As a Hospital Corpsman with Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, Charles deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in 2005 and was wounded while on a patrol. He returned to the US and embarked on a lengthy recovery process both in the military and with the VA. After overcoming his injury, he returned to school and is currently studying to become a dentist.
Interviewed conducted on January 2, 2015 in Whittier, California
Present: Richard Hayden and Charles Hu
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Charles Hu: My full name is Charles Hu.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
CH: I was in the United States Navy from 2004 to 2008.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
CH: I was an E3.
RH: What was your rate?
CH: My rate was Hospital Corpsman.
RH: What was your unit?
CH: My unit was 2/7 [Second Battalion, Seventh Marines]. It was a unit in the Marines. First Marine Division.
RH: Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division. What motivated you to join the military?
CH: After high school I was taking community college classes and I wasn’t very motivated at the time. I wanted to do something more exciting and something that was different and I had always admired military culture. I thought the military would be a really cool thing to do. I was very young at the time so I looked at the Navy and they seemed to make the most sense for me and what I wanted in terms of traveling and all that.
RH: Why did you pick Corpsman?
CH: I wasn’t offered a lot of positions to begin with. I think that one of the positions I was offered was either cook, or chef. Corpsman was something that really stood out for me because I always admired the medical personnel in military history. I remember watching movies like Black Hawk Down and Band of Brothers – Band of Brothers is a TV series – and I really like the role of the medic. They provide support and they have this knowledge to save lives and that’s why I really admired them.
RH: Very cool. Where did you deploy to?
CH: I deployed to Iraq in 2005.
RH: Where in the US were you stationed when you deployed?
CH: I was stationed in Twentynine Palms, California which is a Marine Corps base.
RH: What do you remember most about Twentynine Palms?
CH: Well, Twentynine Palms is a very isolated place – very barren. It’s kind of far away from a lot of things to do. It’s just a desert and…yeah. It’s not much.
RH: How many times did you deploy?
CH: I deployed once.
RH: Where in Iraq did you deploy to?
CH: I was deployed to the city of Fallujah.
[Brief pause in the interview due to ringing phone]
RH: When you got to Iraq, what was your initial impression?
CH: My initial impression was the smell of it. It reminded me of villages because I was from China originally. It reminded me of villages in China – the smell. And also the look – I’m talking about Fallujah – the city was very, I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t call it a city. The place was either damaged from war or run down because there were houses that were broken or holes in the ground. That was about it.
RH: Yes, because it was 2005, so after the big battle in 2004. Fallujah was all shot down. Were there any parts of your AO that were particularly memorable?
CH: Let’s see. So, we garrisoned in this big mansion-like house. It was our whole unit. Not the whole battalion but my company. The place had barricades, like sandbags, around. It was armored to block us out from bullets or explosions. And then there were guards on the top that would stand duty and to look out at the surrounding city. So you had a good vantage point to look out onto the city. The room was small because we had to fit a lot of people in one room. I remember sleeping with, I don’t know, maybe Third Squad? The whole Third Squad in one small room and basically our cots were side by side. I was sleeping next to two other Marines and it was just very crowded.
RH: What company were you in?
CH: I was in Golf Company.
RH: How did your impressions of Iraq change after you got there?
CH: I didn’t know what to expect from Iraq. I didn’t have any initial impressions of Iraq. After I got there I just learned “OK. I guess this is what it is. This is Iraq.” You know? It is Fallujah – that’s where I was deployed to. So I’ve heard different stories about the city like Baghdad. There’s more things going on in Baghdad. But Fallujah just seems like a village.
RH: What do you remember most about the Marines and the Corpsmen that you served with in Iraq and back stateside?
CH: I think that when it comes to the Marines, every platoon’s got its own culture. I was very lucky. My platoon was very cool. They didn’t do a lot of – what do you call it? – hazing, so I had a really good impression of my platoon. But talking with other Corpsmen and their Marines, maybe they had different experiences than I had. Marines are very fun-loving. They’re very serious about their job and that’s really good.
