Stephen Preiato served as a Rifleman with Second Battalion, Fifth Marines during the invasion of Iraq. After crossing over from Kuwait in March of 2003, he fought his way north with 2/5 moving through Baghdad and eventually coming back down to Samawah. After leaving the Marines, he returned to college and settled down in White Plains, New York.
Interview conducted on February 15, 2015 in Astoria, New York.
Present: Richard Hayden and Stephen Preiato
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Stephen Preiato: Stephen Joseph Preiato.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and which years?
SP: United States Marine Corps from January, 2002 to July 2005, I believe.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
SP: Lance Corporal.
RH: What was your MOS?
SP: 0311 [spoken as oh-three eleven], infantry.
RH: What was your unit?
SP: Golf Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Marines.
RH: What platoon and squad?
SP: Third platoon, third squad, first team.
RH: What motivated you to join the military?
RH: Where were you during 9/11?
SP: I was at home in White Plains, New York. I woke up. A plane hit the World Trade Center. As I was watching it a second plane hit the tower. Immediately from there – since my school was SUNY Purchase which is right next to Westchester County Airport – Westchester County Airport was put on lock down. All the New York Metro area was put on lock down. It was just such an extreme situation that happened that ended up just sparking that we were under attack which caused me to want to serve my country, basically. A calling is the best I could say.
RH: Why did you pick the branch of service that you did?
SP: More out of emotion than anything. I knew the Marines were first to fight. They go in and they take care of business. I guess personally I wanted a little bit of revenge for what was going on. I lost my football coach – he worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. That previous June before September 11th I went to go visit my cousin. He worked for Network Plus – I believe was the name of the company – on the seventy-ninth floor of the World Trade Center. I visited him and all his co-workers. He quit, luckily, two weeks before it happened but all the co-workers were still working there. They all were pretty much vaporized from that incident from when the plane hit because that was basically the stream of floors it crashed into.
RH: And what was the name of your football coach?
SP: Coach Joe Riverso.
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
SP: Very apprehensive. They wanted to make sure I was making the right decision and that’s what I wanted to do. They weren’t a hundred percent for it but it was ultimately my decision and they knew that.
RH: Did you go to the recruiter in White Plains?
RH: Where did you go to boot camp?
SP: Parris Island.
RH: In South Carolina?
RH: What was your follow-up training like?
SP: I went to SOI which was at Camp Geiger which was at [Camp] Lejeune. I graduated boot camp and they gave me ten-day convalescent leave and then I was shipped over to Geiger. And luckily as soon as I got there I immediately picked up for a class. That went from April 24th until about, I want to say about, June 20th, June 19th because then they gave me another ten-day convalescence because they were shipping me out across the country to go to 2/5 out in Pendleton. So I got there Fourth of July weekend so it was June 22nd roughly, June 20th is when I graduated.
The training for SOI – it was rough because you spent ninety percent of your time out in the field. Infantry school, that’s what you learn. You sat out there and you dug holes and you learned tactics. You learned weapons systems and stuff like that plus you do the sleep deprivation trainings and all that type of stuff. Not fun, you know? [laughs]
RH: [laughs] No. Definitely not.
SP: [laughs] Definitely not fun. The amount of ticks and chiggers and all that terrain was terrible. It got to the point where my foot locker was filled up with those eggs for the panty-hose because you were coming home with so many ticks. And I think, about, I would say it came to about twenty percent ended up getting Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever by the time we graduated.
RH: Did your training prepare you for deploying?
SP: No. Not from SOI. The training that occurred with my unit did because everyone’s different with their tactics and how they communicate with each other. I mean, the basic trainings of SOI and the basic tactics – yes – they prepared me when I got to the unit but once I got to the unit and you knew who you were working with and who you were going to fight into war with was where you really picked up the majority of your training.
RH: Where were you stationed in the US when you deployed?
SP: I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California.
RH: What do you remember most about Pendleton?
SP: Beautiful area. Ridgelines that kicked the living ass, kicked the living shit out of you. And the locals hated you but loved your money. [laughs]
RH: [laughs] And my next question, what were the locals like?
