The ties that bind -- Marines' fellowship forged in battle


A band of brothers. American troops fighting and dying for one thing: each other. It would be just another worn-out cliche, a dependable device for journalists and for Hollywood, if it weren't so true.

For Marines, like the tens of thousands who have left Camp Pendleton for Iraq over the past three years, it's part of the lore, part of the training, part of what it means to be a Marine.

It's what recruits learn from the stories told and retold about the Marines who went before them ---- the ones who fought through the trenches at Belleau Wood in World War I, who charged the bloody beaches at Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal in World War II, and the devil dogs who battled the onslaught of Chinese at Chosin in Korea or who fought block by block in Hue City, Vietnam.

The moral of every story is the same: They did it for their brothers.

"We fight for the guy on our left and the guy on our right," recruits learn to say in boot camp.

In Iraq, they learn what that means.

"It's selflessness. It's a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself," said Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis of the ethos of shared purpose and service that is instilled in young Marines during training and is forged in war.

Mattis, who led Marines into battle in Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, Afghanistan and twice in Iraq, said that for this new generation of combat-tested Marines, like the Marines who fought before them, the bonds they form will serve them through their lifetimes.

"It's a kind of commitment you just don't find in the civilian world," he said. "They share something that they may not even have with their own families."

Tested under the desert sun

From the time they arrived in Kuwait in early 2003, Marines seemed to understand the importance of their comaraderie. They were focused on staying alive and keeping their buddies alive.

"When something bad happens ---- a firefight or an IED (improvised explosive device) or something ---- you are all depending on each other," said Marine Cpl. Adam Fisel, who fought in Fallujah during his second tour to Iraq.

Fisel said that in training, at Camp Pendleton, the Marines learned that the worst they could do was to let down their comrades.

"You're going to keep going because you do not want to be the last guy," he said, remembering forced marches on Camp Pendleton's hilly Camp Horno training ranges. "No Marine wants to be the weakest link."

He and his fellow troops carried that sense of commitment to each other to Iraq, he said.

He said he got particularly close to Cpl. Joe McCarthy during the first siege of Fallujah in the spring of 2004.

"He was one of my best friends out there," Fisel said.

The two spent long, dreadful hours while on guard duty gabbing to kill time and take the edge off.

"Sitting there at 3 in the morning in our fighting holes ... talking just to stay awake," Fisel said. "We'd talk about anything, even make s--- up. I'd be like, 'Tell me that thing again.' "

"Knowing someone like that is going to make you go fight that much harder," Fisel said.

McCarthy was killed before the tour ended, but that didn't shake Fisel's belief in his brother Marines.

He said civilians who use casualties as a reason not to support the war do not understand Marines.

"They see it as Americans are dying," he said. "And, yes, Americans are dying. But that's what I signed up to do: I wanna fight. And that's what I did.

"I did two tours and that was enough for me," he said. "But I'd go back if my guys said they needed me. We'll always have that family, that bond."

A kind of love

Retired Marine Gen. Charles Krulak, the commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995-99, said that fellowship is an integral part of Marine indoctrination.

Combat just consummates it, he said.

"When a young man or woman joins the Marine Corps, a lot of things have a place in the decision-making process," he said. "Patriotism, a sense of accomplishment, family ---- all of those can be factors."

Whatever reasons one had for joining the Marine Corps are stripped away and simplified under combat conditions, he said.

"It does not take long in combat to realize that what is critically important is not the American flag or the reasons for war or the mission," he said.

"The flag-waving kind of takes a back seat when the bullets start to fly," he said. "It's like no other situation you can imagine.

"The combat role boils down to not wanting to let the Marine Corps, or the person on your right or left, down," he said. "They just don't want to let their fellow Marines down."

Krulak said there is no stronger bond than the one between Marines in combat.

"It's a kind of love. It's a love they have for fellow Marines," he said.

Forged in combat

Cpl. Will McGiver said he witnessed that love shared by Marines during heavy fighting in Najaf in August 2004.

Newly arrived Marines had just gone on the offensive against a Shiite militia in the ancient part of the city.

"We knew we were going out the next day," McGiver said, describing his first big mission. "They told us it was going to be bad, so we knew it would be real bad."

When guys from his infantry platoon gathered at the chow hall that night, he said, they ate with an awareness of the coming danger.

"When you're eating with all your buddies, you're sitting there thinking, 'This could potentially be our last meal,' " he said. "Everybody's just preparing themselves to do whatever you have to do."

One night, a platoon needed to get men across an intersection to advance its assault. Every attempt to cross, though, was thwarted by insurgents.

McGiver's platoon leader called for a machine gun team to enter the alleyway and lay down suppressive fire so the others could cross.

"We heard 'Machine guns up!' " McGiver said, remembering the night and how he and his men were told to stay put while another team moved up and into the alleyway.

"They were just getting set up and you heard this huge 'Boom!" he said, looking away as he talked, as if he could see the scene in the distance.

It was an RPG ---- a rocket-propelled grenade ---- that was fired directly into the machine gun team.

"I just said 'Oh frap! Those were my friends,' " he said. "All you heard were screams."

