Josue deployed to Iraq in February 2003 with Second Battalion, Twenty Third Marines in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was part of the initial wave of Marines that pushed from Kuwait up to Baghdad at the beginning of the war. In his interview he discusses the invasion and some of the challenges he has faced since leaving the military.
Interview conducted on April 5, 2017 in Los Angeles, California
Present: Richard Hayden and Josue Guerrero
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Josue Guerrero: My full name is Josue Guerrero.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
JG: US Marine Corps. I served from December 2000 to December 2008.
RH: OK. What was your rank when you got out?
JG: [laughs] That was a laughable Lance Corporal. It’s a long story to that one.
RH: Alright. What was your MOS?
JG: I was originally an 0311, Basic Rifleman, right before Iraq. Because of that rank change, I moved over to the 0341 Mortarman position, Weapons Platoon.
RH: OK. What was your unit?
JG: I was originally attached to Second Battalion, Twenty Third Marines, Weapons Platoon and we deployed with the First Marine Division, RCT 1, and then attached to Task Force Tripoli.
RH: OK. What motivated you to join the military?
JG: [laughs] Funny you ask. I was a good student. I was captain of my track team – the cross country team. I got good grades. Everything was perfect. I applied to USC, UCLA, Pepperdine, even UC Berkley and I got admitted in 1995. I was ready to go. I did the tours of the colleges. I was excited about going and my parents dropped the bomb on me. They said, “That’s great son but you got some scholarships.” I was like, “Yeah. I can get some scholarships. I’m a good student but scholarships aren’t going to pay everything. I still need to apply for financial aid from the state.” They’re like, “There’s a little problem. You’re not a US citizen. You’re not even a legal resident.” I was like, “D’oh!” So that ruined my college plans because I’d have to pay as an out of state student and I didn’t qualify for any financial aid. They were hoping that my green card would come through but it was delayed so I didn’t get that for another three more years, four more years.
So in the process I actually got lucky. I got a small scholarship from Cal State Northridge for scholar/athlete scholarships. I was able to go to college for the first year but after the second year – it was only a one year thing. I couldn’t renew it so I had to find a way to pay for school. It was very expensive so I had a full-time job. I paid for school on my own as I was a non-citizen so that kind of stalled me.
In the process of working my butt off, I kind of was losing track of college. I wasn’t sleeping enough. I ended up dropping out of Cal State Northridge in 1998. I went almost two years, two and a half years, and it wasn’t working out for me financially. I had to help support the house so I was broke. I got into debt. So I was like, “What else can I do?”
I remember I was working at a Verizon store and I had this Army recruiter come up to me and say, “Hey. Wouldn’t you want to join the Army?” I was like, “No. Not really.” “Wouldn’t you want to jump out of helicopters? Wouldn’t you want to travel the world?” He was pretty much there every day bugging me. He got me right at the right time because I was working right after Black Friday, Thanksgiving. From Thanksgiving to Christmas I was working twelve hour shifts. I was the assistant manager so I was working my butt off. I was not sleeping. I was burned out and anything seemed nice at the time. My employees quit on me.
RH: Oh man.
JG: My manager wasn’t helping so I was stressed out and I was just burned out. I was like, “This sucks. I don’t want my life to end this way.” So I guess he caught me at the right time. This was December 15, 2000, and I told him, “Do you know what? I have a day off. I’m going to come in late to work. On this day, I can be at your office at 0800 [pronounced zero eight-hundred] and we can talk.” In those few days I thought about it. I was like, “You know what? I’m going to do it. I’m going to join the military, get the GI Bill and then go on with my life. I’ll travel the world.” I got excited about it. I didn’t want to show him that I was but I got excited about the idea of traveling the world and joining the military.
So I showed up at 0800 at his recruiter’s office and, lo and behold, his door’s closed. I’m like, “What the…?” Alright. Fuck it. But then I noticed that the door next door was open and who was that? The Marines. I told them, “Do you guys mind if I wait for my recruiter? He’s late.” They were like, “Sure. No problem. Have a seat.” [RH laughs] “Check out this video.”
All my cousins are Army. I have three cousins that are Army and I saw the video. I was never really into the military enough to know the difference. I thought the Marines were a special forces unit of the Army. I thought they were an elite unit above everyone else the way I had seen it in movies and all that. When I saw them I was like, “So you guys wear that blue Superman suit.” They said, “Yeah, that’s us.” I was sold. I signed and was ready to go.
At the time though I also didn’t understand the difference and I signed up for the Reserves, not active duty. So I didn’t know the difference. I thought I was ready to get shipped out but it wasn’t until after that I found out that even though I signed that contract – it was an eight year contract – it was Reserves only. At the time the recruiter didn’t explain that to me. I guess they make more money if you sign Reserves and not active duty. I was like, “OK. Whatever.”
RH: Tell me about boot camp. How did you eventually go?
JG: Boot camp. I signed my contract December 18th of 2000 so I kind of planned it out good. I was going to party like a rock star until December to January because my boot camp date was the first or second week of January. So I partied like crazy in December. I tried to climb the Hollywood sign on New Year’s Eve, [RH laughs] just drank and partied like it was the last thing on Earth.
And then I left off to boot camp. I remember my recruiter picked me up. We went to eat at, I think, at Denny’s. There was a restaurant right above MCRD. That was my last meal.
RH: And this was January of 2001?
JG: January of 2001. You’re right.
RH: And MCRD down in San Diego, right?
JG: Down in San Diego. That’s where I got checked in and I didn’t know what to expect. I had that fear with excitement with something different. I had done sports in high school so it was that excitement of trying something new. For me it was fun. Everybody was scared. I was not scared. I was already older. I was already twenty-three when I joined so I wasn’t right out of high school so I think I was a little more mature at the time. I was like, “Let’s do this.” I was just going to go all out, balls to the wall, and go for it.
So I thought it was funny. A lot of these games that the drill instructors were playing on us, I thought they were funny because the drill instructors were my age. The Sergeants were my age so they would pick on me because I was right around the same age. They were like, “Hey old man,” or whatever. My nickname became grandpa. [RH laughs] I remember my nickname became grandpa because I was the oldest one in the squad. And you could see the difference from an eighteen year-old, a seventeen year-old to a twenty-three year-old when it came down to certain stuff. Once we shaved our heads we were all kind of equally scum so it didn’t make a difference.
But I think I was able to adjust easier to the screaming and the yelling and all that because I had a pretty strict father. He yelled a lot. So it was like, OK. I’ve been through this before. Some of these kids, you could tell that they’d never been yelled at. You could tell that they never had any responsibility in their life. They had a hard time dealing with basic commands. I think I had a little leg up on it and it sucked but I embraced it. I learned to embrace it early so it didn’t mess with me.
But my one issue with my experience was that, because my last name on my green card and social security card says “Guerrero Uribe” with no hyphen, my name tapes came out looking like an alphabet soup. [RH laughs] So I remember my drill instructor said, “What the fuck? You’re Alphabet One.” So my name for the rest of boot camp was Alphabet One. I became an alphabet.
The other issue I had was my drill instructor. If you know Brock Lesnar, the wrestler and UFC fighter, he’s a big, huge monster of a guy. I would say my drill instructor was his little brother. He was that big, Nebraska, corn-fed, full, ox-type human and he didn’t take too well to us darker skinned Marines. He said, “You will earn your green card in my Marine Corps.” I thought it was funny so I said, “So I’ll have two green cards. Cool!” But I grew up in the hood. I grew up in Pacoima [California]. I grew up in the projects so my part-time hobby was boxing when I was younger. I grew up in the streets so I didn’t take orders from him very well. So any chance I got, I would challenge him. That was my way of not folding. I would not submit to him. Where everybody was all scared of him, I just thought he was a barking pit bull. I saw him as a barking pit bull and I thought as long as he doesn’t hit me, I’ll be fine. But it did come to that. It came to blows. At one point it came to blows.
RH: With him?
RH: Oh wow.
