View Full Version : Life not easy for returning warriors head Now home,

11-03-06, 06:59 AM
Life not easy for returning warriors head Now home, warriors find changed lives After the welcome home, warriors find changed lives
Friday, November 03, 2006
Peter Slevin
Washington Post

Columbus -- Alone and in clusters, collars up to block the rain, thousands of people lined the streets on a gray October day in 2005 to welcome their warriors home. For 13 miles, they rose to wave, a few to salute, as the buses rolled slowly past. More than one tough Marine, homeward bound after a brutal tour in Iraq, shed a tear.

When they stepped off the buses, still wearing their desert camouflage, the Marines embraced their families and embarked on the most jarring of transitions. They would discover in the following year that seven months in Iraq had changed them more than they could have imagined, guiding and afflicting them in ways they are still struggling to understand.

Marines who expected light duty instead saw almost daily combat and 23 men killed in action, more casualties than any other U.S. company in Iraq.

When it was over, nothing at home felt as urgent or as meaningful, as thrilling or as awful.

The 160 survivors returned to work or college, to wives or girlfriends, sometimes to childhood bedrooms grown suddenly small.

"It seems like everything you see reminds you of it. You drive through town and you see someone with a Support the Troops' sticker and it just starts going through your head again," said Sgt. Travis Brill. "Drink three, four, five beers. I find it easier to sleep when you don't have silly things going through your head."

They fought as a unit and then scattered.

In a series of conversations over the past year, Marines of Lima Company shared their experiences of Iraq and their re-entry into the United States. Lima is part of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, based in Brook Park.

The survivors made it home from the war, but they brought the war with them.

Fall 2005: I would've

killed people'

Staff Sgt. Guy Zierk broke up with his girlfriend on his fourth day back. He started drinking, ordering so many top-shelf vodkas and steaks that he churned through $5,000 in restaurant and bar tabs. He found himself "trying to find out the importance of things here," he said.

In some ways, Zierk, 31, had hated to leave Iraq, where he knew some streets better than he knew Columbus. He considered extending his tour. Then came the patrol when, exhausted and angry after watching so many good Marines die, he burst into an Iraqi house. He expected to find insurgents and make them pay.

Instead, he discovered two Iraqi women and a boy, maybe 16 years old. The scared teenager made no hasty moves, but it took every rational fiber in Zierk's body to keep from shooting him dead.

"The whole reason I didn't stay in Iraq was I would've killed people that didn't deserve to die," Zierk said, "and it wouldn't have served any greater good."

At McDonald's, customers thanked them. At nightclubs, people bought them drinks. Someone invited a group to the Super Bowl. A film crew produced a powerful documentary titled "Combat Diary." The mayor of Columbus, father of a Lima Marine, called them "true heroes."

The fact is, no one expected Lima Company to see so much combat, to become so decorated or so wounded, and certainly not to be adopted so strongly by the city. Lima was a reserve unit, an amalgam of students and workers, almost all from Ohio, who mustered every month to train for duty that might never come.

When it came, the citizen-soldiers found themselves posted at a Soviet-built dam on the Euphrates River in western Anbar province, home to some of the most violently contested territory in Iraq.

Between Feb. 28 and Sept. 30, 2005, the company launched patrols and fought joint operations amid 1,700 square miles of mostly Sunni areas from Hit and Haditha to the Syrian border, targeting anti-American insurgents and their supporters. In addition to the 23 dead, 31 Lima Marines were wounded, 17 of them badly enough to be sent home.

In central Ohio, 80 miles from Columbus, Travis Brill, 30, returned to work at a steel mill.

"I was leading combat troops in Iraq, and now I'm picking up scrap metal," he said one day. "They even have rules for walking through the parking lot."

Trained as a warrior, he had prayed for combat, and months after returning from battle, his brain was still tuned to his Iraq soundtrack. He remembered Pantera's "Walk" blaring through military loudspeakers as he knocked off enemy fighters with his booming .50-caliber machine gun.

"If you know you're on the verge of being blown up any second," he said, "you're feeling alive."

Brill said he and maybe 15 other Marines had a bet of $100 each on who would get the first Iraqi kill, who would be the first Marine to be wounded, who the first to die. The "winner's" sum would go to his survivors. Once the war became a grind, the bet no longer seemed so clever and they dropped it.

"I was pretty optimistic at first. I went there with the right mind-set that I wanted to help these people, and they changed it pretty quickly. They don't give a damn, and all they want to do is blow you up when you're not looking. It sucks when you lose so many of your buddies for no good reason."

Even as he cursed the war's slow progress, he felt grateful to be part of a fight bigger than himself. As he left, he felt certain he was leaving business unfinished. Now, in the house Brill rents from his mother-in-law, he wakes up every night with Iraq on his mind. His baby daughter -- named Cami, for Marine camouflage uniforms -- cannot share her parents' bed. Brill is afraid of throwing a punch in his troubled sleep.

Open about how Iraq has changed him, Brill commented while playing poker at an Elks club that the challenge of killing enemy fighters took the fun out of hunting deer. "I'd rather kill a person," he said. "I love the hunt."

Fellow Marines have told him he needs counseling. He does not feel the need.

Col. Charles Hoge, chief psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, recently told Congress that 10 percent to 15 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq have post-traumatic stress disorder and a similar number have symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression or anxiety. The rates are higher for reservists.

Spring: This is

a party?'

