The day the Marines crossed into Iraq, Cpl. James Welter Jr. killed his first man. During his second combat tour, he earned a commendation for leadership skills and coolness under fire, but he brought a nightmare home. Now, with six weeks left in his third fighting tour, his goal is simple.
He hopes to survive.
Welter — Jimmy to his friends — is among about 150 veterans of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment here who have fought in Iraq three times since the war began in March 2003. Each trip, they have endured some of the harshest combat.
They were here for four months at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when they were at the tip of the invasion spear. In the summer of 2004, during a second tour that lasted 41/2 months, they fought in the streets of Fallujah after insurgents there killed four American contractors, burned and mutilated their bodies and strung two of the corpses from a bridge.
Now, for seven months this year, the Marines are here in Ramadi, the capital of the insurgency and a city thick with roadside bombs. Snipers lie in wait, and at the exits of U.S. military installations, huge warning signs, some inscribed with a skull and crossbones, read: “Complacency Kills!”
The battalion has lost more men in Ramadi than anywhere else: 12 Marines and a Navy corpsman killed in action. Their 13 portraits hang on a wall in battalion headquarters — a grim reminder of what awaits outside the gate.
The frequency with which troops are being sent back to combat is unprecedented in the all-volunteer U.S. military, which was created in 1973 after the draft ended. To boost morale, commanders draw comparisons to the sacrifices of Greatest Generation, those who fought for the duration of World War II. But that war is dust-covered history to those fighting here, and defense researchers concede that they do not yet know what back-to-back-to-back tours of duty will do to this military — or to those fighting.
“It’s an open question as to how much we can ask of them,” says James Hosek, a RAND Corp., specialist on military retention.
The Marines send troops to Iraq more frequently than the Army, but do so for shorter combat stints that don’t last longer than seven months. Three Marine battalions, including the one in which Welter serves, are now fighting for the third time; two more are preparing for third combat hitches. The Army deploys units for longer periods — usually 12 months — but less often. Some Army units are starting a second tour in Iraq this year.
Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the Army’s personnel division, says re-enlistments have held steady so far. “But we are keeping an eye on that,” he says.
Studies about Vietnam veterans are of little use because the nation had a larger, conscript military then and combat was typically limited to a single 12- or 13-month tour. Hosek testified before Congress last year that what limited data exist suggest a third tour could sour the troops and their families and hurt re-enlistments.
Interviews with two dozen Marines in Ramadi, their commanders, and friends and family back home reveal the cost in human terms. Like Jimmy Welter, some Marines in this unit enlisted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But that patriotic fervor now seems spent. And what the Marines have endured — Welter’s story is typical — speaks to the changes that come with war.
During their first tour, Welter and his unit were greeted as liberators. During the second, they fought a growing rebellion. Now, on the third, many say they are angry to be back, shaken by the loss of more friends and feeling old beyond their years.
“I’m 22 years old. It really feels like I’m 30,” Welter says. “I’ve seen more and done more things at 22 than most people have in 40 years.”
Evidence of victory is scant, those interviewed by the newspaper say. Some are stunned that, after all the sacrifices they and others have made, so many Iraqis now seem to hate them.
Their choice to serve has put them on the battlefield three times in three years. Now, many say they just want to go home.
A fiancée’s fears:’He’s pushing his luck’
Their commander, Lt. Col. Eric Smith, sees the wear and tear.
“This takes a mental toll on these guys,” says Smith, 40, of Plano, Texas, who was wounded in combat during a tour last year in another command position.
“I do know they get tired, and I do know they’ve changed,” Smith says. “I mean, their counterparts (back home) are running around getting pissed off because they were unable to register for Psych 303 and they have to start their senior year. These guys are running around worried about being supplied with .50-caliber ammo and not getting shot tomorrow.”
The man working to re-enlist them explains the hardships.
“They’ve done their war, and they’re done,” says Staff Sgt. William Beschman, the battalion retention officer. Unlike the Marine Corps as a whole, the battle-scarred 1st Battalion, 5th Marines will not meet its re-enlistment goal this year. The largest bonuses in Marine Corps history — a year’s salary, or about $20,000 tax-free if they sign up while in Iraq — got few takers. Of 287 first-term Marines in the battalion, just 50 are staying. The goal is 58.
