A life-changing experience
Gardiner played football for the Marines and went to war twice. He called it a career Friday.

By Pat Graham
The Daily Times-Call

John Gardiner took a sip of water and a deep breath before re-telling the story.

The former Skyline High School football/baseball player doesn’t like to dredge up these memories. He likes to keep them carefully locked away and heavily guarded in his memory.

What Gardiner saw in Iraq during his four-year stint with the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines would be scarier than a Wes Craven film.

But he’s getting out now. His last day was Friday. He’s a civilian again but doesn’t know what he wants to do at the moment. For now, he’s selling season tickets for the San Diego Padres and Chargers, and working on his real estate license. He wants to go back to school at some point.

Gardiner appreciated his time in the military. He wouldn’t trade the friends he made or the person the Marines molded him into.

“I’m who I am because of what I went through,” said Gardiner, who was in town last week with his wife, Jennifer, to attend a buddy’s wedding. “It taught me dedication and leadership.”

He reached for his drink and smiled as he prepared to share his stories.

“I don’t know where to begin,” Gardiner said with a laugh.

As with any good story, how about at the beginning?

When a potential baseball scholarship to Dakota State fell through, Gardiner went with his backup plan: Front Range Community College. He was two weeks into the 2002 fall semester and was questioning whether school was right for him at that time.

Two doors down was a recruiting office for the Marines. He decided to join up.

“They’re the best of the best,” he reasoned.

After basic training at Camp Pendleton, Gardiner even played a little football. He joined the same Marines squad team that counts former Denver Broncos running back Mike Anderson as an alum — the Cannon Cockers.

Gardiner carried the ball three times for seven yards as the Cockers made it to the 2003 championship game against Mag 39 (“the guys who work on the helicopters,” Gardiner explained). The Cockers lost, 13-10, on a 36-yard field goal.

“It was the ugliest kick, too,” Gardiner recalled.

The fact he got to play at all was a blessing, especially after what he’d encountered in Iraq. He’d just gotten back in time for the season after a tour of duty.

He and his outfit had spent four months guarding the southeast side of Iraq. Trained in field artillery, Gardiner specialized in the M-198 howitzer, which can hit a mouse from 18 miles away.

“Loud, too,” Gardiner said. “It would blow out your eardrums. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be deaf by 30.”

The platoon’s mission was to march toward Baghdad. The unit had two weeks to transport 16,000 pounds of equipment approximately 250 miles.

Everything was going smoothly until Nasiriya.

Nasiriya, the capital of the the Phi Qar province, sits on the north bank of the Euphrates River. Its population is 265,917.

Gardiner knows nothing about Nasiriya, nor cares to even to this day. All he remembers is what happened on March 24, 2003.

“I thought that day was going to be on my tombstone,” he said in a somber tone as he stared at his glass.

Gardiner’s unit of 130 Marines walked into an ambush as they arrived in town. Approximately 500 members of Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard came out of nowhere. They fired from windows, roofs and doors. The bullets came from up, down, all around.

Gardiner hit the deck as bullets hit inches away from him.

“I froze for a second, and then muscle memory took over,” he said.

He leaped for his gun on top of the trucks and began firing. The unit made it out of the city with minor casualties. The commander, Capt. James Frei, lost his arm in the skirmish.

However, the troops were now cut off from supply lines. No one could help them. The Republican Guard was mobilizing down the road, so they couldn’t go forward. They were obviously unwelcome back in Nasiriya, so they couldn’t go back. The platoon dug trenches as night began to fall. They were hunkering into what was known to all simply as “Sniper Alley.”

As Gardiner found out, there’s nothing worse than darkness.

“You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face,” he said. “You hear sounds all night long.”

And then the sun began to rise.

“That eases you,” Gardiner said. “The sight of the sun is a relief.”

With the Republican Guard gone, the regiment continued toward Baghdad. They arrived to see a smoldering city.

“It was like a fireworks show,” Gardiner said. “You could smell burning trash.”

He paused as he visualized the scene.

“And death — you could smell death,” he quietly said. “When we went in, I thought there would be nothing left of the city.”

But there was, and the troops’ mission was to secure the area, or at least make it as secure as possible with residents constantly shooting.

In July 2003, Gardiner’s unit was sent back home to San Diego.

He wasn’t home long, though. In February 2004, the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines was sent to a different venue — Fallujah. Again, their job was to keep order.

“We were always on edge and on our toes,” Gardiner said.

No wonder: The troops were shot at while showering, eating lunch and playing touch football in the sand.

Gardiner and his Marine buddies loved their sports. Whenever there was down time, they’d play baseball, hold weightlifting competitions or play football. The Marines would set up a field between four artillery guns. They felt safe with those guns protecting the field.

That’s what he’ll remember most about his time in Fallujah. Not the war or the horrors it brought, but the football games and the friends he made.

He doesn’t like to remember the sights he saw. To this day, those are hard to talk about.

“Bodies everywhere,” Gardiner said. “I should’ve expected to see that, but it affects you. You never get used to it.”

In September 2004, his unit was called home. Ever since, he’s been training the next group of Marines to take over when his time was up.

And now it’s up.

Yet the dreams are hard to shake. It’s the same nightmare with a recurring theme.

“He’s always in Iraq with me, and he tells me to run away. If I don’t, one of us is going to get killed,” Jennifer explained.

Maybe now the nightmares will subside. Now that he’s out, some of the more bleak memories will fade.

“I left my mark in the Marine Corps,” said Gardiner, who was called “Coach” by the younger battalion members for his ability to explain what to do in a precise fashion. “I did what I needed to do, and I was good at it. The Marines was a good experience for me.”

Yet Friday was an emotional day for Gardiner. Last days usually are.

He made the rounds of the base, saying goodbye to the friends he’d made. He signed his discharge papers and walked off the base.

“It was like walking off the field after your last high school football game,” Gardiner said. “It’s emotional.”

He paused as he reflected on his four-year career in the Marines.

“This has been a great experience for me,” Gardiner said. “I feel like I’ve become the person I wanted to be.”

Pat Graham can be reached at pgraham@times-call.com.