Don served as a Mortarman with Second Battalion, Seventh Marines and deployed to Iraq twice. On his second deployment in 2007, he broke his leg on a patrol and was MEDEVACed back to the US. In his interview, he discusses his deployments to Iraq as well as his deployment to Japan following the devastating tsunami in 2011.
Interview conducted over the phone on September 11, 2016
Present: Richard Hayden and Donald Swanson
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Donald Swanson: My full name is Donald Paul Swanson Jr.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
DS: I was in the United States Marine Corps from July 2004 to August 2012.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
DS: I got out as a Sergeant.
RH: What was your MOS?
DS: My MOS was 0341 [pronounced oh-three-forty-one], Mortarman.
RH: What were the units that you served in?
DS: I served with Second Battalion, Seventh Marines and Second Battalion, Fifth Marines.
RH: In 2/7, what was your company?
DS: Weapons Company, 81s Platoon.
RH: And in 2/5?
DS: Weapons Company, 81s Platoon.
RH: What motivated you to join the military?
DS: I think I was like every other American that was just really pissed off about 9/11 and it was just something I wanted to do since I was a little kid. I always wanted to be a Marine. I kept my nose clean, did well in school and was able to join and serve in the Marine Corps.
RH: Why did you pick the branch of service that you did?
DS: I picked the Marine Corps because I had some family that was in the Marines and fought in Korea, Vietnam and World War II. I knew that I was going to go to war so if I was going to go to war, I wanted to be with the best trained and the most disciplined. And, basically, just the meanest, baddest motherfuckers that walked the planet of Earth and I knew that the Marine Corps was that. So that’s where I wanted to go.
RH: Why did you pick 0341?
DS: Actually, it’s kind of a funny story. When I got to the School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton, I wanted to be a machine gunner behind the .50 cal and the 240 and all that. That was something that really turned me on but everyone wanted to be a machine gunner in Alpha Company at SOI so I was kind of butt hurt and was walking off to think where else I was going to go. One of the mortar instructors, Sergeant Valentine, snatched me up and was like, “Hey. Are you smart?” He started talking to me and I said, “Cool. I’ll do mortars.” And that was it.
RH: Nice. If you could, very briefly, describe what mortars are?
DS: Basically, we’re the younger brother of artillery. We’re a high-angle fire weapon system used to support the battalion’s movement as they move onto a target or objective.
RH: Good to go. How did your family feel about your decision?
DS: My family was pretty scared. They knew that me joining the Marine Corps, especially the infantry, they knew that I was going to be a part of that tip of the spear and they knew that I was going to be bringing the fight to the enemy. They actually didn’t want to sign. I joined the Marine Corps in the Delayed Entry Program when I was seventeen years old. I still had a year of high school to finish and they didn’t want to. I basically gave them an option. “You can agree with me and sign it now or the day I turn eighteen, I’m out of here.” So they went ahead and signed and let me join the Delayed Entry Program and as soon as I graduated, off I went.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
DS: I was getting ready for school. I believe I was a sophomore in high school. I was upstairs going to the bathroom and my brother started screaming my name. I was like, “What?” I finished going to the bathroom and I walk out and my brother, I could see, was legitimately upset. He’s a couple of years younger than me and I was like, “What the hell is going on?” He’s like, “Look!” I couldn’t believe my eyes and as soon I started watching, I actually watched the second plane strike the second tower.
RH: Where were you exactly?
DS: I was in Tacoma, Washington.
RH: What was the reaction in Tacoma like?
DS: I felt like everyone just didn’t know what to say. They were all flabbergasted. It was like getting punched in the gut. No one knew how to act. They knew that this was going to be something that would put us into a war-type situation. Especially some of the older veterans and my older relatives were calling us and it was just a very worried, scared feeling.
RH: Do you have any other specific memories of that day? Maybe in high school or in school?
DS: Yes. Absolutely. When I got to high school, I got there and we did a moment of silence for those who were lost, for the first responders, and then obviously the people. Then they kept showing it. All the teachers had TVs in their rooms and they kept showing everything. I just remember the girls crying and everyone was super upset. My mom actually ended up coming and getting me halfway through school because I was overwhelmed. I called her like, “I can’t be here right now.” We’re watching people literally jump out of the World Trade Center to get away from the fire. You could see the people jumping out of the buildings. I think a lot of people ended up just leaving that day because I think it was too much to swallow.
RH: Alright. Where did you go to boot camp?
DS: I went to MCRD San Diego. I graduated with Mike Company.
RH: What was boot camp like?
DS: Obviously when I first got there and got off the bus and stood on the infamous yellow footprints, I was scared out of my mind. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Granted, this was back in 2004 so it was before all the hazing and all that stuff came out. Marine Corps boot camp was absolutely Marine Corps boot camp. I was just really scared and I saw the campaign covers come out and the screaming started.
They rushed us into the receiving hall and dumped all our civilian stuff. Then away we went into the receiving barracks and we were there for about two or three days. That’s when they were totally depriving us of sleep, already, at that point and then we got dropped with our platoons. I actually dropped with Hotel Company, 2013, but I got cellulitis in my knee towards the end of boot camp and I had to heal so that’s why I finished with Mike Company.
Boot camp was very intense from day one to even when they’re supposed to lay off you towards graduation. They didn’t. It was very intense from day one to visitor’s Thursday when my drill instructors finally said, “OK. You made it. We’re going to back off here.” But I can understand that there was a method to their madness. I could feel myself transforming and kind of losing those civilian-type mindsets. One of the thoughts that I had was about getting ITE which is individual training. It’s where the drill instructors put you on the quarter deck and they wear you out. We took turns volunteering for it toward the end of boot camp because we enjoyed it so much. We enjoyed the pain, we enjoyed the intensity and we saw that we had come so far from where we were at that it became enjoyable.
RH: Alright. Good to go. You went to SOI in Pendleton?
RH: What was that like?
DS: [laughs] When I graduated boot camp, I thought it was really hard. I just accomplished so much in three months. Then I got another wakeup call when I dropped out of the company in SOI. It was called Alpha. They were definitely the more disciplined, the more intense instructors. The instructors became decent to you because you were a Marine. You did earn the title so they had that respect for you but you still were a boot. You still were a boot PFC or Lance Corporal or whatever you were so it was very NCO to junior Marine.
But it was tough. The first month was all basic infantry Marine skills. A lot of hiking, a lot of patrolling, land nav. Doing the stuff we have to know – talking on the radio and calling nine lines and stuff like that. And then the last month and a half was all your primary MOS which was me being a Mortarman. I got to learn how to use the 60mm mortar and also the 81mm mortar. We had to qualify with those weapons.
RH: Good to go. After SOI you went onto 2/7, correct?