JG: You would earn intensive training if you messed up so he would make sure I would mess up one way or another and it got to a point where we had some extra training – one on one training as you would call it. Let’s just say I didn’t win that battle. [RH laughs] But I learned a lot from it. Eventually what happened with me is he shook the rope – as I was three-quarters of the way up – so hard that I slid down, I burned my hand and I landed crooked on the wood chips. I popped my knee. Once I popped my knee, I also sprained my ankle so that started affecting everything. So at one point I couldn’t take it. I had to go to medical. Because I missed too many days and I was in medical for too long, I ended up getting recycled. He said he would eliminate me from his platoon and, yes, he accomplished that. I think he meant to kick me out completely from the Marine Corps but he didn’t.
I worked my way for thirty days in medical rehab platoon to rehab myself. I did a lot of stretching, a lot of pull therapy. I was determined to come back. My goal was to graduate by Mother’s Day and I accomplished that. I got pushed back a month. I should have graduated in April but I graduated in May. I rehabbed about eighty percent and I had to start boot camp over with a different platoon. Because I already had the hardest part, I guess, with Golf Company – in boot camp it’s Alpha, Bravo, Charlie all the way up to Golf Company – Golf Company is the farthest from the camp for the officers so it was the hardest platoon to deal with because they had the least supervision. When I recycled, I recycled with Alpha Company so I ended up closer to the officers so we were able to get a full night’s sleep.
After dealing with that drama over there, Alpha was easy. To me it was easy because I already knew I could sleep the whole night so it was a lot easier the second time around.
RH: Afterwards, where were you stationed?
JG: I checked in with Golf Company. At that time I didn’t know the difference so I checked in with Headquarters not knowing that Headquarters was a whole different place. So I show up to Headquarters, Second Battalion, Twenty-Third Marines, here in the San Fernando Valley. My friend who I bumped into in LA Valley College said he was also part of that unit. He said, “I’m from 2/23.” I said, “So am I.” He picked me up and took me to his unit. Come to find out I didn’t have a car so he picked me up. I showed up to a unit that has no knowledge of me. They don’t know who I am. I’m like, “Oh my God. What did I do?”
I found out later because of my ignorance of units, Golf Company is another branch of 2/23 in Orange County. So I had to get somebody to drive me from Headquarters 2/23 in Encino to Golf Company 2/23 in Orange County, Los Alamitos and that turned me into the traitor because I didn’t know the difference between one or the other. Being the new guy, I had a hard time making friends. As a new boot coming into your unit and saying, “Oh, I went to your competition,” I started off on the wrong foot.
RH: Oh no!
JG: Lucky for me, because of my high school running experience, I was a PT stud in boot camp. I was a little more mature. I was able to earn my respect within the platoon very quickly. I was the fastest guy, almost, in the company because I’m a runner by trade so I was able to make a good impression to where they kind of forgot what happened. I promoted quickly to Lance Corporal in that unit. I was hot, I was motivated, I was point man. I was doing everything right but, by doing that, I also ruffled some feathers within my squad. It made some people look bad. Some of the leadership didn’t like that I made some of them look lazy. I made some enemies. Let’s say I made some enemies but it was part of the deal, you know?
So Golf Company 2/23 was my home unit. We went to one training up in Seattle, Washington. I remember it rained all week. That was in August of 2001. It was great training. I remember thinking, “Oh. Imagine if we had to go to war.” It felt like Vietnam. The training we did we were wet the whole two weeks we were there. It was miserable. We did a lot of urban MOUT training so that was pretty cool. We did a lot of simulation, a lot of room to room clearing. And you know, it was funny because at the time, August of 2001, we joked about it. “This would be cool if we were doing this live fire.” We had to eat our words because a week later, a few weeks later, 9/11 happened.
RH: My next question is, where were you on 9/11?
JG: It was my first week of college. I had just registered for school at Valley College and it was the first week of the first semester. Life had gone on for us reservists that go back to the civilian world so I was ready to go back and tackle college. 9/11 happened and that same day I got the call. They said that we were the first ones to augment First Marine Division. You’re a grunt, you’re an 03 [pronounced oh-three], this is what your job entails. Pack your bags and start checking out, doing your paperwork.
They asked me to write a damn power of attorney just in case I didn’t come back. To me that was so foreign, to think that I would possibly not come home. Even though I went through boot camp and I went through the training with the infantry and all of that, it didn’t dawn on me that this was real. This was a hundred percent real and I could possibly not come home. It was a hard pill to swallow because there’s a difference between signing and training and going through the motions of training, you know? It’s fun and games but when it’s for real, that’s when you really learn what you’re made of. That’s when you realize, damn, I signed a mo-fuckin’ contract. [RH laughs] So it was scary.
Coming from a pacifist family – my family is very religious, my dad is very hippy, peace and love and all that – to the idea that I would have to go over and actually shoot other humans is something that I had a hard time really accepting.
RH: How did your family feel about all this?
JG: They were not on board from day one. They did not agree with my decision and I didn’t really ask them. I just told them, “I signed up for the Marines and I’m leaving next week.” My mom was mad. My dad was mad. They were both like, “This is not what we taught you. This is not how we taught you. This is not how we live.” Let’s say I’m the ugly duckling in the family. It was tough to say that I am going overseas and I am going to Iraq and I may not come back. It was tough on everyone.
I think my mom took it the toughest because at first, it’s mom. My dad, too, but dads don’t show their emotions much. At that point I felt like I let them down. I was feeling kind of guilty because at the time when I signed in December of 2000, I was like, “There was no war that was going to happen any time soon. We just had a war in ’91. It’s not going to happen.” But nobody expected 9/11. It was something that none of us expected. But I also felt that feeling of duty that we had to go. I was still a little livid about what happened, the losses that we had at the towers, so in a sense I was like, “Do you know what? It’s payback time.” I had that mentality like let’s go get some terrorists. I did buy into the whole patriotic machine so I was ready to go in all locked and loaded and do what I was trained to do which was blow some shit up.
RH: So after September 11th you got this call. Were you activated? Where did you go after that?
JG: Yes. Camp Pendleton. What’s funny is the same guys that I had just graduated with from the School of Infantry and from boot camp were at Pendleton at the same time. I reunited with my old buddies from boot camp and the School of Infantry. We were part of an augment of the First Marine Division, Regimental Combat Team One. We were the ones that went straight up the main artery of Iraq.
RH: Alright. Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
JG: Just Iraq.
RH: How many times did you deploy?
JG: Just the one time.
RH: And what was the date of that deployment?
JG: February of 2003 and we came back by May. We were the first initial push into Iraq. It was twenty-one days to Baghdad. We were actually portrayed on the National Geographic 21 Days to Baghdad special. There’s a video and photo of me celebrating outside of Saddam’s palace after the fall of Saddam. There’s a picture of me waving a little flag which is a flag that I stole from the UN building in Baghdad. I shouldn’t say steal! [RH laughs] It was a flag that I acquired from the UN building in Baghdad because that was our final push. Baghdad was our final objective and then from that, because we did such a good job in Baghdad, we got attached to Task Force Tripoli to go to Saddam’s palace.
RH: Let’s start from the very beginning. Do you remember when exactly you arrived in Kuwait?
JG: I don’t remember exactly. I know it was late February/early March.
RH: So the forces were already starting to mass in February of 2003, right?
JG: Yeah. We were the ones that were popping up the tents and filling up sandbags. I remember we did sandbag after sandbag and building up the camp up there to pretty much set up for the following forces to come after us. That’s what we did most of the time. We were the 03 [pronounced oh-three] fix a lot, 03 build a lot, 03 sandbag a lot. [RH laughs] Most of the time we were up there it was training with MOPP gear to practice just getting used to the weather, the heat, and acclimate. We put up tents. I remember bringing sandbags up to the sniper tower. I mean, just hard labor. It felt like hard labor what we did.
And then just training. We were practicing our maneuvers and practicing what we would do in the case of an ambush. We just went over what we had already learned to tighten our movement.
RH: So leading up to this, did you guys think you were going to go in? Did you think you were going to just sit on the border? What was going on?
