You probably know or knew one. A veteran who served in a horrible place surrounded by death inflicted upon his buddies, that he inflicted upon the enemy, who maybe suffered permanent PTSD as well as physical wounds. And yet he insisted or insists on watching war movies, albeit with constant critiques — thermonuclear hand grenades, weapons that never need reloading, soldiers who never miss, bullets that make victims fly through the air (see Newton’s third law of motion), and so on.
I plead guilty! However bad it may have been at the time, in retrospect we miss it. Like I’m told recovering crack addicts never quite get over it. And I can’t even go back as a journalist because war-related but non-combat-related injuries have left me permanently disabled.
Ask a veteran what combat is like and you’ll get as many different answers as there are vets. Still, the clichés hold true: “All your senses are heightened;” or “It’s a mixture of fear and excitement;” or “It’s the most alive you’ll ever feel.” Quoth the great orator Winston Churchill: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” After being the proverbial ducks in a shooting gallery in one particularly hairy ambush in Ramadi, Iraq, the men I was with and I began laughing hysterically upon reaching safety.
Getting away from the addiction paradigm and on a nobler note, you develop the bond that Shakespeare marvelously described as a “Band of Brothers.” And when you leave the killing fields behind, that bond remains and is something that nobody who hasn’t experienced it will ever appreciate.
Those whose brains can’t keep bad feelings locked away suffer PTSD, which is now discussed commonly enough that as with “FBI” and “CIA,” the acronym has become the name. That PTSD can be from being shot at, from killing other people, or maybe survivor guilt is widely known. The aspect virtually never discussed is that missing that combat “high” causes many combat vets to commit “accidental suicide” by putting themselves in dangerous situations. A huge number of the men I was with in Ramadi are dead now, and yet not many from combat. At one point I chose to interview five at length; one later shot himself. Very painful, that.
You do come away a different person. You do see life differently. You have zero tolerance for FWPs (First World Problems.) “God hates me; I got a scratch on my new Mercedes!” Oy! Oh, and forget about enjoying amusement park rides.
A conservative priest whose name most readers of this publication would recognize me asked were it not true that war is glorious. “You’re just trying desperately to kill them while they try desperately to kill you,” I replied. “I don’t see much glory in that.”
But there was one feeling that I couldn’t begin to describe until I heard it from a Vietnam vet in Dave Grossman’s book On Killing. It bowled me over. “This is going to sound really strange,” the vet said:
…but there’s a love relationship that is nurtured in combat because the man next to you — you’re depending on him for the most important thing you have, your life, and if he lets you down you’re either maimed or killed. If you make a mistake the same thing happens to him, so the bond of trust has to be extremely close; and I’d say this bond is stronger than almost anything, with the exception of parent and child. It’s a hell of a lot stronger than man and wife — your life is in his hands, you trust that person with the most valuable thing you have.
And what happens when that person dies, whether in your presence or later on? You may end up believing in ghosts, like those of Michael Monsoor or Megan McClung or Travis Patriquin.
In the spring of 2006, I was an embedded journalist in Iraq’s most violent city, Ramadi. It was the headquarters of al-Qaida in Iraq and local graffiti boasted it was “the graveyard of the Americans.” After my first trip and during my second, the Washington Post would declare the entire containing province of Al Anbar “lost.” (RELATED: COPs and Criminals in Ramadi)
Leaving your base camp back then virtually guaranteed a fight, and I got one the first day. Shots rang out at the 45-minute mark — always at the 45-minute mark. Camera in hand, I darted out from my protected position into the street. A glance over my shoulder presented the sobering sight of a tall Navy SEAL seemingly pointing his .762 millimeter medium MK48 machine gun right at me. His was the first combat photo I ever took, his weapon in ready position with another SEAL directly behind him holding a carbine as if it were a sidearm.
I was exhausted and had slept through the briefing the night before, and thus had no idea SEALs were operating there. But it made sense since not only was Ramadi the most violent city in the country but when a public affairs officer asked me where in Ramadi I wanted to go I cockily told him, a la The Duke, “The redder the better!” That is, the least secure.
In fact, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor was protecting me as well as his teammates. This was Task Unit Bruiser, SEAL Team 3. They’re the guys allegedly portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” It sadly belittled them presumably in order to make the protagonist, Chris Kyle, seem like “The Legend,” to use the term from the film. I give it a green splattered tomato.
After my chance meeting with “Mikey,” as I heard one of his teammates call him, it became clear we were in the midst of a full-fledged attack. The platoons split, with each grabbing a rooftop — the “high ground” in urban warfare. The bad guys never had a chance. “Those SEALs fight like machines,” I later wrote in a Weekly Standard article that Gen. Dave Petraeus called “Great stuff with a great unit in a very tough neighborhood!”