RH: Where were they based?
DS: Second Battalion, Seventh Marines is stationed out of Twentynine Palms, California.
RH: What do you remember most about Twentynine Palms?
DS: [laughs] I remember leaving beautiful Camp Pendleton with all the green grass and views of the ocean – you could smell the ocean – to just a whole lot of nothing. Literally, Twentynine Palms was the land that time forgot.
RH: [laughs] OK. Good to go. When did you arrive in Twentynine Palms?
DS: I arrived in Twentynine Palms January 20th, 2005.
RH: Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
DS: Just Iraq. I did two deployments to Iraq. I did one full deployment. The second deployment I made it a couple months and then got hurt.
RH: Alright. Perfect. What were the dates of those deployments?
DS: My first deployment, we took off July 4th, 2005 to Iraq. That deployment ended, I believe, late January 2006. Then my second deployment we took off late January 2007 and I didn’t even make it a couple of months. I think I made it about a month and a half and I came back in late February, 2007 or early March.
RH: Let’s go through the first deployment first. For the first deployment in 2005, what was the mission of your unit?
DS: From what I, as a junior Marine, believe the mission was very kinetic. It was a very kinetic fight. We were taking the fight to the enemy. Basically it was round two of Fallujah. Our job was to sweep through Fallujah, push the insurgency out of Fallujah again after they had been driven out once and then also to push the enemy out of the Zidon.
At the same time, we were always told win the hearts and minds but we were mostly taking hearts and minds than winning them at that point. It was just not – it wasn’t a hearts and minds-type fight at that point.
RH: When you say that, what do you mean it wasn’t a hearts and minds type fight at that point?
DS: We were there to do a job. Not that we weren’t being respectful to the people or hurting them in any way – we really were trying to help them the best that we could – but our focus was killing the enemy.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What, specifically, was your job on that first deployment?
DS: Initially, I was a dismount. I had the M249 SAW, the squad automatic weapon. My job was basically to provide automatic weapons fire to my squad as we patrolled. Most of the time we were mounted but we did do a lot of dismounted patrols.
But my job varied. It fluctuated from being a SAW gunner to a driver to a turret gunner. I kind of was a jack of all trades as they say as far as a junior Marine and filled those positions.
RH: Good to go. Can you describe your AO and are there any parts of it that are particularly memorable?
DS: Yeah. My area of operation was mostly Fallujah and the Zidon. Obviously, Fallujah was a shit hole. It was very battle-hardened city. The people, I remember they always had this scowl of a look on their faces. I really don’t think anyone in Fallujah liked us being there, from the children to the parents up to the elders. I don’t think I ever saw a person smile there unless we were giving a kid a piece of candy.
The Zidon was a very rural village-type of place. It really reminded me of pictures that I had seen before of Vietnam with the palm groves and the palm trees and the big houses out in the middle of nowhere. But the fighting was very intense in Fallujah and also the Zidon. It was a rare time where we rolled out and wouldn’t get into some sort of contact – whether it was an IED or an ambush or both.
RH: Actually, I want to backtrack just a little bit. What were your initial impressions of Iraq like? Let’s start with the moment you got off of the plane.
DS: When I got off the plane, obviously we landed in Kuwait – Camp Victory. It really hadn’t set in. I was excited to do my jab and was all about it and was very motivated. The whole battalion seemed to be. The units that I was with were very motivated and we had been training really, really hard from when I got to 2/7 in January of ’05 to that point. Then when we got on the C-130, I remember it being so hot. They gave us these little misters [laughs] that were supposed to cool us off. But I’d never experienced heat like that. I thought it was hot in Twentynine Palms. Iraq and Kuwait were a whole different ball game.
We came in and we did the controlled crash, as they call it with the C-130. We dived down and would land hard to avoid any type of surface-to-air missiles or anything like that – or stinger shots. We got our boots on deck in Iraq and I was scared. I was scared but I knew I could do my job and I knew I was going to do it. I remember looking to my left and to my right knowing that some of these guys weren’t going to come home.
RH: Alright. If you could, walk me through a typical day for you while in Iraq.
DS: When we first got there we relieved 3/4 which is another unit out of Twentynine Palms. We got there and did right seat/left seat and 81s Platoon was tasked to operate ECP 5 which is an entry checkpoint just outside of Fallujah. Basically, we would check cars and people.
So a typical day there, depending on what I was doing, I was running a specific car-searching bay or maybe I was with one of the NCOs and one of the Corpsmen and we were searching people. Then we had typical guard duty and we had react. We had Quick Reaction Force within our FOB in case something happened. I burned a lot of shit – wag bags – which is probably one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever done in my life.
Then once we started patrolling, the day to day was very mission-oriented if we were going to do a cordon and knock, cordon and search or we were going to do a raid. I was supporting Golf Company. I remember that very distinctly – supporting Golf Company pushing through the pizza slice in downtown Fallujah. That was quite intense.
RH: What was the enemy like?
DS: I heard so many different things about them – that they were not very balsy, that they were a pop-shot type thing. That’s what 3/4 was telling us but they showed us a whole different ball game. I feel like when we got there, I would say within a week after we did left seat/right seat was when I was engaged in my first real firefight at about two o’clock in the morning in downtown Fallujah. We were setting an outside cordon just after you cross the Euphrates bridge right on [route] Michigan and they attacked and ambushed us from two different buildings from the rooftops. They were shooting down on top of us. So they definitely wanted to let us know that they weren’t scared of us just as much as we weren’t scared of them.
RH: You said you had a lot of kinetic fighting. Do you think it was more kinetic or more IEDs or what?
DS: I would say it was more kinetic fighting. IEDs really didn’t start happening until about the middle of the deployment. The first real serious IED killed PFC Romero who I was a good friend with. We met each other in Alpha Company and he was the first one during that deployment to be killed. From what I was told, it was a triple stacked 155mm. Three 155mm South African Howitzer rounds also with a napalm-type additive. They think he died during the blast which I hope he did. He was quite burned. There were other Marines – Lance Corporal Simonsen and Lance Corporal Witters and I believe another Marine – severely burned in that explosion.
RH: Aside from some of the ones that you already mentioned, what were some of the notable events that occurred during the deployment?
DS: Zubowski and Mendez, when they were killed. That was pretty bad. We were one of the responding units to them. I can hear them howling. They were legitimately burned alive. They could not get them out of the Humvee. I never knew a human being could make a noise like that. It sounded like an animal that I never heard before. But unfortunately they were not able to be recovered out of the vehicle so they had to suffer in it. Some of the Marines were upset because they wanted to shoot the Humvee with the .50 cal and put them down so they didn’t suffer but the Lieutenant in charge of that platoon – I can’t remember his name – said no to that. That kind of bothered a lot of Marines.