JG: No, no, no. We knew. They pretty much told us that we were going to be the tip of the spear which is amazing to think that bunch of reservists would be picked to do this. To me, I never knew that reservists get thrown into the mix. I thought that we were safe, that we were going to be a supporting unit but I never thought that we’d be the actual tip of the spear with all the other Marines. We came in right after Tanks, pretty much. Right after Tanks pushed through, we were the ones on foot.
RH: What was it like the night that you pushed into Iraq? Go through the whole thing.
JG: It was one big column. I do remember that we heard that we were going to be part of the shock and awe campaign. The idea was to shock their troops, the enemy. I remember that we heard that the bombing raid started so we could see and hear the bombing ahead of us going on, the flybys, the artillery. That’s one thing that I could see. It was like a fireworks show. You could just see lights lighting up in the sky way ahead of us. And it was real. At that point we were like, “Oh shit. It’s hitting the fan. It’s on.”
But by then all we did was watch and listen to videos. We had videos like Platoon. We watched Full Metal Jacket. It pumped us up. We were all pumped up ready to go. We’re reading a lot of Arabic. We’re practicing our Arabic. You know, rules of engagement – everything that we needed to review when we got there. So we were ready to go. We felt like we were ready to go and we got excited. We were excited. We got that briefing from one of the generals and it was on. It was on.
So that first night when we crossed the line of departure, it was on. We were all geared up.
RH: You were in Humvees?
JG: We were actually in seven ton trucks. Ahead of us there were armored vehicles but because we were ground troops, we literally just moved in seven ton trucks that were reinforced with sandbags. That was our armor. [laughs] We had no armor. What’s funny is we were wearing tan uniforms but we were wearing jungle green flak jackets and jungle green MOPP suits. Our chemical suits were dark green. So it was funny because once we had to put them on, we were like sitting ducks in the desert. You could pick us out from a mile away. So it was kind of odd that we were using old gear. That’s a whole other conversation. But I remember at one point I jumped from one place to another and my pants ripped so I had to sew them with a boot lace. I had to sew my uniform with boot laces. Easy access, I guess you could say, so it worked out. [RH laughs] We just made due with what we had.
It was a pretty cool experience altogether. It was new. It was scary but we pushed on. We pushed on in a column right up to the main cities. The one that I can remember is Al Kut. An Nasiriyah is where we had one of our major, major battles. That was ambush alley so there were a lot of ambushes there. Al Kut, An Nasiriyah, Sadr City. Let me see, what else? I’m trying to think of cities or towns.
I know that we found a training camp. It was a big training camp for the PLO. It looked like a boot camp-type place for where they trained their troops so we had little skirmishes there with – I don’t know if it was Saddam’s Fedayeen or if they were just local militia groups but they did have uniforms. We found three different types of uniforms and we had to learn to identify Saddam’s Republican Guard from Saddam’s Fedayeen. That was the difficult part, who was what, but at the time they were all enemy combatants. They were shooting at us, we shot back at them so it didn’t make a difference what uniform they were wearing. [laughs] So that was that. When we went they said, “If they’re shooting at you, you shoot back. Don’t check for ID. Just get it done.” I think that’s one of the reasons why most of us survived in that first wave because there was no hesitation. We didn’t have as many IED problems – problems with IEDs.
Another reason I think that our unit was successful is we had an Iraqi American embedded with us so he was able to communicate with the locals and give us intel before we entered any town. They would send a recon unit with him and try to make contact with the locals and usually the locals would give us intel that helped us skirt the ambushes, kind of give us enough intel until we were at a safe distance and where we would detonate whatever they had set up for an ambush. We usually hit them from the side or hit them from the back where they would not expect us.
RH: Was he a ‘terp or was he a Marine?
JG: He was a Marine. He had migrated with his family ten years prior. He was an American living in LA but he knew the language. He knew both the customs and the language of Shi’ites and Sunnis. He was well versed and it really made a big difference for us, in a sense, and we were able to pass on that intel to the units coming after us. So I think that’s one of the reasons we shined as opposed to other units that had a lot of losses. I think we went with a different strategy because we had that intel, that outlet, that initial intel that others didn’t have. I call it luck that we had that guy but it saved us a lot of heartache.
RH: So what are some of the significant events that occurred during the deployment?
JG: The one major one that I can think of that really affected me at the time, we were moving through, I want to say, Al Kut. That was the one town I remember. We were caught up in a sandstorm. Our visibility was literally zero. You could not see your hand. That’s how much the sandstorm had taken over. It was very fine. It was an area that was just very sandy like Arabian Nights or Aladdin. You saw sand dunes and not much more.
At one point we were crossing a river or a bridge somewhere and the truck ahead of us flipped and fell over the bridge into jagged rocks and the river below. So we were the first truck to get there behind that and we all got off to go help and try to rescue the guys who got crushed under the truck. And I remember there’s ammo, there’s sandbags, there’s gear. So a lot of these guys had broken bones. The ones I remember are two of our Marines that were our leaders, Sergeant Mad Dog and Sergeant Mojo. Those were their nicknames. And they were old Marines from the’91 war. So these guys were body builders, big built, muscular. The typical Marine – guns. They were our leaders, our fearless leaders. Everybody looked up to these guys. They were like the bread and butter of our squad, of our platoon. So when they went down and were injured, some of us thought that they were dead. Somehow the word came. I don’t know if it was just scuttlebutt, “they’re dead, they’re dead.” I think that what happened was that the impact had knocked one of them out or something happened where they got MEDEVAC’ed, they got helo’ed out of there and that was a really big blow to all of us. We had lost these guys that were our fearless leaders that we all looked up to.
For them to be injured and taken out of combat, it was very difficult. It depressed all of us. I think we lost about seven guys that day. Seven guys got helo’ed out of there. In the process, I ripped out all my fingernails. Backtrack this. In Kuwait while we were loading the trucks to go into Iraq, it took four guys to load these sandbags – two on the truck and two on the bottom to load these sandbags. But I remember the adrenaline rush, the fear. Because of our flashlights, we thought we were going to give away our position and they were going to be able to radio in, “we see them.” And they were going to be able to mortar us. What was lucky was that the sand storm kind of shielded our lights. So we were safe but we didn’t know this.
So with that fear of we’ve got to hurry up, we’ve got to get these guys and take them out of here quick, I started grabbing sandbags as fast as I could and in the process I ripped out all my fingernails. I didn’t feel anything until we had our meeting, all the guys were safe, the area was secured and we were ready to move. We had to blow up that truck. Right after that happened, we were like, “OK, we’re ready to move out,” that’s when I noticed. I felt my heartbeat on my fingernails. I was like, “What the hell is going on?” I felt my heartbeat and this slimy thing on my gloves. I was like, “What the hell?” So I pull on my glove and as I pull off my glove, I heard a rip and all of my fingernails came off. I could see my hand. The moonlight came through and I could see shiny, drippy liquid coming out of my fingers. I saw my fingernails on my glove and my hand dripping and I was like, “Oh. This is not good. This is not good.”
RH: What did your doc think about that?
JG: I don’t remember what my doc said. I do remember that, I think when that happened, all the energy I had exerted – I don’t know if it was a combination of the exertion that I had just done from doing this and saving these guys, the fear of us getting mortared, me seeing my hands with no fingernails, I went into shock. I remember I collapsed right there and I couldn’t move. So my fear was I could hear everyone but I couldn’t scream and I couldn’t move and I was between the trucks. I was between these two seven ton trucks so I thought I was going to get crushed. I was like, “Oh shit. I’m going to die right here or they’re going to take off and they’re not going to see me.” So I was trying to get help. I’m like, [in a struggling voice] “Help. I’m stuck here.” And it was dark. I was like, how do I get to the truck? Because they started saying, “Let’s roll out.”