SP: The locals? You know, the saying goes “a couple of bad apples spoil the bunch.” Having been such a massive Marine Corps Base, a couple of knuckleheads just gave everybody a bad name so it’s kind of just, when you came into town, it’s kind of they didn’t want to deal with you but loved doing business with you.
RH: I noticed that the love of people in the military decreases with proximity to the base.
RH: [laughs] The farther off you are…
SP: Exactly. In New York everyone’s proud of everything you did but the minute you walk into Oceanside, California no one gives two shits who you are.
RH: Exactly. Did you interact with them very often?
SP: Periodically. More so down in San Diego as you go out to the Gaslamp Quarter and you go out and party a little bit more. But in the surrounding area around the base, only to purchase equipment or only to get a slice of pizza or something like that. But other than that, not much.
RH: Did being in Pendleton effect your deployment in any way?
SP: In what way?
RH: I know that Parris Island and Lejeune are very woodsy. So did maybe being in California in that environment effect it at all?
SP: Actually, no. They actually centered our training – when 9/11 happened that unit was already off and deployed in the Pacific and they were just about finishing up their deployment so they were on their way back from doing stuff in the Philippines, Okinawa. So Afghanistan was already kicked off so they were basically squaring our unit to be one of the first units going into Iraq, planning ahead of time where they were going to go into. I’m assuming that they expected that they were going to Iraq so they were planning our training around it. So they sent us over to Yuma, Arizona for desert training and helicopter training and they sent us to the warfighting lab, I forgot the name of the Air Force base.
RH: March Air Force base in Riverside?
SP: Maybe it was March Air Force base.
RH: Was it in Riverside, California?
SP: It might have been. All I remember is that it was cold as hell up there. But it was basically an abandoned Air Force town that was a warfighting laboratory to test out new tactics for urban terrain fighting and stuff. So once they knew that we were going they centered most of our training around different areas. Especially infantry units with my unit were special operations capable so one company was specialized with amphibious assault with tanks – I mean amphibious assault. Another one was tanks. We were helicopter and urban terrain fighting. I mean, everyone specialized in urban terrain but to what degree. So I just remember more so fighting in the fake cinderblock towns and stuff like that on base and then going to March Air Force base, whatever that was called.
RH: Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RH: How many times did you deploy?
SP: Just once.
RH: What were the approximate dates of that deployment?
SP: February 2003 to August 2003.
RH: Where in Iraq did you deploy to?
SP: We were part of the initial invasion so we came out of RCT 5 out of Kuwait and went as high as, I want to say, Samarra or Tikrit. And then we worked our way down and then after the full invasion and everything was over we went through Baghdad and our first main mission was Rumaila oil fields but then we spent the majority of our time at Samawah – I think it was Samawah or Samarra – it was in the Muthanna district in the southern Iraq.
RH: What was the feeling knowing that you were going to go in and make this push?
SP: We sat in Kuwait from February 2nd to March 17th until we moved up to the forward point right before we started going into the country. It was weird in a sense that we weren’t one-hundred percent sure whether we were going or not. It started becoming very diplomatic, very political. It got to a point where if we’re not going in the next five days, we’re most likely not going at all. Because the arguing in the UN with Saddam and trying to let the people in. There were a lot of talks, a lot of diplomacy going on so we weren’t one-hundred percent sure once we were going. Once they moved us up to the forwarding point we pretty much knew that we were going to go.
Once the invasion occurred we were put onto LAV’s so we were sitting in the these huge tanks with eighteen people in them. During the course of the night and you would hear off in the distance boom, boom, boom, boom and you would count back exactly from ninety and it would keep on getting louder because it was their artillery walking onto us. So it kind of like you felt like you were going to die before you got to do anything because you were sitting in a tin can not knowing what was going to happen.
RH: Do you remember, what night did they give the green light?
SP: To go in?
SP: I believe it was March 18th was when we go in but I think they made the announcement March 19th. So I forgot how the hour differences are but we went in before the announcement was made in the US.
RH: What was the mission of your unit?
SP: Our first initial mission was to take over the Rumaila oil fields which was one of the largest oil fields in Southern Iraq. We worked with the British Royal Marines. I’m not sure one-hundred percent the name of their unit but you can find that stuff on Wikipedia. They have a blurb about our unit in Iraq. But we basically just had to take over and secure the area around the oil fields. It was our initial mission. And then after that it was just basically working up to Baghdad along with everybody else.
