Patrick deployed to Afghanistan with the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion in 2011 and then again from 2012 to 2013. During his time in Afghanistan he worked with Afghan special forces locally in the southwestern part of the country. He also discusses what it was in high school in New Jersey on September 11 and life after the Marine Corps. He is current pursuing a degree in Economics.
Interview conducted on October 2, 2015 in Manhattan, New York
Present: Richard Hayden and Patrick Hackett
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Patrick Hackett: Patrick Hackett.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
PH: I was in the Marine Corps from the beginning of 2008 until the end of 2013.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
PH: I was a Sergeant.
RH: What was your MOS?
PH: 0372. [pronounced oh three seventy-two]
RH: Which is?
PH: Critical Skills Operator, Special Forces.
RH: What was your unit?
PH: 1st MSOB which is now 1st Raider Battalion.
RH: What was your company?
PH: I was in Alpha Company.
RH: Alpha Company? Alright. What motivated you to join the military?
PH: A lot. [laughs] I went to school for a little bit right out of high school and played baseball my whole life – competitive athlete. I went to college on an athletic scholarship and didn’t do too well. I decided that I needed to go home and try and restructure my efforts in going to school. Going home was a bit of a distraction and I knew that the Marine Corps would provide the kick in the ass that I needed but at the same time it was always something that I was around. My uncle, my dad’s brother, was a fighter pilot for twenty-five years. He flew F-18s. He was on the Joint Staff for a while. And all my grandparents – my great uncles and all that nonsense – all in World War II and World War I and Korea. So it was something that was very familiar to me.
It wasn’t an outlet as much as something that I needed and I was very happy to do. I knew that I would surely benefit from it and in 2008 during wartime it was very much connected to 9/11. There are a lot of outlets to not doing well in school. You can go get a full time job, you can go work for a union, you can do a number of things especially being in the northeast. That choice to go into the Marine Corps was a bit of selfishness and, hopefully, what I would think later in life I would back and say selflessness. I was proud to do my time in the Marine Corps and I would happily do it again.
RH: Right on. Why did you pick the Marine Corps?
PH: [laughs] Familiarity. My uncle was in for twenty-five years. We did this exercise when I decided that going into the military, not just the Marine Corps, but going into the military would be a viable choice. We took all the branches of service – and he beat me up with this – we took all the branches of service and he said, “OK, Pat. Take every single branch and write down everything you hope to achieve outside of those branches and then try and figure out which one of those branches will best serve that goal or answer that question of that thesis. Figure out what is best for you, what will fit well, what will fit your personality well, and then what do you plan on doing in the military?” So it was a little bit of game theory. Attribute a score to it and figure out, as unbiased as you possibly can, what the end result is and you go with that choice. I was biased to the Marine Corps because my uncle was in the Marine Corps but, believe it or not, that’s what came up. The way I grew up being very competitive, always being on teams, the Marine Corps seemed like a really good fit and it was a good fit. Those are the reasons.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Why did you pick the MOS that you did?
PH: Again, the teamwork thing. Going into the Marine Corps you’re surely going to wind up in a combat zone, especially in 2008 and 2009 and prior to. I had always competed at a really high level and competing was natural. I’ve never wanted to do less than attempting to overachieve personally and I wanted the Marine Corps to get out of me what I could give so it seemed fitting to go the infantry route and then potentially try out for something maybe a little more difficult that I was, for lack of a better term, qualified on paper to do. Again, it gets back to being familiar with being on teams and being around people who generally want to do that job. It’s something I wanted to do. I wanted to be around good people – I’m not saying the Marine Corps is not filled with good people – but I wanted to be around people who wanted to do that job, go downrange and do some work.
RH: Good to go. How did your family feel about your decision?
PH: Which one? Joining or joining the unit?
PH: Joining was tough. My uncle was very supportive. My mom and dad were supportive a hundred percent. Were they worried? Absolutely. The first time I ever saw my dad cry was when a recruiter along with one of the heads of recruiting in New Jersey came to my house to meet my uncle. My uncle had just come out and he was a Colonel so the guy paid him the courtesy of coming to my house and speaking with my parents. It was the first time I ever saw him cry because everyone knew what was going on in the media with the war. It was a sure thing that I would wind up in the Middle East. But they were very supportive because they knew that I would benefit from it tremendously.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Where were you on September 11th?
PH: It was my first week of school at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey. It was my second day of school, third day of school. Christian Brothers is an all-boys private school in Lincroft which is down on the shore where I would probably venture to say seventy percent of the people, seventy percent of the boys that go to the school, their parents – one or both of them – work in Manhattan in or around Wall Street. I went in and the towers fell pretty early if I remember correct. I was in class and, basically, all the classes were shut down for the entire day. As my first week of school as a freshman, it was wild. The crazy thing is they didn’t even tell us what was going on because they didn’t want us to get panicked because mommy and daddy were at work. It was a tough day.
So we didn’t know what was going on. We had half days the first week of school. I remember being on the bus on the way home and the bus route went along Route 35 in Lawrence Harbor, New Jersey, and I remember looking out the window on the right side of the bus and seeing Manhattan covered in black smoke. My dad takes the ferry into work every day down into Wall Street and then he takes the subway over to Brooklyn – he takes the 2, 3 over to Brooklyn. The 2, 3 stop is right at 60 Wall. It’s on the corner of Wall Street. The towers were a couple of blocks away. It was a tough day. I remember it vividly like it was yesterday.
RH: OK. In the weeks and months that followed, how did your school react?
