To Ramadi and Back
Ten years ago this week our brigade learned it was being deployed from South Korea to Ramadi, Iraq. The orders came on 18 May but because of the time difference between the U.S. and Korea most of us did not find out until we assembled for a formation on the morning of 19 May. The next few months were hectic as we went on block leave, turned over most of our equipment to units staying in Korea, and retrained in order to prepare for urban warfare in a desert climate. By August we were in Kuwait, and after a short period of acclimation training in its insufferable heat we headed to Ramadi. This was the last place many of our comrades ever experienced. Over the next 11 months scores would be either killed or wounded so severely that we never saw them again.
October 2004 was particularly cruel, as snipers, rockets and suicide bombers took Kim, Merville, Fortune, Beard, and Downing from us, in addition to several Marines operating on the other side of the river. By the time our tour ended the following summer dozens more had joined them, including Lozada, Toy, and Stevens. They weren’t the only casualties. There were also the civilian truck drivers whose convoy was ambushed outside of Habbiniyah on a hot spring day, and whose charred corpses greeted our reaction force looking like something from a horror movie. And of course Iraqi civilians also died, mostly people who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Those who survived the tour were never quite the same. A year of working in high stress conditions with little respite from work, coupled with the reality of losing so many coworkers and friends, wore everyone out. Even our Brigade Commander was treated for PTSD in a highly publicized case that made the Army Times. At least one member of our unit would take his own life within days of returning to the states, while a few bad apples would go off and commit a serious of horrific crimes that would be chronicled in a 2010 episode of the PBS series “Frontline”. Happily however, the vast majority of us quickly adjusted and went on to lead fruitful lives. Many stayed in the Army, enjoying productive careers as NCOs, senior officers, and even Special Forces team members. Some retired after more than two decades of service to collect well-earned pensions and transition to civilian jobs that offered a slightly less stressful working environment. Others went on to become students, teachers, financial planners, nurses, dentists, police officers, engineers, and dozens of other positions that help comprise a functioning society.
As bad as the tour to Ramadi was, there were some lighter moments, and some unforgettable ones too, like seeing the walls of Ancient Babylon up close while on a helicopter recon, or the Bedouin family who appeared at our rifle range in the vast Kuwaiti desert, collected all of our spent shell casings, and disappeared into the horizon like a mirage. The desert sky at night could be breathtaking, especially when you could get away from the lights of the cities and FOBs. Living and working next to the Euphrates River every day was impressive, as was roaming the ruins of the old British RAF base in Habbiniyah, where you can still see the hotel, cinema, church, and graveyard where the bodies of those who fell in a 1917 campaign against the Turks rest.
The tour was a great deal of work and stress, more than most people will ever experience in their lifetimes. And for a lot of our comrades it was the last job they would ever perform. I am not by nature an overtly political person. However, I hope that everyone out there who fancies themselves a high–level policymaker, whether on the left or right, civilian or military, takes the time to consider the human costs of their decisions as Memorial Day fades into the rearview and our final years of this long war come to a close.
Every one of those who died during our tour in Ramadi, as well as the thousands who met their ends serving in other locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, had value and the potential to contribute to both our military and society. They had dreams. They were capable of love and of being loved, and they all left behind parents, husbands, wives, children, friends and pets who are still coping with their loss years later. While Memorial Day is over, there is no reason we cannot honor them every day, through our thoughts, actions, and demeanor.
Mark Murphy served as an Artillery officer in the United States Army’s Second Infantry Division in South Korea, Iraq, and Colorado from 2003-2006. He currently works as a Defense Contractor, and is also completing an Executive Masters of Business Administration degree at Washington University in St. Louis.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army