RH: What were your initial impressions of Iraq like when you first got there?
SP: Nothing but desert but then once you got to the Euphrates and Tigris River it was nothing but palm tree jungles. At times it looked beautiful and serene but then once you got to the city areas it stunk like shit. [laughs] You saw just how terrible the conditions actually were and you take it for granted how living in the US is compared to there. I mean, their sewage was going down right into that little spot between the sidewalk and the street. So, pretty nasty stuff. Or where you were getting your water you saw somebody cleaning their horse or their ox in the middle of the river five feet away from you.
RH: In this push did you have an AO that you were specifically assigned to or were you moving around the entire deployment?
SP: What do you mean AO?
RH: It’s interesting because I know during the initial invasion it was a little bit different. Later on most Marines had an AO that they were assigned to.
SP: Operating from base?
RH: An area of operations.
SP: We didn’t have an area of operations until the initial invasion was over and then we were put into Samawah which is in the Muthanna district and that was our AO. We took over an abandoned train station.
RH: What was Samawah like?
SP: It was just like any other town. What I remember about it was that it had a lot of those rotaries. It was different because the whole country just basically collapsed so no one kind of knew where to go from there. So people were starting to get back out into the public and everything and you started seeing these huge trucks with people coming back into their towns to assess all the damage and everything. But it was a town just like anything else. You know, mortar buildings made out of clay or mud or stuff like that. The schools were obviously completely destroyed because of previous bombings and stuff like that.
RH: Are there any parts of Samawah that are particularly memorable?
SP: The police station I remember dealing with because we used to work with the local police department to try and start doing patrols in the town and stabilizing it. The most important thing I remember was from there and the train station where we were stationed. It was big warehouses where they used to fix trains and stuff like that and that’s where we all stayed. One company stayed in one building, another company stayed in another and we’d all take turns just going out on patrols and stuff. That was pretty much it. It wasn’t that memorable of a spot.
RH: Did your impressions change as the deployment went on?
SP: Yes. I just remember being in Baghdad and seeing a woman behind the wheel of a car and from my pervious notions of Islam that’s a no go. From what I’ve learned is that Iraq is a pretty liberal country especially towards Baghdad with the Sunnis. The Sunni tribes were pretty liberal tribes from what I gather. Once we were down in the Muthanna district in Samawah it was all Shiites and it was very formal. Women had to wear the burqas and all that and the hijabs. So it was a lot different. I never saw an attractive woman unless I was on one of those eight-ton trucks and you got to peer over into the people’s houses. Then you saw these beautiful young women taking care of six kids. It looked like she could be no older than seventeen herself or something like that.
RH: What were some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment?
SP: I remember knowing that I was getting my Combat Action Ribbon the night that we were invading because a rocket flew over our heads. The walking artillery the night of the invasion. My birthday was a big one.
RH: When’s your birthday?
SP: March 31st.
SP: So it was twelve days, like thirteen days into the war itself. Combat Engineers finally caught up to us so they were able to dig us our holes, our foxholes, our tactical positions. So it was my birthday – great. I took off my helmet and go, “Ah! Greatest birthday present ever.” Then all of a sudden a mound of dirt smacks me in the face and since we were up by the Euphrates River – I think it was the Euphrates – there was a tree line and all of a sudden we had Iraqi special Republican Guard coming out and it just ended up being a firefight from that moment on. But it’s funny because I grabbed my best friend who was in my hole with me and I told him, “I told you I’m not making it to twenty-one!,” which it was my twenty-first birthday.
RH: What were your interactions with the local Iraqis like? Were they hostile? Were they friendly?
SP: For the most part friendly. Very small incursions of people being nasty toward us, thinking that we were there just to hurt. The team that I was with was more of a nicer group. We were not as hostile toward the locals so, in turn, the locals were not as hostile toward us. Children were just a bunch of little thieves. They just wanted to get whatever they can out of you. You know, whatever candy you had, they ended up swarming around you which ended up causing an issue of your own security at times. I remember one time that we were out and one of my buddies – we were giving out candy – and one of the kids tried to take his KA-BAR out of its sheath and he didn’t even realize it so once it got to that point we realized we couldn’t keep on doing what we were doing.