PH: I was really lucky. The school that I went to was full of a very supportive cast. It was run by brothers, Catholic brothers, and generally good people taught in the school. They made sure that anyone who was affected directly or indirectly had the support that they needed. I was thirteen. It’s tough to really comprehend what’s really going on. Maybe a little bit older? There’s so much growth. I feel like growth happens in spurts of two years, right? Thirteen to fifteen you really don’t know what’s going on. Fifteen to seventeen you really start figuring things out. Seventeen to nineteen you get dumb again [RH laughs] and you make stupid decisions. Nineteen to twenty-one you do a little bit of growth. After the twenty-one spurt is when you really start to grow as a man especially. But it was tough because you wouldn’t know how to take it all in but you knew so many people around you. I had a friend of mine who was a year older than me – I played basketball with him in high school – his father was in the twin towers. My dad’s best friend was on the, Jesus, ninety-sixth floor of one of the towers. He got out. Every day on September 11th my dad calls him and says, “happy birthday.” It’s not his birthday but…
I remember it being as good as it could get. Especially being here. Once that happened everyone in New York was just obviously torn but then you had the uproar of people coming together. Everyone was supportive. If anything good came out of it, that was it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Where did you go to boot camp?
PH: Parris Island, South Carolina.
RH: What was that like?
PH: Sand fleas. I remember getting eaten by sand fleas. I always felt like it was tough for people who care. I tried to prepare as much as I possibly could before I went and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the change because it was tough and because I wanted to change. The choice to go into the military was mine. I wasn’t pushed into the military, I wanted to go because I knew. It was the first adult decision I ever made in my life. At the age of twenty I needed help. I needed someone to kick me in the ass and going there and realizing this is the kick in the ass that I’m looking for. What the hell am I doing here? It was a rude awakening. But after the first week or two, some people start to get the hang of it and some people don’t. Sometimes it takes people longer to adapt to a situation like that. I was lucky enough to be in a pretty good platoon with a few guys that were actually my age. So we kind of came together. We had a good group.
A lot of people look back on boot camp and say it was dumb, it was stupid because you play games. It is thirteen weeks of stuff that’s really irrelevant but it really does build a foundation. I’m a firm believer in that. I believe in the change that is talked about in the commercials because it happened. I went through that change and I believe in it. Boot camp was a rude awakening but at the same time absolutely necessary. I hate to say I enjoyed it, especially at the end. There’s that satisfying feeling when you get through something that really sucks but then you look back and you say, “hey, it wasn’t really that bad. It was fun. Look at how much shit we did.” There you go.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was the follow up training like?
PH: The follow up training was much different. You start getting little bits of freedom back, you know? In the Marine Corps especially – and I can only speak for the Marine Corps – they’re a big fan of a system where they break you down as much as possible in the beginning in order to build you back up. I think the Marine Corps does a really good job of it, it did it to me, and I guess the next stage after boot camp for me was infantry school. First there was a little bit of leave. I took fourteen days of leave and it was infantry school.
Infantry school you start getting a little bit of freedom back. You start feeling like a normal person. You’re kind of integrated back into society if you want to call Jacksonville, North Carolina society [laughs] but it is what it is. It was good. It’s initial training, bottom dollar training, but you’ve got to do it because you’re still understanding the fundamentals. You’re building a foundation to do something afterwards.
After infantry school my career was thrown into high gear. I went from doing ten miles an hour to doing a hundred and ten, fast. When I was in infantry school, the Marine Corps usually has a Recon battalion come in to do recruiting when you’re in week three or two of infantry school. Based on your ASVAB score, your GT score, your rifle score, your PFT – physical fitness test – you’re qualified on paper. You’re qualified on paper to potentially participate in another unit. Recon battalion is the cream of the crop that the Marine Corps has to offer within the Marine Corps.
In 2008 when I was in infantry school, MARSOC stood up a year or two beforehand – Special Operations Command. Rumsfeld said, “Marine Corps, you need to produce a SOCOM unit. You need to do it now.” So the Marine Corps did its best to poach the best out of Recon battalion, out of Force Recon, and create this hybrid unit. I was lucky enough to be in infantry school when they decided, “hey, maybe we should give some junior enlisted guys the chance to go through the pipeline.” The pipeline is selection. After selection you go to the long course called ITC – Individual Training Course. I went right from infantry school to MSOAG – Marine Special Operations Advisor Group and from the Advisor Group to selection. After selection I went to ITC. All that’s done down south and then I went to a team.
RH: From what you’re able to discuss, are you able to discuss ITC at all?
PH: Yeah, some of it. The beginning is your basic skills stuff and it’s broken into four phases It’s all open source. You can read about it. The first phase is basic skills so building, again, your foundation that I was just talking about – building the foundation to be an operator. Land nav stuff, learning how to move as a unit and as a team – whether it be a small group or a bigger group. Moving on from that there’s a lot of amphibious work. You go to SERE school. What else did we do? A bunch of field ops and stuff – long, long days. You do a lot of swimming. We did a lot of swimming. Then you do a couple of final exercises before you graduate. That’s wrapped up in a nine month period. Yeah, there’s a long route. It’s a long route.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Where in the US were you stationed when you deployed?
PH: Before I deployed?
PH: I started off in North Carolina for a year and a half and then Camp Pendleton.
RH: What was the pre-deployment training like with your unit?
PH: It was interesting, it was great. You get set up in a few phases. You do individual training for a few months. You get shipped out to go to some schools that help your team. Whether it be shooting schools, everything from shooting schools to language schools. A number of things. Then you do your team training. Team training could be anywhere from nine months to six months depending on the rotation and it’s where you do your work up. So you’re all over the country doing that kind of stuff depending on your mission, depending on where you’re going. You’re not always going to the Middle East but if it is the Middle East, you do that type of traditional work up and, I guess, traditional in that unit sense. It’s a little bit different than the conventional work up. It’s six months. It’s long. You meet certain criteria and then usually you’re ready to go after that.
RH: Perfect. Then let’s jump into it. Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RH: OK. How many times did you deploy?
RH: Twice. What were the dates of those deployments?
PH: It was in 2012. No, excuse me. 2011 and then ’12 into ’13.
RH: Where in Afghanistan did you deploy to?
RH: Southwest? OK. Let’s go ahead and let’s talk about the first deployment. What was the mission of your unit?
