Mike served in the Marine Corps from 1981 to 2004 and retired as a Master Sergeant. He deployed numerous times including to Desert Storm and to Bosnia. His son Michael Toussaint Washington was also a Marine and was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. In his interview, Mike discusses his time as a Marine and how Michael's death has affected him.
Interview conducted on September 28, 2016 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Mike Washington
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Mike Washington: Michael Wesley Washington.
RH: Where are you from originally?
MW: I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii and went to junior high and high school in Los Angeles.
RH: OK. What do you currently do?
MW: I’m a firefighter in the city of Seattle.
RH: Are you currently in the military or did you retire?
MW: I’m retired out of the Reserves in 2004 after twenty-three years.
RH: What branch of the military and what years?
MW: The Marine Corps. I went through boot camp in June of ’81 and retired effective 1 November, 2004.
RH: OK. What was your MOS?
MW: My seven years in active duty I was a 3421 [pronounced thirty-four twenty-one] disbursing clerk and then when I went into the Reserves it was 0313 [pronounced oh-three thirteen] LAV Crewman then my last dozen years I was an 0211 [pronounced oh-two eleven] Counter-Intelligence Agent.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
MW: Master Sergeant.
RH: Alright. What are some of the units that you served with?
MW: On active duty they were Headquarters Squadron, Headquarters Battalion, that kind of admin outfit. And then in then in the Reserves it was Fourth Light Armored Infantry Battalion, Fourth Marine Division. I went to Desert Storm with Second Light Armored Infantry Battalion, Second MARDIV. And then 14th Counterintelligence Team, Marine Forces Pacific.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What is your son’s name?
MW: Sergeant Michael Toussaint Washington.
RH: What branch of the military did Michael serve in and what years?
MW: He was in the Marine Corps. He joined in 2005 and was killed in action in 2008 and he was with Golf [Company], 2/7.
RH: Alright. So we’re going to start with your experience. Where did you go to boot camp?
MW: I went to boot camp in San Diego – MCRD San Diego.
RH: What was boot camp like?
MW: It was a lot like Full Metal Jacket, maybe a little easier – not easier, what’s the word? –not quite as sadistic as Full Metal Jacket but very similar. They really got that right by my experience. Plus, I didn’t get to shoot my drill instructor at the end either so that was something that was missing from my experience. [RH laughs] But it was very similar to Full Metal Jacket.
RH: After boot camp, where were you stationed?
MW: After boot camp I went to disbursing school at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. From there I was stationed in Hawaii with First Marine Brigade and I was there for three years. Then I was briefly at the Marine Corps finance center in Kansas City and then finished my active duty time at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
RH: Throughout your entire career, what are some of the notable deployments that you went on?
MW: Well, of all my five wartime deployments, Desert Storm was notable. It was just a definite force on force kind of fight – us versus them out in the middle of the desert. That was very notable for seeing the American muscle that we brought to that fight. Bosnia was a unique experience. I was in counterintelligence at the time and we were just doing some very discreet operations against Serbian units that hadn’t disbanded yet and were still attacking the Muslims in Bosnia so that was unique. And, of course, going into Afghanistan in the early days of the war in 2001. Going to Yemen and Saudi Arabia looking for the USS Cole bombers. And then east Africa and Iraq, even though my Iraq experience is limited – some across the border things with Kuwait. But they were all pretty memorable.
RH: I want to touch a little bit on Desert Storm. What was the lead up to Desert Storm like?
MW: It was really interesting. I was in the Reserves at the time. We came out here to Yakima, Washington to the Army firing range in July and we came back and, of course, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August. It seemed like this was not your usual kind of thing where there would not be any repercussions. So you started to pay attention and within days, the 82nd Airborne had landed. The Seventh Marines had deployed and this looked like this was going to be a thing. Then they started calling up National Guard and Reserve units. Getting towards Christmas and Thanksgiving, they activated one of the platoons from our company to go out aboard ship with 5th MEB and 5th MEB was going to be the unit that was going to make the landing in Kuwait City. So we were kind of chomping at the bit to get called up as well and then we did.
We went to Camp Lejeune for a couple of weeks of in-processing, flew straight out to Saudi Arabia and waited for our vehicles to get offloaded off the ship. As soon as we got them, we moved right up to the border.
RH: What was the mood in the Marines like? You said that you were chomping at the bit. Was everybody ready to go?
MW: Everybody was ready to go initially because it was like, “This is what we do. We’re ready.” When we got to Camp Lejeune they were giving a lot of indoc classes. I was seven years older and I had active duty time in the Marine Corps which, even in Disbursing, means a lot to somebody who’s only been in the Reserves. I was a student of history and remembered the Iraq/Iran war and the chemicals weapons being used. They used a lot of videos from that and I think that brought home to a lot of the young Marines that this was the real thing. Everybody was still gung-ho and ready to go but it went from a lark to being more serious.