RH: Are there any Iraqis in particular that stick out? Are there any that are particularly memorable?
SP: Yes. A lot of the little kids and stuff like that. An incident that we had by Baghdad Island. That was an incident that occurred and really stuck out to me. I remember certain faces and stuff like that.
RH: What happened?
SP: Basically, this is actually something that my PTSD comes kind of off of. But basically we were on route to Baghdad Island which was, I guess, the amusement park of Iraq or whatever it is. A car was coming and wasn’t stopping. We kept on trying to get it to stop. And this was part of the invasion so we don’t know who this person was. We opened fire on the car. It was a man and woman and a child in the car and the child was covered in blood while the man and woman were dead. The child was unharmed and was covered in their parent’s blood and we just kept on working past it on patrol. That face of that child always sticks out.
RH: Thank you for sharing that. I know it’s tough. What do you remember about the local food?
SP: That little thin bread, sliced lamb and it was basically cooked tomatoes. That’s all I remember. It was whatever. Little green cilantro with it. Absolutely delicious compared to MRE’s and C-Rats. That was pretty much the bulk of the food I ever ate from there. And their tea was absolutely delicious.
RH: What was the most challenging period of the deployment? The beginning, the middle or the end?
SP: The most challenging was probably the beginning. Because the beginning was – I would say even before everything was building up because we didn’t know what we were walking into. No one expected what was going to happen. So basically, getting ready – getting your will, getting your power of attorney and all that stuff. And also taking in the notion that, most likely, there’s a good chance that you’re not coming home. Just being able to process that and say, “OK. This is something I’ve joined up to do. I’m ready for it.” Just that process alone and then sitting in Kuwait with not much to do and waiting. That’s another thing. It was kind of more the buildup. Once you were in it, it was kind of muscle memory. So you kind of knew the tactics and what you needed to do, what happened. But the buildup to it was probably the hardest part.
RH: As you gained more experience, did you change at all?
SP: Yes. You changed in tactics. You changed your mentality. With my deployment it was basically military versus military so it wasn’t as much guerilla tactics with the IED’s and stuff like that. So for me, once you knew that Saddam and the regime fell and everything it was kind of more a sigh of relief. So you were able to take a step back and relax but then on the other hand you never knew what was going to come your way.
RH: How did your general outlook change, if at all?
SP: My general outlook was that these people were generally happy that we’ve taken down this regime. I didn’t really come across too many hostile civilians. For the most part this was something that they wanted us to do. We also came by a couple of those massive gravesites. There was something like three thousand Kuwaitis that went missing since the first Persian Gulf war. A lot of those people didn’t make it home because we found a lot of those gravesites where they ended up just killing a lot of them. So I think the genuine consensus from the people that were actually from that country is that they were pretty happy that we were freeing them.
RH: Do you remember where, in particular, those gravesites were in the country?
SP: They weren’t far from Samawah and I know they were in the Muthanna district but I couldn’t tell you exactly a hundred percent where. There were so many of them sporadically. Some of them were just ten, twenty people. Some of them were as much as a hundred or two hundred. I couldn’t tell you a hundred percent exactly but it was pretty close to Samawah.
RH: You left in August of 2003, correct?
RH: At the end of your deployment was the invasion pretty much over at that point?
SP: The invasion was completely over by, I think, they said it was twenty-eight days to Baghdad? So basically that was when the invasion was pretty much over. Toward the end of my deployment the Dutch Marines came in and they were the ones that relieved us. So it was the Dutch Marines that relieved us and then we ended up sitting in Kuwait for, I think, two weeks before we ended up leaving.
RH: Where were you when the Dutch relived you?
SP: Samawah. They took over our AO. They worked with us. We also had a reserve unit that was out of the New York City area – an Army reserve unit. They were the MPs, Army reserve MPs. I can’t remember the specific unit. We also had Navy Seabees with us which was another reserve unit.
RH: What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of deploying?