But machines don’t die, and within weeks a member of the platoon, Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Marc Alan Lee, 28, became the first SEAL killed in Iraq during a fierce firefight. Unfortunately, nobody tells you ahead of time who will die and the only photo I got of him was of his back as he bent over to reload his machine gun, but his mother, Debbie Lee, was delighted to have it.
Marc was a “thinking man’s SEAL,” and his last letter home was simply awesome. “Glory is something that some men chase and others find themselves stumbling upon, not expecting it to find them,” he wrote. “Either way it is a noble gesture that one finds bestowed upon them. My question is when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade, or an unjustified means by which consumes one completely?”
Presumably, that could be interpreted as questioning the war effort and perhaps that’s why Clint Eastwood chose to cut from a shot of the real Debbie Lee reading from the letter at the depiction of her son’s funeral to Bradly Cooper in his truck telling his wife that the letter (meaning the sentiment) got Marc killed. OMG! Kyle, by then murdered as a civilian, must have done a backflip in his grave. (I was told some members of SEAL Team 3 walked out of the movie at that point.)
Six months after my first visit, I returned to Ramadi and Task Force Currahee, which was comprised mainly of the 101st Airborne (Airmobile), SEAL Team 3’s Task Unit Bruiser, and some support units. The city was already tamer — in part because of them. (And in great part due to Patriquin; but we’ll get to that.) Yet there was terrible news: a second SEAL had just been lost.
On the morning of September 29, 2006 — also known as the Feast of St. Michael, patron saint of warriors — 25-year-old Mikey was standing lookout at a sniper post on a rooftop outcropping between two other SEALs who were lying in the prone position. They were helping drive back an attack and had already dropped two bad guys.
Suddenly a grenade bounced off Mikey’s body armor chest plate and rolled. He knew that by then the fuse was too short to toss it back. He also knew the prone SEALs and accompanying Iraqis couldn’t move. He was the only one in a position to save his own life. Instead, he did the opposite. Yelling “Grenade” he smothered the blast with his own body. Some of the others still sustained serious wounds, but Mikey had saved their lives.
How strange it would feel when I saw SEAL Team 3 again. We had exchanged our dusty battle uniforms for my blue suit and their black dress uniforms, and the locale wouldn’t be a war-torn neighborhood on the other side of the world but rather the White House. President George W. Bush was presenting Mikey’s parents our nation’s highest award — the Medal of Honor. “Mr. and Mrs. Monsoor: America owes you a debt that can never be repaid,” he said, very real tears glistening on his face. “This nation will always cherish the memory of your son.” (Watch the video and you’ll probably cry along.)
More surrealism for me: we then celebrated at my favorite bar, an Irish pub just three blocks from my Arlington, Virginia, home. One SEAL after another shook my hand and thanked me for telling the world of their heroism and sacrifice. They even called me a hero. I think not! Geez, one looked like he had a chunk of meat carved out of his arm. And at the Medal of Honor ceremony, I stood next to a blind member of SEAL Team 3, who I later learned was Ryan Job, whom a sniper had blinded by sending pieces of Job’s weapon stock flying into his eyes and brain. Job would go on to marry his sweetheart, climb mountains — and then die from malpractice on the operating table from cosmetic surgery. Yes, life is strange, and to quote General Sherman: “War really and truly sucks.”
Regarding both Lee and Monsoor, upon my return to the States, I wrote of the reaction I’d gotten by email from their teammates. “Anyone who harbors the notion that SEALs are as tough on the inside as they are on the outside is wrong,” I said. Indeed, the losses were especially heavy blows for some of the nation’s toughest warriors. At the pub gathering, a SEAL confessed to me: “You know, we really had become convinced we were invincible.”
The next day, Mikey’s teammates would receive 11 Silver Stars – the Navy’s third-highest honor. It made them the most decorated SEAL unit since Vietnam.
Mikey would later get an even more exceptional honor. The Navy has built (and only will build) three Zumwalt-class littoral destroyers designed to support troops from close to shore, as opposed to the usual ship-to-ship or ship-to-air purpose. One was named for the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, the other for the Vietnam-era commander of the Navy, Elmo Zumwalt III. And the third? Right. The U.S.S Michael Monsoor. We were all blown away at the news. Unfortunately, although I was invited to the commissioning, I couldn’t attend. I also just learned he’s finally getting a biography to which I hope I made a useful contribution.
