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.
It 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.
In 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