But I would say the most memorable moment is December 1st, 2005. I left MAPP 3 Bravo which is 81s Platoon and I was attached to Fox Company so I got to be really close to the Fox Marines – especially Second Platoon with Staff Sergeant Clay. I looked up to him and Sergeant Stevens. They were my mentors. I learned a lot of different things – how to be a better Marine, how to be a more diversified Marine as far as being a fighting Marine in combat. They taught us a lot and allowed us to go, as Weapons Company guys, to go out and patrol with Fox as 0311s.
So that day I will never forget. I was actually at ECP 5 when it happened and we were one of the responding units to that incident. To break that incident down, they went to the flower factory which is a place where they went a lot. They did their sweeps for IEDs prior to setting up in that position. They didn’t do a very good job. There was part of the flower factory where they didn’t sweep and I believe it was anywhere from four to six buried IEDs with a victim-initiated pressure plate so you had to step on it. Then they decided to do a promotion ceremony outside the wire which I still don’t understand. It’s really angered me for a long time. I think that’s part of what still stings because I feel like it could have been avoided. But Staff Sergeant Clay stepped on the pressure plate and, whammy, as they say. Ten Marines ended up dying that day and a bunch were wounded. I lost six good friends in one day.
I also didn’t agree with how they reported it on CNN as they went into a booby trapped house. It’s almost like they covered it up, like they didn’t want to be honest about it. When we got back we told their parents that they died getting promoted and that it was a very senseless death.
RH: Alright. What do you remember most about the Marines you served with in Iraq in 2005?
DS: I just remember them being very proficient at their jobs. My seniors were pretty tough on me. Attrition was definitely the mission. When we boot dropped to 2/7, they were trying to make us quit from day one. They were really trying to weed out the weak-minded and the weak physically because I think they understood the mission and they understood the type of fighting that we were going to be doing in Fallujah and there was no room for pussies, basically. But once we took our shit, once we started operating and doing our thing and they saw us kind of come into our own, they started to pull back the reins a little bit and became more personable and respectful and treated us like Marines – like actual Marines and not boot Marines.
But then I also saw a different side to them. I had some seniors that didn’t agree with a lot of the things we were doing over there and felt that we should have been fighting a different way or either be more intense or not so intense. I kind of got to see the inner turmoil of the unit that I didn’t get to see before because I was a boot. I just kept my mouth shut and did what I was told when I was told to do it. But they just became more people-like, if that makes sense. They weren’t so robotic anymore and I started to see personalities come out that I didn’t even know were there.
RH: Without mentioning any names were there any personalities that strike you as unique or particularly memorable?
RH: You can mention names if it’s positive.
DS: I’m not going to say anything bad. I don’t really have anything bad to say. Staff Sergeant Casali, he’s a very old school Marine in every sense of the word. They guy had been passed up five times for Gunny. He made some poor decisions in his career but he didn’t take any shit. If you weren’t where you were supposed to be when you were supposed to be there, didn’t have the gear that you needed or didn’t have the proper shave then he let you know in a very intense way. But there was a method to his madness and that’s what I always respected about him. He was such a hard ass on all of us, even his senior Marines and his NCOs, but there was a method behind that. I always respected that about him.
Lance Corporal Fontenot – Brandon Fontenot – from Louisiana. He was my team leader. I did not like him at all initially. I thought that he was kind of a cruel person at first until I got to know him and understood why he was the way he was. His first deployment kind of shaped him to be that way. But I learned a lot from him in how to be a very hard individual. I remember him pulling me off to the side before we even left and said, “If you’re going to be in my squad and my fire team, I’m going push you to your breaking point.” And he did. Even to this day I thank because I feel like because of certain seniors in 81s – Corporal Parnell, Lance Corporal Fontenot, Corporal Davis, Corporal Salazar and even Corporal Kelley who was a comm guy – these guys really shaped 81s to be as tough as 81s needed to be for that deployment.
RH: Good to go. What was the most challenging period of the deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?
DS: I’d say they all had their equal level of challenges. Obviously, initially Fallujah was real big when we got there. There was a lot of fighting in the city so that was really challenging. The biggest challenge was just operating on lack of sleep. You’re hungry all the time. The heat. When I got there I think that was the biggest challenge to overcome – the heat. I almost went down a couple of times for heat exhaustion and luckily doc [David] Westman, who was a very good Corpsman, he took care of the boots and took care of us. Doc [Tyson] Leomo did as well. But the heat, I think, was the biggest challenge.
The next biggest challenge was just trying to not die – trying to stay alive. Not thinking that this day could be my last and keeping the mission at hand in the front of your brain and your life in the back of your brain. The last part was being a part of that whole December 1st, 2005 issue. I mean, I was picking up Marine body parts, you know? And that was at nineteen years old. Smelling burnt flesh and hair and being around so much blood that you could actually smell copper – that metallic smell. I wake up every morning and I still smell it. It has not gone away. It goes away after I wake up but it’s that initial take-my-first-couple-breaths when I’m waking up that I smell burnt flesh and hair.
RH: As you gained more experience on this deployment did you change and, if so, how?
DS: I definitely think I changed. I became more confident in what I was doing. I became harder, I believe. At first when I got there I tried to look at the Iraqi people in a different way and I was kind of sympathetic to them. But once I saw them killing my friends and it became more of a guerilla-type style warfare where we didn’t know who the enemy was until they showed themselves and I started to see my friends die, then it became very, very personal. Obviously, I still try to be as respectful and professional as our Battalion Commander and our Sergeant Major wanted us to be but it got to be very hard and lines got crossed sometimes. I kind of became very numb towards the end of the deployment.
RH: OK. What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of deploying?
DS: Lack of sleep. Constantly operating when you’re tired. I remember one day we were in Fallujah again and I didn’t sleep for three and a half days straight. I never really knew what that felt like. Maybe it was four days. I actually started hallucinating. I literally was watching rocks grow legs and walk off because I was so delirious and tired.
Shortly after that we got stuck on QRF and we were at the Simok and got to sleep. It was weird because nothing happened and we got to sleep for a day which was quite nice and kind of recharged the batteries.
RH: Good to go. You touched on some of these already but did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment?
DS: I would say after my first firefight, that was a big transformational period for me. Because when you’re training, no one’s shooting back at you. You’re just, [sarcastic voice] “Oh God. Just shooting at this target. It’s so damn hot. Da, da, da.” You’re going through the motions but it changes the game really quick when someone legitimately is trying to kill you and they’re aiming at you. But for whatever reason the bullets aren’t hitting you or they’re not as good of a shot as you. It took me a lot for me to process that after my first firefight because I had bullets going all over me and hitting the ground next to me and hitting the Humvee. It just amazed me that not one of them hit me. They were trying so hard and I think that’s what transformed me to, “Wow. There is someone that legitimately wants to kill me.” I didn’t realize it until that first bullet cracked by my head.
