Ryan Berg is a former U.S. Marine Corps combat infantryman and deployed twice to Iraq.  In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo company, Weapons Platoon, in Mahmudiyah, Iraq.  In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad.

He studied rhetoric at UC Berkeley and completed his MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California.  He is most interested in understanding the ways that the system of patriarchy in America affects male military Veterans – and argues that this system is fundamental in perpetuating suicides in the Veteran community.  He is married to his wife Nataly, and lives in Concord, CA.

It was a bright and sunny morning in 2007 at the downtown Fallujah, Iraq, police station where a dozen or so Marines and I were tasked with providing security for a day of police recruiting.  There seemed to be over a hundred or more local Iraqi men lined up right outside of the front gate eagerly awaiting to get inside and begin the process of becoming police recruits.

This was a picture taken from that day. Our team was outside coordinating with local police.

Our task wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Marines – it required frisking, looking tough, remaining alert for anything suspicious, and to shoot back if we were getting shot at.  What happened that day caught most of us off guard.

About 20 minutes after we opened the gates to the base, we were checking ID’s, searching locals for weapons, and getting each of them ready to escort onto the base for processing. 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!”, as he urgently pointed at a man in our secure area.  Of course this sent me into serious alarm given where we were, and I began to walk towards the man to confront him.

As I began to walk towards him, I heard a very loud explosion and felt the concussion of a blast about 20 meters from where I was. For a brief moment, it rained blood just outside our front gate, and body parts were everywhere: legs, hands, arms, heads, guts, torsos, and ripped and charred skin – still warm and alive. A suicide bomber had detonated himself.

As I write this, my head spins a little bit.  I am back in that space of time and moment.  I did not enjoy this experience, nor am I particularly pleased about writing it.  I was hesitant to share the bloody details of this incident, but decided that I need to look at it, and others need to hear about our experiences in war.  Some will relish in the violent details because they’re so cut off from themselves and their own emotions that they find it arousing and pleasing.  Some will find it triggering or hard to read.  It should be that.  Some Veterans will turn away from reading this because they feel it threatens their self-worth – perhaps they served but experienced very little violence.  They feel this way because in our culture those who witness and carry out violence, in settings like war, is how we measure manhood.  We live in a system of patriarchy that has made us this way, and until we call out this system for what it is, and begin to get in touch with our loving selves, nothing will change.  bell hooks reminds us that:

As our culture prepares males to embrace war, they must be all the more indoctrinated into patriarchal thinking that tells them that it is their nature to kill and to enjoy killing. Bombarded by news about male violence, we hear no news about men and love.

Moderate chaos erupted.  Iraqi’s began firing their weapons in seemingly any direction, which signaled to me that we were being attacked in some coordinated fashion – so I dropped to the ground and flipped my safety off.  The Iraqi police were screaming, yelling, and shooting indiscriminately.  Potential recruits were bleeding, crawling, and running away, while some begged for us to let them into the base.

One man was trying to crawl into the base for safety, and so I zeroed in on his face with the sight of my weapon.  I was in survival mode and unsure if I was going to let anybody into the base should they not be wearing desert Marine Corps cammies or an Iraqi police uniform.  He was clearly in agony as blood streamed down his forehead and grey dust covered his black hair.  As bullets flew a few feet above his head, his mouth moved open and closed as his elbows scraped against the dry dirt and rocks inching ever closer into the base – probably unsure if he’d be killed for doing so. 

We locked eyes as we both lay on our bellies staring back at each other.  I had to order him to stop, so I did so with the muzzle of my weapon punctuating a non-verbal request, a slight nod of my head from left to right.  Yelling at him to stop was futile given the sound of gunfire, nor did I have the energy.  I had my rifle pointed at him, and that communicated what I needed it to.

One of my superiors, who was behind me in the prone position ordered me to shoot him, at which point I gladly disobeyed, and the man lived.

After the incident, we all went out to assess the damage and secure the scene as Iraqi police officers began throwing torsos and body parts in the back of a white truck.  My gut wrenched as I stared down at the ground at what was left of these precious human beings.  It felt like their consciousness silently hung around even as their bodies lay completely ripped apart.  I could hear their screams despite their absence.  I heard my own internal screams. I was scared and in shock.  It was beyond saddening and devastating.  Just a moment ago, they were alive, talking, excited, bustling about, awaiting their turn to serve their country.  It was the most horrific thing I had ever seen in my life. 

At least seven civilians were killed and 11 people were hurt.

Here’s a link to a Washington Post article that reported the incident.