PH: I went over as a combat replacement for someone who got shot and came back. My job was to help out where I was needed. The first deployment was a couple months long. I served as a liaison to Special Operations Command in their head shed serving as a link between the teams and the command center. I was the voice of the team, I guess. I did a lot of scrubbing con ops, trying to figure out the actual mission, trying to understand how things really work on the battlefield. I was a free agent.
I did that for a little while and then I went to our headquarters spot and supported the efforts of the headquarters. The headquarters is full of higher enlisted guys, guys who are operators but more so, I don’t want to say an administrative level, but yeah. It’s the headquarters level, the administrative level. But that being said, some of the places that they were, were not safe, obviously. You’re in the Middle East, southwest Afghanistan, crappy place. A lot of bad things happen. We did a lot of stuff. We did a lot of resupply missions, a lot of convoys, going back and forth driving a lot. I was standing a lot of post. It was a few months so I was in direct support of the headquarters element the first deployment. Then I came back.
RH: What do you remember most about deploying to Afghanistan for the first time?
PH: Being surprised. So the first time I was in two or three different places. First off, the time change is wild. You go from being here to flying and having a layover in Germany and staying there for a couple days and then going Kazakhstan or Tajikistan and staying there for a day or two and then going to Afghanistan. It’s a long road to get there. It takes a bit to get centered, you know?, to figure out what you’re doing. Then after a while you start to get the hang of it.
I think the first one is really getting your feet in the water. For me, I was afforded the opportunity to really take it slow. For the first one I didn’t just jump into a deployment with the team which was good for me. I graduated ITC, went out to the west coast, and was waiting to pick up with a team that was coming back. Because someone got shot, they were like, “who wants to go?” I volunteered. I said, “yeah, get me over there. Let me get familiar with where I might be a couple times.” So I was fortunate. It was a good experience, all in all.
I remember the heat. That’s what I remember. I remember the heat. It was hot as shit. That’s what I remember most.
RH: Can you describe your AO and are there any parts of it that are particularly memorable?
PH: There was an ant hill. We had this ant hill and it was a post. One of the FOBs that we stayed at, where one of our headquarters elements were, there was a huge anthill and anthill meaning it was an enormous post that had the shape of an enormous anthill. It was super cool. We were right on the river so you remember the river. I remember the smells – the bad ones, the really bad smells. I remember what the change in the farmland looks like from the cold to the hot weather – going from seeing poppies to not seeing poppies.
RH: Good to go. What are some of the notable events that occurred during the first deployment?
PH: Hearing about people having a less than stellar day in other AOs. I remember being in that command center and the good thing about being in a command center is you get to see the battlefield and how it works on a screen. I don’t want to call it battleship but it’s like that scenario where you’re literally looking at a bunch of screens and you’re seeing where every single team is – every SEAL team, every Ranger team, every SF team, every Raider team. You see it on a board and then you hear everything that’s going on and you hear good or bad things happening. So obviously the bad outweighs the good. It was tough.
RH: Did you go out on patrol at all?
PH: Yes. The first one, not so much. We did a little bit. The second one, a lot more. We did a lot more on the second.
RH: OK. We’ll get to the second one. What were your interactions with the Afghans like?
PH: First deployment, more limited. We had Afghan contractors meaning paid locals – we had local nationals that worked on our FOB. Our group was less traditional in a sense and less conventional in a sense that we usually lived in a village. We lived by, with and through everyone who was out there, you know? We didn’t have a big base. We didn’t live on Camp Leatherneck. They were unique. Especially being from here, going into a true third world country and seeing someone who’s working for you, getting paid to work for you, get down on their knees and pray five, six times a day and really living for something other than themselves. That individual, whoever he or she may have been, was probably putting food on the table for their family.
I can’t imagine what that’s like being in such a terrible place for the most part. Not a terrible place, being in a place in a terrible time is a better way of phrasing it. Being in a place in a terrible time where a really bad group of people have control over everything that goes on. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be found out, you know, “hey, I’m working for the Americans.” That guy comes and knocks on your door or on your hut and says, “why are you working for the Americans?” It’s crazy. It makes you reflect on what’s really important, how lucky you really are. It kind of makes you want to go back too because the initial reason for going over there, in my mind and a lot of people’s minds, was to put foot to ass to terrorism. You know, to get some – an eye for an eye type of thing.
But then, maybe idealistically, when you get over there and you see firsthand how bad it is for people over there, you kind of buy into it. You buy into being there for somebody else because you’re already a part of it. Why not do more for the people around you? It’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people and a lot of people come back and they don’t really give a shit nor do they want to go back. But when you have interactions with people, actual villagers and locals, and you see that some of those people are good – a lot of them are bad but we have a lot of bad people here too – but when you see the good in some of people over there, it really makes you want to help. That’s what I remember.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What do you remember most about the Marines that you served with on the first deployment?
PH: I was a rookie. I remember asking a lot of questions and I remember people getting annoyed at me asking questions. [laughs] I think I can probably speak more of interactions for fellow dudes on my team, probably more about the second deployment.
RH: Cool. We’ll get to that. So I guess, basically, a little more happened on the second deployment than on the first?
PH: A lot more. Before we move onto that, for the first deployment what was the most challenging period of the deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?
PH: Because it was a shorter one, I would say the middle. It wasn’t tough because I wanted to go home, it was tough because I was trying to learn how to do a job. You’re the new guy and I wasn’t just the new guy, I was the new young guy. I was a Lance Corporal. Jesus! I was a Lance Corporal. I hadn’t even picked up Corporal yet. I was a Lance Corporal special operator with no past experience other than two schools being thrown into the wild and that’s a tough adjustment to make when the bar is set high. It’s a ten foot rim and I could only jump seven feet. So yeah, that was the tough part. During the middle of the deployment – people expect you to screw up in the beginning but when it still continues to be difficult, it’s tough. I got through it. I got through it, came back and went to a team. So the middle for the first one.
RH: Good to go. As you gained more experience, how did you change?
