View Full Version : For Marines, tough choices on deadly matters

08-20-06, 08:47 AM
For Marines, tough choices on deadly matters

By Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times | August 20, 2006

RAMADI, Iraq -- Private First Class Phillip Busenlehner still thinks about his choice. Unbidden, in quiet moments, it creeps into his head.

The 20-year-old Marine from Birmingham, Ala., was standing guard at a combat outpost in central Ramadi when he saw a man 400 yards away.

``He was popping around the corner, back and forth, back and forth," Busenlehner recalled. ``He was observing the post. But that far back, how much could he really be observing?"

Was he trying to figure out whether it was safe to move? Or was he plotting an attack? Hand near the trigger, Busenlehner faced the most difficult choice a soldier or Marine must make in a war: to kill, or not?

With insurgents hiding among ordinary Iraqis, that decision often must be made in a split second. The wrong choice could mean a guerrilla gets a chance to lay a roadside bomb that kills more Americans or Iraqi civilians. Or it could mean an innocent Iraqi dies at the hands of Americans and a whole neighborhood turns against U S forces, setting back the war effort and putting more insurgents on the street.

Busenlehner, one year into his four-year stint with the Marines, radioed his squad leader. He got permission to shoot. Now, the choice was his.

In another part of the city, near one of the most dangerous intersections in Ramadi -- the military calls it ``Firecracker" -- two squads of Marines gathered in an Iraqi family's living room. The neighborhood had seen some spectacular firefights between insurgents and Americans. It was also a prime area for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, roadside bombs that have proved deadly to U S troops in Iraq.

The platoon had been visiting families in the area, knocking on doors, trying to collect information and build goodwill, the first step toward trying to take the area back from insurgent domination.

Marines on top of the house sent an urgent message: A few blocks away, they spotted two men on another roof that overlooked the Firecracker intersection.

Lieutenant Ryan Hub, the platoon leader, ran upstairs. The Marines' night-vision equipment gave them a clear view of the men. They could be IED triggermen. But the night was hot, and many homes in the neighborhood had no power. Some chose to sleep on their roofs.

``It's a difficult decision," Hub said, as his Marines kept watch on the two men. ``More than likely if they were to do anything, they would trigger an IED. But there is no way we could confirm that from here. We can't just shoot these two people. And that is one of the problems of urban war."

Marines in Ramadi sometimes joke that they wish they were fighting in World War II -- the Germans at least wore uniforms. Here troops have to look for more subtle clues.

The toughest calls are the peekers. In Ramadi, soldiers and Marines will see Iraqis peek from behind a building. Are they nervous because they're afraid they could be shot mistakenly? Or are they up to no good? If a Marine waits too long before deciding, the next time the man peeks out from behind the building a rocket may be flying at his guard post.

``This is a thinking-man's job," said Nichols' s partner, Lance Corporal Robert Dean, a 21-year-old from Elkton, Va.

In Ramadi and across Iraq, young men, most of them barely of legal drinking age, are being asked to make what seems to be an impossibly hard decision.

The Marines' leaders do not downplay the difficulty. But Captain Mark Liston, the weapons company commander for the Third Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, said the Marines under him had learned to observe closely and assess quickly.

``The 20-year-old Marine will always amaze you with his ability to put everything in context," Liston said. ``It revolves around the bright young man being able to make a decision and accept risk."

Around the Firecracker intersection, Lima Company was trying to win over the residents, so Hub's platoon had to tread carefully.

From where Hub was standing, there was no way to tell whether the two men on the other rooftop had hostile intentions. So Hub and his platoon made a plan to move quickly and silently through the streets to try to catch the pair.

The Marines ran toward the house, but when they were fewer than 200 feet away a dog began to bark. We are given away, Hub thought .

Moments later the platoon burst into the home. Two men were sleeping in the living room. The Marines raced up the stairs to the roof. No one was there.

There were no blankets or pillows. A break in the wall around the rooftop would allow easy access to adjoining buildings. There were escape routes and places to get a good view of vehicles driving through the Firecracker intersection.

Corporal Thomas Wolabaugh, 22, one of the platoon's squad leaders, developed a theory.

There was a four-man team. On the adjoining roof, out of view of the first house the Marines were at, one or two people lay down watching the intersection. On the other roof were the two people spotted by the platoon. Those men were the security element, listening for dogs barking and looking for approaching troops, Wolabaugh said.

Hub nodded. The theory seemed right. But it was only theory. Hub was convinced the men were insurgents.

``You are so close," Hub said. ``You have everything but the concrete evidence. It is very frustrating."

So what choice did Busenlehner make when he saw the man looking at the guard post?

``We had two people standing on post," Busenlehner recalled. ``He fired the first time and I fired the second time. Both shots hit. And yes, we got him."

Busenlehner's description was almost clinical.

``After you get the OK, you try to stop thinking of them as a person and start thinking of them as a target," Busenlehner said. ``It makes it easier."

The more experienced members of Busenlehner's company say once the choice is made, Marines have to think that way.

``It is a fundamentally dehumanizing act," said Gunnery Sergeant Preston Lambert, 38, from Maryvale, Ariz. ``And at that moment you pull the trigger, you can't look at the target as a person or you won't do it."

Busenlehner never found out whether the man he shot was an insurgent. Officers in Ramadi think retrieving the bodies of people killed from the outposts is not worth risking the lives of Marines.


11-17-06, 12:33 PM
:flag: Hi...I'm a Marine Mom and this was just confirmation to me of what my son has recently gone through this last year. He's finally back at MCBH Hawaii, and is, thankfully, still in one piece!

I remember when he was still in SOI training and able to call home...he'd ask me questions like...what if I have to kill women or children...will you hate me? Doesn't the Bible say not to kill? As the daughter of a vietnam vet, and one who studied about the things that happened over there, I told him a few things that I believed would help him when things got thick for him.

Things like...if the enemy decides to use their own women and children to send bombs, grenades or any other weapon through to kill you/your team then see them as a life threat, not women or children. Who knows, your shooting them before they blow themselves up could be a more merciful death for them, at the same time as saving your team. The biggest thing is how you choose to think about it, when you have to make that split second choice.

I also had to explain to him that the commandment not to kill, is actually about murder...not killing in general. God instituted governments and leadership because this world had to have order...sometimes war and killing are required to maintain said order. It's murder when it's done out of hatred and revengeful purposes. I told him the command was made to keep us from getting to the point of committing murder. And even if someone does commit murder, it is a forgiveable sin...Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross covers it.
I let him know that, I wouldn't condemn him and neither would the Lord.

While he has some emotional struggles after enduring life and death situations in Iraq this last year, I think he's doing better than many because of these candid conversations we had...along with the many prayers of those who have prayed for him constantly. Yes, they have to stop thinking of them as persons or they won't get the job done, when needed.

Thanks for posting this very caring and informative article. I hope many will see it and learn from it.

:angel: ~sKyRamsey~