When we get to Saudi Arabia and we just saw all the forces that we had over there, I think that buoyed a lot of people’s spirits but they were still expecting eighty percent casualties in our unit. It was kind of like stand in line, count to ten, and the person who got up to eight – you eight people are gone. So there was some somberness there. In reality, guys were like, “This is what we do. This is what we signed up for.”
But like I said, you saw the airpower. We had a couple of B-52 strikes that were close to our position. That was pretty impressive. And also watching the A-10s work out. So that kind of gave you the idea that we’re going to win this and maybe we’ll even get out of it alive.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was it like the night that you pushed into Iraq?
MW: For Desert Storm it was Kuwait that we pushed into. We had done a number of cross-border raids previous so the ground war was actually a little bit anti-climactic because we had already been there and back a few times. But the first couple of times when we went across on the rays and such, it was kind of exciting. We were at the very pointy end of the spear. There was nobody ahead of us to include SEALs or Force Recon or anybody else because we were escorting those units across the border. We were it. So that was kind of exciting, a baptism of fire kind of a thing. It was really interesting.
As a Platoon Sergeant I think I was fortunate. I had a lot of things to worry about and it didn’t give me a whole heck of a lot of time to be worried or scared. I wanted to make sure that everybody was ready, everybody had their stuff, so it enabled me to keep my mind busy and not sit there and worry about myself too much.
RH: Good to go. What were your initial impressions of Kuwait when you arrived?
MW: It was on fire. I don’t know if you saw the movie Jarhead but those scenes where they’re sitting around the oil wells, those were spot on. That’s exactly how it looked. When the wind blew in a certain direction it was nighttime in the middle of the day. So my impressions of Kuwait were on fire and dark.
RH: Alright. Did you ever make it up into Iraq?
MW: No, we didn’t. No Marine units went into Iraq in Desert Storm. We all stopped just outside Kuwait City to the north of Kuwait City, surrounding it and then going inside. The Army, as far as I know and according to the books that I read, were the only units that actually crossed the border into Iraq.
RH: Got it. Did you meet any Kuwaitis and what were their reactions like?
MW: The Kuwaitis received us as liberators. When we got into the city, we found some of the cells that the Kuwaiti resistance people were held in and there was a lot of blood on the walls. There had been executions in these places. It was only a six-month occupation but the Iraqis were brutal. The Kuwaitis were really happy to see us.
RH: What were the Iraqis like?
MW: They were, for the most part, just happy to get out of the fight if they could. They were hardcore groups that had to be put down but the majority of them were just like, “We’re done here. We’re tired of being out here. We don’t want to get blown up. We don’t want to get killed. We just want to surrender.” That was the Iraqi Army experience by and large but there were some good formations out there. I’d say eighty percent were just kind of like, “We’re done. We don’t want to fight.”
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was it like coming home?
MW: Coming home was interesting because we didn’t come home until May [of 1991]. A lot of the parades and stuff were over. When we retrograded back we went through Camp Lejeune for a week of out-processing. Camp Lejeune is a Marine town. Plus, almost the whole Marine Corps went, all of Camp Lejeune went, so there was nothing special about us. Flying back, we stopped in Dallas/Fort Worth and people still kind of looked at us – I can’t think of the word I want to use. They were happy to see us and some people would applaud us but we were a curiosity at that point.
Then we got home to Pendleton and 1st MARDIV had all deployed and come back by that time. So, again, there was nothing special about us coming back. Of course, our little victory parade down our company street over at Margarita was exciting and a lot of fun.
RH: Good to go. Before Afghanistan in 2001, just briefly, what was it like deploying to Bosnia?
MW: Bosnia was a unique experience in that at the time I was in counterintelligence and this was a very counterintelligence, small unit kind of operation. Like I said, these Serbian paramilitary units were still out and about and they were really tough. They had committed some terrible atrocities against the Bosnian Muslims in the country. The thing that was strange about Bosnia was that, in 1984, they had the winter Olympics there in Sarajevo. This was a first-rate country where Eastern Orthodox, Muslims and Catholic Croatians all lived together. It was a country that really worked. It was a beautiful, beautiful country and in a short period of time it just devolved into this nasty civil war.
These Serb paramilitary groups were still in the process of moving these mass graves of these massacres that they had perpetrated. I was struck by the idea of just how much hate you would have to have to dig up all of these dead bodies and move them so that you could keep doing what you’re doing and attacking Muslims. I was just struck by the savagery of the Serbs in this fight.
But like I said, it was a lot of small unit, a lot of close-in work in that operation.
RH: Alright. Good to go. We’re going to jump ahead a little bit. Where were you on September 11th?