SP: Not getting sick. [laughs] Not getting sick or getting out of stirring shit. Those were the two biggest things. For some reason there was a couple of times in our AO where pretty much seventy percent of our base came down with some type of bug or infection where people were just shitting themselves walking down the street. Another thing was just being on that shit detail where you had to burn shit for a couple of hours which is absolutely disgusting.
RH: Yeah, I never had to do that.
SP: Oh you lucked out! I had to do it quite a few times. It’s not fun.
RH: Did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment?
SP: What do you mean?
RH: I mean, was there anything for you – that you’re comfortable talking about – that was significant for you that happened while you were over there?
SP: The issue on Baghdad Island was a major one. No, you know? There are. I just can’t really recall them off the top of my head. And you have to realize that some of this stuff is stuff that I like to try and keep behind too. So I would actually have to really sit there and go through things and remember. One of our major battles actually, north of Baghdad, that was a big one. We were north of Baghdad and one platoon went ahead to observe some type of bridge. It was like a pontoon bridge to cross and see if it was safe for us to cross. The minute they crossed over it they were ambushed from a 180, from both sides of them. We were sitting on the side of a highway just kind of hanging out kind of getting word. All of sudden we got word back that they were under attack and they were ambushed. So they blew up the bridge so we couldn’t get across so we had to sit on the other side of this river and fire at the enemy from both sides. Two of my buddies were paralyzed. One’s name was [name withheld], the other guy I don’t exactly remember. That was a significant time because we were all shooting AT4’s left and right. I remember getting shell shocked like eight times in a matter of three minutes or something. We all shot AT4’s at once, pretty much. It was like that Saving Private Ryan moment where it was like whomp, whomp, whomp. Everything slowed down for a couple of seconds.
RH: What do you remember most about the Marines that you served with in Iraq?
SP: Drunken rednecks. [laughs] No, no. A bunch of good guys, all young. I was probably a little bit older than the rest. A lot of these guys went in seventeen, eighteen right out of high school. I was already in college. I had spent a year in college. So I would say nicest guys, from the backwoods, not as highly educated. But they were all down to earth guys we were all there for the same purpose. Some of the guys were just straight up PT studs – football, wrestling guys – that were gods in their own town but never got any farther than that.
RH: We’re going to switch gears a little bit and talk a little bit about coming home. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experience? So, not after you got out but right after you got home.
SP: Right after I got home? It was just a complete new experience. We sat in Kuwait for a couple weeks until we got home and then we started that eighteen hour journey home, or whatever it was. We flew from Kuwait to, I think, Ireland or Germany and then from Germany to Maine and then Maine to California. It was just surreal, you know? I didn’t expect anybody to meet me at Pendleton when I got there since living in New York but my mother met me when I got off the bus which was really cool. And it was just nice. It was a four day weekend that they let us get right away. Then once we came back there was some business that had to get done in a week or so.
RH: What was the best and worst part about coming home?
SP: The best part was hot showers and a bed. That was definitely good. The worst part was probably the bed as well because we weren’t used to it, you know? [laughs] When I was there it was sleeping bags, living on floors and broken cots and stuff like that. The best and worst part of it was just adjusting back up to general life and to have what you didn’t have for seven months.
RH: How did civilians react?
SP: Coming back, California it was another day at the office. New York it was a big difference. Everybody wanted to question you about your experiences there, buy you a beer, buy you a drink, which was cool but probably not the best thing for you when you’ve just come back from combat and haven’t drank for seven months. California was business as usual, back in New York it was a whole different experience.
RH: Did you go back to Pendleton?
RH: Did the Marines and the Corpsman around you change after your deployment?
SP: Everybody changed. Nobody came back the same. It’s hard to notice that yourself until people start pointing it out to you, I guess. I found a lot of people that I knew I was really good friends with I was no longer really as good friends with. Some people were blatant about it. It was just like, “You’re definitely not the same person you were.”
RH: And this from people in the Marines?
SP: Back in New York. Back in the Marines everybody felt like everybody was the same. Some people had the harder adjustment. Some people were getting nightmares and you could just tell. But it was something that everyone was kind of going through together so you were able to communicate with each other a lot better, a lot easier. Back in New York you don’t have that type of presence, that military camaraderie so it’s hard to relate to anybody about your issues, about what you’re dealing with.
