘There goes another one.’”
In October 2011, Tom returned from his final deployment. That time, he was gone just over seven months.
He says that one of the worst aspects of his last deployment was being responsible for a dog. He had been volun-told (military-speak for being ordered to do something) to be a dog handler. Prior to leaving for Afghanistan, he was flown from his base at Twentynine Palms to South Carolina to train with a black Labrador for five weeks.
“At first, I thought it would be cool.”
He’d been told that, while in Afghanistan, all the dog handlers would be on foot. This meant Tom would see more combat, a prospect he welcomed.
“I’m an action junkie,” Tom admits. “Imagine you have a pit bull in a cage, and you’re poking it over and over again with sticks. All of a sudden you let it out, and it’s all pissed off. That’s like a Marine on deployment. You join the Marines because you’re slightly crazy. We want to see action. That’s what we are trained for.”
The dog’s job would be to detect IEDs. A week before Tom left on his deployment, the higher-ups told him he might be mounted instead. This meant that Tom would remain in a truck with his dog.
“We had no idea what was going on, which is normal for the military,” Tom says.
Once in Afghanistan, Tom’s dog proved to be a nuisance, mostly due to the heat, and to the fact that they were always in a truck. In total, the dog only went on five dismounted presence patrols.
It was difficult to get the animals to work. Temperatures registered over 100 degrees, and the dogs would cover (lie down), indicating that there was something there, such as an IED, when there wasn’t. They did this so they could stop working and rest.
Some of the guys in Tom’s section were happy to have the dog as a morale-booster, but the Labrador was useless as a bomb dog.
his section leaders requested a few times that the dog be taken away, and it was assigned to another handler whose dog had been sent back to the U.S. because it freaked out during combat situations.
“It just wasn’t a good environment for the dog,” Tom says. “For the first half of my deployment, I was stuck in the back of the truck with it. I barely got to see any action.”
Still stuffed in Tom’s wallet is the laminated card his battalion commander gave to each man in his unit. It lists 11 codes of conduct.
Tom hands it to me. He points out the ones he finds the most ridiculous.
Be prepared to win the gun fight every time
Do no harm
Treat others as you would want to be treated
It’s going to be frustrating, don’t get frustrated
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
“It’s stupid,” he laughs. “Most of it doesn’t even make sense. It’s stuff you would say to a kindergartner, not a Marine.”
Tom admits he wishes his battalion had been more proactive. “A lot of things could’ve been different, but politics got in the way. I hate politics.”
Tom talks about a building from which they frequently received heavy fire. “We asked to blow it up. It took the higher-ups several months to give us the okay. Who knows what’s going on in their minds?”
He recalls the day his friend Carl stepped on an IED. Carl’s section was occupying a position known to be covered with them. The Marines had asked for a bulldozer to clear the area. They were told it was occupied elsewhere. Carl was walking between trucks to get a battery when the IED went off. Other guys had walked the same path dozens of times, and nothing had happened to them. But Carl lost his legs.
“Either he stepped off the path a few inches, or he was just unlucky. Of course, magically” — Tom’s voice is heavy with sarcasm — “the bulldozer showed up the next day!”
Carl was stable when he was placed in the medevac chopper, but his condition worsened after he was flown to a hospital in Germany. “They flew his parents out to Germany, so they could see him before he died. I think that’s the least they could do.”
Tom admits that, for the first two months of his deployment, the closest he got to a shower was a scrubdown using baby wipes. For toilets, they used wag bag waste bags. You can Google the term. Campers and backpackers use them in the wilderness — enough said.
“If we were lucky, we got one that had a few pieces of toilet paper in it. That’s how grunts have it on deployments. The POGs [people other than grunts] have a makeshift bathroom, better chow, access to a gym. They get to sleep on cots in tents, and some even have air-conditioning. They had access to the internet, and most of them don’t do foot patrols.”