When we first got there, I forgot to mention but we didn’t have up armored Humvees. I remember getting to Fallujah and we were sitting on sandbags and had blast blankets draped over the side of our seven ton rolling through downtown Fallujah. I don’t know if people understand this but sand turns to glass at certain temperatures so that was an issue.
One other issue that I had was that I was a 240 gunner and we were driving through Fallujah. We purposely were driving in circles trying to draw fire on us to see where the enemy could be because we knew they were there in a specific area but they were kind of hiding. For whatever reason, I was asked to drive the fourth vehicle. So we halted the convoy. I got out of Bravo 3, ran back to where my Lieutenant was and I started driving. We did a switch. We did a full lap around the block again and out of the corner of my eye I saw this black thing like a big rock being thrown. It lands in the back of the Humvee and it explodes. It was a Russian hand grenade that went off. I guess it hit Russel – Nathan Russel – in the nut protector and he knocked it off his nut protector behind six cases of water and it exploded. That’s actually what saved that truck. I think I still have some pictures of it but it took a big piece of armor off the back of the Humvee and it actually knocked out Lance Corporal Fontenot who was sitting in the Vehicle Commander’s seat of that high back.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move onto the next deployment, is there anything else about this deployment that we left out?
DS: Just that I saw a lot of professionals break down and I saw a lot of them become even better and better leaders. I think that’s where I started to understand a lot of what the Marine Corps was about, what it was to be a grunt, what it was to just be an operating Marine and what it was going to take that knowledge that I gained in Fallujah and take it to my next deployment because I absolutely knew. We had touched in the Zidon a little bit but mostly I was in Fallujah. I knew that we were going to come back and I was probably going to come back as a team leader so I think I took a lot of valuable lessons from Fallujah. Whether it be good things or bad things, I just learned a lot in a very quick amount of time.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So let’s talk about coming back from that deployment. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences?
DS: Mine was actually really good. The wives and the RBE – Remain Behind Element – had a nice little ceremony thing set up for us on Victory Field in Twentynine Palms. It was kind of a weird feeling. We were all on the bus and the local radio station was saying, “2/7’s on their way back! Da, da, da, da, da.” We all were just kind of quiet at first because it was almost like a dream. I know for me it was kind of like a dream. I kept thinking I was going to wake up and I was going to be back in Fallujah. That wasn’t the case.
I remember getting off the bus and my uncle who did two tours in Vietnam – one with Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, Hotel Company and then one with First Recon – he was there. He greeted me off the bus. Just seeing his face, I think, we just connected immediately without saying anything. He looked at me and I looked at him. He knew what I had been through and I finally understood what he had been through. He just gave me a big hug and was like, “Alright. Let’s go!” He took me down to Palm Springs where he was living at the time. We went to dinner. We had to actually come back for a day to do some debriefing and then we got punched out for a ninety-six. It was just a very surreal feeling.
RH: What was the best and worst part about coming home?
DS: The best part, obviously, is that we weren’t getting shot at or blown up anymore. I wasn’t seeing my friends die or suffer. I really felt like I was a part of something. I was a part of history and I felt like I was a part of something that I would never see again. I felt special. I felt proud to be with 2/7 and I was proud to be with 81s Platoon and I also with Fox Company and I made a lot of friends. I knew at that point that we’d never be the same.
The worst part of it was just knowing that we had a lot of people to bury. Some of these guys that I looked up to and became very close with, it hit me really hard. Like I said, I lost six friends in one day and these are guys I really came to respect. Staff Sergeant Clay and Sergeant Stevens weren’t really my friends by they were definitely older brother-type figures. It was tough and that kind of realization set in.
RH: Did the Marines and sailors around you change and, if so, how?
DS: I’d say absolutely. Especially the new Corpsmen – the young HNs and some of the E4 Corpsmen. What is that? HM3?
DS: And just the new Marines. At that point we became battle-hardened Marines and sailors. We went from having that innocence and that optimism that we had before to being battle-hardened Marines and sailors to where we understood now the real sacrifice of what was going on. You ask me if there was a change? Yeah, we grew up real quick.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s go ahead and let’s move onto the 2007 deployment. Between coming back in January 2006 and then deploying again in January 2007, what was the training like and what was it like moving up and becoming a senior and working with the boots?
DS: So we got back from the first deployment, went on leave and did that whole thing. We came back and a lot of guys were getting out. Staff Sergeant Ezit, he was one of my platoon sergeants in 81s Platoon, he was asking who wanted to go to CAAT. He said they needed some senior leadership over there, some senior Marines. I didn’t really like Staff Sergeant Ezit too much and I don’t really think he liked me too much for whatever reason. There was never a reason why but we just didn’t get along. That happens from time to time.
He kind of voluntold me to go to CAAT 2, MAC 2. So I went over there and I started off as a dismount but I didn’t really like that. I didn’t like being a boot all over again and I wanted to be a team leader and I knew I could do it. So I started training really, really hard – PT’ing insanely hard – and started studying up on my knowledge. I went up to Corporal Ray and said, “Hey Corporal Ray. I think I can do that job better than this individual.” He was like, “Prove it.” So they did a knowledge test and they made that Marine do a knowledge test and I knew his job better than he did as a TOW gunner. He was already a Corporal and he was senior to me. He just wasn’t meant to be a leader – not that that made him a bad Marine. But Corporal Ray ended up giving me that position as a Vehicle Commander and Lieutenant Blue OK’ed it. I got to shoot the TOW.
To kind of backtrack a little bit, the training was super intense. That was the first time we got to experience Mojave Viper. In Mojave Viper, I had flashbacks it was so intense, the training. Moving through that city that they built out there, I think it really brought – especially CAAT 2 – it really brought us to that next level.
We had some interchanging of leadership. We got Staff Sergeant Bell who was straight off the drill field and we kind of had to MAP 2-ify him. [RH laughs] We had to kind of bring him off his pedestal because he was still in a very drill instructor/recruit mindset and that was pretty frustrating. But once he understood that we weren’t trying to be nasty, we weren’t trying to be disrespectful and he started to understand how we operated, he kind of molded himself back into that platoon and, I think, really brought the best out of that platoon. He not only pushed us really hard but he kept us up as being Marines – being good PT’ers, knowing our knowledge. Even our general orders. We always said, “there’s brilliance in the basics.” He brought as back to those basics and we had a strong foundation to move forward as a platoon. He was one of those guys that wanted me to be a team leader and I kind of just took it and ran with it at that point.