RH: What were your interactions with the Iraqis like? Were they good? Were they bad?
CH: I didn’t really interact with a lot of Iraqis. I’d go on patrols with my Marines and I’d see how they interacted with Iraqis. It seems like it was just very normal interaction. They didn’t seem very aggressive or that hostile. Maybe that’s how things are. It was just normal.
RH: What do you remember most about the local food? Did you have any?
CH: I didn’t have any local food.
RH: As you gained more experience, did you change at all? How did you adapt?
CH: One thing that was very difficult for me was going on patrol. These patrols were very tiresome. You’re in the heat and you’re carrying all this gear that weighs a lot. In addition I had to carry my medical supplies. You get used to patrols. One of the things I did was try to get as much rest as I can because you never know when you’re going on a – what do you call it? – QRF. A Quick Reaction Force. And you have patrols, you have duty. There’s always things to do. You’re busy. So I just tried to get a lot of rest.
RH: What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of the deployment?
CH: The most challenging non-combat was probably just waiting for things to happen. Also, I don’t get to talk with my friends back in the States – my family and friends. Most of the time you’re busy. You don’t really have time to think about other things.
[Interview paused. Note: prior to the interview I knew that Charles had been wounded in Iraq and went through a long rehabilitation process. I paused the interview to let him know that I was going to be asking about his post-deployment experiences and to make sure that he was comfortable with the questions. He acknowledged that he was. – RH]
RH: Can you talk a little bit about coming home?
CH: I actually came home because of an injury I sustained in Iraq while I was on a patrol in Fallujah. It was actually on our way to a VCP, which stands for Vehicle Check Point. It was really early in the morning. I remember during that time we had Humvees. They were called highbacks. I don’t know if you’re familiar. They are kind of like pickup trucks. You don’t have up-armor in the back. There is an area in the rear where Marines would sit kind of like you were sitting in a pickup truck and they didn’t have any up-armor. I remember that I was sitting in the back with five other Marines. Three were facing each other. On our way to the vehicle checkpoint I remember – I don’t know if I remember – I remember a loud BAM! I don’t know what happened. Most likely I knew it was probably an IED because that was what was happening most frequently. I think I was unconscious for a little bit and then, when I came to consciousness, there was a lot of dust. During that time I still didn’t know who was injured or whether I was injured or if my Marines were injured. As the dust settled I was looking in front of me. I could see sitting right across from me was Lance Corporal [name withheld for privacy reasons]. He was injured. He had a head concussion so he was completely unconscious. And then there was Lance Corporal…can I say their names?
RH: Sure. Anything I can delete out later so go ahead.
CH: There was Lance Corporal [name withheld for privacy reasons]. He was sitting right in front of me as well and he was bleeding out of an eye. Later he lost that eye. I was looking around and at this point I wasn’t feeling any pain or anything. I was a little dazed and I saw a lot of blood on my kevlar. I didn’t know whose the blood was, whether it was my blood or someone else’s blood. Then I started feeling myself. I was feeling my face with my hands and I felt my jaw. It was shattered. Obviously something was wrong because I felt flesh, I felt bone and then the pain kind of came. I felt an intense pain from my face and there was a lot of blood. I became very thirsty because of the loss of the blood. That was when I was MEDEVACed. Not MEDEVACed, but the Humvee changes course from going to the VCP to our AO. So we went to the AO where other Corpsmen stabilized my wound along with other Marines. From there they decided to take us to the nearest medical treatment facility. I forgot the name. I want to say it’s Camp Fallujah?
RH: Camp Fallujah was the big camp.
CH: It was Camp Fallujah. Right. On our way to Camp Fallujah [Hospital Corpsman] Louis Roark was sitting in the Humvee with me and I was in a lot of pain. He did something to help me with the pain. He gave me morphine and later he got in trouble for it because you’re not supposed to give someone with a head injury morphine but it really helped me a lot. After I got to Camp Fallujah I guess I passed out. I remember nurses and doctors and Corpsmen and maybe they gave me medication or maybe I just passed out from the blood loss. The next time I woke up I was in Germany. I didn’t remember what happened but I was told that from Camp Fallujah I was flown via helicopter to Camp Anaconda [in Iraq] and from there I was flown to Germany. Germany is where the oral surgeons and dentists performed the surgery on my face. From Germany I flew to Bethesda, Maryland.