PH: I think the experience changed when I did a whole work up when I came back. So when I came back and I went to a few schools. I went to airborne, I went to shooting schools, I went to some other schools, to an explosives course or two. To be able to bring that to a team was encouraging because you felt like you could add value.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Know what? Let’s just jump into the next deployment.
RH: On the second deployment, what was the mission of your unit?
PH: We were a supporting effort of the SOCOM mission. The SOCOM mission was to work by, with and through Afghan locals – local national police to establish a local national police force – work with Afghan Special Forces to provide security and make the people around there safe and, really, trying to build up the local force so they could do their own job. 2012 into ’13, this was the drawback effort, right before the drawback effort. So this is when things became tougher for us to do our own job on the ground but we were trying to empower the people that live there to do the job for themselves. It was a tough task.
A lot of bad things happened right before I went out. I was on my work up and there were nine insider threat attacks happened to nine of my friends. So nine of my friends got killed right before I went in country – three of which where I was about to go to sleep at night. So to have that mission and still keep that mission in the back of your head, it was tough. It’s a tough mission not just because of how hard it is to actually perform it and to empower people but because it’s a dangerous place. I think the people over there, the bad people kind of figured out, “if they’re going to do this stuff with the locals, why don’t we just embed ourselves in locals and screw up Americans?” It was tough but the mission, that was it.
RH: What do you remember most about deploying to Afghanistan the second time?
PH: We lost a couple guys. Lost one with us. I remember going out on a lot of missions, we did a lot of missions. I can’t count. Between the first and second deployment, anywhere between fifty to seventy-five combat missions. I remember being on the road a lot. I remember being in helicopters a lot. We were really in the village. We lived in mud huts. We had infrastructure because we built it or the teams before us, our predecessors, built it. We had locals. We had this one local Sayeed. A local national, worked on our compound. He was a little kid. He spoke English, I remember that vividly.
I tell you one thing I remember, I remember going on a patrol near Sangin and we had heard that the ALP – the Afghan Local Police – had gotten into a shootout a day before or two days prior and these guys were, I don’t want to say under our jurisdiction, but under our guidance and we were supporting them. When they called in and they had trouble, we helped. We had heard that they had gotten into a couple of shootouts and we wanted to go check and make sure they were OK, see if they were still getting into it. I remember dismounting from trucksand walking. When you walk you travel and you get out of a truck, big trucks, and you walk into a village, all of the kids just surround you. It’s not safe but they surround you. Hopefully people around there wouldn’t shoot their own kids.
I remember this one kid. He had to be ten years old, eleven years old. He walks up to me and said, “do you have candy?” And that was SOP for little kids over there. They always wanted candy. They got used to saying “candy” because they heard us saying candy to them because people would always give them candy but it went past that. He was like, “do you have any candy?” And I was like, “no man. I don’t have any candy.” I responded casually as if he could understand me but I didn’t think he actually understood. And then he responds, he’s like, “oh man. That stinks.” “What did you just say, man?” He’s like, “aw, that stinks! Thanks anyway.” And now this was a regular, little Afghan kid. I’m like, “you speak English?” He’s like, “yeah. I speak English.” I’m like, “how?” He’s like, “my dad works with American contractors.” So all of the roads where we were – the MSRs, the main roads – were being paved. Our government and the UAE had spent millions on giving the Afghan government money in order for them to pave the roads. Paved roads were safer. You can’t plant IEDs, theoretically, underneath paved roads unless you dig under which is tough. But his father worked with American contractors, with local contractors, and the kid had been in wartime his whole life so he learned how to speak English because he was always around American contractors. The contractors were guys with shovels and heavy machinery. I’ll never forget that. It was cool.
RH: Are you saying he came to work for you guys?
PH: No, no. This was just a random kid in a village. We were walking to check up on a checkpoint and he walks up to us while we were patrolling through and started talking to us. That was pretty cool.
RH: What are some of the other notable events that occurred during this deployment?
PH: We did a good job. I think all in all we did a good job. Notable events? The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Conway? No, it wasn’t Conway. I’m sorry. Amos – James Amos. General Amos who had just been promoted to Commandant, I think, a year prior, came out to visit us. So we were at a VSP – it’s called a Village Stability Platform. That’s what they called the location where we would take over something or buy something and establish a stronghold. We called it a Village Stability Platform because we were trying to stabilize what was going on around us. Ours was one that really worked. It really functioned well. We had a lot of really good teams that came in before us and did a really good job.
So the Commandant was making his trips around the country and he decided to come up and see us. The interesting thing is he brought his wife with him. General Amos’ wife flew into Afghanistan – not only flew into Afghanistan but flew into the north part of the southwest region of Afghanistan which is the wild west. It was a strange day. [RH laughs] It was a strange day to see a woman in hiking boots and a bright blue jacket get off an Osprey and come say hello – hello to the boys. She was impressed because we all had big beards. We had all been in country for a couple months. We grew them out a month or two before we went in so we had big burly beards. We weren’t wearing normal, conventional uniforms. We had old school uniforms on. It’s a very different group in the Marine Corps because the Marine Corps is very buttoned up, very high and tight. For the Commandant to come out and talk to us like just another one of the guys and his wife to come out was a little strange.
RH: [laughs] That’s a good one. If you’re comfortable, what was the enemy like?
PH: [long pause] Savage. Willing to do just about anything but controlled and helpless at the same time. I can say a lot of people over there that were the quote unquote enemy, it was almost the lack of choice. It was something that they were born into. Then you obviously have the more extremist of that group but you had people were generally scared to do what they were doing. That being said, a lot of the other people were a true pain in the ass. I don’t know how else I could describe them except, I guess, angry. It made you angry and it motivated you before you went into country to know that there were people who needed to get dealt with. You don’t go into that type of job, you don’t go into that type of community without wanting to do your job. You get over there and you want to put foot to ass, especially when you have nine of your friends that get killed right before you got there.
RH: On the second deployment, what were your interactions with the Afghans like?