RH: What was the mission of your unit for the 2007 deployment?
DS: Our mission, at first, was really kinetic. There was a lot of fighting. I remember we couldn’t leave the wire without getting shot at – especially in the Zidon. Our mission at that point was to retake the Zidon because most insurgents had been pushed out of Fallujah and that was a big stronghold for them.
RH: I’m sorry. Let me just interrupt real quick. Just to get it down, you guys deployed back to Fallujah but just outside to the Zidon and areas outside of the city, correct?
DS: Yes. Correct.
RH: OK. I’m sorry. Please continue.
DS: So the Zidon, shark’s fin, all those different areas. But when we got to the Zidon, I was in MAP 2 Bravo. We were literally taking the fight to the enemy every single day. Right there at the market, they dug in and they fought us head to head. I was just very impressed. They were mean and they were tough and they were battle-hardened insurgents that were not moving in a nice way. They were not going to be taken lightly. And they proved that to us. I was just kind of rolling and then I got hurt.
Me being there only about a month and a half, I saw a lot of fighting. I got blown up once. I watched Lieutenant Blue’s truck and Corporal Monez’s truck get hit by an SVBIED. Everyone was OK. It just kind of rang their bell. But just seeing that kind of stuff, they just got to be a lot ballsier than in Fallujah, In Fallujah, the IEDs weren’t such a big deal. They were but it wasn’t. It was just a different kind of fighting. In the Zidon, they were really using IEDs to get us to dismount. They started to learn our TTPs and started to learn how we operated so we kind of had to change up some things there.
The night I got hurt we were taking some fairly accurate sniper fire right at dusk, which we usually did in the Zidon. We took some shots. Lieutenant Blue was pissed off and he wanted to go find them. Our snipers that we had on the roof – I believe it was Dutchak and Nygaard on the roof with doc O’Hare, the sniper Corpsman – thought they had spotted where the shots were coming from. So we waited until dark and dismounted and went on a patrol that was me and Corporal Downing. He was the patrol leader and I was the APL. We took a squad of boots out.
Supposedly, there was some stuff going on in the market that we were trying to get better eyes on. We had a system called the ITAZ which had an amazing thermal imaging scope on it. We saw a lot of movement going on through that. We went out there to investigate and see what was going on. We took some shots. I think it was my truck, Bravo 4 and then, I think, Bravo 1 with the .50, they opened up on them and shut them up real quick. It was a real quick contact situation.
On our way back I remember walking through this muddy field. I remember taking a step and, as I approached this irrigation ditch that we had crossed in the beginning of the patrol, my left leg sunk in and I fell forward. I heard my leg break. I literally heard the bone snapping and crunching like when you break small pieces of wood. That’s really what it sounded like. I tried to get up and immediately collapsed again because my leg was broken.
Then they started that process. They chair-carried me back to the patrol base which was just a rundown house that we were hanging out in. That’s when doc O’Hare cut my pant leg off and he checked for a pulse in my leg and couldn’t find one. So then it went from routine to urgent surgical. I believe it was an Army Blackhawk – either Army Blackhawk or Air Force PJ, one of the two – came to get me and they were actually taking fire as they came to get me. I remember seeing green tracers as we took off from that point.
RH: Alright. So after you were MEDVACed out, what happened?
DS: They flew me to TQ, Iraq, where they checked me out. At this point my leg was just in a makeshift splint. They gave me a better splint in TQ. They didn’t cast me yet. Then they flew me to Baghdad which I still was really upset about because they put me in the ER in Baghdad. I was in there and I was looking at soldiers with string cheese for legs and they were screaming and crying and people in there were burned severely – multiple gunshot wounds. These guys were screwed up and I’m in there with my broken leg. I was screaming at the Corpsman or the Army medics to get me the hell out of there because I can’t handle this. And so they did. They moved me outside.
They took me to wherever they took me to cast me. They put me in a cast which was not fun. Then they flew me to – I believe they flew me to, I believe, Landstuhl, Germany and we went to their medical center. Those guys were really amazing. Those Army and Navy and Air Force doctors, the job that they do over there is just amazing. They said, “We can cast you and you can stay in that cast for however long or we can fix you right now and we can put a rod in there and some screws and get you back up a lot closer to one hundred percent than if you just stayed in the cast.” So I trusted the doctors. I believe it was an Army doctor who told me that so I trusted him and so they put me into surgery and gave me a rod and, I think, six screws. And then I came home.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was it like when you arrived back in the States?
DS: It was actually pretty shitty and I’ll point out why. On the flight back we were on a big C-17, a medical flight, and there were some guys on there, again, that were really screwed up and had been burned really bad. A couple of them didn’t make it. We were landing at McChord Air Force Base up here in Washington, my hometown, and as we were landing two of them went to Heaven. They died due to the severe burns. That was really hard because I remember talking to one of them and having a really nice conversation with him. It was obviously really hard.
Then we left Tacoma, Washington and we flew to Palm Springs. That was another eerie feeling because obviously we’re in a military aircraft. When they unloaded me and two other Marines, we were on stretchers and there were people on the flight line. Palm Springs is kind of a small airport so there’s portions of the airport where you can walk out to your aircraft and board it. They were just cheering and crying. We could hear people crying. Me and another Marine gave them a thumbs up and the crowd just lost it. They were super happy that we were OK. Obviously we got into an ambulance and they took us back to the Naval Medical Center in Twentynine Palms which is where I was greeted happily by the Corpsmen and the medical officers there. And from there I started my rehab process.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I forget exactly but when did we meet for the first time? Just for the record, just for future posterity and when future historians are reading this years from now, I actually worked with Don when he got back. Did I come and meet you or was it Hu or Elena? Do you remember?
DS: It was you, doc. You were the first person that came. I think it was into my room. You introduced yourself and told me, “If you need anything, we’re here. If you need to get to an appointment.” I just remember thinking, “Man, this fucking Corpsman’s cool. He’s from fucking New York!” [both laugh] I just remember just really appreciating you and doc Hu. Doc Hu had a pretty bad deployment with his face getting blown off pretty much. Both of you took care of us and I don’t think I would be where I’m at today, especially physically, if I didn’t have you and the Corpsmen and the Naval staff that were there to help us.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Here’s an interesting question for you. Just for the record, you did not go back to Iraq for that deployment, correct?
DS: No. I did not.
RH: As you’re here in the States recovering, what was it like being here and what were some of things you were going through as you were here and everybody else was over there?