RH: How long were you in Bethesda for?
CH: I was there for a week.
RH: A week? OK. And then did you come back to Twentynine Palms?
CH: From Bethesda I flew the hospital in West LA – the VA hospital – to see the oral surgeons and the dentists there. I was on convalescent leave for a few months and then came back to Twentynine Palms.
RH: Did you come back to Twentynine Palms when I, Richard Hayden, gave you the call?
CH: Yes! [laughs]
CH: That I remember.
RH: [laughs] That I remember too. And actually, to put in a personal insight, I remember I was a Corpsman at Twentynine Palms and I was in the Remain Behind Element when 2/7 deployed again and I got a call from a Navy Lieutenant at the hospital and she said “you have this Corpsman Charles Hu who is still technically in but where is he because he’s on our roster?” And I remember having to make that call because I was up in Twentynine Palms and it was like “ah! I gotta call this guy and he’s not going to want to come back.” And it was because I know that you were convalescing at home and getting good treatment with the VA.
CH: The main problem with Twentynine Palms is that they didn’t have the specialist dentists like oral surgeons and periodontists which provided the care I needed. It was very difficult to get the care I needed at Twentynine Palms because they only had general dentists.
RH: Actually, I remember that we went back and forth a couple times with the Captain, I said “he’s getting good care” – not the Captain. Excuse me, the [Navy] Lieutenant, the O3 at the hospital. I said “he’s getting good care with the VA,” and they made an exception. They let you continue your care with the VA which I thought was pretty good because sometimes in those situations they just end it.
What was the best and worst part about coming home?
CH: I want to say the food but I couldn’t really eat food for a while because of the injury to my jaw. The best part was that you get to rest more and not worry so much. You have some support from your friends and family. That’s good. The worst part was, well, you feel guilty that you left your unit. That’s not a good feeling. Also, I had this injury that I was dealing with I didn’t really like. It was on my face and I had to go through a lot of reconstructive surgery. That wasn’t nice. Just dealing with, I had some PTSD. I had nightmares and that wasn’t good.
RH: And you got out in 2008?
RH: What did you do immediately after you got out?
CH: I resumed my classes at City College. I took class at City college and then…
RH: [interjecting with question] City College in?
CH: Pasadena City College because I’m from LA. And I knew I wanted to pursue a profession in healthcare. At the time I didn’t know if I wanted to do nursing or maybe dentistry or pharmacy. I had my options open so I took a lot of classes that you need for health or life studies classes. Things like that. And then I transferred to the University of California in San Diego in 2011 and finished my degree there.
RH: Very cool. Now that we are a few years out, has the memory of your experience changed and if so how?
CH: Ooh, that’s a good question. I remember when I first got out or when I was in the military at the time, I was injured. I was very, kind of, sad and depressed and mad and angry about my injury because I felt it could have been prevented if we had adequate equipment like up-armored Humvees. So I was angry with my situation. Now, looking back, I seem to recall the better memories of being in the military. You meet a lot of people, you make friends, and you go through discipline and training. The military really pushed me to my limits with their training and their expectations of you and that I really treasure. I think that’s helped me a lot.
RH: Definitely. What’s the happiest memory of the entire time you served? Or many happy memories?
CH: Let’s see. I think going through training. I guess I like training with Marines and Corpsmen because you’re very cohesive as a unit. I was probably, on average, weaker than most people so they really helped me be a stronger person and do things I didn’t think I was capable of doing. I like drinking with Marines and Corpsmen. That’s always fun. I thought that shooting guns was fun because I never thought that I would shoot a lot of guns. That was fun.