MW: September 11th I was in Tacoma, Washington and I was with the fire department but I also worked a side job at Tacoma General Hospital. We watched the twin towers get hit and I knew that something was up. I didn’t know if it was a nation state that perpetrated this. I kind of thought it was terrorism but as a counterintelligence guy, my mind is working. Who could this be? We just had the USS Cole bombed not too long before in 2000. I dropped the kids off at school and by the time I got to the emergency room, people were already calling me from various commands asking me what my availability was. I’m watching it on TV just like everybody else. As a firefighter, losing three hundred and forty-three of my brothers and sisters was hard to take. I really thought we had lost twenty, thirty thousand civilians in the buildings initially. Three thousand is a heavy toll but I thought it was going to be much greater. And I just knew I was getting ready to go to war again.
RH: You said that you deployed to Afghanistan. What was the date of that deployment?
MW: I spent the Marine Corps birthday of 2001 in Saudi Arabia and my unit was in Riyadh. Like I said, I was in counterintelligence so this was a little area called Eskan village. At one point there was a patriot battery during Desert Storm that was vacated so it was just a special ops outpost in the outskirts of the city. That’s where we flew our missions out of.
So, for example, a mission came up in Pakistan. There was a forward deployed base that we wanted to put on the border so we went out there to make the assessments and to make sure it was secure and it was good to go. From there we launched into Afghanistan a couple of times to Mazar-i-Sharif. This was right after this big prison break occurred. Then I went back to Yemen to try and hunt down the USS Cole bombers. Then we did some work in Saudi Arabia as well because it was a direct link between those guys and Saudi Arabia or people in Saudi Arabia. So that’s what that deployment looked like.
RH: What unit were you with on this deployment?
MW: That deployment it was called the Joint Security Directive. That’s the name we went by. It was kind of a generic name. It was a joint unit so we had some special forces, some SEALs, a few CIA types for the kind of jobs we did.
RH: From what you can discuss, what was your job specifically during this time?
MW: It varied. Sometimes we would do assessments on places – the defensibility of a particular site that we may want to go into and set up a base. We’d go out there and recon an area. We’d go and do assessment on known strongholds and try to get an idea of if we need to come in there and neutralize this place or can we just leave them where they’re at. It was just kind of coming up with different ideas.
With the Cole, you kind of think of it like police work. It was a lot like police work for the USS Cole bombing situation. Then we did an assessment on the harbor in Aden to see if we could use that harbor again so we had to do a lot of jaunts out on town to determine how easy or difficult or do we even want to do that again. If you want to use a movie as a reference, in that movie Zero Dark Thirty, those guys who were trying to find the courier for bin Laden and driving around in the city and walking around the city, that’s what we did. We did a lot of that stuff. Later we’d go on raids to exploit captured documents and other information from wherever it is we went on the raid at.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Are there any notable events that occurred during that deployment?
MW: You know, nothing really that anybody told me I can talk about. It’s over fifteen, sixteen years ago but if somebody says don’t talk about it, you don’t talk about it. But, like I said, using Zero Dark Thirty as an example, I thought it was interesting being in those bills and doing some of this work looking for people and doing surveillance on places. I thought that was really interesting. It was one of those things where I was like, “Wow. I can’t believe I’m here doing this.” That kind of thing.
RH: Good to go. After you got back from that deployment, you said you retired in 2004, correct?
RH: Between the end of that deployment and 2004, did you deploy again?
MW: Yes. I got called up for the invasion of Iraq. We went to Bahrain. My unit was set up there – Marine Forces Pacific. From there I got sent down to Djibouti, east Africa. We had a base down there and we wanted to make a special ops base out of it. They needed kind of the same thing as everywhere else, the counterintelligence people to make an assessment of the security of this place. Can we actually put people here? What’s it like out in the country? What’s it like in the city? Where are the bad people? That kind of thing. We made a couple trips into Somalia, or, northern Somalia which is called Somaliland. That was a pretty porous border for terrorism suspects and the like so we had to make an assessment on how we could secure that border or at least keep surveillance on it.
From there I did some more work in east Africa. Same kind of thing and then back up into Kuwait and just some security stuff right across the border up to Nasiriyah and then back into Kuwait. I did security for a couple of conferences and that was it.
RH: Any notable events during that brief period in Iraq?
MW: We had a bombing in Bahrain that was right there. I got some video that helped apprehend the bomber on that. I was pretty happy with that. And, again, it’s like police work, a lot of it. So I was pretty happy with that. I was happy with my work in east Africa. In counterintelligence you work alone a lot. You get a set of orders that says Master Sergeant Washington can travel to these two dozen countries. We will provide all assistance, pay, everything else that he wants. It was really unique to have that kind of stuff.
In Africa that was really interesting as well, helping set that base up. Especially when I look at what it is now – it’s a pretty big, sprawling base now. I remember when it looked like a fort out of Beau Geste. I got to work with the French Foreign Legion a little bit. That was pretty cool. I provided security for a conference of African leaders. That was really interesting. Muamar Gaddafi attended this conference and I thought that was pretty strange. Here I am providing security on one end of this and here’s this guy that we might go to war with tomorrow. So that was the beauty of the counterintelligence field. You could be out with a rifle platoon one day and then working out of a five-star hotel the next day. It was just a really interesting field.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move on, any other significant aspects of your time in the Marines that I left out that you would like to address?