RH: I have to ask a question that is very near and dear to my heart. What were your Corpsmen like?
SP: My Corpsmen? I love them to death. I still keep in touch with them. Drink water and change your socks. [laughs]
SP: And here’s Motrin. I got along with my docs great. In fact, one of my docs lives in Long Island. He moved from California to Long Island.
RH: How did your family respond to you deploying?
SP: Just happy that I came back in one piece. Everything that came out afterward, after my discharge and differences, me dealing with my PTSD and somewhat alcohol abuse right in the beginning, I think they were just generally happy that I came back in one piece. Everything else can be worked out.
RH: OK. We’re going to talk a little bit about civilian life after you got out. How has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?
SP: Just discipline in certain things, especially with work. I’m a compliance officer for a healthcare company now. I run an office, I’m an office manager of the branch operations. So the discipline of me being in the military – the regimental conduct, the regimental requirements – I’m a big fan of compliance because it’s black and white. Either you’re able to do it or once this date passes you are no longer. That part of me has helped immensely.
Specifically, my MOS doesn’t help me much because being in New York it’s all great and glory that you were in the infantry but just because you’re a weapons expert does not help you in the state of New York. There’s no real career path that you can take. It’s just the tradition and the discipline and how you hold yourself and conduct yourself in a professional setting. That’s what I’ve taken away from the Marine Corps.
RH: What were some of the challenges that you faced when you got out of the military?
SP: Some of the challenges. Adjusting back to college life. I made a promise to my parents that I would go back to college once I got into the military and then got out. I went to SUNY Purchase which is an extremely left-wing liberal school. I’d say that ninety-eight percent of that school was against the war in Iraq and they were very vocal about it. Me, being a freshly-minted combat veteran had a lot of issues trying to sit in that class without flipping out on people. It was almost like DI mode dealing with people.
Other than that, I had a lot of medical injuries with my knees. I had to deal with a lot of surgeries and stuff like that. So that was another hard adjustment, just trying to get myself as physically correct as best I could.
RH: Did you use the GI Bill at all?
SP: Very lightly. SUNY Purchase was only, I think, forty-five hundred dollars for the year so I did use it but not to my complete advantage. I was admin-sep because of my knee issues so I was not actually given the full amount of my GI Bill. When I blew my knee out they told me that my knee was fine but there were a lot of issues with it. I just cold not function the way I wanted to.
RH: Did that effect your qualification for the VA? Can you go to the VA?
SP: I can go to the VA. I am qualified to receive services from the VA but I do not qualify for some of their benefits which you have to fight for, which I’ve gotten advocates for, but the paperwork has gotten lost numerous times. My philosophy is I have my two arms, two legs, I’m a lot better off than most people and I’m doing OK for myself so I’m not going to sit there and scream and howl about what I’m missing out on.
RH: Got it. Have you joined any veterans-related organizations?
SP: No. Not really. I keep in touch with my core friends from the military and beyond that I don’t do too much.
RH: After you got out, how have civilians reacted to you and your experiences?
SP: I think after a while now, especially leading up to more recent times, more and more veterans are more prevalent in society so everyone is very appreciative of the services I’ve done. And everyone looks to me to be a higher responsibility than some other people just because of what I’ve lived through.
RH: You already answered this in part but do you communicate with other veterans?
SP: Oh, absolutely. Luckily with social media now – with facebook and everything – I’m constantly shooting messages to each other. My really close friends we text each other on a regular basis. We try and do a reunion every year. I’ve only been to one of them so far. They’re either in California, Chicago, a couple of years ago it was in New York so I was able to be a larger part of that one. It’s usually on Labor Day and usually I have a wedding or something going on so I’m unable to make it out there.
RH: So I want to talk a little bit about Iraq’s current state. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
SP: We worked hard for that country to lose the regime and the way it’s heading now it seems like it’s going to be taken over by another. What I’m worried about is that all the hard work that we put in together as military taking over that country and to see this group of terrorists come in and do what they’re doing, somebody needs to stop them. I think the US should be held just as accountable to respond to them as any other nation. We’re the ones who went in there initially, we’re the ones that need to see it through and help and if we have to put our own troops in, I think we should. If that’s what’s going to be the difference, the deciding factor in whether these people are destroyed or pushed back at least, that’s our responsibility.