DS: It was tough, especially when guys in my platoon started dying. Strong got shot by a sniper and that was actually after Lieutenant Blue and Delatorre were killed. So I lost my platoon commander who I really respected. I was very angry and it really took a lot to for me to just keep it together. I don’t remember the topics of our discussion but there were a few times when we had nice conversations about where I was at the chow hall at the Naval Hospital there on Twentynine Palms. But I was angry that I wasn’t there. I felt like I let my boys down, even though they came back and they told me that I didn’t. But it was tough. It was tough to be out of the fight while your buddies are over there experiencing all that. It was kind of like I got cheated almost, you know?
For my recovery, I was good. Again, the Naval staff, it was good physical therapy that I was going through. I tried to really just focus because if I was going to get back to the fight, then that was my fastest way. Then obviously, I wasn’t able to make it back to that deployment. I think at that point I just made a decision that I wasn’t going to go to Afghanistan. I didn’t think it was going to be a good idea for me so I was looking at other routes in the Marine Corps and got lucky and was able to go down and hang out in beautiful, sunny San Diego for two years.
RH: Alright. Good to go. After 2/7 you went straight to 2/5?
DS: No. I reenlisted and became a training NCO with First Recruit Training Battalion at MCRD, San Diego.
RH: OK. So you were working at boot camp?
DS: Yes. I was down there. Basically, my job there was to keep the drill instructors competitive as Marines, to make sure they had their PFTs entered and prepped properly and that they were getting lined up for schools – for Sergeant’s course or Staff NCO career course or advanced courses if they were a Gunnery Sergeant. And then, obviously, that they were getting on the rifle and pistol ranges and getting those qualified and all that stuff.
RH: When did you go to 2/5?
DS: I checked into 2/5 June of 2010.
RH: Did you go on any deployments with them?
DS: We did, actually. I was on the 31st MEU and we were part of Operation Tomodachi. We were there on Oshima Island. We were there for the earthquake/tsunami. I was in Malaysia when the earthquake/tsunami hit Okinawa and those islands surrounding. We got told we had about a heartbeat to get back to the USS Essex.
We got back on the ship and did our count, got site count up, made sure all the Marines and sailors were back on the ship, and then we spent about two and a half weeks, I believe, steaming to Oshima island. We sat off the coast for about a week gathering all our stuff, getting briefed and figuring out what our mission was and trying to help these people. Then once the Battalion Commander felt comfortable and we all knew what was going on, we immediately deployed our landing craft units and landed on the beach.
RH: What were you guys doing once you got to the beach?
DS: Immediately we got there and we started doing damage assessment. We started talking to the locals. We had interpreters with us. Once we kind of started pushing inland, we started patrolling around looking for survivors, looking for anyone that needed help. We started offloading big earth movers and bulldozers. We started offloading cases and cases of food and water for the people there. We started damage control and started helping people immediately.
RH: How long were you guys there for?
DS: We were onshore for about two weeks.
RH: Obviously deploying to Fallujah with a combat battalion versus doing relief work and humanitarian work are two very different things but what are some of the similarities and what are some of the differences?
DS: I’d say some of the similarities of that was that, at most points, I think we were trying to help the Iraqi people like we were the Japanese because there were good people there who wanted our help and they wanted us to help them have a semi-decent normal life. Then also, just the amount of destruction was very similar – obviously mother nature being much more powerful than anything man could do as far as combat. But the destruction was similar.
Then obviously the differences, like you said, just helping people to restore their lives because it was taken away from them in an instant due to an earthquake and tsunami. Being in Iraq, it was fighting and shooting at people. The welcoming feeling that we got – in Iraq we didn’t get that. In Japan, those people were so excited for us to be there. They were so happy. They were crying and they were beside themselves with joy because they were like, “The Marines are here. We know things are going to be OK.” So it was just a completely different mindset.
RH: Before we move onto post-military life, is there anything else significant that you did with 2/5 or is there anything about your time in that we left out that you’d like to address?
DS: There’s been some scuttlebutt about the radiation that we were exposed to. That is a concern for a lot of Marines and sailors that have become sick now and they believe it’s from the radiation that they were exposed to from the reactor leakage. I’m still researching that. I’ve been tested and they have found the higher levels of radiation in my body but they’re not sure if it’s significant enough to pull the red flag out and say, “Hey. We’ve got a situation here.” So I am still working on that and that is something that a lot of Marines are concerned with. They’re looking into it. I feel like the VA is going about it the right way and they’re looking into it. But I do have a feeling that it has the potential to kind of blow up like agent orange so I guess we’ll see as that time comes.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Getting out, what was your transition to civilian life like?
DS: Initially it was pretty easy. I was like, “I’m out, bitches!” I was so excited to get out of the Marine Corps. You know that feeling when you’re finally done. But it was quickly followed up with a lot of depression and a lot of fear because I didn’t know how to be. I didn’t know how to act around people. I started drinking a lot because I just wanted to numb my feelings. It actually got to a point where I did put a gun to my head and I pulled the trigger and the gun did not go off. I did go through that dark point and luckily for whatever reason God wanted me to be here. And then especially to be there for our reunion. It was just a humbling experience.
But to get back on track, I was just really upset. I was full of piss and vinegar. I felt like no one understood me. I felt like I was the black sheep. Because I wasn’t wearing the uniform anymore, I felt like I wasn’t respected anymore. I felt like no one cared. I felt like I sacrificed so much and my fellow Marines and sailors had sacrificed so much and given so much for this country and I felt like we kind of got it thrown back in our faces. And maybe that’s just where I live. I’m kind of in a more liberal state – Washington. And so I just kind of went through the process of doing the best I could and taking it day by day after that whole dark point in my life, when I first got out in 2012. That summer – September, actually – is when I made that decision that enough was enough. I got through that but my life was a roller coaster. Going from high, high, high ups to really, really low downs.
It was hard for me to keep a job because I didn’t respect the leadership and I didn’t respect ta lot of people and I became very belligerent. When I thought of leaders I thought of my platoon commanders, my platoon Sergeants, my fellow NCOs and staff NCOs that I looked at as real leaders. I couldn’t jibe off of how some of these guys were operating in the civilian world. It was like no one cared and that was one thing I really saw. Marines and sailors always take care of each other no matter what. In the civilian world it’s dog eat dog, every man for themselves. No one gives a shit. The only person that cares about you is you. So that was a rude awakening for me.
RH: You may have already answered this a little bit but what are some of the significant challenges that you faced when you got out?
DS: I think some of the big challenges for me was just trying to assimilate back into society, trying to find some sort of common ground with people. My next biggest challenge was keeping a job. I bounced around from job to job to job because I would talk myself out of one or quit or get fired. I’ve been fired three or four times. Now I’m doing good. Everything has kind of worked itself out. I’m doing the whole counseling thing. I think that has been a big change in my life for the positive. Actually getting out there and asking for help.
RH: What are some of the things that you do to cope?