ME: No. I’m proud of my service in the Marine Corps. Like I said, I got to do the line infantry thing in a big force on force thing. I was always with really, really good Marines and really fortunate to have that. I’m glad I was a Platoon Sergeant. I thought I was a pretty good one and the guys tell me, when I talk to them, they confirm that for me. That makes me feel good. I feel like I did a lot of good work as a counterintelligence agent as well. There were some things that we did that line unit Marines and soldiers are walking around today because we were able to stop a few things. I wish I could have done more but counterintelligence was a really good field to affect some change and really help the line infantry guys. So I’m really happy with that.
RH: Good to go. Let’s shift it up a little bit. I have some questions about Michael. You said it earlier but when did Michael join the Marines?
MW: 2005. He was seventeen. He had graduated early and he wanted to go in as soon as he graduated in June but we made him wait until – how did that work? He graduated early and his birthday was in October so he turned seventeen – no. He would have turned eighteen in October and he had graduated in June when he was seventeen and he was ready to go right now. I told his mom, “If he goes in when he wants to in, he’ll be home, at least, for Christmas leave from boot camp. Otherwise, he’s going to go in October when he turns eighteen and do it on his own and we don’t know when the next Christmas is going to be.” So she reluctantly signed the papers for him to go in early so he went in at seventeen.
RH: Alright. What was he like growing up?
MW: He was just a really good kid. He took care of business while I was deployed. I never had any trouble with him. He was deaf at an early age. He needed to have tubes put in his ears and we found out late on that so he a little bit of a speech impediment that a lot of the guys thought was an accent but it was just part of when he was learning how to talk. That’s just how he talked. He got good grades. He was the kid who – we just never had any trouble with him. We taught him early on that there’s a role as being the man of the house. You take care of business. You take care of the heavy lifting. If you see that somebody needs help, you go help them. If you see an elderly neighbor, you go mow their yard, go take their out their trash bins to the street. Stuff like that. He was just a good kid. No trouble, he was fun to be around. Me and him just got on real good.
RH: What motivated him to join the Marines?
MW: Well, my dad was in the Marine Corps, my brother was in the Marine Corps, I was in the Marine Corps, his sister had joined the Army before he went in the Marine Corps so I suspect that he, early on, had decided to do that.
When I came home from my last deployment, the two of us did a little trip down to LA from up here to go visit family and we were listening to a news report on NPR – this is when the Fallujah fights were going on – and they were interviewing some Lance Corporal from 2/8, I think it was. They were asking him, “Are you scared? Do you know you’re here? We hear there’s a lot of dissention in the ranks.” He was like, “I don’t know where you hear that from. That might be other units but here in 2/8 we’re good to go. We’re ready to go. There’s no place I’d rather be. I’m with my friends. I’m doing the thing I signed up for. I hope I make it through it.” I remember the look on his face when he was listening to that and I go, “You’re going to go into the Marines, aren’t you?” [RH laughs] And he’s like, “Yeah.” I go, “I bet you’re going to go infantry, too.” He goes, “Yeah.” I go, “OK. Why?” The last thing I want him to do is go to fulfill some kind of destiny for me or think he’s going to make me proud by joining the Marine Corps because I was already proud of him. He said, “There are folks out there who need help and need protecting. It sounds like that’s what you did in the Marine Corps and that’s what Marines do.” I was like, “Well, I can’t argue with that logic.” I said, “You’re going to have to tell your mom. I’m not telling her.” [RH laughs]
RH: I know you talked about having to sign for him at seventeen but after what you just said, how did you feel about his decision to join?
WM: I was proud of him. He came from an upper middle class background. I provided a good living for my kids. He could have went to any school he wanted. All his friends were going to college or doing something else. Here it is in the middle of a shooting war that the Marine Corps infantry is neck deep into and he’s signing up for it so I’ve got one part of me that’s got a lot of pride in it and, as somebody who was there, I’ve got a lot of fear. Then I also knew he’s going to do what he’s going to do. There’s nothing I can do to stop him from doing this.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was it like when he went to boot camp?
MW: You know, I’ve got to tell you. Marine Corps boot camp is Marine Corps boot camp. We can do all this old Corps/new Corps stuff that we want but I had a chance with Sergeant Major Brookshire when he went to Parris Island to be a battalion Sergeant Major, I got a chance to go and watch a platoon get picked up. This was 2010 and it looked a lot like it did when I went through. The stories he tells are the same stories I tell. I have to say, there was probably a little more corporal punishment when I went through but we didn’t have the caliber of recruits, either, back when I came through. Some guys needed their heads wrapped.
But it was interesting getting his letters and being on that end of it. For so many years I had been the one sending letters. It was interesting.