The deafening blast from the RPG left them all dazed.

McGiver said it was "like it stopped time."

In the dust and dark and confusion, one of the Marines sat looking at his hand and the bloody gap left where his thumb had been.

Another Marine, a fellow machine gunner, gurgled as he tried to speak. His lower jaw was blown away. McGiver said the sound he let out through the blood was horrifying, like a boy crying for his mother.

He said that sound sticks with him, even now.

"You're just like walking around looking at it all and helping these guys and you're like 'Oh my God.' "

The casualties put a heavy burden on the Marines who survived.

"It's amazing how much effect it had on everybody ---- everybody just gets so low," McGiver said. "I mean, these are your friends and you can't believe it's for real."

Friends ---- it's a word McGiver and others use a lot when they talk about Iraq.

He said the bonds that were cemented in the streets of Iraq started long before in training and in garrison.

"In the fun times, they become your best friends," he said of his fellow Marines.

"Everybody comes from everywhere else, and all you have are these guys. We become the only family we have."

The worse the conditions, he said, the stronger and deeper the bonds.

Growing up fast

Navy chaplain Brian Weigelt says that loyalty to friends is what drove the men he served with to carry on under terrifying conditions.

Weigelt served as the chaplain for the Marine battalion that took over for the Army in Ramadi when Camp Pendleton's Marines first returned to Iraq in early 2004.

The insurgency had peaked in Ramadi during that tour, and Weigelt's Marines fought in some of the worst urban combat of the war. At least 260 of the battalion's 1,000-some Marines were wounded, and 34 were killed.

Weigelt said that even through the heaviest fighting, the Marines were more afraid of letting down their friends than getting killed.

"Marines at the core are very idealistic people who have a real vision of what they think is right in the world, and what is wrong," he said. "And they want to stand up and be counted for what is right, they want to be a part of establishing justice.

"I think that is part of the ideals, part of that initial decision to be a Marine," he said. "I hope they don't lose that ideal, but I think it gets tempered" by war.

"They have one goal each day when they're in combat, and that is to make sure that everyone comes home alive," he said.

Staying in touch

Weigelt said he shares with other Marine leaders a belief that the bonds troops forge on the battlefield influence how they cope with coming home.

Lt. Gen. Mattis said the bonds of battle, if strong enough, can be a sort of spiritual "body armor" against the mental and spiritual trauma of war.

"The unit cohesion they had out there is one of the strongest bulwarks against post-traumatic stress disorder," Mattis said.

After the war, as during the fighting, he said, "it's about looking out for your buddy."

"My biggest concern is for the guy who comes home and then goes right out the door and goes off to school or something and doesn't keep up those relationships," Mattis said.

"Who the hell is he going to talk to about it all? He no longer has that social buddy system, the buddies in his unit who he can go have a beer with in Carlsbad, or whatever."

Mattis said that's why the Marines say "Marine for life" ---- to always keep the sense of family and fraternity alive and offer comaraderie no matter how far one strays.

Gen. Krulak said he has seen powerful examples of how the familial sense of shared experience and loyalty is as strong among recent Iraq vets as it is among veterans from past wars.

"When (a) Marine gets back to the world, that's what lasts," he said. "The sense of love, the band of brothers that they all forged in combat ---- these are the emotions that last."

He said how Marines choose to nurture those bonds once they return influences the quality of their reintegration into society.

"I'm amazed at the depth and the ability of men who've been to combat and what they do with their lives after that: finding a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in life," he said.

"For these men, they have been faced with a crisis situation in life and they have come through it, and they get there a whole lot sooner than the average person in civilian life would.

"A lot of these 19- or 20-year-old lance corporals that have survived combat and have come back are dealing with some issues and questions that most people aren't going to deal with till they're 35 or 40. The questions is, 'Now what do I do with that, now that I've had this pinnacle experience in life?' It's something to have your midlife crisis at 20."

Weigelt, like Mattis and Krulak, said he encourages the Marines to maintain their ties after the war.

"Only those guys can relate. Only those guys can understand it," said Cpl. McGiver. "Even if you talk to your parents or your family, they're not going to understand what you're talking about. It's not their fault, but they don't know."

McGiver said several of the guys in his unit were surfers like him. Talk of surfing got them through the rough spots during the war and gave them something to look forward to.

Now, even after they have gone their separate ways, the shared experience of combat and surfing keeps them close.

One of the men in the group went on a surf trip to Hawaii upon his return from Iraq.

There he bought a wooden carving of a surfer riding a wave.

McGiver said each Marine takes turns keeping the statue for a while, painting and otherwise personalizing a portion of it before passing it on.

It's a tradition they look forward to keeping up as they move on after the war.

"I always used to think about my grandpa," McGiver said.

"He would always go to doughnuts ---- like every Saturday morning ---- he'd go have coffee and doughnuts with all his buddies from World War II," he said. "They'd just sit there and tell stories, I guess."

"I never really understood it then," he said.

"But now I kinda do. I mean, that'll be me in 30 years. That's probably gonna to be us sittin' there telling the same old stories about the war."