PH: More personal because I spent more time there. But it varied. We had different relationships with the locals that worked on our compound. We had people that we built trust with, people that helped us build stuff. The locals that lived around our compound, it was a community. We always interacted with the people. We had translators. We had people on my team that spoke Pashto and Dari. They were informative, they were encouraging, they were scary. At that time, it was 2012 into ’13, you had all those inside attacks happening so you never knew, you know?
Like I was saying before, you don’t know how hard it is for someone who’s trying to be a good person and they’re threatened by the Taliban, you don’t know when that day is going to come when they’re going to do something stupid. It’s really tough to be on your guard one hundred percent of the time during an eight month period, a seven month period which is what’s required of you but in a sense it’s unreasonable. It’s high energy, high focus. I think we did a good job of it but it’s tough. So the interactions were tough at first because of how, I think, generally how angry people were on my team with what was going on. And they changed. There were interesting reactions and interactions, for sure.
RH: Were the inside attacks your biggest threat?
PH: I would say at that time, absolutely. I mean, IED threats were always expected. Any time you go out for a drive, you’re at risk but the inside threat was very real. It happened all over the place. It was happening every week. There were suicide bombs, VBIEDs – Vehicle-Borne IEDs – constant threats, that kind of stuff. You never know which one is credible. Because it was happening so often all over the country, you had to treat every one as if it was real. It was a constant, constant sense of protecting yourself.
RH: Alright. What do you remember most about the Marines that you served with on the second deployment?
PH: Great dudes. Some of the most hard-charging, careful, caring, passionate, humble, energetic and ruthless dudes. They just wanted to do their job but we had, I don’t know, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen shooters on my team and, believe me, I was with those guys for seven months, eight months. We literally lived right next to each other and slept in buildings right next to each other. You get tired of each other but the type of brotherhood and relationship that we had with those guys, that I had with them, though at times was difficult, that is a bond that never breaks. I still keep in touch with the majority of my people. I still talk to my team leader all the time. He actually goes to school in the city. I remember building some of the best friendships that I ever had. I grew up a lot, for sure.
RH: So you talked a little bit about growing a beard. What were some of the things you were able to do with a special operations unit that the normal Marine Corps was not able to do?
PH: I think the mission isn’t too dissimilar. I would say the conventional Marine Corps does a lot more of the wandering and patrolling – I would hope with a purpose. Sometimes that wasn’t the case. You read all about that in the news. I think their focus was a lot different. The conventional Marine Corps, like I was saying, is very buttoned up. Our mission was to imbed with people, with the locals. Our mission was to imbed, and not only imbed, but be with the Afghan Special Forces. They were our counterparts and we were also with a group of UAE guys. For us to not stand out – we already did – but for us to not stand out you had to try and look like them. Having a beard in that culture is a sign of wisdom. It demands or encourages respect.
All of that was a part of our focus. Our focus was to be with those people. We were self-sufficient. We could not afford to stand out and do anything other than what they do. The conventional Marine Corps is a mass. It’s a huge, huge body of people. I would say that it probably could have benefitted from it but the Marine Corps is the way it is. If they try and reinvent the wheel, I’m not sure if they would have benefitted or maybe they would have in certain scenarios. They weren’t wearing the same uniforms we were. We were wearing the old school green cammies. We wore really nice stuff but it was the same camouflage pattern as the Afghans wore. So we didn’t wear the normal desert cammies, never. Never once.
RH: So the pre-diggie cammies?
PH: Yes. We didn’t wear any of it. We wore all the old stuff – and by old I mean the old pattern. The pants we had, we had knee pads on our pants, we had elbow pads on our tops. It’s very different. It’s different. Not to say that one is better than the other but I think, in that sense, the mission is a little bit different.
RH: And, if you can answer this question, did you work with Special Operations teams from different services?
RH: What were some of the differences and the similarities between Marine Corps spec ops and the different services?
PH: I think you can bring that back even more to the base of that question which is, what are the differences between the Marine Corps and the Navy and the Air Force? And there are fundamental differences between each branch of service. I think those differences show through in any community, whether it’s special operations or whether it’s flying. There’s just a different personality. That being said, we worked really well with other branches, other Special Operations guys. They’re all good dudes. Their personality’s a little bit different. Our team, we had tons of guys from the northeast. It seemed like every SF team that we worked with, every Army SF team that we worked with, a lot of guys from the middle of the country – guys from Podunk. [laughs] But different personalities, different beginnings. Yeah, that’s about it.
RH: Good to go. What was the most challenging period of this deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?
PH: The end.
RH: Why is that?
PH: The end is always bad in a longer deployment. Everyone gets complacent. Everyone. Sometimes you get burnt out and when you know that the end is coming it’s kind of, “we’re almost home, we’re almost home!,” Before you know it, something bad happens. You hear stories about bad things happening to people the day before they come home, two days before they come home. Believe me, I can count on one hand from the two year period how many guys got shot or got blown up or got killed right before they were coming over, right when they came back from seeing their kid or something. When you have a baby, sometimes they let you come home or go back. They day before they leave they get shot. So the end because you’re almost too tired to be vigilant. You have to force yourself to be vigilant.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Operationally, how did you change during this deployment?
PH: More hands on. You’re actually doing your job.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment?
PH: Yeah, sure. We had a guy that got killed on my team. It changed things a little bit. Yeah, it hit us hard. It hit us hard. He was a good friend and it made things difficult for a little bit. He was an important member of our team. Not just an important guy period, not just to his family back home but he played a significant role in our team. That definitely changed things.
RH: Alright. Before we move on, anything else from this deployment that I left out?
RH: OK. Good to go. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experience?
PH: Hmm. Immediate post-deployment. The classes that we had to take, the decompression classes, as soon as we got back. Fortunate enough for us, our unit has funding – separate funding from the Marine Corps along with Marine Corps funding – so we got to go to a nice resort in northern California to do some decompression and by decompression I mean drinking. [RH laughs] You do some decompression. They don’t want to throw you right back into a house.