So I remember I wielded myself – I was between the front of the truck behind us and the truck was pulling a trailer where we had thrown all our gear. I remember pulling myself into the trailer as the truck was leaving and I was freezing. I remember digging into people’s bags to get a sleeping bag or something and I was shaking from the sweat, from the cold. It was the desert and it was cold in the desert. I remember just bundling up and trying to get my own body heat. I think I went into shock. I was breathing hard trying to get some heat going. They found me the following morning stuck between the packs. I didn’t get shit for it but I remember that was that moment when I was like, “Fuck. I’m not going to get back in the truck. I’m going to get left behind.” All these things. So I think that was the one moment that I was like, “Fuck.”
And then we were all bummed out. Nobody really talked because we felt like we all took a loss. We were all bummed out. Nobody was really talking. We all went on. It was a really cold – I remember very, very cold morning – and went into our next firefight, into our next ambush. I think we all snapped out of it and realized that know what? Even though we lost these guys, we still have to keep going. So we just kind of kept going and that firefight kind of united us. We had so much anger that we kind of had to release. I think that next firefight, that next ambush really helped us unite and really focus on the task on hand.
RH: So where was this firefight and what happened?
JG: I don’t remember the name of the town but it was getting closer towards Nasiriyah. Between Sadr City and Nasiriyah – somewhere in there, that region. The middle of Iraq. Between Kuwait and Baghdad, right in the middle. I can’t think of it right now.
So we came in and we just started taking fire from different buildings – tall buildings. It seemed like a bigger city because had normally see just little two level towns, two-level towns, kind of farming-type towns. But this city had a main corridor. It had tall buildings with ten, twelve level offices and buildings. So it was easy to hide. It was a good choke point that they got us in and we were seeing a lot of fire from both ends. We were able to enter one of the buildings and start clearing it. The best place to get out of the center is going into the building and flush them out.
So we flushed out these guys and the one thing I remember is that these guys were really young. They were in their teens. They weren’t grown men. So it was odd to catch these guys that were just shooting at us and then find out they were kids. It was odd. I couldn’t fathom the idea of a teenager shooting at us and being a soldier for them. We did end up finding uniforms that had been thrown into the bushes. We caught these kids and we didn’t know who was shooting at us but it was later that we found out that these kids had dropped their uniforms. We were able to recover a photo that was ripped up into little pieces. When you put that photo together and you looked it over, it turns out that all these kids that we had just arrested were all part of this same army unit. You put two and two together and we were able to figure out that these kids were the guys that were shooting at us.
We realized that we weren’t just fighting a regular army, we were fighting soldiers that were dropping their uniforms and blending into the civilian population. So it made it that much harder because we had to consider any civilian as an enemy combatant. We weren’t sure who was friend or foe anymore. We considered everyone an enemy. It made things a little more gruesome. More gruesome in the sense that there was a lot more bloodshed. I think about it sometimes. It was a bad situation but it had to be done, at that point, to keep our guys safe.
We didn’t take too many losses. We were a full force and at one point I remember we didn’t have a lot of air support so we had to be our own artillery. We had to employ the mortars – that was our way of protecting ourselves – and it was a lot of chaos, a lot of chaos in these cities.
RH: So let me ask you this. What were the Iraqi civilians like?
JG: There were two types. There were the country Iraqis that were very friendly. We’d stop and check their homes and they were very welcoming. It was odd to see them welcome us when we were taken for the bad guy but we would get welcomed in.
I remember one town we stopped to take a peek and this gentleman comes out of nowhere and he’s offering us a bowl of dates. And we’re like, “OK. Is he trying to poison us?” And then we realized, no. He’s being welcoming. We learned later that their way of being welcoming was giving us their food or their fruit that they harvest.
What I saw that was kind of awkward was that [our interpreter spoke to a man in the village that] had, maybe, about thirteen kids ranging from newborns to about sixteen, seventeen years old. You could see all the kids lined up next to each other and we asked him, “Are your kids fighters? Why are you making so many kids?” And he said, “It’s my job to sacrifice my kids for Allah. So if they all become suicide bombers, it’s Allah’s word.”
RH: So this was a guy, this was your interpreter who was asking one of the guys in the village?
JG: [nods yes] One of the village guys. He asked why he was having so many kids. He had multiple wives and all these wives he was having kids with and they were all different ages – we counted about sixteen kids – and he said that his job as an Iraqi was to build up Iraq. So I kind of saw that as an odd comment but he pretty much said that if they all became suicide bombers, he was OK with that. So we thought it was really forward of him to say that. But you had to respect the guy. You couldn’t not. It was an odd situation. He didn’t have any weapons or else he probably would have gotten taken out. He offered dates. He even offered some of that pita bread that they offer but we didn’t want to eat it. We didn’t trust him. We were like, “I’m not going to touch whatever he’s offering.” [RH laughs] But it was an odd and interesting conversation we had with him. And we moved on. We didn’t find any contraband or anything that we were looking for so we just let it be. But he waved us off in a very friendly way and it was very odd to see that.
So we had those farming-type Iraqis which we thought were very peaceful but then we saw the city Iraqis. I think that they had seen a lot of our bombing raids. They had seen a lot of what we had done ahead – our Air Force had done ahead of us. By the time we showed up, we showed up when their towns and everything had been destroyed – their communications systems, their waterways, everything that they had in the city. They were well off with, I guess. They really despised us. You could even say the word hate. They hated us and it’s understandable. We went in and levelled their places. So we couldn’t trust them because we didn’t know which of them were actual fighters or civilians. You couldn’t tell the difference. They all dressed the same, they all looked the same.
Any time we went through a city, we always expected an ambush. We always expected someone to pop off some shots. And usually it was the case. We’d get one or two shots popped off at us, pop shots. But lucky for us, like I said we had an Iraqi with us so it helped us communicate and understand what was going on and where to differentiate from the different tribes or different sects of the same Iraqis. So it made a difference.
RH: You answered this a little bit but what was the enemy like?
JG: The enemy. Ooh. That’s a tough one. I found it to be odd that the enemy was a very fluid Iraqi. Many times we found women to be carrying AKs under their dresses. They were very smart because they used kids, young children and kids, as their front. They knew that we, as Americans, follow certain rules. They learned early on to use women to transport weapons, use kids as distractions. So it really caught us off guard when we would find kids as young as five years old carrying grenades with them. It was really odd to see women, maybe, shooting at us one minute and then walking across the street like nothing happened. So it was confusing at the beginning because we didn’t want to shoot at women and children. We were following the rules of engagement and women and children were not part of what we labelled as enemy combatants. So it took us a minute to catch on to what they were doing.
We found out after a few raids of different towns that, number one, they were hiding their weapons caches inside mosques and inside schools. That was a big shocker because we were going from town to town, door to door looking for these guys that just shot at us but we found nothing. No weapons, no nothing. We knew we had just got shot from different angles so when we looked, we didn’t find anything. Come to find out that most of the weapons, most of what we did find was in schools – in schools and in mosques – and the main people that were shooting at us were women and children. Once we figured it out, it really changed the dynamics of the war, of our movement. We had to be a lot more careful, a lot more cognizant that it could be a kid or a woman that was the one that was the actual perpetrator. Any men seventeen to thirty we automatically kept an eye out as they could be shooting at us but women and children we had not considered before. So that’s one element of surprise that they had on us at the beginning. We had to adjust. We had to adjust our fire and it proved to be the difference.
So what we started doing was hitting the mosques and the churches first – churches and the schools first – and we’d catch them. We’d catch on and avoid further problems. But we realized that it was regular civilians. They weren’t wearing uniforms, they were wearing regular clothes. Once we were cognizant of that and radioed that to other units, the war moved a lot faster. Everything moved a lot faster. At first we were bogged down a lot because of misunderstanding, miscommunication, misinformation, but as we caught on we were able to capture a lot more of these POWs. We had a lot more of these guys that were shooting at us.
RH: What was your squad going through at the time? When I say that I mean mentally and emotionally.
JG: At one point we were really just fighting for each other. We had no agenda other than keeping each other alive. We had two guys that had just got married – freshly married. We had one guy that just had a baby. I pretty much told my friend, “I don’t care what happens to me, you’re going home to your family.” So we really were fighting for our own lives. We weren’t fighting with any agenda other than keeping each other alive. And that was where our morale maintained itself.