As for Maj. Megan McClung, she was the highest-ranking female officer in Iraq. A Marine’s Marine regardless of gender, she left her well-paying contractor job to go back to the jarheads. She was the public affairs officer for Al Anbar Province during my trips there and always clucked-clucked over me like a mother hen. Which I didn’t particularly like, but she was just doing her job and was good at it.
I only heard her yell once, but it was righteous anger. The 34-year-old McClung was barking at a public affairs sergeant. “Ramadi is the most dangerous city in Iraq and you’re going to get your men out there to cover it!” But … nobody likes getting killed or maimed, and she knew she was dealing with that basic instinct. She also pissed me off by keeping my Ramadi embeds short, but she knew my life expectancy as a reporter was just a few days — airborne training or not. The snipers favored journalist meat and the two journalists before me were both sniped. (Thankfully, neither died.)
After each embed, she diligently provided information that I’d been unable to gather in the field. I have two dozen emails from her on my computer, the last one dated November 30, 2006. I grew to have great respect for the lady I once begrudged.
I also developed that respect for 32-year-old Captain Travis Patriquin. I photographed Patriquin’s desk, which was covered with bumper stickers such as the assertion commonly attributed to George Orwell that “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence upon those who would do us harm.” When I published my photo set from the trip, that desk quickly went viral.
Patriquin was exactly the sort of officer we need in Iraq — or in any counter-insurrection. He spoke at least five languages including fluent Arabic, and was a major player in getting Ramadi sheiks to start supporting Coalition operations by sending men into the Iraqi Police and urging civilians to expose al-Qaida in Iraq terrorists. He had previously fought in one of the fiercest battles of the Afghanistan war, Operation Anaconda, for which he received the coveted Bronze Star.
Patriquin also provided a terrific in-briefing, giving an overview with stick figures of a city that seemed slowly to be improving but wouldn’t be won until the soldiers, sailors, and Marines slugged it out and he used his linguistic skills and otherwise genius IQ to flip tribes that had been fighting against us to fighting for us. (Such is nature of guerrilla warfare; your enemy on Tuesday is your ally on Wednesday. If done right…)
While most journalists heading into Ramadi require nor request a public affairs officer escort (I always entered by convoy), for some reason on December 6, 2006, both McClung and Patriquin, plus 22-year-old Army Specialist Vincent J. Pomante III, jumped into a Humvee to accompany Oliver North and his Fox crew downtown plus some journalists from Newsweek. A tremendous blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) ripped apart their truck, killing all three. Mercifully, it appears all died instantly.
I got a late-night email about Patriquin his cousin, then left a message for McClung asking for verification and offering her my condolences. No answer to my emails. She usually answered emails 24/7 within minutes. So I called her. No answer. That’s when I realized… I called her commander, head public affairs officer for Iraq. “Yeah, I’m really sorry Mike.”
Hell of a way to find out. (READ MORE: Farewell to Maj. Megan McClung, USMC)
I later attended her funeral at Arlington Cemetery gave her the last salute I will probably ever throw. Her tombstone notes her Bronze Star and Purple Heart and using wording she chose reads: “Be bold; be brief; be gone.” Her parents later visited me as had Debbie Lee, which was a terrific honor. I also met Travis’s dad. George and Sally Monsoor? Soon.
Meanwhile, Mikey’s aunt and godmother, Patty Monsoor O’Conner, had sent me a photo she’d received of a tattoo worn by a SEAL Mikey had rescued during combat, one hand on his body armor handle and the other firing a machine gun like something out of a movie. (Mikey received the Silver Star posthumously for that.) It was imprinted on his torso. It shows Mikey with his machine gun and in full battle dress, but also wearing angel wings. Alongside it is the prayer to Saint Michael (the Archangel), which some members of the Catholic faith (the Monsoors’ religion) recite in defense against the forces of darkness. The prayer entreats the Archangel to “defend us in battle” and “be our protection” against wickedness. No SEAL is a saint. But that part of the prayer fits. And just thinking about it still gives me chills.
If you’re wondering if any of this ever chokes me up, the answer is yes. Only the fake macho feel the need to pretend otherwise. An enlisted buddy from Ramadi (whom I have on video ducking a sniper round intended for one of us) later lost an eye in Afghanistan. I picked him up from Walter Reed Army Hospital where the eye was being treated and took him to that same Irish pub where we had celebrated. After perhaps one too many Guinesses, my eye-patched friend announced, “I like pink! And if I want to wear pink, I will wear pink!”
This Veterans Day, no cookout for me. I’m currently in a country that doesn’t celebrate the holiday. But maybe … I’ll wear pink.
Michael Fumento (U.S. Army Airborne, 1978-82) was embedded thrice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. His Website is www.fumento.com.