RH: Do you think that we could have done anything different?
SP: No. What do you mean? Back from what we did ten years ago?
RH: Maybe, this is tough, while you were there is there anything that we could have done different? Is there anything we should have done different?
SP: No. I don’t think that there is much that, once we committed to invading and taking out that regime, we had no other choice in what we were doing. As it went down, a lot of the IEDs and stuff were coming from the surrounding nations – Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran. For the most part the community of Iraq itself was very appreciative that we were there. It was a lot of surrounding people that were infiltrating that country that caused a lot of the mass destruction. And that’s the same situation as with this ISIS for the most part. A majority of them are from Syria and they’re just trying to go to Iraq as well, from what I’ve read. I could be wrong. [laughs]
RH: Are there any lessons that you learned while you were over there that are relevant to the current situation?
SP: Yes. We’ve got to follow through with what we’re doing. I think the fact that we were pulled out and told that they were able to run themselves was evidently not true. I feel that we do need to go back in there and we do need to assist with them building back up their country and stabilize government and be able to support themselves and protect themselves from a defensive standpoint. If that means that we have to sit there and assist them, like what we made with Japan after World War II, they create a military for defensive purposes only and the US would be their allies through and through if any type of situation comes along, then I think that’s the type of agreement that we should have created.
RH: I’m going to ask some spiritual questions. Has deploying effected you spiritually and, if so, how?
SP: Yes. I don’t go to church anymore. [laughs] I stopped going to church. I always felt that – I guess what I’ve become now is, if I want to speak to God I can speak to Him anywhere I want to. I don’t have to go to a specific house to speak to Him. Spiritually that’s how I felt. That’s how I’ve come to my – with what I’ve seen, and what I’ve been through – it’s kind of my way to work it out.
RH: Did you have any spiritual challenges that you faced while you were over there?
SP: No. Just the million times I talked to Him. [laughs] “God, get me out this. God get me out of this.”
SP: Just the million times I’ve spoken to him off the cuff.
RH: Did the religious nature of the Iraqis effect you at all?
SP: No, not really. The ludicrousness of a nation – and I guess this is a part of history – how a country and their government can be so developed coinciding with their religion, it blew my mind.
RH: What do you mean?
SP: When we were at the police station in Samawah, there was a man in a prison cell and we asked one of the police officers what he was in there for and it was because he was having a sexual relationship with this girl and the father found out about it. I think the father – I forgot how the story went – but it was either the father or the boyfriend that was in there and one of them killed the girl and they had to be presented before the court. I think it was the father that was actually in the jail cell. And he had to be presented to the court for murdering the daughter but they said that ninety-nine percent that he’ll just be freed because it was like the daughter was committing a sin in the Muslim religion and it was his duty – I forget the word, not embellishment – but embarrassment to the family name. It was like the family code. I think that’s how it was. I just remember that situation and I was like, “This religion is crazy.” [laughs] That was one of the things that kind of glared out to me.
RH: Has deployment changed your views of life and death and, if so, how?
SP: It definitely has. I always feel that I am somewhat on borrowed time for the situation that I’ve been through. How close bullets have come to me that I’ve known. On my birthday – situations being in Baghdad – seeing cinder blocks just chip away because you know that’s a bullet coming at you. Stuff like that I’ve always felt like I’m on borrowed time. So my view, personally, about death is that I don’t feel my life is as valuable as others’ that I went out there to protect. The people here I find their lives to be so much more valuable than my own because I’ve given myself such high risk that I’m just kind of like, “You know what? I’ve given the risk, I’ve made it through.” I don’t think my life is as valuable as everybody else back here.
RH: Now that we are a few years out, has the memory of your experience changed at all?
SP: No. I always keep it the same. It has changed much. Maybe just the ideas of the people that I served around, maybe they might have changed. Maybe they might have done things. A lot of friends have committed suicide. Stuff like that that. They weren’t able to mentally stay hard about.
