A Seemingly Normal Day in Iraq
Ryan Berg is a former Marine Corps Combat Infantryman, graduate of UC Berkeley (BA, Public Communications), completed his MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California in 2016, and is an active security professional He is married to his wife Nataly, and lives in Concord, CA.
It was a seemingly normal day in Iraq on a foot patrol alongside a dozen of the deadliest men on the planet – my fellow U.S. Marines. We were about halfway finished with a foot patrol in downtown Mahmudiyah – a deadly little town that sat 20 miles south of the capital, Bagdad. Every moment of those patrols was surreal for me – I mean, I’m a 20 something year old kid really – marching around one of the most hostile places on Earth, following my best friends around, looking for “bad guys”, scared shitless to be truthful, fighting my way through the hell-like heat, heavy gear, musculoskeletal throbbing, confronting the extremely real possibility that something will explode underneath, or near me, at any given moment. The beautiful part about being human, however, is that you adapt. I learned to love it to be truthful. Exactly what I loved, to this day, I am not quite sure.
Anyways, on this particular patrol, as we were walking along, I remember several Iraqis, including women, children, and men, who approached our patrol absolutely insisting that we did not continue walking in the direction we were headed. But wait a minute, we’re U.S. Marines, we go where we want – when we want – and how we want to, right?
The local’s insistence forced us to use every asset we had in bridging the language gap, and we did so quickly. Come to find out, a group of assailants had shot a man’s wife several times in front of him while they were in their vehicle, at which point the man was taken away and kidnapped. Even more alarming to us, however, there allegedly lay a large bomb in the trunk of the vehicle. In military lingo, we call this a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). As this picture developed for us, we quickly began to take positions on the top of homes and behind well-covered areas that would shield us from a large blast.
As we are waiting for our military partners to show up to dismantle the bomb, or simply blow it up them selves, two brave men decided to act on suspicions that the woman was still alive. Through their binoculars, they apparently observed air bubbles exiting from her nose. Against all orders and common sense, the Navy Corpsman and Marine began to approach the vehicle. At the time this was happening, I, along with a few other Marines, were on a rooftop approximately 150 meters away from the suspected bomb. One of the men who happened to look down from the roof said “There are Marines over there”. Just a few seconds after I replied “Marines where?”, and began to stand up to peer over the rooftop wall, I heard the loudest explosion of my life. It shook my chest cavity. I passed out for a nanosecond standing up, and then quickly put my helmet on and took a seat. We knew that there were car parts about to come raining down on us. As the larger pieces sprinkled down, missing us, the debris became dust, and we took a peak back over the wall, and saw only a small portion of the engine block resting there on fire.
Not to mention a Marine and a Corpsman crawling away from the flames – fortunately still alive with no major injuries. Apparently, once they pulled the already-deceased woman from the vehicle, someone located in the distance, observing this whole thing, must have detonated the vehicle by cellphone – not at all an uncommon occurrence in Iraq at this time. While the Marine and Corpsman suffered only minor physical injuries during the incident, their egos may have caught the brunt of it – when we got back to base, rumors spread quickly of the ass-chewing that ensued from platoon leadership for exposing themselves and others to unnecessary risk. Ironically, however, several months, or even years later, they were both awarded Silver Stars for their actions – the third highest military decoration awarded for valor. Semper Fidelis.
Nonetheless, the day was a little crazy. Not necessarily uneventful. But for Marines in a combat zone – the day’s events were about an average day on the job – something to reflect on, probably not write home about, but something to remember.
But why remember? Why do I recollect on this day and write it down for others to hear?
This story is important, especially in our world now, because it demonstrates our collective humanity for all life to continue. The people who came out of their homes, into the streets, to demand that us American boys did not walk any further, is proof that these people, who happen to be Muslims, desperately did not want Americans to be harmed. You should have heard their pleas. Deep down, this is their message to the West, and it is a story I carry back home in the pack of my heart to share with the world. It is our responsibility to find any way possible to deeply value all life, right here from the most influential country in the world. We cannot simply value only our own lives, or those within our own religious families – but each and every life. Holding the assumption that someone is doomed if they do not hold similar religious beliefs, is a primary inhibitor to learningful dialogue, peace, and is, I hate to break it to everyone, myself included, a fundamental cause for war. Unless we want to continue losing our precious sons and daughters, let us genuinely begin reflecting on the erroneous assumptions held in the depths of our human hearts.
Photo credit: Sylvia