When he first arrived in Afghanistan, Tom’s CAAT (Combined Anti-Armor Team) set up an overwatch position on a plateau. The outer four trucks provided security for the inner four trucks, which is where the guys could relax a little and take off their gear. Every couple of days, they would rotate positions. The guys on the outer perimeter dug out sleeping areas and covered them with cammie (camouflage) netting. They reinforced the sides with sand bags for protection against enemy fire. Tom says his two months on the plateau was the easiest part of his deployment.
“There were no injuries while we were there, and we were far from any higher-ups.”
A few months into his deployment, Tom lost a really good friend.
The death took place during a BDA (Battle Damage Assessment). Tom’s section was sent out to a grove to check for weapons and bodies from a morning firefight. Tom was in the first truck. They were traveling in a group of four trucks.
“Pete, my vehicle commander, was sitting in the passenger, bitching about the positions of the trucks. One of them, our Saber truck, was positioned next to trees, where its powerful optics could distinguish every detail on a leaf but nothing else. It was useless.”
All the dismounts got out of the trucks. Tom stayed behind with the dog. Single-file, the dismounts headed into the grove, then stopped. They called Tom out of the truck.
“We had higher-ups with us. My lieutenant thought it would be a good idea to have the dog, possibly to make the higher-ups feel more comfortable. I had to walk all the way by myself. I made my way to the front, and we started moving.”
Tom’s dog was happy to be out of the truck. It ran around and ignored commands. The men had moved forward 100 meters or so, when they heard gunshots.
“Our section leader’s reaction was, ‘Those trucks are armored. They have big guns. They can take care of themselves.’ At the time, he didn’t realize that our Saber truck was stuck in a ditch and that Pete was dismounted, trying to help. A few seconds later word came over the radio that someone was hit.”
According to Tom, they took off running in a dead sprint through the grove, which was clearly covered in IEDs.
“When there’s a Marine that is hit, other Marines will do crazy shit. A reinforced squad from Kilo Company even ran over a mile in full battle gear when they heard someone was shot, and it was over 100 degrees out.”
When Tom ran out of the grove, shots were being fired in his direction. He put the dog back in the truck. His lieutenant yelled that their .50-cal truck was low on ammo.
“While I was passing ammo up to the gunner, my lieutenant jumped into the truck. Over the gunfire, I heard him say that Pete was a fallen angel. That was the first I had heard who it was, and that he was already dead.”
Pete was 23. He was married and had a young son. If he had survived, he would’ve gotten out of the Marines a few months after returning from that deployment. Pete died after ordering the Saber truck to switch positions with another truck, but the Saber got stuck in a ditch. He’d walked over to help. That’s when a sniper got him in the face.
“Even though we were in the middle of a firefight, our corpsman ran out to try to save him. That’s why Marines love their corpsmen so much. It was no use, though, because he was probably dead before he hit the ground. The bullet went in under his eye and out through his brain stem. The guys that were trying to keep him alive carried him to our truck. I reached down, grabbed him by his shoulders, and pulled him into the truck.”
When Tom retells the story his voice is steady, but there is frustration in his tone.
“At least that time we had people to shoot back at. When Carl stepped on the IED, we didn’t have anyone to shoot at. That was worse.”
When they took Pete back to base, the medical officer pronounced him dead. All the guys got into formation. They put an American flag over Pete. His body was carried past the men in formation, and they all saluted him. When the Marines on the chopper took the stretcher with Pete’s body, they also saluted. Tom tells me this in a voice heavy with pride.
After Pete’s death, Tom was asked to replace the gunner in the fourth truck. The other guys mentioned that the previous gunner had been keeping his head down while shots were being fired at Pete.
“The other guys were pissed,” says Tom. “I don’t know if the gunner ever figured out the reason why I replaced him, [but] I loved that job. Being a gunner was the best part of my deployment.”
Tom called home and told his dad that Pete had died. “Your mother doesn’t need to know yet,” said Jim. Rita didn’t find out until weeks later.