I think I was really fortunate to be in a place where people understood how guys were when they got back from a combat deployment. You can’t just run back into your house with either yourself or your wife or your kids. You may need a couple of days to just sit down and talk with someone or sit down with someone and have someone force it out of you so you cool out a little bit. I can’t imagine. I wasn’t married. I had a girlfriend but when you come home you’re a little on edge. It’s tough to just turn the switch off, it’s almost impractical. It’s not going to happen. So I can’t imagine if you came home and you had a wife and she’s been used to you not being there for seven months and she’s been doing certain things for seven or eight months and you just come back in and say, “hi, honey. I’m home.” You’re on edge, she’s used to doing whatever she’s doing, I mean it’s a recipe for disaster. Our unit did a little vacation for five days, or four days, and we just decompressed. We went to the beach and hung out and spent deployment money.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did you eventually return to Pendleton?
RH: How long was it between the second deployment and when you got out?
PH: A month.
RH: A month? OK.
PH: A month and a half. So I got back in July, 2013 and I was in New York in August. So I did my first deployment, extended for a second, and my extension ran out in September of 2013 but I went on terminal in August. There’s a good and bad side to that. The good thing was I was transitioning right from the Marine Corps into school. There was no time lapse in that. I didn’t want to come home and have to move back in with my dad at the age of twenty-six, twenty-seven. It’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to go right from here, from Camp Pendleton to New York, and start going to school. So it worked out.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did the Marines around you change after your deployments and, if so, how?
PH: I think it’s tough to see change in people that you’re around so much. For the last two years, three years I was in, I was with the same people all the time in a really small community so it’s like being in a class with the same kids all the time. I don’t want to say that we were secluded being in that unit but we kind of kept to ourselves and we hung out with our own. So you saw them in work, you saw them out of work, not because we were forced to but because we wanted to. We wanted to hang out with people that are like-minded. I think it’s tough to see change. You heard about change. Sometimes if you knew some people on the east coast, if they weren’t out with you, sometimes you heard about things happening. You hear about guys having a tough time when they come home. You hear about family stuff. You know, a lot of guys that have families, it was tough on them. I think it’s tough to see the change. It was for me, at least. I think all of us, all the guys on my team, we kind of all had the same mentality. We kind of all fought the same.
RH: Alright. I have a question that it very near and dear to my heart. How were your docs?
PH: Fantastic. I still talk to them. I saw mine last year. We had three. No names but they were studs. So they were SARCs. They were all Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsmen. These guys were surgeons, you know? They could make a double amputee stop bleeding in a matter of two minutes. These guy were geniuses. The schooling alone that they did, regardless of how good or bad they are, commands respect because the schooling that they go through, the 18D [pronounced eighteen delta] course, they do their initial Corpsman training and whatever follow up training they do as a Corpsman and then if they go into the SARC pipeline – they go to jump, they go to dive, they go to the 18D course. 18D they have to go to the short course and long course. I think it’s like almost fourteen months. The attrition rate is like ninety percent. It’s crazy. I mean, if I’m not mistaken, I think that when you get out with that 18D course underneath your belt, you almost have a college degree. They’re incredible.
We happened to have some guys on our team – we had two docs that wanted to finish up deployment with us – one started with us, one finished with us – they were also unbelievable operators. My thought is you have to be an operator first before your other job. Their other job happened to be very important – it’s not like the old days where the Corpsmen were off to the side. I can’t really say that. I don’t know if they ever did. It seems like if you look at a World War II movie, everyone was always screaming for doc and doc comes over and puts on some band aids. These guys were fighters. These guys were warriors. They’re unbelievable. They’re studs.
RH: Good to go. Alright. Before we move on to getting out, anything else about your time in that I left out that’s significant?
RH: Alright. Good to go. So you had a very brief interval between when you got out and started school. How has your military experience shaped your life since you go out?
PH: I think it provides perspective and puts things in place. It puts things in perspective. It teaches you how to set goals. I’ve been back home for two years, two and a half years. I’ve had two pretty good jobs over the summertime. I go to a pretty good school and I’m getting a pretty good degree. I don’t know if I would have been able to do that beforehand so the military worked. You grow up. You’re always continuing to grow up, I just think that the military really accelerated my growth and put me back on track to what I should have been doing to begin with.
RH: Good to go. What are some of the challenges that you faced after you got out?
PH: Relating to people. Relating to people you never met. I had tons of friends growing up. It was part of my problem going to school which is that I enjoyed hanging out with my friends so much. They understood me coming back from a couple deployments and moving back home. I’m still friends with those guys. But meeting other people who don’t have shared experiences, sometimes that’s tough, especially at a school like this. Fordham is a liberal arts school, especially the Lincoln Center campus. It’s a liberal arts school with people of the millennial generation that is very opinionated, very much out and about with their opinion which is great. It’s part of the change in the world that is happening or whatever. That’s fine. But it’s tough because they don’t exactly think like you do.
I think the hardest part about coming back is being twenty-six, twenty-seven in a class with eighteen year-olds. You see the difference and your professors see the difference between you and them because there’s a tremendous difference. When I was eighteen I was screwing off. I was busy failing out of college playing baseball. If I had a military guy in my class, I don’t know how I would have acted. I can’t imagine, you know? It’s kind of encouraging to see other kids that are in a class of eighteen and nineteen year-olds take the time to talk to you about your experiences. That’s something that I don’t know if I would have done. We are growing up in a society that is becoming more aware of what’s been happening for the last thirteen years which is war. It’s interesting. It’s cool to be a part of it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Have you joined any veterans-related organizations?
PH: Yes. Sure. I’m the president of the veteran’s group here at Fordham. I try and get involved in as many veteran activities as I can outside of school. I think that’s the big one – trying to build a community of vets – and be a resource group. Not forcing you to come and hang out because some of the people they get out of the military and they’re had enough. This is more like, “listen, if you have questions we’re here because we’ve been here for a little bit and we can help.”