RH: What was it like the day he graduated?
MW: That was a huge day, obviously. We were there for the eagle, globe and anchor ceremony as well. I had asked him to ask his drill instructor. You’re familiar with that ceremony, right?
RH: You know something? As a doc I never went through it. Could you explain it?
MW: They changed it up a little bit but this is something that’s fairly new within the last ten, twelve, fifteen years. We didn’t have it in mine. A couple of days before you graduate, you have this eagle, globe and anchor ceremony where, after the crucible, you line up and they give you the eagle, globe and anchor and you pin it to your cover. You’re a Marine, now. You’ll graduate in a couple of days but you’re officially a Marine.
So I asked if, as a symbolic gesture, I could send my father’s eagle, globe and anchor for him to get pinned on his cover. He was able to do that and that was really cool to see that happen. And then after graduation you got to meet his drill instructors and I was in uniform. He did the right thing and didn’t mention that I was a Master Sergeant. His drill instructors were like, “So, Washington, you didn’t mention that your father was a Master Sergeant. OK. You’ve still got another couple nights here. OK.” [RH laughs] That was kind of fun to be down there for that.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did he deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RH: He deployed to Iraq in 2007, correct?
RH: And that was his first deployment, right?
RH: Alright. What was it like when he deployed to Iraq for the first time?
MW: Well, I was worried. I tried to talk myself down. I had to try and talk my wife down and it was interesting for me being on the opposite end. I’m watching TV every day about the news and, at the same time, I didn’t want to watch it about the news and waiting by the mailbox for letters or seeing if there was going to be an e-mail or something like that. I managed to kind of distance myself a little bit from it as far as don’t obsess but some days in a quiet moment when I allowed myself to go there, you start obsessing about it. What’s he doing? Where’s he going? Is he safe? Is he whatever? Then, of course, you hear about some Marines being in a fight on the news. You’re listening for the unit and they never tell you the unit. They just say, generically, Marines were in a fight. So it was just a roller coaster of emotions and trying to keep them in check a little bit and just work with it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did he share with you anything that was going on while he was over there?
MW: Yes. They lost a couple of Marines. The unique thing is that when he went to Twentynine Palms, when he got with 2/7, I went down there and visited him and I met a lot of his friends before they deployed. Blake Howie, I knew. I met him. He was killed in a firefight that Michael was at. And Windsor. Both of them were Michael’s friends. Like I said, I knew Blake. That was really hard for him. He was involved in some firefights where he knows that he killed people. Later on he would talk to me about it and try and reconcile what he did and what he had to do and things like that.
RH: Was he conflicted at all? How did he deal with it?
MW: I don’t think he was conflicted in terms of – I think it’s more of it would be great if none of this was happening and he didn’t have to do this. But he was very devoted to Third Platoon. It was all about them and there was nothing that was going to come between them and him. So there was no confliction in the that regard. The confliction was we’re brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition of thou shalt not kill and you find yourself in that position and doing it. I think that’s where the conflict would arise afterwards when you really start thinking about what just happened.
RH: I know that you were a parent watching this but, being a Marine watching this as well, did that change your view of things or did it change how you perceived everything?
MW: No. It gave me two things. One, that I wish that I was still in because I felt like I could make a difference in things. And then, of course, now I’m the parent on the other side not attached to this at all where I am just a parent. There’s nothing I can do here. So that was tough. And of course being a Marine and having been there, I know how dangerous it can be and just wishing you can do something for your kid. You want to protect your kids. For me as a Marine and a counterintelligence guy, that would mean me being over there and, once you retire, you can’t go back. That was frustrating in that regard.
RH: Alright. For the first deployment, what was the most challenging part of the deployment for you: the beginning, the middle or the end?
MW: I guess getting towards the end because you’re so close to the finish line. Where are they at right now? They’re retrograding out of here, they’re going to make their move on Monday to head here and fly out. You start thinking maybe they have one or two more patrols to do. Has their base been mortared lately? When did the bad guys drop mortar rounds? Do they know when people are transferring out and do they want to try and get folks before they go out? You start gaming the whole thing. So that got kind of tense towards the end.
RH: Before we talk about him coming home from this deployment, is there anything significant that we left out about this deployment?
MW: Hmm. Not that I can think of.
RH: When he got back, were you able to fly down to Twentynine Palms and meet the battalion?
MW: Yes. I went down and I met him when they got off the bus. They went to the armory and put their weapons up. We have family down there so we went out to Corona [California] and hung out there for a while. Before he got his leave, he had to go back to base. He had a seventy-two and had to go back to base for some out-processing. Then I came back to California and came back down and the two of us were going to drive back up to Washington. He just bought a car and we were going to drive up to Washington so he could do his leave.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s go ahead, between the Iraq and the Afghanistan deployment, he was training and he was doing all the workups for the Afghanistan deployment. In that period in-between, any significant events happen or anything notable?