And veterans of the battalion now have a look about them. In Vietnam, it was called the “thousand-yard stare”: a weariness devoid of emotion. Cpl. Mike Kelly, 23, wore it as officers award him a Navy commendation for valor at a battalion headquarters ceremony this month.
He’s heading home to Boston with hopes of opening a bar. His four-year enlistment — including three tours of duty in Iraq — is almost over. “I just want to live an easy life,” he says after the ceremony. “A normal job, nothing fancy. A working stiff. That’s my dream.”
So does Cpl. Richie Gunter. “I just want to go back to the way things are,” says Gunter, 30, who longs to trade Marine fatigues for a T-shirt and jeans and work on the family’stomato farm in Woodland, Calif.
Their loved ones suffer with them. Danielle “Dani” Thurlow of Coloma, Mich., has watched her fiancé, Marine Cpl. Ryan Kling, 22, grow colder and angrier with each tour. “He’s pushing his luck,” she says.
“I tell a lot of people: I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” says Thurlow, 19. “It’s very hard. It really is. You’re just looking toward the end. That’s all you want, is for it to be over.”
And Ken Frederking, 69, says he lives in fear that his oldest grandchild, Jimmy Welter, may never find his way home. “What this kid has gone through at his age, it’s incredible,” the grandfather says. “It just seems like he can’t escape.”
Keeping in touch with their families — through letters, e-mails and telephone calls — is essential to preserving morale, says Smith, the battalion commander.
“You’ve got to make sure to not let the Marines get mean,” he says. “You can’t let the guys go home without their humanity.”
Listening to Metallica’s’For Whom the Bell Tolls’
Ramadi, a city of 250,000 people along the Euphrates River, is the capital of volatile Anbar province, which includes Fallujah and stretches west to the borders of Jordan and Syria. The governor here is the third in as many months. The first one quit out of fear of reprisal for working with Americans. The second was assassinated.
Tips about insurgent activities in the city have been increasing, Lt. Col. Smith says. Still, the largely Sunni Arab population here seems either indifferent toward or outright supportive of the guerrillas. Barely a thousand people here participated in elections in January.
Clerics have routinely preached violence against Marines. Early this month, loudspeakers from the Saman Mosque in Ramadi blared: “My God: Victory to the enemy of America!”
Marines estimate that there are roughly 2,000 potential insurgent fighters here, rallied by a hard core of perhaps 150 full-time combatants skilled at sniping and roadside bomb ambushes. Suicide car bombers are also a threat.
“They kill us. We kill them,” Smith says grimly. He could easily use two more battalions of about 850 Marines each, he says.
With the assistance of two Army battalions operating on the city edge, the Marines have incrementally brought limited security to Ramadi. They do this by aggressively sending out daily and hazardous “presence” patrols, on foot or in armored vehicles. The official acronym for this work is Security and Stability Operations, or SASO.
Marines call it “SASO World” and see it as anything but secure. “SASO World is 10 times scarier than any offensive,” Jimmy Welter says. “In SASO World, like Ramadi, you don’t know where the enemy is at. He could be anywhere.”
Fair-skinned like his mother, with her eyes and slender frame, Welter wears a history of war across his body. After boot camp, he had the “USMC” tattoo inked into his right forearm; the brazen grim reaper across his right shoulder blade marks his first tour. For the second, a Celtic Cross is etched into his left shoulder and arm. And he plans a memorial to slain friends for his third: “Brothers in Arms, Even in Death,” down his ribcage.
He prepares for SASO World with his iPod, often to the beat and lyrics of Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The intensity and throbbing rhythm of the heavy metal music stiffen his resolve:
Make his fight on the hill in the early day
Constant chill deep inside
Shouting gun, on they run through the endless gray
On the fight, for they are right, yes, but who’s to say?
Each day, along the streets of Ramadi, their patrols in armored Humvees resemble Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a dark and nightmarish Disneyland amusement. A driver speeds and swerves to avoid debris that might hide roadside bombs.
Welter, from his perch in the front passenger seat, has imagined the worst, something catastrophic like that day in June when he lost five friends in a single explosion here: the floor buckling beneath him from the blast, the fireball from burning fuel, and then nothing. Eternity.
Take a look to the sky just before you die. It’s the last time you will
The thoughts leave him rubbing the cloth scapular hanging from the Timex on his left wrist. The Roman Catholic token promises Welter dispensation from hell’s eternal flames should he die this day.