RH: Alright. Good to go. Do you still communicate with anyone from your unit?
PH: All the time. All the time. Every week. I was just on the phone with my old team leader earlier today. So the answer is yes, absolutely. That will never change.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s move on to Afghanistan’s current state. We’re actually a few years out and there’s still some US forces in Afghanistan, but how do you feel about the end of US combat operations in Afghanistan?
PH: Do I have an opinion?
PH: I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s a tough opinion to have because I’m not there and I can’t be there so it’s like being the politician and saying from the outside, “we should be doing this or we should be doing that,” when you’ve never done it before. That’s tough. My opinion of what’s going on, it’s still a difficult situation. I think it’s a tough thing to change. I went through it, it was tough to impact change when I was there, I can’t imagine what effective change they hope to make by not being there. That being said, there are other threats around the world. I think the government knows that they’re doing. I think I worked for a tremendous organization which was the Marine Corps. I think that people don’t hold the Department of Defense in high enough regard to maybe think that maybe they do know what they’re doing. In general, I think they do. So if the smartest generals in the world and the smartest people are leading everything from the Special Operations Command to the conventional side say that maybe we don’t need to be there right now, maybe we don’t.
That being said, there are people all over the world that need to be dealt with and there are still people there that need to be dealt with but there are a lot of other places to focus on too. It’s not my job to provide strategy. I’d be supportive if they wanted to go back because someone says it’s necessary. If someone says that, if the government says that then yes. I’m not saying if they say run, then run or if they say jump off the bridge, jump off the bridge but I’ve been there and I know how bad it is. I know how bad it could get.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s move onto a couple of spiritual questions. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
PH: That is a tough question. Sure. And by spiritually do you mean religiously?
RH: Yes, religiously. I generally leave it open – however you choose to define it.
PH: That’s a great question. I think depending on who you are, you either have a tough time with the things you’ve done or you don’t. That being said, I think that everyone reflects on what they’ve done or what they haven’t done and eventually it bothers you or it doesn’t but most of the time it’ll bother you a little bit. Do I go to church every day? No. Did I before I went? No, but I did grow up in a Catholic school and I grew up in a Catholic family. I’m not too sure if that’s the reason. I don’t know though. Spiritually, I’ve never been much of a real spiritual person. I did grow up in the Catholic Church but I could see how that would present a problem to certain people.
In my mind, to answer the question and stop beating around the bush, I have no issues with anything that I did or any of the guys on my team did while I was there. I sleep really well at night. Yeah, there’s days where I think about stuff, there’s nights when I think about stuff but generally I’m OK. I’m OK with what happened. I went over and did a job. It was my job. You’re given a directive and in our case we were encouraged and encouraged to think freely and try and do what we thought was right. And we did.
RH: Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
PH: Sure. Absolutely. To see people close to you and in your family deal with death, of course it does. It makes you grow up really quick. Some people come back wrecks which is crazy because they feel like they’ve seen death and, “ah! I can do anything.” Not the case for me. The highest value on family and appreciating the limited amount of time you have on this Earth, especially here in this country. Jesus, I can’t imagine being forced to live there knowing all the things I know growing up here. Life is precious, especially here. I don’t think that there are enough people that understand that fully, that this country is the greatest place in the world, because you get to care about things like that. You get to care about life, you get to care about your family. Nobody’s going to tell you otherwise. Obviously there’s tough places, people that grow up in tough times that don’t have family. I’m lucky, I do. I’ve grown to appreciate everything especially that.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did the religious nature of the Afghans affect you at all?
PH: No. Not at all. I grew up in a family that never preached racism, never preached discrimination. I grew up in a place, the northeast, I grew up in a melting pot. My dad grew up in the Bronx and Staten Island. I grew up in Jersey. I grew up in a mixed culture. My parents got divorced. My mom married into a Puerto Rican family when I was six years old. That has nothing to do with religion but it has everything to do with differences between people. To me, if someone’s practicing a different faith, that’s fine. The extremist population is the bad egg in the group and the Catholic religion is the prime example of the extremist faith back in the Crusades. We aren’t all peaches. No, absolutely not. I would never, ever hold judgement on someone for their faith. Their faith generally is pretty unique – loving, caring, the whole nine yards. For someone who is normal in their society to get down on their knees and pray five or six times a day is pretty commendable. It’s unique.
RH: Actually, that is what I was kind of wondering. Maybe I should ask, did the religious nature of the Afghans rub off on you at all?
PH: I think it was unique. It was a great learning experience. I am fortunate enough to have seen that and I think the outlook I’ve had with that is to appreciate it and take it in as a learning experience rather than – I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t hear anyone having an issue with that. I thought it was encouraging.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So we’re going to shift it up a little bit. What’s the happiest memory of the entire time you served?
PH: The bus ride home on the second deployment. Coming from northern California, we were in San Luis Obispo and came down to Pendleton. When you pull onto the north part of Camp Pendleton, you can smell sage grass. I will never forget that smell. It was the happiest, happiest I had been. And then getting off the bus and seeing my dad there because I wasn’t sure if he was going to come. He couldn’t make it my first deployment. I remember the day I graduated ITC, I had my whole family there and two of my best friends from back home that were both Recon Marines. I didn’t even say that. The grade school that I went to, there were fifteen kids in my grade and five of us went into the Marine Corps. Really unique. Four or five of us went into the Marine Corps. Five, [stops and thinks a moment] myself, yeah, five of us. There were only eight boys in the class. Five out of eight.
RH: Were they all grunts or where they different?
PH: No. Different. Two comm. One is still in right now – he’s a grunt officer. And then two of us were in the – one was Recon – in special operations.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
PH: I miss my boys. I miss the guys that I was with. When you get out, I think that there are things that you think about, things you could have done better. I think that the biggest thing that I learned in the Marine Corps was, especially in the community, was to seek self-improvement. I screwed up my fair share of times on my team, outside of my team. I’m a big believer in learning through failure because I have learned my whole life through failure. Seek self-improvement. I miss what I used to do because I think I could do a better job now, growing up a little bit. I miss – God, I miss the pre-work, the work up. I miss shooting all the time. I miss hanging out with those guys. I miss California. I miss San Diego. It was paradise. It was awesome.