MW: No. He got promoted to Corporal at the end of the Iraq tour. He was really good at what he did. He picked up Sergeant in under three years which is pretty unheard of in the Marine Corps, especially in an infantry unit. He was contemplating going scout sniper. He was a designated marksman and they were talking about him, Clay Hunt and Jake Wood going snipers together but Michael wanted to stay with the platoon. Jake and Clay went sniper and Michael went to squad leader’s school. He was meritoriously promoted to Sergeant there. That was pretty exciting for him, for me. He was just really good and really excelled at what he did. So we talked a lot about troop handling and what his job was now that he’s a squad leader. At that time last year, he was a Lance Corporal. Just the difference in what he’s supposed to be doing now, what he should be looking at, how he should train his guys, so on and so forth. That was pretty significant in our talks about that – about who he was and what he was doing now and what his mission was.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s move on to the Afghanistan deployment in 2008. Was he excited about going to Afghanistan?
MW: Yes. I think so. It was a different place and now he was a squad leader so it was just so different than being a Lance Corporal in his first one. He was excited for it. Initially, when the deployment came down I was hoping he’d be training Afghan National Guard people. I felt good about that. That keeps him out of the fight but at the time in Afghanistan, it was considered still kind of a backwater. It was quiet compared to Iraq. It was considered a quiet area. When he got there, they got pushed out into Farah province and the outside provinces. I was like, “OK. That’s kind of out there.” But I still looked at it as being quieter than Iraq so I was happy that he was in Afghanistan rather than Iraq.
RH: What was it like for the first few weeks or so that he was over there?
MW: It was still the beginning of the deployment. He just talked about being very tired because he was always checking on his guys and being a squad leader which means you eat less, you sleep less – all that kind of stuff. He talked about being tired a lot. He talked about being with these multinational camps and were remarking on what the people from this nation, the military from this nation, what their uniforms were like. Just that kind of stuff.
RH: How were you dealing with his deployment for the first couple of weeks.
MW: It was like I said. I felt better about it than Iraq. Of course, I still knew it was dangerous and I had been there. I felt better about it, to be honest with you. This is just going to be a lot safer than Iraq would be if he went back to Fallujah and dealt with that. So I felt better about it. Though I was concerned about his lack of sleep and stuff like that, his fatigue factor. I remembered when I was a squad leader and that’s just part of the game. He’s young and he’s got it.
RH: Good to go. Only if you’re comfortable, he was killed in action, what was it like when you found out about his death?
MW: I was at work at the fire station and we were about to go out on a call when this Suburban pulled up with my wife in it. They had gone home to the house, notified her and she called one of my friends in the fire department and he came to the station. Everybody met right as we were getting ready to go out on this call and right as I saw the Suburban, I knew. I knew exactly what had happened.
From that moment on, it was a lot like being in combat and being under fire. Time compressed and then expanded. I knew one hundred percent that what they were telling me was true and it was not a mistake. It wasn’t a dream. But at the same time, I was praying it was a mistake and it was a dream. Then things started to unfold.
For me, I was really fortunate in that there’s no better support system for something like this than the fire department. The fire department really rallied around us. My Marine friends from all over the world heard about it. At first, they thought it was me. They didn’t know that I went back in. Then they found out it wasn’t me. It was my son. So it was just a big defensive perimeter put around my family to embrace and protect. There’s a lot of folks who don’t get that kind of love like I got and I was really thankful for that.
But I was really sad because I knew [Corporal Layton] Crass. He had been at our house for Thanksgiving twice. Then after that it just went downhill for the battalion. The next week is when Vill got hit. Doc Burnett was killed. Matthew Mendoza was killed on Father’s Day – six days after Michael died. The deployment went sideways from there.
RH: How did Michael’s fellow Marines respond?
MW: I would write letters to – this was in Iraq – I would write letters to guys in his squad just to make sure they had mail and I would do the same thing in Afghanistan. They were worried about us and we’re worried about them. I remember writing Sergeant Major Brookshire and I said, “Look after these guys. I don’t want anybody going out for payback. I don’t want any of that stuff because that’s something that they’re going to have to live with. It’s going to be hard to live with if they do something like that. Go out and do your job, protect your Marines, complete the mission and come home. That’s their job.” Lieutenant Colonel Hall, I wrote him and told him the same thing.
Everybody’s looking out for us, we’re looking out for them. That’s how they responded.
RH: The battalion was still in Afghanistan for the funeral, I imagine. Was the funeral up in Washington?
MW: Yes. In Washington state.
RH: Were they able to send a couple of guys from 2/7 up to it?
MW: Yes. Adrian Robles was there and I think one or two other guys who had not deployed to Afghanistan but later did. Right after the funerals were done they volunteered to go over. So, yes, you had a 2/7 presence there at the funerals.
RH: Alright. This is a big question and, again, only if you’re comfortable. How has his death affected your family?
