Good Initiative, Bad Judgement

Good Initiative, Bad Judgement

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.

Ryan BergMarine Corps 2000-2007

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-12-03-32-pmIt was a bright and sunny morning in 2007, in Fallujah, Iraq, and a few men and I were tasked with helping to facilitate a “day of recruiting” for Iraqi police officers at the local police station. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Marines – it required frisking, looking tough, keeping our eyes wide open for anything suspicious, and to shoot back if we were getting shot at.

But what happened that day caught most of us off guard. About 20 minutes after we opened the gates to the mini-base, we were checking ID’s, searching locals for weapons, and getting each of them ready for escort into the station – in order to be processed and prepared for “recruit training” as new officers. One man, who was cleared to enter, walked up to me and said in not-so-clear English, “ that man over there wasn’t searched!” Of course, this sent me into “what the fuck are you talking about mode?” – and I began to walk towards the man to confront him, search him, and find out if there was validity to the man’s claim.

As I began to question the man, I heard a loud explosion and felt the concussion of a nice-sized blast about 20 meters from where I was. Moderate chaos erupted. Iraqi’s began firing their weapons in the direction of who knows what, which signaled to me that we were being attacked in some coordinated fashion – so I did what I was trained to do for many years – “hit the deck” – which means to fall to the ground and point my weapon towards the bad guy. Marines began yelling to “retrograde”, which means to retreat into the base, taking up a defensive position. But what had happened? A man committed suicide by blowing himself up, killing at least 10 people and injuring many more.

As this happened, people were screaming, yelling, shooting, bleeding, crawling, and begging for us to let them into the base. As one man attempted to crawl into the base, with blood streaming down his face, I had to order him to stop, so I did so with the muzzle of my weapon punctuating my request. I didn’t fire – of course; it was apparent that he was completely innocent, and simply injured, seeking refuge. Ignorantly, one of my superiors, who was behind me in the prone position, instructed me to shoot him, at which point, I said, “he’s innocent Staff Sergeant”, and then mentally whispered “shut the fuck up, I am not killing this injured guy crawling towards me who is obviously in complete agony”. Luckily, and many of my fellow Marines can attest, I had a history of not following orders – so I guess this time it came in pretty handy. That guy lived, but many more lay torn apart outside of the base, and at least a dozen were driven to the hospital for their injuries.

That’s pretty much what happened, it was scary, and I won’t soon forget that day. I wish that I could remember more about my experiences in Iraq, and come to know the ways that experiences like these have contributed to my identity, to the way in which I relate to myself, the world, others, and life. I do know that the fear I felt in Iraq tends to act as a barrier to the many things that I want to accomplish in my life. But I am deeply committed to confronting the fear and anxiety and channeling it into excitement and gratitude for all of my life’s endeavors.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-12-08-47-pmIn Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra (2002), a discussion on the Life Span Chapter, Hideo Kishimoto, a religious scholar, dealing with the fact that he was going to die after being diagnosed with cancer sums up my wartime sensations succinctly:

“I then understood the strength of my attachment to life. When one’s life is exposed to direct danger, how the heart seethes and rages! The entire body wages a desperate resistance, which extends to the cells at the very tips of one’s hands and feet” (p. 162).

 

 

Ikeda, et al (2002). The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra: A Discussion Examining Chapters 16, The Life Span of the Thus Come One. Santa Monica, CA: World Tribune Press

Photo credit: United States Forces Iraq

 

A Seemingly Normal Day in Iraq

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.

Ryan BergMarine Corps 2000-2007
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Iraq, 2004

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?    screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-40-25-am

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.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-41-55-amAs 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.screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-43-50-am

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?

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-49-18-amThis 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