I think a lot of times some of the guys were having a hard time with the idea of shooting at a child. Some of the guys took it really hard that we had to engage women and children and our first situation where we had to do that, it was hard on all of us. All of us were taken aback by that. It wasn’t something that we expected, it wasn’t what we had envisioned so it was a hard pill to swallow, a hard situation for us to accept. But we leaned on each other. We discussed what happened and we pushed on. We pushed on and we helped each other through the tough times and the tough realities of war, realities of casualties and everything that comes with it. So we pulled through. We pulled through for each other. I think that’s where our morale was on us and just keeping each other safe.
We had some really close situations where, just by luck, the bullet grazed us. There was one situation where I remember we were ambushed and, I don’t know how, I leaned forward and I put my head down and as I did that, a bullet grazed me and it bounced off the sand. I’m not sure how it ricocheted but the angle should have made the bullet hit me right square in the forehead or right square in the face. But because at that moment my reaction was to duck, the way it ricocheted it hit my helmet. It hit me but I remember at that moment, holy shit! I just got shot in the head. I pictured that scene from Full Metal Jacket – I don’t remember what movie – where the guy gets hit and he checks his helmet and then he gets shot in the head. I thought of that and I was like, I better not. I’ll check on it later. [RH laughs] This is not the time to check. But it was almost a situation where we all could have perished there but we didn’t. We pulled through and just by luck, just by the grace of God, none of us got hit. Even though they caught us off guard and they caught us at an angle when we had no safe zone, nowhere to hide. We had nowhere to hide and it was one of those, “That should have been mine.” That should have been it, right there, for me. But as you can see I’m here in one piece so it’s luck – luck of the draw.
RH: So let me ask you this. Did you eventually make it into Baghdad?
RH: What was the push into Baghdad like?
JG: Baghdad was just like a maze. Baghdad was like one of those movie scenes where you’re like, “Fuck.” It’s like going into downtown LA. They have tall buildings like we do. We came in from the south side of Baghdad straight through their main part of town and we had to bound from building to building. We covered one side of the building from sniper fire while the other guys covered the opposite side of the street so we didn’t cross our fires as we walked through and up to the UN building. Our objective was the UN building.
The thing is that I think we had already hit that place so hard that there was not that much opposition. There were a few stragglers on the upper floors but we were lucky. We cleared the building of anything that was left. We took care of it. But it was a proud moment. It was us taking Baghdad, us taking Baghdad University and the UN building in Baghdad. I was one of the first ones to enter the main UN headquarters where they have their huge meetings of all their countries so it was kind of a cool feeling.
RH: What was that like?
JG: I expected that to be our final showdown. I expected Iraq’s people to be there in full force with booby traps and explosives. You know, one last stand. So that anticipation of going up these buildings, of going room to room with no light. We had our NVGs, our night vision going through, and our laser sights and all that. So that whole movement through that building felt like a video game. I literally felt like we were in a video game and we were bounding from room to room in pitch dark. It was exciting but it was nerve-wracking because I expected something to go off. And it didn’t. There were no booby traps. There was nothing improvised – nothing that could really take us out. So when we got to the roof of the UN building, that was kind of like a breath of fresh air.
When we cleared the building and there wasn’t much opposition, I felt like that was it. They had told us already that that was it because our objective was the UN building and that’s it. We did have some mistakes there where we did have some friendly fire. We thought we were shooting at Iraqis in another building and it turns out that it was our own guys shooting at each other. So it turns out there was a little miscommunication there. Luckily none of us perished because of that friendly fire but that was the one thing that, for a long while, we thought we were getting attacked because it was miscommunication and crossfires from different buildings.
But other than that you could say it was easy pickings for us. It was fast. We went from crossing the LOD from Kuwait to Baghdad in twenty-one days. This whole process of going from town to town, city to city and into Baghdad was exactly twenty-one days. So that’s where that video came out with 21 Days to Baghdad. I think for me we had it easy compared to other units that had more ambushes, more firefights. We had a different strategy and we had a lot of luck on our side. We only lost three guys. Sergeant Dunbar was one guy I remember we lost – good guy – and our Staff Sergeant Cawley was another guy that we lost that I remembered. They were good guys. They were both good, solid Marines. At the time when we heard the radio call that we had a KIA, that was a painful pill to swallow. It was a moment of silence and a moment when you appreciate who’s around you and who you have and who has your back. So that’s that.
RH: You also said that you eventually made it to one of Saddam’s palaces?
RH: What was that like?
JG: That was surreal. That was surreal because one kind of funny story with the UN building is that, when we were moving up from Kuwait to Iraq, we had a lot of MREs. A lot of MREs. So along the way when we saw little Iraqis in every town that we went to, we had that humanitarian feeling to help these people because they were starving, for the most part. So we started handing out MREs. That was less weight for us to carry. We were getting resupplied every other town so we had a lot of food. But when we got to Sadr City which is a city [in northern] Baghdad, they said, “You guys are on your own. It’s too hot for the helos. We’re not going to resupply you. You’re going to have to go for the next two weeks with whatever you have.” We had nothing left. We had given it away. We had, literally, what we normally eat in three days we had only for one day so we were down a third of what we normally had.
So by the time we got to Baghdad, we were starving. Anybody that was fit and lean and muscular was now skeleton-like. We were moving so fast and burning so many calories bounding from town to town and clearing these buildings that the guys that were ripped, now they were skinny. Us guys that were bigger with more body fat, we were able to last longer but we were losing muscle. We were losing what we had so by the time we got to the UN building, we were all exhausted, dehydrated. We had run out of everything.
I remember one of the skinny guys, we had to force feed him because he couldn’t eat anymore. He didn’t want to eat. He was dizzy. He was falling apart, physically. So we scrambled to look for food. In the compound of the UN building, we found a warehouse of humanitarian rations. We broke into that and we found these yellow humanitarian rations. But how do we get them to the other guys? We knew that all around the building, all around the UN building, there were also other units that had run out of food so being that we were from East LA, a lot of us, we know how to hotwire cars. We hotwired some of these UN vehicles and loaded them with rations. So we went around with UN vehicles – they were like Jeep Cherokees – and filled them with boxes of MREs and rations and we drove around dropping food to all these guys to resupply these guys. So that’s how we got the nod from the Generals that heard the news of these guys, these Reserve guys from East LA, hotwired vehicles and took food to all these other units. It was kind of a joke, it was funny, but it got so far up the chain that they said, “Get these guys to Saddam’s palace.” So we were chosen, out of all the units in Baghdad, we were the ones chosen to attach to Task Force Tripoli to move up to Saddam’s palace. So we kind of got picked for the job.
Going up to Saddam’s palace in Tikrit, that was a good and bad situation because we entered Tikrit and we had got some intel. Tikrit is Saddam’s family and Saddam’s second or third or fourth cousins. Everyone that lives in Tikrit is his immediate family. So he lives in the big palace but everybody that is related to him was going to protect him. We knew we weren’t going to get any help from the locals around the palace because it’s all of his people, his culture. We had a lot of opposition there.
When we crashed into the palace in Tikrit, it was the most amazing experience in a sense that we saw poverty outside Saddam’s gates. It was like one of these towns in Brazil where everybody has one of these tiny, shitty shacks in the thousands around town – adobe-type housing living on dirt floors. And then you cross the street and there were these huge palace grounds with manmade lakes, gold columns, gold statues outside the palace. The main doors were like fifty feet tall. They were these huge doors that opened. Indoor waterfalls. We found cheetahs, tigers, leopards chained up and starving to death. We had to put those out. Everything marble. Marble columns, marble floors, a piano. Very ornate couches with gold leaf cover. Gold everywhere you could see. Solid gold toilets, solid gold everything. Excess to the max. It was like you were in a cartoon. It was so surreal.