War was nothing like this during his first tour.
First tour: ‘All of us thought we were done’
The fight in 2003 was simple, the enemy clear. Jimmy Welter could point at them — right there, across the berm from where the Marines of the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment were poised in Kuwait.
The war scrapbook in his mind lays out the images in sequence. The oil fires of the Ramallah fields lighting the night sky on the eve of the attack. The plea of his platoon commander, Lt. Therrel Childers, the first American casualty of the war, writhing from a mortal stomach wound: “It hurts. It hurts.” And the scarred, fly-covered face of the Iraqi soldier Welter shot that day. As Welter stood over him, the man pleaded for water before drawing his last breath.
It was all new then, and terrifying. But there was also clarity. It seemed like victory and the war made so much more sense.
Eighteen months before the invasion, Welter had watched the second passenger jet hit the World Trade Center. He saw it on television at Mount Carmel High School, in his working-class south Chicago neighborhood, the day he picked up his transcripts. He was still contemplating enrolling in college, but after seeing the carnage in New York, he chose the Marines instead.
“I wanted to do my fair share,” he says.
The invasion of Iraq gave him that chance. He could focus every ounce of the notorious Jimmy Welter temper, the willingness to reason with his fists, bloodying anybody he deemed a threat or a challenge. Always with something to prove, ever since he was 7 and his mother died from a heart attack at 31, her body weakened by multiple sclerosis.
“Just anybody could push his button,” says his father, James Welter Sr., 50, an ironworker who raised Jimmy and his younger brother, Joe. “He was one of those kids on the block nobody would mess with, even as skinny and scrawny as he was.”
That cockiness seemed to stay with Welter through boot camp — even through that first tour in Iraq, with its brutal opening day of combat and the furious eight-hour firefight as the battalion entered Baghdad weeks later.
It was during that battle that a rocket-propelled grenade hit the helmet of a Marine standing next to Welter as both stood in an armored personnel carrier. The Marine fell unconscious. The grenade was a dud.
Welter felt lucky after that. He and his Marine brethren had been baptized in war. Baghdad lay at their feet. Iraqis were rejoicing. Victory was sweet, or it seemed to be.
“It was a good time to be there,” he says of that first tour. “All of us thought we were done.”
Second tour:’I’m still not over it, Grandpa’
But as the battalion trained in Okinawa for urban warfare in early 2004, the Marines realized that more fighting awaited them in Iraq.
As in the first tour, the enemy was straight ahead of them. This time, it was in Fallujah. When Marines launched an offensive into the city in April 2004, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines was ordered in. Fighting was block by block.
In those blasted warrens where insurgents were dug in, Jimmy Welter says, he learned something about himself. The scrawny troublemaker from south Chicago, the boy who got bounced from St. Rita High School for bad behavior, suddenly discovered he was cool-headed and canny under fire. In a place where machine gun and mortar rounds blistered the pavement all around his advancing squad, Welter and other veterans of the 2003 invasion calmly directed fire and positioned troops.
At one point in the Fallujah battle, Welter moved to the center of a street, in plain sight of an enemy position, to fire his grenade launcher. The first round fell short. But he could gauge the deficit — “you got to kind of Kentucky-windage it,” is the way he explains his technique — and the next shot landed squarely amid insurgents clustered on a rooftop. Then Welter dropped another neatly into a treeline where more enemy fighters were crouched. Then silence.
“Welter showed fierce aggressiveness and leadership beyond his pay grade,” reads the Marine Corps Certificate of Commendation he later received. He “kept his bearing and effectively employed his team while also laying devastating fire on the enemy’s position with his M203 grenade launcher,” the commendation says.
Welter’s steadiness amazed Lance Cpl. Jim Cullen, who was then on his first tour. “I was kind of like in awe of him,” says Cullen, 21, of Rochester, N.Y. “They just had this confidence,” he says of the unit’s veterans, a “pride of knowing that when they came in, they freed the country.”
The fighting in Fallujah lasted weeks. And when his second tour ended and Welter returned to south Chicago, the chip on his shoulder was gone. He carried himself with the same assurance he had demonstrated in the streets of Fallujah. Everyone could see it. Not once did he and his brother fight.
But his family noticed something else: a nervous anxiety.