MW: His mom and I split. I won’t say that was the only reason but I do think the pressure from that had a lot to do with it. For a long time, it really activated a dormant PTSD with me from my thirty years on the fire engine to my deployments to working the ER. You name it. I sought solace in doing stuff like Team Rubicon with Jake Wood and going to Haiti and New York For Sandy and Moore, Oklahoma. Stuff like that. I got really involved in the Critical Incident Stress Management team on the fire department. I think my thing was that I was trying to stay super busy so I wouldn’t have to face my demons. Of course, that’s at your detriment. That’s just not the way to go.
That was accompanied with a lot of drinking and being to the point where I’m fighting. I don’t know if you remember in Saving Private Ryan and that part where Tom Hanks has that breakdown when they were thinking about shooting that captured German soldier. I was having those episodes, just out of nowhere. I was about to hit bottom doing some risky things with suicidal ideations. Just stuff that a lot of people go through. At some point I had other people say, “You’ve been taking care of a lot of people. You need to take care of yourself.” Eventually I got help and I’m better now. I’m myself and, Raul Mendoza who is Matthew Mendoza’s father, we really got into guys in the battalion. He had folks living at his house down in San Antonio. We were always at Brooke Army Medical Center visiting the guys and their families when they were there. We kind of went down that road.
Now coming out on the other end, I think I put things in their proper spot. There are fewer tears with Michael and more smiles and laughs. They’ve got their place but Raul and I said that we may have lost our sons but we gained a couple hundred other sons. So that’s why we go down to the [Second Battalion, Seventh Marines] reunion, to just keep track of you guys. We do what we can to help you live that life that you deserve to live, especially with guys with PTSD. I try to share my story and let them know that you don’t have to live like this. There’s help out there but you’ve got to put your hand up for it and work it. You’ve got to embrace it. There’s no magic pill, there’s no magic anything. You’ve got to do the hard work but it’s not a life sentence.
RH: So you talked about the reunion. Recently 2/7 had a reunion and you were there. What was it like connecting with Michael’s fellow Marines?
MW: A lot of those guys I’ve been in constant contact with, whether it’s through Team Rubicon or facebook or seeing them at one of the reunions in San Antonio. Some guys I hadn’t seen in a long time and then I got to meet some guys who I had not met before who knew Michael from SOI or just somewhere that I didn’t know. That was really good. It was really good to just be around the guys, to be around the Marine Corps. For me it’s big to share my story for those that are struggling and to let them know that you don’t have to struggle. So that was important.
RH: Did you learn anything about him that you didn’t already know?
MW: You know, just some small anecdotal stuff. I heard, “One time me and Mike were standing post together and we were laughing about this or we were talking about football.” Just small stuff. People remarked that he was a good guy and they missed him. Josh Taylor who I keep in contact with, he just had a son that he named Michael Washington. So that was pretty cool. Stuff like that. I always want a little snippet. If somebody has even the smallest story like, “I remember when we were standing in line at the PX,” or whatever. That’s good. That’s a story I didn’t have before. It’s important because the Michael that I knew was the high school kid at home and this was the young man. If I count up all the days after he left for the Marine Corps, I only have a handful of days that I knew him as a young man. These were the guys who knew him and they could share with me those parts about the young man that I didn’t get to know.
RH: Has Michael’s death affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
MW: I’d say no. I was spiritual before. I’ll say no. It hasn’t enhanced it or detracted from it. I think it’s still pretty much where it’s at. I spend a fair amount of time, especially in the summer, at his grave in the cemetery and I’ll sit around and talk to him, give him updates on football and what the guys are doing and so on and so forth, like that. That’s my time with him. Or sometimes I just got out there, lay out and read a book.
RH: Alright. Good to go. You talked about this a little bit but I want to get specific. A number of 2/7 Marines have committed suicide in the past few years. If you could communicate something to a 2/7 Marine or any veteran or service member who may be contemplating suicide, what would it be?
MW: I would say that I was there, I was standing on the edge of the bridge and give it one more day and then reach out to somebody. And then give it one more day after that and then one more day after that. Call somebody. There’s help out there. There’s people who have been through it and they can help you through it. The way you feel now is not a life sentence. There is a way out. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. All you’ve got to do is take somebody’s hand and let them guide you. You’re not weak, you’re not soft. PTSD has been around since men have been fighting. In the Civil War they called it “soldier’s heart.” You’ve just seen some things that people aren’t supposed to see. It wasn’t designed that way. You need to find a way to process it. You’re not going to forget it – we’re not designed to forget things – but there is a proper place to file this and work with it so you don’t relive these events. You don’t forget them but you don’t relive them. Ultimately, there’s help out there and if an old grizzled Master Sergeant can eventually put his hand up and say, “I need help,” then they can too.
RH: Alright. Good to go. If you could communicate something to the families of service members who are dealing with the loss of their son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan, what would it be?