DS: For me it used to be alcohol for self-medication and smoking pot. I used to do a lot of that. I’ve really toned down drinking. I think the last time I drank hard was the 2/7 reunion. But I haven’t smoked pot in a while. Really, just working out and also I do poetry. That’s something that I do. I have one if you’d like to hear it. The other ones I don’t feel comfortable with right now but this one I’m comfortable with sharing.
DS: It’s just the other ones, they’re not where I want to be. When they’re not where I want them to be, you just don’t really feel comfortable sharing that.
RH: Go for it, man.
DS: The title is “The Scent You Can’t Smell,” by Don Swanson:
The scent you can’t smell is the death and despair of war
The scent you can’t smell is the pain and the healing of our unwavering hearts
The scent you can’t smell is the fire and the hunger to protect those who we hold close
The scent you can’t smell is the mud, humidity, scorching sun and the unquenchable thirst of our tried bodies
Most importantly, the scent you can’t smell is what I am an always will be... A United States Marine
RH: Alright. Good to go, man. I’ll definitely put it up there. Let’s talk a little bit about Iraq’s current state. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
DS: I think our current government screwed the pooch on that. They failed Iraq. I think they failed Iraq in a lot of ways and the powers that be, while we were there and even now, they didn’t let us do our job. Especially towards the end of Iraq and even the beginning of Afghanistan and the end of Afghanistan, they tied our hands behind our backs and then expected us to go out and do those jobs. It’s kind of hard to do that when you’ve got your hands tied behind your back and you can’t shoot and kill the people that need to be killed and protect the people that need to be protected. I think we created ISIS. By the politicians not allowing us to do our jobs, we allowed that head to grow back.
RH: Are there any lessons that you learned while you were in Iraq that are relevant to the current situation?
DS: Hmm. That’s a really good question. [laughs] I would say that meeting an opposing force, whether it be an actual enemy or just someone that you don’t agree with, to approach them in a sense of looking at everyone like they’re trying to kill you but just don’t treat them that way. That was our battle cry when we were there and I still do it to this day – maybe not to that level of intensity but very similar. Just because someone disagrees with my opinion doesn’t mean I have to jump down their throat. Just to be more open. I feel like when you’re young and you’re so easily influenced one way or the other. Now that I’m thirty years old – not that that’s old but older – I’m more open to different ideas and I’m not so closed-minded and I’m not so easily influenced.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I’ve got a couple of spiritual questions for you. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
DS: I think it has. For a long time, I was always taught to believe in God. Then my grandmother passed away and I was like, “There is no God. This is all bullshit.” And then I really started having these interesting experiences where I just felt the presence, especially through some of my IED attacks that I was involved in and some firefights. I felt something. It was protection that was way beyond anything human-developed. I saw Marines walk away from things and I walked away from things that I think, in a different situation, we wouldn’t have. So, definitely, it kind of answered my own question as far as, do I think there is a higher power? Absolutely. And do I think that He cares about us as a society? Yes. I don’t think He’s always happy with us but I think he does care – or he or she or the being. [laughs] So, yeah. I think it definitely reaffirmed my beliefs.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
DS: Yes. When I was growing up I used to be really scared of death. Now I’m not. I smiled at death many times. He’s actually – I don’t mean to humanize death – but I feel he takes that form in a lot of ways. What I mean by that is it’s almost like you can see him coming but you can’t, if that makes any sense. But I look at it now as just a part of life. It’s a stepping stone to the next big thing. Whatever that may be, whatever your belief system is and if you believe we all go to Heaven, I believe that’s just our stepping stone and I’m not scared of it. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t even think about it. So I would say that’s probably how it changed my view of life and death.
I think that there could have been some good things in there and some bad things in there. For a while I was a kamikaze about life and just riding motorcycles and doing some stupid things. I had some close calls and I was like, if I made it through Iraq for a reason, I’m obviously here for a reason and a purpose that hasn’t been revealed to me yet but I need to have a little more respect for life. I think that was a big part that I took away from Iraq and the 31st MEU and my time in San Diego racing motorcycles and stuff. I just really developed a strong respect for life but then a respect for death. That’s just a part of life. That’s a part of the life cycle.
RH: Good to go. I’m going to switch it up a little bit. What’s your happiest memory of the entire time you served?
DS: My second Marine Corps Ball with 2/7 in Laughlin [Nevada] with Sergeant Major Barret there and Fighting Joe. At that point I was a senior Lance Corporal, I’d been through some shit and I really developed that tight knit, brotherhood bond and it was a great time. I think we were all very happy at that time. Even though we had all experienced so much loss, we were all very happy just to be with each other. Kind of like the reunion that we just went to.
RH: What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
DS: I miss all of you guys. I miss the Marines and sailors that I fought with, that I trained with, that I bled with, that I cried with. Guys that I learned to rely on and they relied on me. It felt like I was ripped out of a family when I got out. To go back to that, I felt like my family was torn away from me and that no one would understand me like you guys do. Even though now, and especially after the reunion, if I’m having a hard time I know I can pick up the phone and call you and I know you’ll be there. But just living in such close quarters and developing that family-type situation, I definitely miss that.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let me ask you this. What is the best MRE?
DS: [laughs] The best MRE? For me, I would say chili mac. That was probably my favorite. I like that because you could do a lot with it. You could trade up with other Marines for the jalapeno cheese and you could throw that in there and spice it up. I usually like to put a little Tabasco in there. And the chili mac always had the red licorice squares that I just loved so that was my favorite.
RH: Alright. This is a two-part question. Actually, this is going to be a three-part question for you. What was the best chow hall in Iraq, the best chow hall stateside and how did the food on the ship compare to Marine food?
DS: Oh man. That’s a good question. I would say Camp Fallujah had the best chow hall in Iraq. Maybe it was just because we were so damn hungry but I remember eating lobster there for the first time – my first time ever even having lobster. And even just anything under the sun that you could want from breakfast to midrats – which is late to eat chow for those who don’t know what midrats are when they hear about this, years down the road.
Stateside, I would say MCRD San Diego probably had the best chow hall – for Marines, obviously not the recruit side. The permanent personnel side was pretty amazing.
Then how the ship food compared?
DS: I actually was working with the Navy in the ship store and I got a special badge that I wore and I got to eat either Marine side or Navy side. So I would always go over to the Navy side and they always seemed to have better food than the Marines. [RH laughs] Their eggs tasted better, everything tasted fresher. The Marines just kind of got the slop of everything. The Navy definitely had the better food. They used to get really pissed off because I would be standing there and they were like, “What are you doing? Da, da, da…” They would give me a hard time and I was like, “Hey, I’ve got my badge. You can’t say shit!” [RH laughs] So that was kind of interesting.