There weren’t many people left. I think once Baghdad got taken down, I think everybody just dropped their guns and dropped their uniforms and just kind of gave up which was a good thing. We had gotten word that Saddam was up in Tikrit. We figured somebody was hiding him so we started doing twenty-four hour raids into this town going door to door, door knocking, looking for Saddam, if one his family members or one of his neighbors was hiding him. It was nonstop operations to look for him. Come to find out in hindsight, we understood that he floated down the river behind his palace grounds. He got into a little boat and floated down the river into his little gopher hole where 4th ID [4th Infantry Division] found him later. But we were the first ones to enter his palace and start looking for him. We didn’t find him so our mission was done. Our mission was done and the media showed up and took photos of us waving the flag. That’s when Bush said, “Mission accomplished.”
Even though he said mission accomplished, there was still a lot of work to do. As you can see, there was still a lot of ammo caches, a lot of IEDs, a lot of stuff that was still in country. I think we moved so fast up to Baghdad and up to Tikrit that we didn’t really have a clear chance to secure these towns and make sure that there were no weapons. An Numaniyah is a town where we found caches up to the ceiling of RPGs and AK-47s in crates, brand new in plastic, and yet we didn’t destroy them. So I kind of figured that we should have blown all those buildings up and looked for more. Our time was up, our mission was over and that was that.
In the process I hurt myself. I jumped off a truck and something separated. I hurt something in my hip joint. Something popped in my hip and I was starting to feel the pain so I was kind of glad it was over for me. I realized later that it was a serious injury so it affected my mobility, carrying heavy weight, all that stuff. It was hurting. When it was time for us to go back, I was glad because I was feeling that I was becoming a burden to the unit. So I was glad that we were ready to go. That was that.
RH: Let me ask you this. Did you have any transformative experiences while you were over there?
JG: Transformative? Yes. I can tell you that I went into Iraq with this hate in my heart that wanted payback. I wanted payback for 9/11. I wanted to hurt people. I wanted to kill all these bad guys that had done us wrong. But in the process of going from Kuwait all the way to Baghdad to Saddam’s palace and patrolling through these cities and these towns, I realized that this country was already destroyed. I kind of felt that we accomplished the mission but we had permanently destroyed this region forever after. It didn’t sit right with me because one of our missions was to find weapons of mass destruction. We never found anything nearly associated with any type of weapons. It felt like the most they had were RPGs and AK-47s. Nothing bigger than that. So for us to level that place like we did, I felt guilty. I had that feeling of guilt like we did a lot of damage. I started to question why were there. Some of the intel that was coming through was that C130s were arriving with machinery to fix the oil wells and petroleum was being pumped while we were still moving up to Baghdad and Tikrit. Once I heard that I wondered, where’s the petroleum going? Come to find out it went to Saudi Arabia.
So I started questioning our motives. I started questioning what our purpose is there. I think I started resenting my role in the destruction of that region. Now that I see we’re still there fourteen years later, I kind of said something like, “We’re going to be here for a long time.” I sensed that back in 2003. And I was right. We were there for the long haul. They sold us the idea that we were going to liberate the Iraqis from Saddam’s reign but did we really liberate these Iraqis? That was my question. My operation was called Operation Iraqi Freedom. Who’s free? We freed them from who? Freed them from what? I changed. I think I changed. Maybe I’m not as patriotic as I used to be because I’ve learned a lot of things that don’t sit well with me. When I question a lot of the missions we did, I come to the same conclusion and it bothers me. It bothers me that we did a lot of damage and what did we really get out of it?
A lot of these veterans that I served with are now alcoholics. A lot of them are suicidal. A lot of them are hurting – hurting internally, mentally, emotionally – and I feel that they probably feel the same that I do. They feel like they don’t matter to the machine. We’re just spare parts that were used and discarded. One part of me is patriotic but one part of me is not. So I think that’s where I think the older I get, the more I question things and question authority. And I think we all should. As we grow in intellect, we should question everything we hear and see because we find out many times that everything is not what it seems. As painful as it is to admit, I sometimes think that we didn’t make the right choices in our way up to Baghdad.
RH: Let me ask you this. You got back, did you immediately go back into the civilian world since you were a reservist?
JG: I was injured so it took a little longer to go back because I had issues walking. I had had a surgery on my toe before we deployed so it affected the way I walked. Something popped in my hip. I’m not sure what popped but something popped in my hip and it affected my running. It affected me carrying stuff. I just had a hard time. I had to get a lot of tests done, I had to get some physical therapy. I had to heal. I had to heal and that was probably why I didn’t get redeployed. My unit got redeployed a few times after that. They did go to Afghanistan. They did go to Iraq again. But because of my injury, I was deemed not deployable so that kind of ended my career.
All I did was rehab and it kind of started my depression because I started feeling guilty for not going. I had friends that went again and again and they didn’t come back. So that’s why I started having all these questions about, why me? I’m single, no kids, no wife. Why not these guys that are married with children and their children are home now without a father? So it ate me. It ate at my soul, it ate at my sense of unity with my guys. I think a lot of guys like us that come back and don’t get redeployed kind of have that survivor’s guilt. I think I dealt with a lot of that. And I started drinking a lot. I started self-medicating and I had some tough times. I did go back into the civilian world but I don’t think I came back a hundred percent. I came back physically but I don’t think I came back mentally. There’s still a lot of me that’s still out there and I feel like I want to go back and make things right or go back and finish the mission. I really felt we didn’t finish the mission. I felt they pulled us out of there too soon. I didn’t personally feel like my mission was complete so that’s something that I dealt with for a long time.
RH: How did the Marines and sailors around you change after you got back? You talked a little bit about this.
JG: We had a little bit of both. We had a lot of guys that came back with that feeling of accomplishment and a lot of them went back into the police departments. They were very, very excited about that experience and they used that to propel themselves to bigger and better things. Then there were half of us like myself that felt like something was ripped out of us. I felt like my humanity was no longer there. I consider myself still to this day very religious from a religious background and I could not step into a church. I felt dirty. I felt evil. I felt like walking death, like I created death, and I didn’t forgive myself for that. I feel like a lot of guys that took a lot of lives, especially if you’re very religious and you believe in the whole ten commandments and “thou shalt not kill,” had broken that commandment. And even though the chaplain, even though other religious leaders said, “No, you did it. It was your duty to take a life,” I couldn’t come to terms with that.
I feel like a lot of guys who were very Catholic, who were very God-fearing – and we had this discussion with some of the guys, we sat together and we prayed together – we felt we were no longer welcome in Heaven. I think that was a tough one for me. Coming home I felt like my family kind of looked down at me because I went to Iraq and killed people. I started drinking a lot. I started medicating myself and I couldn’t show up to any family gatherings without being drunk. So I guess it was an excuse to start a fight but I really felt like a lot of my cousins kind of would point the finger at me like “you did that. You did this.” And I use that as an excuse to be like, “Fuck all of you.” I don’t have a good relationship with my immediate family or my family because I felt like they felt they were better than me.
I just felt a lot of the guys that I felt the same way. I thought I was alone but I met a group of guys and they said that they had the same feelings of guilt, especially with their faith. They questioned their faith. So I know that a lot of guys do deal with that and a lot of guys that do commit suicide did feel like there was no forgiveness for that, no forgiveness for those deeds that we did.
I was there too. At one point I was suicidal. I did not want to continue. I just didn’t feel like I was worthy of this Earth. It was a tough time. I think it was a tough time for me and, luckily for me, I was unsuccessful [laughs] in those attempts. Once I told my mom what I had attempted to do and saw her cry the way she did and break down the way she did, I realized that it would be selfish of me to check out. And I think now I live more for her because I know that she made me and she sacrificed a lot in raising me so I would be throwing everything out the window. For her, I think she bases her success on us – me and my sister – so if I ended that, it would also end her. So that’s kind of what stopped me, primarily.
I personally understand why other vets give up. I deal a lot with that guilt that a lot of us are carrying from the death and destruction that we caused. I try to talk to some of these vets that I meet at rehab facilities and places that I volunteer at and that’s a pain that we all carry. I think that’s a pain that we understand – especially the ones that do room clearing or go door to door. It’s something that unites us as a tight core of infantrymen that deal with that, who see that, and we just try to support each other. That’s all we can do, really. Be each other’s ear. Be a shoulder to cry on.
