Twelve hours after the incident at Jurf Al Sakhur Bridge, the platoon was on to its way towards Fallujah. They pulled up near a farmhouse, in a pepper field. All of a sudden there were bullets flying. Nigel’s unit had arrived in the midst of a manoeuvre known as a “hammer and anvil.” One force invades a city—the hammer—and the other waits for the enemy, who flee out into the countryside. The anvil is any surface route out of the city where soldiers try to escape.
“We hit the guys once they fled the city. They began shooting at us because they saw us coming.”
It was start of an intense half-day gunfight.
Nigel began setting up mortar equipment beside the vehicle with his buddy. Then they noticed dirt kicking up at their feet. There was a sniper firing from the farmhouse. Bullets pierced the earth not six inches from them.
“Here is what was crazy,” he said. “I was standing there, and I thought it was just funny. I just stood there. I didn’t think it was possible for me to get hit.” At that point, some new kind of thinking kicked in. After the IED explosion, he’d begun to feel invincible. Sniper fire rained around him and he didn’t get hit. His buddy had taken cover.
Eventually, Nigel ducked under a seven-ton truck, and crouched behind a front wheel. The sniper shot out the tires and the vehicle slumped down. Nigel’s squad leader was shot in the arm and later had to be evacuated from the country.
The Marines endured seven hours of fire. “Then finally, the JDAMs arrived.” JDAMs or Joint Direct Attack Munition devices are guided air-borne bombs capable of hitting precise targets in difficult weather or ground conditions. “Once air support with 2000 pound guided bombs comes in, you can just sit back and drink your coffee,” said Nigel.
The squad stayed near the farmhouse for the next month.
“It was the longest I ever went without shower,” he said. The men dug holes to sleep in. “Sleeping in a dirt hole can get comfortable after a while, once you get used to it,” he said.
For several weeks, life was fairly uneventful. There were attacks, but mostly the troops were extremely bored. “We played cards, we weren’t really doing anything for a month. We were trying to get into fights and there was no one to fight.”
A month later his platoon arrived at Camp Falujah, a massive tent city built ten miles outside city of Falujah.
The base facilities were deluxe: there was a barber shop, a PX (postal exchange) where service members could buy American products at reduced prices. The barracks were comfortable enough. For weeks, the platoon engaged in practice drills for the siege of Falujah. It was the siege that never happened.
What was to be an invasion turned into an endless loop of hurry-up-and-wait. This, I’ve been informed by Vietnam War veterans, is one exercise at which all branches of the armed services excel.
“We did practice drills for entering a facility. We learned to maneuver track vehicles – not tanks – amphibious vehicles, to use them as armoured troop carriers. We practiced loading up, driving around.” It was June in Iraq. The heat was intense, around 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
“All this time was spent getting ready for the big day when they’d send us into Falujah. We spent hours and hours waiting, taking fire, establishing a perimeter on the outskirts of the city. Days on end.” Each day, the squad would be told “today is the day.” Hours later, the news would come from Command: “Nope, not today. The siege is cancelled.” Then they’d go back to Camp Falujah.
With each iteration, the men became more pumped up.
“The whole experience was insane, disorganised, chaotic,” said Nigel.
One of the most disturbing occurences took place at night, when his unit was patrolling the outskirts of Falujah. Army Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) units would drive around in the center of the city, playing recordings of babies screaming over loudspeakers.
“It was haunting. Terrifying. Psychologically unsettling,” said Nigel. “The point was to unsettle the enemy so much they’d want to surrender. It was pitch dark. You couldn’t see a thing. And there were these other eerie noises in the background.”
It was unnerving. To everyone. Marines included.
The first month after his son was born and would cry, Nigel had flashbacks about Falujah. “It was really weird. I couldn’t help thinking about it.”
We agreed that was the idea: to disorient the Iraqis, to make them suddenly feel as though they were with screaming babies, so for a few seconds, they’d forget where they were.
Finally after weeks of hurry-up-and-wait, the siege was cancelled permanently.
THE FINAL PUSH
For his last two months in Iraq, Nigel was stationed back at Al-Mahmudiya.
“Basically, it was the exact same thing: vehicle patrols, foot patrols, an oil refinery that had caught on fire.” A high-ranking official was brought in to talk to the energy company. The incident seemed to have an outsized importance.
And that, asserted Nigel, “was the entire crux of the Iraq war.”
He’d been fighting a war that didn’t really exist. He’d been fighting for a lie.
“I was fighting for American oil interests. It made me feel shitty about what I had done. I saw people get killed and their oil get taken. And I never really felt like I was helping people who really needed to get help,” he said. “It cheapens the idea of our going over there to liberate the Iraqis. We had all these missions to guard supply routes. The entire time I was in Iraq, I could not help noticing the constant flow of American tankers moving oil out of the country. Our goal was to protect the oil being taking from Iraq. Sure you can justify it— they have to fund their own liberation – we’re liberating them. And then a few years later, the news comes out that trillions of dollars of oil money is missing. The Department of Defense couldn’t even account for it.”
In October, his deployment was over. He left for the US military base at Baghdad International Airport, a huge area, a so-called “green zone.” There was no combat; and it was difficult for insurgents to get mortar rounds onto the base.
