I was overwhelmed by emotion as I entered the hotel ballroom in Oklahoma City. The faces that I vividly remembered from the past were a little older, a little chubbier, but still the same men with whom I had trained, fought, and entrusted my life to a decade ago when we were sweating our butts off in the desert wastelands of Al-Anbar Province, Iraq.
Along with a fellow veteran and friend, I spent the entirety of a year – working late at night and on my lunch break – to organize the event that was unfolding before my eyes. In September, we gathered 65 people – Marines, corpsmen, wives, girlfriends, and families – to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of our company’s deployment to Iraq in 2006 and to honor our Marines and sailors who were killed in action.
I have often wondered if every rifle company believes itself to be the best company in the Marine Corps. But the fact that we were gathered together, here, ten years down the line confirmed what we had already known: that we, Lucky Lima, were the best damn company in the Marine Corps. We were Lima Company, Third Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, First Marine Division.
Our legacy is long and proud. Our regiment, Fourth Marines, served in China in the early 1900s, in Central America and the Caribbean during the sporadic Banana Wars, and in the Philippines during the Second World War. After a ferocious fight at Corregidor, the remnants of the regiment made the infamous Bataan Death March. Later in the war, Fourth Marines was reconstituted and fought on Guam and Okinawa, but the constituent battalions were reassigned to other regiments. Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, otherwise known as “3/4” or by the battalion call sign “Darkside,” fought in Vietnam, in Panama, and is the most combat-deployed infantry unit of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
All the men in attendance had fought in Iraq; most had served multiple combat deployments. We are the new generation of American veterans. We share a common bond – an esprit de corps – that ignores the rules of time and separation. Together, we filled countless sandbags, smoked hundreds of cigarettes, stood post, told stories, traded MRE packets, and served on endless working parties. We fought, sweat, and bled together. We were shot at, rocketed, mortared, and blown up together. We trudged through sulphurous swamps and muddy Euphrates River islands together. We heaped garbage into massive burn pits and torched human sh** together. We stepped off on dark, cold patrols into certain danger together. Together, we experienced the horrors of war and the effects that it has on the lives of young men. We share a special human bond – a fellowship unmatched by any other among men.
* * *
My squad had returned from a long, hot patrol near dusk. As I was crawling into my rack to catch a few minutes of precious sleep before the start of my next guard duty, I heard a loud boom, which shook the walls of our fortified shack. At this point in our lives, explosions were not extraordinary. In my mind, I thought, “It’s someone else’s turn to handle this, if it’s even anything worth handling.”
Seconds later my section leader burst in yelling, “QRF up!” – our signal to gear up and get out of the wire to a Marine patrol in need of backup as quickly as possible – “MAP 2 just got hit!”
MAP 2 was another squad in our platoon, meaning the loud explosion that had just rocked our fort had been employed against other Marines in our own platoon. We were out of the wire within three minutes, and arrived on the scene a few minutes later.
As we approached, I felt heat on my face, heard the cracking of ammunition cooking off, and saw terrible, bright flames torching the dark night sky coming from the ruined hulk of what used to be an armored Humvee. Before I could even come to terms with what was going on and the fact that my friends had been in that Humvee, I was ordered to form part of the security perimeter – deploying my machine gun down an avenue of approach to our position. I was behind my M240G, facing away from where I heard the shouts and screams of men I knew, a simply gut-wrenching situation. To my rear, I heard wounded men and Marines coordinating their response. Fifty-caliber rounds continued exploding in the fire long into the night. I have never felt so helpless in my life.
My heart sank as I heard a corporal call over the radio to the company headquarters, “Lima Sierra 1234 is KIA.” That was code that someone in Lima Company with a last name that started with an S had been killed in action. Lance Corporal Jim Alwes, my ammo-man and close friend, and I ran down a mental list of our buddies in MAP 2 whose names started with an S. Was it Saldivar or Shaul? Or was it Doc?
A few torturous minutes of holding security later, a Marine came running up from behind: “Wright! Staff Sergeant said, ‘Hookey needs to see you!’”
I, unnaturally, let Alwes replace me behind my machine gun, drew my pistol, and ran back toward the scene. I knew something must be very wrong if they were pulling me, just a lance corporal machine-gunner to go see another lance corporal machine-gunner.
Hookey, my best friend, was covered in mud and blood – and naked from the waist down. He was shaking and looked terrified. Doc Burger and a Marine were still working on stuffing wads of gauze and quick-clot into the gaping holes in Hookey’s legs where shrapnel had torn through his flesh. The first thing he wanted me to do was to reassure him that his most important body parts were still intact, which I did. I held his hand and told him I loved him and that he was going to make it as we pushed hard against his pressure dressings to stop the bleeding. Two young men – a kid from the suburbs of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a former delinquent from inner-city L.A., permanently bonded thanks to the Marine Corps – were now fighting for life in the dust of an Iraqi street.