MW: That’s a tough one because everybody’s different. Everybody’s family situation is different. There were some families that weren’t together when their son or daughter went away. I’d say the same message. If you’re still struggling with the loss of your son or daughter, there’s help for you out there. There’s other families, there’s other Gold Star families. And again, it’s not to get over it or forget the pain. That’s not what happens. You’re not supposed to forget, especially you’re supposed to forget your son our daughter. But it’s OK to laugh, it’s OK to get better. It’s OK that the pain can subside. You need to allow yourself to be happy again because that’s what they would want. They wouldn’t want you in a perpetual state of misery and sadness. They would want you to be happy. Again, if we allow ourselves, that pain and sorrow can subside by a half-life, just continuously. It will never go away and it’s not supposed to go away but the tears will be replaced by smiles and when they do come, it’s alright. Let them come. It’s OK, it’s OK. Then you smile and remember something and you continue on and live the way you think they would want you to live.
RH: Since you’ve seen it from all angles, if you could say something to young Marines who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
MW: I would say have faith in your brothers to your left and to your right, have faith in the Marine Corps and just know that that Marine to your left and your right, that’s your family. You don’t let them down. There’s that saying: unit, Corps, God, country. I think that’s a proper sequence because your unit is the most scared thing that you are going to be with. And then the Corps, the Marine Corps, we can make fun of it all we want but there’s that pride in it and there’s a reason for that. God and then country last because you never know how the country’s going to act, but you can depend on your Marines and you can depend on the Marine Corps.
RH: Before I ask my last two questions, is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
MW: You know, I wasn’t quite sure how this interview was going to go. I wasn’t really prepping myself as to what it is. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I loved my time in the Marine Corps. I thought I did some good work there. I think I affected lives of people in countries that we liberated. I remember them standing on the corner in Kuwait City during the celebrations, people shooting their weapons up in the air, the Kuwaitis coming out. I remember this old man walked up to me, shook my hand, said, “Thank you,” and walked away. I felt like I came here for him. That’s why I was in Desert Storm, for that guy right there. I had a similar thing happen in Bosnia. A young girl said, “Thank you for being here.” I felt like that is what I was here for, that young girl. I came to Bosnia to protect her.
So I’m really happy with my career. I wish I had stayed in longer in hindsight. For Michael, it’s a bittersweet thing. He was an outstanding Marine. He was decorated for bravery in Iraq. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that wishes he went to college instead, sure, because he’d be alive right now. It’s bittersweet. I’m just so proud of him but I wish he was here.
RH: That’s actually a good lead in to my last two questions. Looking back on Michael’s life, what accomplishment of his are you most proud of?
MW: I think I’m most proud of the young man that he was when I was away, when I was deployed. He was a young teenager for Bosnia and then my two subsequent Middle East deployments. He took care of business in the house. He wasn’t any trouble with mom. He stood up. He said, “OK. I’m a man now. I’m going to take care of business here.” I think that, for a lifetime of pride that I have for him, that was probably what I was most proud of.
RH: Alright. Good to go. This actually going to be a two-part question. Number one, during your military service, what accomplishment are you most proud of? And, since Michael’s passing, what accomplishment of yours are you most proud of?
MW: My best Marine Corps one, I would say my actions as a Platoon Sergeant in Desert Storm. We accomplished the mission. We did some really good work. I made some decisions that I think ultimately kept guys in my platoon from being injured and being killed. I’m really happy with that. I’m really happy that they recognized that too when I talked to them later on in life over the years. They remarked that they thought I was a really good Platoon Sergeant and took care of them. That means a lot.
Then the other one is what’s my biggest thing after Michael passed?
RH: Yes. Since his passing, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
MW: I think I’m most proud of dealing with my PTSD and my work in the Critical Incident Stress Management Division with the fire department. And, associated with that, with Team Rubicon. I’ve done a lot of counseling with guys on our deployments and I can tell them my stories and I lay everything out for them. I tell them all my life and I put it out there. At the end I tell them that, “if anything I told you seems similar to you, talk to somebody. I did. This is where I was, this is what I was doing, this is what I looked like.” I used those examples from movies like I did with you. I said, “That was me.” And, again, I emphasize that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can thrive. Life can be better and it can be great again.
So people have remarked, “Wow. You really put all your stuff out there.” That’s the only way that I can do it because a lot of what happens is it gets shame-driven. You feel guilty, you feel shame. You feel lesser and that’ll keep you in the shadows. You think that you’re the only one feeling like this and then when you find out, wait a minute, other people feel like this? You mean guys from World War II felt like this? Suddenly you don’t feel as bad. It’s like, OK, Master Sergeant Washington feels like this? Holy shit! I can work with this. OK. Alright. I’m going to go ahead and get started with this. So I’ve had a number of guys say that after talking to me in the fire service and in the military who got on that road, that road to recovery and Wellsville, I’m most proud of that at work.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we wrap it up, anything else?
MW: No, I think that’s it!