“Probably the safest place you could be compared to anywhere else in Iraq,” he said. There were no patrols, and there was no combat training. They could go to the gym, and they could eat as much as they wanted.
“It was a decompression phase. They gave us four meals a day so we would start to fatten up before we saw our families. I was 150 pounds at the end of the deployment,” said Nigel. “And there was ‘counselling.’ The whole thing was ridiculous. They came through and asked if anyone was having any psychological issues. No one says yes. They’re Marines, for God’s sake. It’s the culture. You’re in a war zone. Suck it up. Even if something is going on, you’re not going to show it. You’re war crazy. You’ve spent six months shooting people’s guts. What a joke to ask Marines in that situation if they need counselling.”
But there were guys in the platoon who’d arrived in the Marines with some real issues. Some of them, Nigel noted, probably didn’t belong in the Marines in the first place.
One such soldier was notorious for having problems with drinking and falling asleep during guard duty when the unit was stationed for a few weeks in the city of Al-Karmah, northwest of Baghdad.
“Bear in mind this soldier was on patrol in one of the most hostile places in the world,” said Nigel. “He was a machine gunner. He was on a security detail for ten to fifteen minutes. He fell asleep with his gun pointing down an alley. Things like this were not uncommon with this guy,” said Nigel. “My interpretation—and it’s just my opinion—is that he wasn’t all there. The Marine corps should not have let him in.”
There were multiple situations. One of the main hustles in Iraq was smuggling cases of bathtub gin from Jordan to sell in Iraq. Smugglers usually got caught at the check point at Al-Karmah. There were no specific orders to impound the gin. The Americans were mainly on the lookout for money, guns and people of interest. The smugglers often just started handing bottles of gin to soldiers as a bribe.
“Sometimes we took it,” said Nigel. “Not always, we weren’t supposed to. Some guys were mailed liquor by family members as well.” The troubled soldier often got a few bottles of Jordanian gin and drank on guard duty. “Only he wouldn’t drink a little, he’d chug the entire bottle and get blackout drunk,” said Nigel. “Eventually he’d be discovered unresponsive and get in trouble.”
At the barracks level, Nigel was his direct superior. He compared the relationship to that of Pyle and Joker in the film Full Metal Jacket.
“It was similar. I had to make sure this guy didn’t mess up. As bad as he was in combat, he wasn’t a bad guy. It was terrible, these situations in Iraq where he’d put safety at risk and jeopardize everyone. He didn’t have the discipline everyone else had.”
When they’d returned to the States and were based back at Camp Lejeune, the soldier was still under his supervision.
Late one night a soldier from another company, Golf Company, came to the barracks and woke Nigel. The troubled soldier had drunk a bottle of liquor with another soldier all the way on the other side of the base, and was unconscious.
Nigel and a buddy went over to the Golf Company barracks.
“He was on the floor of this guy’s room, passed out and unresponsive.” Nigel and his buddy carried the soldier back to their own barracks at Fox company and put him to bed.
“I’d had to discipline him several times already,” said Nigel. “This situation really brought up a lot of experiences of him falling asleep on guard duty and things in Iraq. I actually really just wanted to break him so he wouldn’t get sent back to Iraq.”
Nigel began being “really mean to him. I began seeing a side of myself come out I never knew existed.”
The soldier didn’t wake up that night or the next morning. Nigel took the soldier’s clothes and belongings out to the courtyard and dumped them there. Then he went back inside and shaved off one of his eyebrows.
“When I finally could wake him up, I asked him what happened to his eyebrow.” The soldier was mortified. He couldn’t remember a thing. Nigel persevered: “This is why you can’t drink. You lose your eyebrow. Now you only have one eyebrow and you look stupid. Shave the other one off.” Nigel made him shave off the second eyebrow himself. “I communicated to him that this it was about the drunkenness.” He made sure the soldier understood as long as he continued to drink, to pass out and screw up, things like this would keep happening.
“I did this kind of stuff for days on end. At night, I’d go into his room, tear things up, make a mess, and then make him put it all back together. It didn’t really make the guy straighten up.”
The soldier began spending time in the mental hospital on base. He went in for a few months. Not long after, he was discharged and went home to Louisiana. Nigel heard he was struggling with both alcohol and drugs.
“Then I heard he’d killed himself. He was in Louisiana. It was horrible his life ended the way it did.”
Shortly after he committed suicide, the family posted an announcement on the Internet, a public statement cursing the people who didn’t support him and the circumstances that led to his destruction.
I asked Nigel about the Marines and the VA. What might they have done? What could they have done once he got home that they didn’t?
“They don’t do anything for you. You can get help from the VA, but you have to go there. You have to do it yourself,” he said.
What Nigel learned from the experience, and what bothers him most to this day, was his realization that he’d arrived at a strange mental and emotional universe where he’d emerged as a man who could not control himself.
“It was impossible for me not to take that situation with the soldier to its extreme. Even at the time, I knew I’d crossed my own ethical boundaries,” he said. But at the time, he just couldn’t stop himself. Some inner barrier had been breached.