One night at Shelly's Back Room in Washington, half a dozen lobbyists and Capitol Hill staffers pressed Cpl. Jason Dominguez to tell war stories over scotch and cigars. Instead, Dominguez, a legislative aide to a Republican congressman, recalled a political fund-raiser three days after he returned from Iraq. As he studied contributors laughing and digging into the main course, he saw in his mind's eye a young American in uniform patrolling an Iraqi street, about to be blown to pieces. To the Ohio crowd, the dead Marine would be a news blip, barely noticed, quickly forgotten.

With a tongue sharper than usual, Dominguez, 26, wanted his new Washington friends to see what he saw, the American cause for which 23 of his fellow volunteers gave their lives.

"When I see things on the Hill, I think, This is all some big joke?' " he lectured. " This is a party?' This is not a party. It's a commitment. The men and women who died treated it that way. You need to treat it that way, too. If not, get out of our house, get out of our Congress."

They listened. He wonders whether they heard.

March: Medals

and tears

Lima Company mustered March 24 for its first drill weekend since its return. Radio bulletins reported 26 Iraqis were killed that day in Baghdad.

The next morning, Maj. Gen. Douglas O'Dell, commander of the 4th Marine Division, addressed the company and awarded medals to the families of the fallen. At 58, he keeps his gray hair short and his handshake firm, but tears ran down his cheeks as he faced the young widows, the parents and the children too young to understand.

Speaking later, O'Dell said consoling those grieving a loss from Iraq was his toughest duty in 38 years as a Marine. "Every one of them I have felt very personally. They're like my kid brothers," said O'Dell, a father of five.

Before he left the drill deck, the general announced that Lima Company probably will be deployed again next year, to Chad.

April: Music

and flashbacks

The dogwoods and azaleas stood in glorious bloom at Arlington National Cemetery on April 27 when half a dozen Marines arrived from Columbus. They made their way to Section 60, where names of the Iraq war dead were newly chiseled into white headstones.

Finding familiar names, they crouched close in silent conversation. There lay Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Youngblood, a husband and father attached to Lima as a corpsman. Nearby were Staff Sgt. Anthony Goodwin and Lance Cpl. Christopher Dyer.

One of the visitors, John Dyer, had been to his son's grave before.

"You walk up," he said, "and you hope it's not there."

Dyer found himself replaying his final telephone conversation with his son.

"Are you getting enough sleep?"

"Dad, when I get home, I'm going to sleep for a week."

A few days later, a roadside bomb exploded and 19-year-old Chris Dyer was gone.

Staff Sgt. Steve Hooper's sharpest pain is the death of Cpl. Andre Williams, 23, his second-in-command and closest friend. Williams died while hunting insurgents not long after videotaping a message for his daughter's sixth birthday.

Late one June night, as Hooper was driving to a bar after finishing his shift as a prison guard, the radio began playing the melancholy Green Day song "Wake Me Up When September Ends," adopted as a theme by some Lima Marines as they counted the days until their tour ended on Sept. 30. Later, it was the soundtrack of a memorial video for Williams.

Here comes the rain again,

Falling from the stars.

Drenched in my pain again,

Becoming who we are,

As my memory rests

But never forgets what I lost.

Tears filled Hooper's eyes. He switched stations.

August: Grief

can take time

The day the Marines returned to Columbus, when legions of Ohioans embraced them, Jason Dominguez drove to the grave of a friend, Andre Williams. To his surprise and dismay, he felt nothing.

"I was so frustrated. One of my buddies from my squad was lying there, and I couldn't feel a thing," Dominguez said. "I went to Arlington and five of our guys are there. Same thing."

On the last weekend in August, he drove south by himself to Louisville, Ky., to see Sgt. David Wimberg's grave.

"I'm there to pay my respects, but man, something happened to me. I just dropped to my knees, wrapped my arms around his headstone and started bawling like a baby."

"It was bad," Dominguez said, "but it was good."

Summer: Being

good to go

When Guy Zierk was in Iraq, a former girlfriend began sending e-mails. Her name was Kelly Koby, and when they were together, long before the Iraq deployment, she was not ready for a long-term romance.

"I thought things were going to get easier as we come closer to our return date . . . but they haven't," Zierk wrote to her. "We've taken a few losses . . . and it's messing with me a bit. I just need to get my head in the game and things here are just making it difficult for me."

Zierk was dating another woman when he left for the war, but he ended that relationship soon after his return. Still, Koby did not hear from him. She held back, saying later, "I knew he needed to come to me on his own terms."

Seven weeks later, the telephone rang at Koby's apartment. Zierk wanted to pull his life together. To be, in Marine-speak, good to go.

Within four days, he told Koby he wanted to marry her.

Koby, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher, remembers glimpses of the world Zierk had not wanted her to see. He struggled in his sleep. A wine bottle crashed to the floor and he jumped. He sometimes seemed distant.

"Those guys are always with him, who didn't come back," Koby said. "It's not just a job to him, it's a sense of being. It is who he is. He is a war fighter."

Sometimes, back in school at Ohio State, Zierk is hungry to return to Iraq, to finish the battle and to lead Marines who understand and care. He is considering a new round of Officer Candidates School but also has taken the Columbus firefighting exam, thinking it might be time to stay close to home.

One mellow evening in Gallipolis, Ohio, Guy Zierk and Kelly Koby were married on a green lawn near the fast-flowing Ohio River.

He wore his Marine uniform, and she wore a grand white dress. Together they passed beneath the raised swords of 10 Lima Company Marines, warriors home from Iraq.