Even after hearing that Tom had lost a friend, Jim remained calm. But he admits that if something had happened to his son, he would not have handled it well.
“I am just so glad that nothing happened to Tom, because I think it’s a wasted effort over there now. It would be one thing if your son got killed during World War II, but to be killed in Afghanistan, where in maybe a year we’ll pull out and have really accomplished nothing, you would feel like it’s a waste of a life. We shouldn’t even be there.”
Rita wrote President Obama what she terms an angry letter during Tom’s first deployment. “It was after the president agreed to release photos of our guys torturing Iraqi soldiers. He’s our commander-in-chief, and he is going to do something to lower morale amongst the troops and anger the enemy. I was ticked off! I wanted to let him know that as a Marine mom I was angry.”
Don’t ask, don’t tell was repealed while Tom was deployed.
“It didn’t really have an effect on us,” Tom says.
However, Tom does mention that, after it was repealed, a gay Marine was accused of filming another Marine in the shower.
“It was a big deal,” Tom says. “He had to have an NCO [noncommissioned officer] escort with him at all times after that. The reason for this is because people wanted to kick his ass. When the guy figured out he was being filmed, the gay guy hid in a bathroom stall and locked the door. The other Marines were trying to beat him up. He was shunned afterward. He is getting an NJP [non-judicial punishment].”
Tom admits that the rules of engagement while in Afghanistan frustrated him.
“Since they invited us in, the rules are different than they were in Iraq. We have to see them holding a weapon before we are allowed to shoot. We have to be certain that there are no civilians around. If Taliban go into a house with weapons, we can’t go in unless we are invited in. It’s crazy.”
In August 2010, the Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan were revised by General Petraeus. U.S. and NATO troops must follow stricter rules, intended to limit civilian Afghan deaths.
Tom concedes that they don’t always follow those new guidelines. “When it comes down to it, we would rather go home alive. If someone is shooting at us, we are going to shoot back, no matter what....
“The conflict going on right now is very political. We had about 1000 Marines ready to go on my last deployment. Because of new rules, we have a troop cap in Afghanistan. We were only allowed to bring around 800 guys. We could have really used those extra 200 Marines.”
When Tom’s battalion pulled out of Afghanistan, the British took over their area of operations. They brought about 180 men to replace 800 U.S. troops.
“They couldn’t even occupy all our positions. People died in areas that weren’t even held. We had 100 wounded and five killed in action. If we were helping Americans, it would be different, but we’re not. We’re supposed to be helping the Afghans set up their government.”
When Tom came home in October, it took him time to adjust. He was happy to have a bed to sleep in, real food, technology, toilets that flush, and hot showers.
“You have to get used to being around people again. Some guys feel uneasy in loud, crowded places. We are used to keeping people away from us. It’s an adjustment.”
After Afghanistan, it irritates Tom when people grouse about petty things.
“In Afghanistan, people dig wells for water. They would wet mud to form blocks to build their houses. They eat the same food every day. When I came home, it was annoying to hear people complain about little things, like long lines, or not being able to order something off a menu because the restaurant is out of it.”
But he says he has no regrets. “There is pride in being a Marine.” Tom is glad he served, although he admits he is just as glad to be getting out. He sees his future as less limited, now that he has the title of Marine, but he isn’t sure he’ll stay in San Diego. “Everything is too expensive.”
His mom says, “We need to find him a nice San Diego girl. I think he’ll stay if he meets someone. Our family all lives in San Diego.”
When asked what his plans are when his four years are up, Tom wants to look into government law-enforcement positions. His ideal job would be with the Drug Enforcement Agency or to become a U.S. Marshal. For now, he’s sharing an apartment with another Marine near his base in Twentynine Palms. His days are still filled with physical and readiness training.
A few weeks after returning from his final deployment, Tom purchased a Harley. Every weekend he rides the three hours from Twentynine Palms to San Diego to stay with his parents or sister. He finds himself scanning the freeway for IEDs.