RH: Alright. What was the best MRE?
PH: I loved the barbeque pork one. I loved it, man. I loved it, I don’t know why. One of my friends, I forget. I was in infantry school and one of the guys, do you know the egg one? The breakfast one? So this guy, he heated up the eggs and then took the – what was it? Lasagna? – and he put them together.
RH: Oh God.
PH: It was amazing.
RH: Oh really? OK. [laughs]
PH: It was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. But he did this weird thing. He took the MRE bag and he folded it inside and turned it into a bowl. He put all the heated stuff in, mixed it up, it was incredible. But I loved the barbeque pork one. I don’t know why. It was disgusting. I would never eat it again but I loved it. [both laugh]
RH: What was the best chow hall in Afghanistan and the best chow hall stateside?
PH: Not Camp Bastion. It was not Camp Bastion. So Camp Bastion on Camp Leatherneck is the worst chow hall imaginable because it’s British and British food is bland and it sucks. I think the best chow hall that I ate at was the one, we had our own little chow hall in our compound. We had a cook. It was great. We had food flown into us the whole time. That was the one thing about being self-sufficient. You had air drops all the time where they dropped shit off all the time. What was the second one?
RH: What was the best chow hall stateside?
PH: I tried not to eat in the chow hall. I tried not to. Pendleton, Las Pulgas. Incredible. The food is amazing. If anyone would ever complain about that food I would go nuts because they always had breakfast burritos, they had lunch burritos, they had everything and the food was good. Every time we went down with our team when we were stateside, when we were CONUS, we always went down there. The food was awesome. It was amazing.
RH: Alright. What’s the funniest story you have? Or maybe, some funny stories?
PH: There were funny events, funny things that happened. Finding out it was someone’s birthday was always a funny day, especially in country. We had this guy on my team, a small guy, but he was our Ops Chief. It was his birthday and we pinned him up against the – do you know those sit-up where you’re pinned up and you were stranded in midair and the big hello Dolly sit-up machines?
PH: We pinned him down on that thing and beat the crap out of him. There was a lot of that.
Oh man! I’ve got one. My old team leader. We were in Paso Robles, northern California, during our work up. My team leader came out with the boys and we had the night off. We had a designated driver and we took a van out to this town Paso Robles with a bunch of bars that we went to. We got smashed up, jacked up, and it was two thirty in the morning, three o’clock in the morning. We’re outside talking to a bunch of girls and I remember our team leader had a tough time standing but he was standing on his own. Two or three of us had our cell phones out and we were recording it. There was a girl who was severely intoxicated who was sitting down on the sidewalk. He does this weird look at her and we’re all watching him like, “he’s going to do something stupid. He’s going to touch her or something.” Instead of touching her, he goes up behind her, looks around to see if anyone’s looking, he’s so drunk that doesn’t see that we’re all recording, he bends over and sniffs her hair and then bends back up [RH laughs] and looks around again and acts like nothing happened. We still have it on the camera phone. That is the funniest thing I think ever happened in the Marine Corps.
RH: That’s pretty good. [laughs]
PH: It was awesome. [laughs] The video still lives which is great.
RH: Perfect. Alright. Last couple of questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about the conflict?
PH: They don’t really understand what’s going on. I think that a lot of people are quick to point the finger at people that have to make judgement calls whether it’s the President, whether it’s the leaders on the ground, a lot of people are quick to say, “oh, we should just come home, get out of there.” People are quick to say, “we should just go back and blow the place up,” or whatever. Just absolutely irrational things. I think that’s ridiculous. People don’t take the time to understand that they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t put enough trust in leadership which there’s a lot to be said about that. But when it comes to military affairs, when it comes to things happening on the ground, people need to put a little more trust in what’s actually happening.
I think people are so used to things being like the way they are here because if you look at the United States as a bubble because that’s what it is, people live very comfortably and that’s because of what other people have done to keep them comfortable. So for someone to come out and pass judgement or provide inadequate strategy on what the military should be doing I think is absolutely ridiculous. I think people should take the time to think about what they say, maybe get smart on what is actually going on or enlist, or go join, and then maybe figure it out for yourself. Do something rather than saying something.
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?
PH: Enjoy it while it lasts. Enjoy it while it lasts because it is short. It’s always push. Take your leadership very seriously – not just the people above you but take the idea of potentially becoming a leader very seriously because at some point, someone may depend on you to save their life. The Marine Corps is not in the business of not being in harm’s way. You are going to be in dangerous places a lot. Accept it, embrace it and do everything to request an opportunity because someone’s life is going to be on the line at some point. That is a certainty, especially if you’re a grunt, especially if you’re in any other type of combat-oriented MOS where you’re going to be in harm’s way. Take the damn job seriously because it’s a serious job.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Is there anything I left out that you would like to address?
PH: Not at all.
RH: Alright. Last question. What specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
PH: Graduating ITC. Graduating that school and I think signing that contract. Signing that contract was a big day. It was liberating and it felt good. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into but I think, do you know what? Let me backtrack a little bit.
PH: When I went to selection I failed the first time.
RH: Selection in boot camp?
PH: So after boot camp I went to boot camp and I went to infantry school and then I went over to Special Operations Command to get ready for selection because you have to pass selection in order to go to ITC. The first time I went to selection I failed. I failed the swim qualification even though I grew up in the damn ocean. I couldn’t swim in cammies. I don’t know why. Failing was humbling and then two months later, three months later, going back to selection and, what I thought was crushing, I did really well and then calling my dad when I found out that I passed. I called my mom and a couple other people. It just won’t compete with that, calling my dad that day and saying I passed the swim. That was cool. That was cool.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Anything else?
PH: That’s it, man.
RH: Alright. Thank you!