It was an early August evening in 1990 on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
The island had once been home to lepers and outcasts, so we Marines felt right at home training on its rugged terrain. I sat in the pitch black, ear up against a PRC-77 radio talking to one of my squad leaders out on patrol. The unmistakable grumble of a humvee working its way up the dirt road beneath me drowned out a nighttime chorus of frogs and crickets. I watched a familiar shadow, tall, bulky, and clumsy stumble towards me. It was my C.O., Capt John Caretti, a behemoth from Philadelphia. And something was obviously wrong.
If you asked 1000 Marines why they joined up, you’d likely get 1000 answers. ‘I knew they were the toughest branch of the service’, ‘I wanted a challenge’, ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life’, ‘They gave me the choice, jail or the Marine Corps’. But contrary to the Hollywood stereotypes, what you wouldn’t hear is ‘I want to get shot at and put my life in danger at the whim of a US President’. Like their human cousins, Marines enjoy being alive. But in the back of every jarhead’s mind, always, is the knowledge that we are trained to kill in order to impose the will of our leaders on the enemy – whomever that might be – and that someday, we’ll be asked to actually do so. Still, that reality is never quite real until it happens.
Capt. Caretti had me gather the other platoon commanders and dropped his bombshell. ‘Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait. We’re helo-ing back to Oahu tonight and we’ll be in Saudi Arabia in a week. Get your Marines in and let them know. Now.’ One of the prime directives of Marine leadership is that you always act like you know exactly what’s going on and what to do, even if you don’t. As soon as the C.O. lumbered away, we Lieutenants looked at each other and asked, in unison, ‘Who in the hell is Saddam Hussein???’.
We were about to find out.
The next week was a dizzying flurry of chaos. A Marine Rifle Company trains continuously. Unlike many of the other services, ‘grunts’ as Marine Infantry fondly call themselves, take enormous pride in being ready to fight anywhere in an instant. But we weren’t going on a 50 mile ‘hump’ carrying everything we’d need on our back. We were deploying to an unknown land, more than 8000 miles away. For Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (or 1-3 as we called it) packing up everything we ‘owned’ was as simple as cramming a seabag and alice pack to maximum capacity, and grabbing our weapons. But to deploy overseas, to conduct a war – that was different. In addition to the rifles, squad automatic weapons, machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank missile launchers standard issue for Marine Infantry, we were taking everything with us. Hummers, Dragon anti-tank vehicles, Mark-19 grenade launchers, tons and tons of military hardware, the entire armory. The works. That was no simple task.
The preparation and activity level on our base at Kaneohe Bay was furious. Simultaneously, we had to prepare ourselves. Calls to insurance companies maxing out life insurance policies, writing of wills, de-escalation of spouses and arrangements to provide moral and other support for them in our absence, hurried goodbyes to girlfriends, storage of personal items we couldn’t leave behind. There was a lot to do. Some even banked their semen during that week, so that in the event they didn’t return, their wife could still conceive their child. There’s something truly bizarre about proactively planning for the possibility of not ever returning. And looming in the back of all our minds were questions we wouldn’t truly have answered for 8 months to come, where were we going, what would we do once we got there, and how would we each handle it? And of course the question of all questions, the one we didn’t even want to think about. We never spoke those questions, but they were there as a constant static one could never fully clear from the head.
And then, we were gone, leaving a literal paradise for some hellishly hot armpit of the world, willingly and, almost, gleefully. For despite the anxiety and nervousness pulsing just below the surface, we were glad to be called upon. Marines take foolish pride in finding themselves in the worst of predicaments. In 1918, as Marine Company Commander and Virginia Tech graduate Lloyd Williams came upon French troops fleeing the Germans enmasse on the road to Lucy-le-Bocage, he uttered words that typify the Marine mindset. ‘Retreat, hell, we just got here!’. Our credo is to wallow in the joy of experiences most would find entirely unacceptable and dissatisfying. There were the formal goodbyes as we all did our best to pretend this was ‘no big deal’, knowing how hard it would be for those we left behind, perhaps hardest of all for them. I was leaving behind my wife of not even a single year, already thrust into the role of stoic, unselfish Marine wife.
As I left her, I wondered if that’s all there ever would be? I’d offered to fly her back to her folks in Richmond, Virginia for the duration, but she would have none of that, opting to stay in Hawaii and wait there for me with the other Marine wives. And before we knew it, we were lifting off from Honolulu on a 20+ hour commercial flight to the Middle East, about which we knew nothing, and had never stepped foot on. No one in their right mind would want to go where we were going, and that made the journey irresistibly attractive.
We were going to war.