RH: So actually, you pretty much answered this but one of my questions is: has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
JG: Well, one of the commandments says thou shalt not kill. And for many of us that believe in the Bible and we believe in those commandments, the act of killing another human doesn’t sit well. So that’s something I feel strongly about even though it was quote/unquote a war, part of me still thinks that it could have been handled differently, the whole situation, and so many lives didn’t have to perish. There were certain decisions that were made by the higher-ups that didn’t allow us at the lower level to make final decisions but, you know, it was split-second decisions that could have gone one way or the other so there’s a debate there.
But at the end of the day you’re the one that pulls the trigger and you’re the one that has to live with that life that’s no longer there. I had a lot of nightmares for a long time and the faces of the people that perished, even to this day, still haunt me. I know in my heart that some of these people should not have died. That’s a tough one. That’s a tough one to deal with. A Vietnam veteran counseled me and he said, “Do you know what? Those lives will never come back. No matter what you do, they’ll never come back. So at one point some day in your life, you have to let yourself out of prison. You have to let your soul out of prison.” I’m still not there. Still today, I’m not there. I haven’t fully forgiven myself for some of those situations. Someday I will but I’m not there yet. I haven’t stepped foot into a church. I know it has to come hand in hand. I don’t feel worthy of those pearly gates just yet. I still think I have more to do in order to earn my place in Heaven. So maybe I’m still alive to affect the lives of others in a positive way and maybe earn my wings. That’s kind of how I see it. I have to earn my wings. That’s just my own personal way of dealing with my spirituality. It is what it is.
RH: Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
JG: Wow. That’s a tough one. In Iraq I felt like I had absolute power in deciding who lives and who dies. It became a very addictive feeling. It became a very bloodthirsty feeling. I really, for a moment there, became drunk with power knowing that I had others’ lives in my hands. That scared me. Thinking about that scared me because it just shows how you can lose your humanity in an instant. I didn’t think twice. And that’s why when I came home and I felt like I had to pay for those deaths, my life lost value. I felt like I did not deserve to live. So the same as I felt drunk with power holding other people’s lives in my hands, I also felt I had that power too. I don’t know what more to say but I had to give up my life to make up for those that were lost. I did not feel worthy of living.
So, life and death. I’m learning to appreciate myself more now, and appreciate that I’m alive, that I have all my body parts. I’ve lost brothers that will no longer see their kids grow up, no longer see their wives. My bunk mate Sergeant Norman Cuadra died just recently. It hit me twofold. He died and he had a good life – owned a business, had a wife, had a bunch of kids – and I’m over here giving up on mine. Again, I felt like that was selfish. So I’ve decided to live to honor him and his life. In that sense I’ve learned to respect life a little more.
RH: When did he die, exactly?
JG: He died not too long ago. Last year. August of 2016. It hit me like a ton of bricks. When I found out, I lost it. He was probably my mentor, my bunk mate. He was my fearless leader. I looked up to him in many ways. Even though he was a tiny five-foot-three guy, he was so locked on and motivated. When I had a hard time, he always had my back and he always pushed me up, you know? Yeah. That was my best friend and losing him was probably one of the hardest things that I dealt with since I’ve been back. And the funny thing is I had just talked to him. I had just talked to him a few days prior. He invited me to go with him on vacation and I said, “No. I’ll see you when you come back and we’ll barbeque and we’ll do whatever.” He didn’t make it back.
It’s been a rough year. 2016 was a rough year altogether. We lost a lot of guys that I knew from different units – different units that I’ve met at the VA. It’s been a rough 2016 so I was glad that year was over.
RH: Now that we’re a few years out, how do you feel about the war?
JG: Well, I caught myself saying this the other day: I really don’t think it was a war. A war is usually a fight between two forces like you see in the movies or you see in medieval times – two armies going against each other toe to toe, mano a mano, and I don’t think that happened. In my eyes we went in and we pickpocketed an elderly and defenseless country. We overpowered them with shock and awe and I don’t think they ever had an upper hand on us. So I have a hard time calling that a war. I call it an invasion.
We did invade a country that we had already started beating up back in ’91. So I don’t think that from ’91 to ’03 they had enough chance to rebuild their army, their air force or their navy. I think we just went in there to finish an unfinished job which was taking over a very wealthy, resource-rich region. I have to accept that’s what we were there for. We were a combat force but it was an occupation and we’re still occupying that. We continue to occupy it and the Iraqi people are no better off with a tyrant like Saddam and a quasi-government that doesn’t do much for them. So that’s what I’ve learned to understand from this incident. It may be unpatriotic but that’s just the way I feel about that.
RH: How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
JG: I think that ISIS is the result of an unstable government. I think it’s the result of a lot of angry people. So it’s understandable that most of that region is becoming ISIS sympathizers because we went in there, we bombarded the heck out of them, we took and we looted so it’s not surprising that any organization has an easy time recruiting a group that hates the West because I think we have become the quote/unquote “bad guys” to the rest of the world. We’ve proven it time and time again with our foreign policy. I can understand why ISIS is there. I think if it was the other way around and China invaded us – of course, it will never happen, I don’t think it will happen – but if they overpowered us and they took this country over, I think every one of us would become an ISIS fighter. I think every one of us would fight to the bitter end even if we were outnumbered and outpowered. I think all of us have that within us, always fighting the enemy. If the enemy was ten times, twenty times, a hundred times larger, we would still fight. I know I would.
RH: Are there any lessons that you learned while you were over there that are relevant to the current situation in Iraq?
JG: I think if we would have had a better plan of attack from the get go, a more long-term plan of attack, we would have done a better job in that region. I think we went in there without proper preparation. We went in there with not enough troops. I think for us to travel the distance of San Diego to Sacramento in twenty-one days and assume that we could secure that whole region and make that region safe was a gross miscalculation. I don’t think that movement for us, at least for my unit, that we covered in twenty-one days was humanly possible without errors and I think that was the beginning of the end for our plan of attack. I think we were way off the mark and we left a lot of loose ends which caused a lot of deaths after that first push and the reason while we’re still there today with so many perishing from IEDs. We could have avoided all of these deaths by doing it right the first time.
RH: Alright. We’re going to switch it up a little bit. What’s your happiest memory of the entire time you served?
JG: Finding out that Sergeant Mojo and Mad Dog hitchhiked their way from the hospital with no weapon to reunite with us.
RH: Whoa. Wait. So after they got treated they…?
JG: They were MEDEVACed and they were taken to a hospital or some kind of place in south Iraq. They snuck out in their hospital gowns and they hitchhiked their way to Baghdad to catch up to us. It’s a story for the ages. [RH laughs] I call it the Adventures of Mojo and Mad Dog. Sergeant Mojo and Sergeant Mad Dog loved their unit and the Marines so much that they were willing to risk their lives and their health by hitchhiking their way up from the hospital they were being treated at. Along the way they picked up grenades, flak jackets, boots, uniform parts from different units that helped them up the way to make it back to our unit up north.
RH: That’s crazy.
JG: They got helo’ed. Along the way they went to use their connections with other Marines in other units to just make it all the way home to us.
RH: What was it like the first time you saw them?
JG: The sun was setting. We were already setting up to crash and we were eating chow and out of the far end we see two men walking in the desert towards us. You see them and when we realized it was them, we all went nuts. Everybody went nuts. People started crying. They were like, “Wow! I can’t believe this is happening.” We all ran up to go talk to them and see them. We got the whole conversation about how they were able to hitchhike and sneak away and hitchhike their way up to us. It was one of those stories for the ages. It’s a perfect indication of how a Sergeant of Marines follows that ethos that makes us so special where they’re injured and how us as brothers help each other to the end. That’s the one memory I have that’s just the best. And it boosted our morale. It boosted us. We were ready to get back in the fight. Just for them two guys, I know any of us in our unit would give our lives for those two guys. They are the walking image of the Marine and for them to come home to us and rejoin the unit was the coolest thing. I remember Sergeant Merkel and Sergeant Rodriguez.