I also got to eat in the Chief’s mess a few times, too. I don’t know why but the Senior Chief liked me for some reason so he would always invite me to lunch. He was just this super-intense black guy. I can’t remember his name but he just appreciated me because I was the ship’s store guard so I got to stand there with my .9 mil like I was going to shoot a sailor or Marine for stealing a candy bar. [both laugh] But that was my uniform on duty. He just really liked me for some reason. He would bring me into the Chief’s mess once in a while and that was amazing. The Chief’s mess – those were some spoiled staff NCO’s on that ship and now I can understand why they had some pretty overweight Chiefs in the Navy.
RH: [laughs] What are some of the funny stories you have? This can be your entire enlistment.
DS: One of the ones was when I was a team leader with 2/7 at Mojave Viper. There’s actually a video of this on YouTube. We were all sitting there on Camp Wilson [in Twentynine Palms] just bored out of our minds. I think we were getting ready to push out early that next morning for our training and I think we were going to attack Mojave Viper. We were just kind of in a lull. We all just got done eating chow and we get back to the Quonset huts out there at Camp Wilson. Marines are out there playing football and I just came back, I think, from a football game I was playing in. And Knight, Jay Knight, who was one of my really good friends, out of nowhere was like, “I wonder how far I can kick you, Carpenter.” And Carpenter was this little guy, he was a little machine gunner. Good Marine, good junior Marine. Anything you wanted him to do, he would do it.
So he put his Kevlar on and his flak jacket on and, we videotaped it, Knight just missile-kicked him and just sent the guy flying. [RH laughs] And we’re all laughing like little schoolgirls so Knight’s like, “I need a bigger guy.” So Ford, who is another machine gunner, put on his and Knight got him and knocked him over but it was crazy to see how far these guys could missile kick each other and that’s what we did. We were missile kicking each other and I’m just surprised no one got hurt. So there was that time.
Carpenter, we also held him up on one of the rafters of the barracks and duct taped him to one of them. Granted, obviously he was cool with it. It wasn’t like we were hurting him in any way. I wish I could find the pictures of that. I’m sure I can and when I do I’ll send them to you. [RH laughs] That’s Carpenter being taped up to the ceiling in the barracks.
RH: Any more good ones?
DS: Yeah. Just a lot of funny drinking ones where we’d all get drunk and have barracks battles and fight the non-grunts over there at Twentynine Palms. We’d beat the crap out of each other then get up, shake hands and start drinking again. It was just part of that warrior culture. Even though they were non-grunts, they were still part of the shithole Twentynine Palms so we all had that frustration in common.
I can remember some distinct barracks battles between us and POGs – Personnel Other than Grunts – and then also within our companies and fighting Golf Company and Echo Company and the fact that we were able to just beat the shit out of each other and shake hands and move on.
RH: Alright. Before I move onto my last couple of questions, I have a funny Staff Sergeant Casali story that I want to share with you and I want to put on the record and I know you will appreciate it. When we were in Iraq, I was with the Colonel and we roll up to [the PX in] Camp Fallujah. Hell, you might have even been in his squad. Casali rolls up with whatever squad it is. He was just arriving and he gets everybody together and he’s like, “You have thirty minutes and your ass better be back here. If you don’t like it you can turn around, you can march out into the desert and you can die!” [both laugh]
DS: Yeah. That’s typical Staff Sergeant Casali. There’s another one when we were overseas and even before we left when we were boots. For pre-deployment and going through that training, any time that he would finish his sentence, “If you fucking pieces of shit don’t like it, you can pack your shit and get the fuck out of my Marine Corps!” [RH laughs] He was just very vocal about that. He was like, “If you don’t fucking like it, I don’t fucking care.” He was a great guy and a great platoon sergeant. He really cared about his Marines and loved us like we were his children essentially. I still actually talk to him today and I remind him of all the no screaming eagle shits and all the crazy shit that he put us through and that we appreciated it.
RH: I was hoping that he would come to the reunion. I was disappointed he wasn’t there.
DS: Me too.
RH: Last couple questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about the conflict?
DS: I think that one of the biggest is that they thought there was no reason to go to Iraq. They didn’t attack us. The Taliban from Afghanistan did so they didn’t understand it. Really, the Middle East is intertwined. It’s just an evil place. I don’t want to stereotype the Middle East as just being horrible but there’s a lot of evil people in the Middle East but there’s also a lot of good people so I don’t want to do that. They’re all very interconnected is what I’m meaning to say. They’ve been fighting for thousands of years and clearly didn’t like how we were conducting our business. And us being the infidels, we had to do what we had to do otherwise things were only going to get worse. I just think that people don’t get it. They don’t understand that. They just think it was all George Bush, President Bush, and his evil plan or he didn’t know what he was doing or he was a shitty president. I think they just follow the media a little bit too much.
RH: If you could communicate something to young Marines and sailors who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
DS: Oh man. First and foremost, take care of the guys to your left and your right because when the shit hits the fan, that’s all that matters. And to make sure that you protect your Corpsman because when the Corpsman goes down, that really changes things. And just to give a hundred and ten percent in everything that you do, no matter how much you disagree with it or not. There’s always a bigger picture. There’s always a method to the madness so if you can push through those hard times and you can get through those hard struggles with your brothers – your fellow Marines and sailors, soldiers, airmen or whatever branch you’re in – once you can get to that point with your fellow brothers and sisters and you can see the bigger picture, you can start to understand why things are happening the way they are. And you can kind of mold yourself into that next leadership role and you can take what you’ve learned from those struggles and really pass that on.
Another thing that I would like to communicate is take care of your junior Marines. They’re people too. [laughs] Don’t get sucked into treating them like pieces of shit because they signed up for the same reasons you did. There are ways to lead and be respectful and be a hard ass and there are also ways to be a shitty leader and not command respect and that was something I actually had to learn the hard way a little bit. Once I kind of checked myself and talked to some senior leadership and got some knowledge, I was able to be a much more effective leader and was able take care of my Marines and they ended up respecting me quite a bit more for that.
So I would say just take care of your Marines or sailors, or whatever branch you are in, and just give a hundred and ten percent in everything you do and try to not have any regrets.
RH: Before I ask my last question, is there anything that I left out that you would like address?
DS: No. I think you hit it all.
RH: Alright. Good to go. My last question, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
DS: Well, I got two Navy and Marine Corps achievement medals but that isn’t anything to me. Whatever. I think my biggest achievement was receiving my Combat Action Ribbon. I think that was a huge thing for me because it proved that under the worst situations on planet Earth, I was able to do my job and do my job effectively and keep my fellow Marines to my left and my right safe as much as I could and get them home and get my Marines home. I think that was my biggest accomplishment.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Anything else before we wrap it up?
DS: No. I’m good.