I was terrified by the severity of Hookey’s wounds. I prayed that he would make it. A helicopter came and took him away – but I was already back at my post holding security, which we held until past daybreak.
That night, October 23, 2006, we lost Hospitalman Charles “Doc” Sare, who was killed in action in Al-Anbar Province, Iraq.
Lucky Lima would fight the enemy many more times during that deployment to Iraq in 2006, which was unexpectedly extended into 2007 as part of the Surge. We fought in dozens of cities and towns up and down the Euphrates River. That deployment was just one of the five to Iraq, along with the three deployments to Afghanistan, that 3/4 would embark upon before being disbanded in 2013.
* * *
I was overwhelmed by emotion as I entered the hotel ballroom in Oklahoma City. As I held my wife’s hand, I was for a moment transported to the dusty, hard world of the past. It only took seeing the men of Lima Company, with whom I had served on three deployments, to bring back a flood of memories.
These men are America’s best. We were all teenagers when terrorists attacked our country on September 11, 2001. That event played a crucial role in our development as men. These are the men who not only joined the military in time of war – all of us enlisted after the start of the 2003 war in Iraq and 2001 war in Afghanistan – they joined the Marine Corps . . . and the infantry. When we signed our enlistment papers in 2005, every one of us knew we were volunteering for a trip to the front lines of Iraq.
These men, the veterans of Lima Company, are warriors. They are courageous. They are adaptable and resilient. All of us have faced the crucible of battle; some of us were terribly wounded. One man at the reunion, Brian Vargas, sports a giant scar across his cheeks – one of the few men alive who can say they were shot in the face. Many took shrapnel or bullets. Many more were concussed by IEDs and nearly all of us face the challenges of living with PTSD.
Yet to portray these men as victims or as past their prime or as in need of sympathy is wrong. The media, the government, and our culture characterize the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as beaten little puppies: Broken, helpless men, consigned to live in mediocrity.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of veterans (including myself) who are currently struggling, or have struggled in the past, with the consequences of war – and who need help and support. I am grateful for the organizations – including Outward Bound, Motorcycle Relief Project, and FOCUS Marine Foundation – that have helped me in my own personal journey of reconciliation and healing.
I am here to tell you that the hundreds of thousands of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are strong and resilient.
Scott Hookey was flown to Germany and then to San Diego. He spent the following months weaning himself off morphine, healing from his wounds and skin grafts, and learning how to walk again. By the time Lima Company made it back to the USA in May 2007, he greeted us on the Parade Field in 29 Palms, California, with a smile, a beer belly, and a stiff limp, aided by a cane. Scott Hookey, the bravest man I have ever met, rehabilitated himself, pushed himself back into Marine Corps deployment shape, and then – instead of taking the perfectly deserved and honorable option of medically retiring and going home – chose to rejoin the company, deploying with Lima again to Iraq in 2008. Courage under fire is a result of instinct, training, and survival. But Hookey’s slow, agonizing, deliberate courage is beyond comparison.
I am here to tell you that the hundreds of thousands of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are strong and resilient. Among our number at the reunion were medical students, high-school teachers, nurses, social workers, college students, entrepreneurs, loan officers, vineyard managers, oil-field workers, businessmen, truck drivers, fire fighters, gunsmiths, linemen, and a whole bunch of honorable police officers. These are not broken men. These are not helpless figures. These are America’s leaders. These men are Marines (and Navy corpsmen) who are built to adapt to and overcome any challenge or obstacle. They have not been destroyed by war; they were transformed by war.
Preparing for Luck Lima’s ten-year deployment reunion, we raised money to pay for the travel expenses and lodging of Doc Sare’s mother. We honored her sacrifice and strength among the brothers in arms of her fallen son. He was not alone: Among the other Marines who didn’t make it home from that deployment were Lance Corporal Adam Emul and Sergeant Nicholas Walsh. Third Battalion, Fourth Marines has lost dozens of Marines and sailors during its eight deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. May they rest in peace.
Remembering our fallen brothers ten years on is a sobering moment. Most of us were teenagers when we went to war. In the ten years since that deployment, I have lived life! I deployed two more times, I got out of the Marine Corps, I graduated college, I traveled, I worked, I played, I fell in love, I got married, I got a dog. I lived life. Our fallen brothers did not get those experiences, those memories, or those opportunities. They missed out on the last ten years. Their lives were snuffed out in their youth. We must never forget their sacrifice.
Semper Fidelis, Brothers. May Our Lives Honor Yours.
– Zack “Cookie” Wright was a sergeant in Lima Company, Third Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment and is a veteran of the Iraq War.