RH: What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
JG: I miss the brotherhood. I miss the guys. We had our typical white guy with tatted up everything – a Confederate flag. We had our hood guy from Watts, from South Central. We had a typical Texan. We had our beach boy, surfer dude, a white guy from San Diego. We had a little bit of everything. We had our Vietnamese guy who barely spoke a lick of English. We had our Filipino guy. We were like the United Nations of the Marine Corps. We had so many different characters that every day was – and I had the blow up doll that somebody mailed us so add that [RH laughs] to the mix and it was a party. So we have good stories of us and the brotherhood we shared. We all had each other’s back. We had our little spats here and there, our little disagreements politically or disagreements in our left wing and our right wing and our Republicans and our Democrats but at the end of the day we were all one big dysfunctional family and I miss that. I miss the guys. I miss the good times and the bad times.
And I would do it again if I could physically. In a second I’d do it again because it’s one thing that I learned, that honor that we all follow, you’ll never find anywhere else. Not in any organization, any team. We were even tighter than our own families, many of us. For many of us that was the only family we had so it’s something that you carry in you and you carry until the end of days. Nobody can take that away from you. I miss the guys. I miss that.
RH: Toughest question of the entire interview. What was the best MRE?
JG: [laughs] What was the best MRE? Wow! Well, being the Mexican kid that I am, every MRE was good to me because I brought a tall sized, heavy duty, commercial-sized bottle of tapatío. [RH laughs] Everything tastes good with tapatío. But if I had one MRE to pick that we always hoped to get, it was probably the ravioli and if not it would be the hamburger. There was a hamburger patty that showed up that tasted almost as good as the real thing. So hamburger patty would probably be the one.
RH: What are some of the funny stories that you have?
JG: Funny stories? Well, going back to that care package that included an inflatable blow up doll, once we had secured Saddam’s palace, we came back down and we gave control of that northern region to Army’s 3rd ID [Third Infantry Division]. We were pretty much relieved of our duties so our mission was complete and we were at An Numaniyah which was a little bit south of what was our last pause. The war was over quote/unquote. We still had twenty-four hour security but for the most part we were pretty much safe in that area where we were at.
We had twenty-four hour security that we provided but in the middle of the camp we had an area where we had a courtyard. It looked like a soccer courtyard with some buildings at the end and we used that as a stage. We had a few Marines. They were every close guys, so close that they decided to dress up like girls and put the whole make up and the whole gear on. They used the blow up doll as a third partner and they danced for us. [RH laughs] It was an odd sight to see but we had music and everybody was clapping. We really enjoyed that.
They were total pranksters so every day was a different comedy sketch with them. One day he came out with a helmet, a cape made out of a poncho and in his boots. [RH laughs] He started running around harassing everybody and let’s just say wasn’t very gifted so it made that whole event even funnier. To this day some of us think he might be a switch hitter and bat for the other team but we can’t confirm that. But that guy made our stay there really, really interesting. But as funny as he was and as funny as a jokester he was, he was a hard-nosed dude when it came down to laying down fire and attacking a building. Doing all the hardcore shit, he was one of the hardest Marines you could find. He did not fear anything. He was the first one to attack that building, first one to just say, “Let’s go attack that hill,” or “attack that building.” As funny as he was as a jokester, he was also a leader of leaders. He was fearless. It was kind of an odd combination for one guy. He is one of the guys that I remember dearly.
RH: Alright. Last couple questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about the conflict?
JG: Misconceptions? The original idea that Operation Iraqi Freedom was to free the Iraqis from Saddam was not the real reason we were there. I think we weren’t there to liberate Iraqis, we were there to liberate petroleum, black gold, whatever you want to call it. That was the true reason we were there and maybe the majority of people did not discuss that but I believe in my heart of hearts that we wanted to liberate some petroleum. And we did! We liberated millions of gallons of petroleum that we are still using to this day. So that’s a misconception.
And like you said: war. They call it Iraq war, I call it Iraq invasion. One or the other. I think that was the catalyst to what’s going on right now where all these neighboring countries are having all these issues with refugees and ISIS and all this civil war. I think the catalyst was the demise of Iraq. It has a big part to do with all that. One is connected to the other and it all starts with our foreign policy. It’s been that way for many years and it will probably continue to be that way because we know that war creates an economy, a weapons economy, that we thrive on. We are a superpower for a reason and we will continue to be a superpower for all the wrong reasons, I think. It is what it is. We live in the strongest, richest strongest country because we are a military superpower and we have to accept that.
RH: Alright. Good to go. If you could communicate something to young Marines who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
JG: I would tell them to not be in a rush. Don’t rush into anything. Look at your options. Read up on history. Do your homework before you decide to go one way or the other. I do think that every young eighteen year-old should serve his country in one way or another. I don’t feel that serving necessarily means joining the military but I think you can serve your country in many different ways honorably without having to don the military uniform. I think serving your community is just as well as serving in the military if you do it the right way. I think the way of honoring your family is getting your degree or finding a trade that makes you happy. If that trade happens to be shooting guns and blowing stuff up and you are happy with that then so be it. But there are more ways to skin that cat and you just want to be informed. Don’t make rash decisions like I did. [laughs]
I think if I would have sat there a little longer and thought about it a little longer, my decision would have been different. Maybe I would have finished school before the military or maybe I would have not gone infantry and gone air wing. I think I put my body through a lot and you only have one body. I learned the hard way that when your body says, “stop,” you should listen to your body. I’ve always ignored pains. I live with pain every day and that’s because I did not listen to my body. I pushed through pain and that’s not always a smart decision. I would tell all the young guys to do your homework.
RH: Alright. Before I ask my last question, is there anything I left out that you would like to address?
JG: Yeah. Being that I am a Mexican-American immigrant, I do feel that we have a problem with our current administration. I feel that many Mexican-Americans or any country hashtag-American immigrants that have honorably served in our armed forces and deployed on behalf of the US are now coming home with issues – PTSD being one of them – and issues with their mental situations. Instead of our government taking care of them, they’re very quick to demote them, give them less than honorable discharges, deport them, arrest them, imprison them and I think that’s very wrong. I think that the government should invest. The money that they invest recruiting these young kids, there should be money also to take care of them when they come home, especially if they have issues, and not be so quick to judge.
A lot of these veterans come home with internal injuries and they need help. They need the support they were given when they were given a rifle and a uniform. When they come home they should also get that same type of help and they’re not receiving that. We currently have hundreds of veterans south of the border without an honorable discharge or without any way of coming home to the country they served. So I am personally offended by that. I am personally hurt by that because I know that I served this country honorably and I, luckily, am a US citizen now but I also feel for those that are not and that were not given the opportunity to become citizens or even given the proper information and I find that’s my personal goal, to reach out to more veterans, and show them the way before they make a mistake and get deported and lose their benefits and lose their honorable discharge. I think that’s something I think that needs to be talked about and it’s not being talked about. It’s not being mentioned and that’s why I’m mentioning it now because the government needs to take care of its own.
RH: Alright. Good to go. My last question. What specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
JG: On my first day of boot camp, one particular person said that I was not American enough to represent his Marine Corps and I think I have proven over eight years of service and twenty, thirty-plus years of living in this country that I am. I am proud to say that I have been a college student. I have workedin construction. I have been a business owner. I have done everything in my life to be a better American and I think that I’ve earned the right to be called an American, not just a Mexican-American. And when I hear certain politicians try to belittle my people, I take that as an insult. I am walking proof that not all immigrants and not all Mexicans are criminals and I take pride in knowing that I am a US Marine, I am a veteran, and I served honorably. So that’s kind of my way of giving it to the guy [both laugh] and showing him that he’s wrong. And there are many more like me who just need to come out of the shadows and need to be heard.
RH: Anything else?
JG: That’s it.
RH: Alright. Thank you!