RH: Cool. What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
CH: When I first got out the thing I missed most was being around your Marines and your platoon because that’s a really nice feeling to be a part of. It’s such a small group of people. I miss that the most. The structure was something I thought that I needed because before that I didn’t feel like I had much structure in my life. After I got out I actually had to develop my own structured life just to make myself do things and get along.
RH: I have some questions to keep it light. What was the best MRE?
CH: The best MRE? Ooh. Man. I liked the beef. I really liked the cheese with the crackers.
RH: Oh. The Cheeze-It crackers with the melted cheese?
CH: Yes. You kind of make a sandwich with the cheese and the crackers.
RH: I remember I used to take Cheeze-Its, crush them up, and then pour the cheese sauce and then kind of mix it all up and it became this sort of cheese gruel.
CH: I forget the names but the pork was pretty good. The beef was good. Actually, I was OK with MRE’s. I didn’t hate them that much. Most people I knew hated the MRE’s.
RH: I was OK with them too. They weren’t too bad to me. What was the best chow hall in Iraq and the best chow hall stateside?
CH: Iraq had really good chow halls. The best chow hall I went to was Camp Fallujah. Oh my God! They had everything. [laughs] They had Red Bull drinks that you could get for free. You could get three or four and nobody says a thing. I’ve never seen chow halls like that. It seems they spent a lot of money on chow halls in Iraq. The best chow hall stateside? I’m trying to recall which chow halls I’ve been to. Does it include Navy commands as well?
RH: Sure. Any chow hall.
CH: I felt that the chow hall in Twentynine Palms was decent. I guess I ate there the most so I have the most memory of chow halls there. It was good. I definitely ate very well in the military. I want to say better than I did at home because they always have food. They have a variety of food so I ate a lot of food.
RH: What’s the funniest story that you have? This can be the entire time.
CH: The funniest story? Let’s see. Well, a lot of funny memories, fun memories happened in the barracks after hours when we had been drinking. There are Marines running around naked and causing trouble. But it was all fun and games. I can’t really recall one memory that’s really funny. It’s just a collection of moments.
RH: So you graduated from boot camp and then you went to Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Illinois?
CH: Yes. Great Lakes, Illinois. That’s where boot camp and Hospital Corps School happened.
RH: Where did you go to Field Medical Service School?
CH: That was in North Carolina in Camp Lejeune. Is that North Carolina?
RH: Yeah, North Carolina. I went to Lejeune as well. Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
CH: Yeah. One thing I really want to say is – I’m in college right now, well I’m in graduate school right now – and while I was in college I met a lot of veterans who are using the GI Bill. And I feel that the Post-9/11 GI Bill is something that is really wonderful for veterans because before they had the post 9/11 GI Bill, they had the regular Montgomery GI Bill where they only pay you a thousand dollars or a little more than a thousand dollars a month. That’s supposed to cover everything which it doesn’t. But now how the GI Bill works is if you go to a public school it covers all your tuition and then gives you a stipend every month. So that has made college very affordable for veterans that want to go back to college. You see a lot more veterans on campuses and that’s a really good thing because California – not just California, but – schools are actively trying to recruit veterans to go back to further their education and that’s really good.
RH: What specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
CH: I would just say, just the fact that I was able to keep up with the Marines, deploy with the Marines. I feel, that, I am proud of because it is a physically demanding role. Honestly, when I first joined they told me that you’re going to be attached to the Marines I didn’t think I could keep up physically. I didn’t think that I was capable. I wasn’t very athletic in high school and the Marines are muscular. They were athletes. But I did it and I was very surprised.
RH: If you could say something to future Marines and Corpsmen about your experience, what would it be?
CH: To Corpsmen I would say that whatever you learn in Corps School, you should pay attention to what you learn. It’s very important to your job because how well you know your job determines whether you can save a life or not. You don’t realize it. You are just eighteen of nineteen and might not know it but they give you a lot of responsibility when you’re attached to the Marines. You’re expected to know so much and to do your job so well because your Marines are dependent on you.
RH: I think that’s all the questions I have. Anything else?
CH: That’s it! Thank you for the interview.
RH: Thank you! Thank you for sitting for the interview.