RH: What’s the happiest memory of the entire time you served? And that could be from the moment you started boot camp to the moment that you got out.
SP: In boot camp it was having really girly handwriting and being the scribe, I was able to work on the range and, doing the scores, I was able to sneak a phone call home. That was one of my happiest times there.
SP: Iraq it was showers. Because we didn’t shower for, I think, it was forty-six days. And then the Seabees came and built us showers and it took about a good six showers, five showers just to get everything off of you. That was another one of my happiest times.
And the final discharge. It was like, do you know what?, it’s the end of a chapter. And I wouldn’t trade any experiences for it but it’s definitely something that I would have never re-signed to stay on. It was like, I wanted to do my time and get out. It didn’t feel like it was over my head but it was like, this is going to be an experience but this isn’t something I would want to continue.
RH: What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
SP: Camaraderie, brotherhood. Just hanging out with a bunch of guys and drinking beers on a regular basis. You know, just a good old boys type of thing. That’s what I miss the most – just that camaraderie amongst the guys.
RH: Has your opinion of the war changed and, if so, how?
SP: My opinion of the war itself hasn’t changed. I think my opinions of the politicians over the years have changed. Just, their decision making and how they wanted to handle it going forward I disagree with. So I would say it wouldn’t be the war itself, it’s the politicians that made the decisions that made me change my opinions.
RH: Now I have some questions to mix it up a little bit. What was the best MRE?
SP: The best MRE was chicken and noodles. You had to get cheese spread and vegetable crackers. What you’ve got to do is you gotta melt the chicken and noodles and the cheese spread. You’ve got to heat those up and melt it down and you’ve got to put the cheese and crumble up the crackers and then mix it all up and it tastes like chicken pot pie.
RH: [laughs] OK. That’s a good one.
SP: Another one was the beefsteak. I put peanut butter on it. I don’t know why but I just mixed them together and it tasted good.
RH: That’s the first time I’ve heard that one but that’s cool. [laughs]
SP: [laughs] Beefsteak with peanut butter.
RH: What was the best chowhall stateside and the best chowhall in Iraq?
SP: The best chowhall stateside? I really only went to one which was Pendleton and I guess it was alright. I wasn’t really a huge fan of it. I always felt like shit after I ate at the chowhalls. In Iraq there was only one and it was the RAO. That was the only place I ever ate. Otherwise it was just nothing but MREs.
RH: What’s the funniest story you have?
SP: The funniest story that I have. Oh God. There’s just so many that I’d probably say the story of two guys who didn’t want to go on patrol and they beat the living crap out of each other and broke each other’s noses. The next day when they were to report to go start the hike they said they got jumped by a bunch of Mexicans outside Walmart.
SP: And that’s probably one of my favorite stories.
RH: So this is back in States?
SP: This is back in the States. I’m trying to think of one other. There’s just so many that I can’t – that’s something I would have to think about because there are so many random ones that I can’t even.
RH: If you could communicate something to young Marines who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
SP: If I could communicate. People that are already in, if they’re about to be deployed, keep as much ammunition on you as possible. Keep your rifle clean. Just communicate. Communicate, communicate, communicate would probably be the biggest thing because you don’t have anything unless you have communication with your brethren.
RH: Is there anything that I left out that you want to address?
SP: No. I’m trying to think of different situations. I think you were pretty thorough, actually.
RH: Thank you!
SP: There are going to be things that will probably pop up an hour later or two hours later but I’ll get your e-mail and shoot you little tidbits of things I think about. It’s sporadic. Certain things come and go.
RH: And finally, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
SP: My greatest accomplishment was probably shooting Expert twice. Being a New Yorker that has never shot a gun before in his life was able to become a double Expert. It was probably my greatest accomplishment that I probably worked the hardest at. Dealing with a lot of kids from mid-America who grew up, basically coming out of their mother’s womb with a rifle in their hands, and me coming in not knowing shit and them thinking they’re hot shit and they end up all getting Sharpshooter or Marksman and I’m the one that comes out with the Expert badge. I always thought that was really cool.
RH: Alright. So unless you have anything else, I think that’s it.
SP: No. That’s pretty much it.
RH: Alright man. Well, thank you very much!
SP: Thank you.