Juan emailed this story to us earlier this month about his time spent during the opening months of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During my time in the Marines, I was an MP. I deployed to Kuwait in 2003, and mostly stood sentry, inspected vehicles and other duties you’d expect a guy like me to do. But occasionally we’d do convoy work, escorting vehicles through the oil field.
We were even joined by the Marine Band. Seriously. During that time of “war”, USMC band members were pulled in to support ground forces. Guess they needed a few extra ribbons on their uniforms. Mostly corporals and sergeants who didn’t have a clue. Especially the sergeants.
We eventually got to cross over into Iraq. Our unit stayed back in the rear with the gear. A few months later they found an assignment for my unit. We were flown in by C-130 to Al Kut, a Republican Guard air base that we’d taken over, and which was now the staging point for our helos. We got to sleep in the Iraqi pilot quarters.
Every day we had our “intel briefing” which basically consisted of us being told how much our heads were worth to the bad guys. Our heads were worth more than a male soldier’s, but less than any female soldier. I wasn’t too sure how to feel about that.
Those Army soldiers took the perimeter of Al Kut. Me and the other MPs took the interior. So, as you’d expect, the Army got most of the action. There was constant gun fire, every night. I familiarized myself with the sounds of AKs, RPKs, and the M16s, SAWs, and 50s responding back at them. Flares arced in loops, and tracers darted through the sky. I became used to it, and couldn’t even sleep without it. It was the quiet days that made us nervous.
We eventually started craving the things we couldn’t get from chow halls. Especially anything cold. We left the wire to meet and buy from the locals. One family offered us ice and cases of soda and a Styrofoam cooler to hold it all. We guzzled those things down. The brain freeze was totally worth it.
Before leaving Kuwait for Al Kut, I had tried to learn some Arabic. I knew some basics. Yes, no, a few greetings, some basic niceties, and basic numerals. I knew more than most Marines did. Kids gravitated toward me during those sojourns over the wire. “Mista, mista! Whiskey? Five dolla!” they’d call out. They’d sell me bootleg movies, Iraqi currency, cheap cigarettes. One kid presented a metal box stamped with Cyrillic characters, and inside was a pristine Russian-made RPG scope.
Whenever we crossed the wire, I’d make sure we had plenty of water and MREs to hand out. There was this one man, the father of a boy I knew. He was an intelligent man, a professor who set up a shop to support his family. He brought us home-cooked meals; delicious stuffed peppers and other Iraqi fare.
Some kids in the town couldn’t pronounce the J in my name so they called me Kuan. “Mista Kuan,” they’d call me. One time they taught me this phrase that Hussein would apparently say: “Everyone drink more chai, hahaha!” They put a beret on my head so I’d look like the dictator and I’d say the phrase, and they’d erupt in laughter.
I still don’t fully understand the humor. But they found it funny, so that’s what matters.
I don’t care what the media says or what history has shown; these kids were happy we were there, and so were their families. They did not like Saddam Hussein. And they especially hated his sons, Uday and Qusay. I remember when those maniacs were killed, the city went crazy. Cobras scrambled in response to explosions deep in the city, and the night sky lit by fires.
I also remember one kid who tried to pay me for giving him a case of MREs and water. I kept saying no, and thank you, but he kept insisting. So I took the money, a couple of Iraqi bills. I still carry those bills with me every day tucked in my wallet. A little reminder of a small impact I made in that kid’s life.
Before my deployment was up, I got to say goodbye to the kids and the family which gave me and my buddies the soda. We handed the base over to Polish and Ukrainian forces in August.
They lost it to the insurgents after we pulled out.
I don’t know if we made much of a difference in Iraq, but I can tell you that when I was there, the locals appreciated us. It felt like they wanted us there. When I came back home and the next group of Marines rotated in, things seemed like they were going downhill.
I sometimes wonder about the boys I met. They’d be older now. I wonder if they become radicalized like so many others. I really hope not.
I hope they became good men.