'92 returns to studies, reflects on Marine life

by Devin Foxall | 4/9/03 5:00am

For formerly active Marine Cpl. Harry Maldonado '92, the choice between Dartmouth and the world of Baghdad and Nasiriya is clear. If he had that choice, he'd pick the latter.

"I like being at Dartmouth, but to be honest, I'd rather be over there," said Maldonado, who is currently on campus finishing his studies. "I don't feel like this is my place right now. My heart is over there with those guys. If I could do anything, I'd be there in a second."

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Maldonado spoke bluntly about what Marines in Iraq are currently undergoing and what they will face on their return home.

Maldonado recalled asking a Vietnam veteran in 1993 at Camp Futenma, a military base in Okinawa, Japan, how he experienced life after the war. The Master Gunnery Sergeant, who had earned the Navy Cross -- the second-highest military award -- responded curtly.

"Don't talk to me, Lance Corporal, get the fuck out of my face," Maldonado remembers him saying.

Two weeks later, the older Marine apologized and sat down with Maldonado to explain that the events from two decades before still haunted him, infiltrating his sleep in the form of nightmares.

"These guys live with it everyday," said Maldonado. Honorably discharged in 1997, Maldonado remained involved with the Corps until 2000, after eight years of service. He has since kept in close contact with his fellow Marines.

"All those guys have to live with those residual emotions, and there's just no easy way to do it," said Maldonado. "So when they speak about it, you got to listen."

Maldonado, who left Dartmouth in 1991 due to financial concerns, has been in phone contact over the last few weeks with Marines currently serving in Iraq. His correspondence with them has illuminated humans driven by duty and a desire to end Saddam Hussein's regime, but also desperate for the war's bloodshed to be over and to return home.

The Marines -- and all those fighting -- are all too human, Maldonado emphasized, and each burst of violence may leave scars that they will have to live with when the adrenaline ebbs away.

For the Marines, the phone conversations with Maldonado serve as a conduit to a normal world. Mostly, they want to know "what's going on here," Maldonado said. "They want to know if they're being supported; they want to know if [Derek] Jeter is still hurt. You want to take your mind, for that brief moment, away from that situation ... They like to let off some steam, hear what the real world is like."

Their greatest desire is "just for it to be over quick," Maldonado said.

"Family and friends," Maldonado replied when asked what carried the Marines through the day. "The thought that after all this is over, there's a place to go home, and talk and experience normalcy. Because that's an abnormal world they're in ... You're in a situation where your life is in danger 24 hours a day, even by civilians forced to be terrorists."

Particularly distressing for the Marines has been Iraqi use of unconventional warfare. Media outlets have reported that Saddam Fedayeen paramilitaries have attempted to blend in with civilians, wearing non-military clothing while attacking coalition troops. Iraqi civilians, including a pregnant woman, have engaged in suicide attacks.

This type of warfare makes it hard to distinguish combatants from noncombatants, increasing the chance that a coalition fighter will kill a civilian, which is, Maldonado said, a tremendous "morale buster."

"When two women ignite a bomb and kill three soldiers at a checkpoint, the rules of engagement change. Now you have to point your weapon at the vehicle and tell them 'you need to get out' and if they don't respond you might have to destroy the vehicle. The question is, did they have weapons in the car, and if you find out that they don't ... that's a morale buster. You take that with you wherever you go for the rest of your life," Maldonado said.

But they can't let such events bog them down. Soon after difficult incidents, "you have orders to go on to somewhere else. And you have to do that," Maldonado said. "And that's what these guys do -- they move on."

Their greatest fears are, naturally, "that they're going to die, or their friends are dying and they can't help them," he said.

Maldonado experienced this when his executive officer, whom he regarded as "a father figure," was killed by a fellow Marine. "My hands were inside this individual trying to keep him alive and he's slowly dying," he said. "And when he dies you come to the realization: I've just lost a friend."

The attack occurred at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in San Diego, Calif. "It's even worse to lose a friend while in the civilian world, while stateside," Maldonado said. "The scars for that may be even greater. Because you're supposed to be safe while you're on the base, you're supposed to have that sense that nothing can happen to you. And when things like that occur, you live with them."

Returning Home

Each part of Marine training is designed to simulate combat, Maldonado explained. They must master shooting a point target at 550 meters without a scope to aid their aim, they must think as a group, be able to quickly don chemical protection suits and fight in an urban zone. Training extends to the unlikely scene of a mess hall, where, during the early stages of boot camp, a Marine carries his drinking cup tight to the body and with one hand placed on top -- a simulation of holding a grenade.

All of this prepares the Marine for surviving combat, but preparing them to live with the actual memories of combat can be a whole different issue. A new battle can follow Marines home if the "scars of combat" remain.

"Some are fine; others, no," Maldonado said of his fellow returning Marines.

"When things start to settle, you start to reflect. When you're at home, and you start remembering guys that didn't have any arms, got shot in the face -- all those things start to flood back into your memory. It hurts. It's not something that's easy to carry with you for the rest of your life," he said.

Maldonado said he hoped that the returning troops would receive "very good counseling." But he cautioned that many in the Marine Corps avoid the base psychiatrist because they believe that seeking this kind of help brands them as weak. They risk losing the reputation of being regarded as "Good to Go," which is the ultimate compliment for a Marine, Maldonado said. A more popular option is to visit the base chaplain.

"Some guys in the Marines say 'we're fine, we can deal with this; not a problem,' but sometimes there are problems," Maldonado said. For some, random events trigger memories of combat: a car speeding by becomes an enemy tank and in a moment they return to the battlefield.

Those at home will remember the war, of course, but primarily from a televised and relatively sanitized experience of it. For those in Iraq, Maldonado explained, the memories are being created from the rawest reality.

"People watching TV think that they're going through this with them. But it's not real," he said. "It's different when you have the texture, the feel of the earth, wearing MOPP gear [heavy airtight clothing designed to protect against chemical and biological attacks] in 110- degree weather -- those things no one can replicate."

Of course, there will be good memories for the troops, Maldonado emphasized. They will know that they liberated a nation of people and ended a torturous regime, Maldonado said. They will also carry with them "the camaraderie," forged by battle. And they will remember "fun moments," Maldonado said, reiterating that "they're not thinking of the funny moments right now; those are more reflective."

The best help for the returning troops may be the simplest. The most important thing to tell a returning serviceman or woman is "that they're loved and respected, above all," Maldonado said.