And the nightmares began. In them, he is defending a bunker, firing madly at insurgents who come in wave after wave. Killing the other Marines. Leaving Welter alone. Not until the attackers are on top of him does he wake up.
When his grandfather asked him what was wrong, Welter’s answer was simple: “I’m still not over it, Grandpa.”
Third tour: A close call and headaches
Along a street in Ramadi this year, a bomb exploded near Welter’s Humvee.
If timed right, such an explosion can torch the Humvee’s fuel tank from below and incinerate Marines inside. Since the battalion arrived in March, insurgents in Ramadi have detonated 175 roadside bombs. Ten Marines have been killed.
“As soon as you leave the gate, it’s game on,” says Marine Capt. Kelsey “Kelly” Thompson, 36, of Shallowater, Texas. He commands Alpha Company, the unit in which Welter serves. The company has suffered more casualties than any other in the battalion.
“I don’t think the Battle of Ramadi can ever be won,” Thompson says. “I just think the Battle of Ramadi has to be fought every day.”
Marine Reserve Maj. Benjamin Busch, an actor in civilian life who plays Detective Anthony Colicchio on the HBO series The Wire, agrees: “We’re going to be continually hunted here until we leave.”
Welter was lucky when the bomb went off that day in June.
The shock wave funneled down the gun turret in the roof of the Humvee and blew open the armored doors. With two tires flattened, the Humvee rolled to a stop. Welter will never forget the pressure of the blast, the deafening sound and then the blackness, the ringing in his ears and the throbbing in his head.
The Metallica song speaks to it: Blackened roar, massive roar fills the crumbling sky.
Sitting in the front seat, dripping with fetid black ooze thrown up from the Ramadi street, Welter checked to see if his body was intact. Then he turned to Cullen, who was behind the wheel. The two had grown close during Fallujah and now were best friends. Almost without thinking, they high-fived and burst into laughter. “We made it!” they shouted in unison. But Welter’s headaches persisted.
Military medical researchers fear that repeated exposure to these blasts and their concussive effects can cause brain damage. So far, the battalion surgeon has sent at least three Marines home with chronic, persistent cognitive problems stemming from roadside blasts.
Armor was no protection days later when five Marines from Welter’s platoon — including a close friend, Cpl. Tyler Trovillion, 23, of Richardson, Texas — died in a roadside blast that demolished their Humvee. The deaths June 15 left Welter and his comrades shaken. Some didn’t want to go on patrol.
But after heart-to-heart talks with the chaplain, they were back on the streets in six hours.
Erin Dillon, 21, a waitress and college student who has been dating Welter since he came home from his second tour, says she noticed a real difference in his voice during the phone call he made after Trovillion’s death.
“After the whole time of being there, he was starting to be a little scared,” she says. “I think maybe he feels his luck is starting to run out, just because he’s seen so much and there’s so little time left.”
Just weeks remain before the battalion finishes its tour in Ramadi and goes home in September. And while on guard duty at the provincial government center, Welter talks about dying.
The government center is an impregnable fortress with bunkers and watch towers that provide interlocking fields of fire for the Marines who guard it. When armed motorcades arrive at the entrance, Marines toss flash-bang grenades to clear the crowd.
Insurgents fire rockets or mortars into the area, or pepper watch towers with rifle fire while dropping off roadside bombs in rice sacks at intersections nearby, hoping to blast some unlucky Marine patrol. The place feels like it’s under perpetual siege.
Alpha Company provides security, and platoons alternate four-day shifts here. It is a break from the risky patrols, and it offers time to reflect. On a moonless night, in the blackness of a watch tower, Welter says that if he survives this tour, his duty to the nation is done.
“Three deployments is my hit,” he says. “And $20,000 isn’t enough for me to come back here again.”
Police work in Chicago might be in his future, though he says he may be tired of guns. Welter loves to cook almost anything. Omelets and barbecue are his specialty; perhaps culinary school and a career as a chef?
Talk winds back to the war, and Jimmy Welter echoes a common refrain of third-timers: If death happens, it happens. And the sooner you accept that you are as good as dead, the better you will fight — and the more likely you are to save your sanity.
It is a fatalism echoed by the lyrics of Metallica:
Suffered wounds test their pride
Men of five, still alive through the raging glow
Gone insane from the pain that they surely know
“Everybody’s got that feeling.” Welter pauses in the darkness. “But they don’t really believe it. It’s just something they say.”