As his new bride, Amanda, and her friends chuckle at stories over dinner, Jack Self stares in silence. He doesn’t laugh much anymore.
Jack has spent half of the last two years patrolling the cities of Iraq, dodging sniper fire and roadside bombs, and watching friends die. The 26-year-old Marine corporal no longer sees the humor in everyday life.
“You forget how to have fun,’ he said softly, when I saw him for the first time since we shared a Humvee during the invasion of Iraq two years ago.
With bullets whistling overhead and rocket-propelled grenades exploding nearby, Self and I quickly bonded amid the chaos of war.
We were confused together and nervous together. I watched quietly as he fired grenade after grenade from his MK-19 machine gun. He once exploded in anger at me, but really at himself, over one deadly trigger pull he has never forgotten.
Listening to Self now, in a different Humvee at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, it quickly becomes clear that the invasion we thought was chaotic and dangerous was nothing compared with what was to come.
That first deployment Self now calls “Disneyland.’ His second stint in Iraq, fighting the deadly, amorphous Sunni insurgency, that was “Vietnam.’
His days last summer were filled with mines and rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and bombs, snipers who worked with deadly accuracy.
Enemy fire thumped the windshield of his armored Humvee on one day, his door on another. He returned from a patrol to find his bulletproof vest pocked with shrapnel. The front of his vehicle crumpled when it ran over a mine.
Other than fellow Marines, he had no idea whom he could trust. So he trusted no one. Local Iraqi officials were corrupt, poorly trained and under constant threat from the insurgents. Any civilian could be an insurgent waiting to strike. Maybe the man who sold him ice every morning would attack.
“You give them the benefit of the doubt and they kill you,’ he said.
Officially, the mission was to stabilize the country, help train Iraqi troops and lay the groundwork for democracy.
“My mission,’ Self said, “was to keep my guys alive, and kill them before they got us.’
Self knows he’s changed, but it is hard to tell how. He only really sees himself reflected in the mirror of Amanda’s eyes. She tells him he is more serious than he used to be, perhaps more aggressive.
He sees it too, in comrades from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. Some can’t sleep. Some use alcohol to numb themselves. Others try counseling.
Self spoke informally to an acquaintance who was a counselor for the Army, and found that helpful. But he said, “You can’t talk about it to someone who hasn’t been over there. You’re always explaining yourself.’
He has tried to shield Amanda from the details, but has not always succeeded.
And he and his fellow Marines have to confront yet another trial.
The 3/7 is heading back to Iraq.
Beneath the tough exterior
When I first climbed into his Humvee in the Iraqi desert two years ago, a few days into the invasion, Self adopted his most intimidating pose. The 6-foot-2-inch former college linebacker reveled in the image of the tough-guy Marine.
As a gunner in 3/7’s Weapons Company, he spoke of his willingness to use overwhelming force. He prided himself on his restraint in shooting, but once he decided to pull the trigger he wouldn’t let go until his target was obliterated.
But Self was far more complex than his image. Weeks of long conversations during the lulls of war revealed a sensitive and thoughtful man, who, while never wavering from his mission, was deeply reflective about the violence around him.
Perhaps it was partly his age. Unlike comrades who enlisted out of high school, Self joined the Marines at 23. He had already spent three years in college and had worked before deciding to enlist, “to do something that I could look back on and be proud of,’ he said.
As the Marine column moved north toward Baghdad, he quickly warmed to the Iraqis he met. Many were farmers and reminded the self-described “farm boy’ of the people he knew back home in Arkansas. He wondered what he would do if columns of foreign tanks and infantry rolled through his hometown of Bentonville.
He played with Iraqi kids, when most other Marines pushed them away, and he befriended people in the Baghdad neighborhoods he patrolled, even giving gasoline to a family to power its generator.
While some Marines denigrated Iraqis as “Hajjis,’ a word meaning pilgrims which they turned into an epithet, Self still talks about the most beautiful woman he ever saw, an Iraqi he glimpsed walking shyly on the side of the road to Baghdad.
The deaths of civilians gnawed at Self’s conscience, yet he insisted he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot into a crowded schoolyard if an enemy was firing at him from there. The contradictory feelings collided on April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell.
As the Marines lined up on the side of a major road preparing for a final push into the city, they waved civilian cars off the road, far from their column. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby, and the Marines were on alert for a potential attack.
One car, Self says it is a red sedan, I remember it as white, did not stop.
Marines frantically waved it back, but it glided past a line of civilian cars that had already heeded the Marines’ warning. The Marines screamed for it to stop. Now dangerously close, it flashed its headlights and continued.
Self, perched behind his gun on top of the Humvee, squeezed the trigger. Seven grenades tore through the car’s windshield, and the vehicle exploded in flames.
The Marines watched in silence, waiting for the fire to detonate any explosives or ammunition inside the car. Nothing, not even the sound of bullets cooking off, interrupted the faint notes of Johnny Cash’s “Live From Folsom Prison’ playing on the speakers in Self’s turret.
The three people in the car were almost definitely civilians, and they were dead.
Still behind the gun, Self looked down at me, standing in the road, and let out an angry, defensive yell: “Yeah, I’m a monster!’
That night, after the Marines took up positions in Baghdad not far from where the statue of Saddam was pulled down, Self was faced with another driver racing toward him. This time it was a motorcyclist heading toward a makeshift Marine checkpoint.
The rider stopped just a few feet away when the Marines raised their rifles. They yelled at him to turn around. But he was paralyzed in fear and confusion. Their yells grew angrier and more desperate and an instant before they seemed ready to shoot, Self pulled out his pistol and fired into the pavement in front of the bike. The man yelped, spun around and drove off.
“I knew if I didn’t get rid of him, he was going to get killed,’ Self later said. “I just had a feeling that he wasn’t a threat.’
An hour later, a ramshackle truck rolled up. But the vehicle was not stopping fast enough, and a Marine lifted his rifle and took aim. Self looked at the Marine and at the frightened driver and yelled: “He’s pumping his brakes.’ Again, no shot was fired.
In a calmer moment, Self tied the shooting that morning to his actions that night.
“If I don’t have to kill another man, that’s fine with me,’ he said.
But he did kill again. And he is still haunted by the image of the burning sedan, and the thought of the other victims of his gun. Dozens, scores, maybe more, he’s not really sure.
“That’s something I think about: If I’ll see the faces of every person I killed.’
He even worries he’ll be haunted by those whose faces he never saw.
War follows home
Back home now, the Marines of the 3/7 carry the scars of war.
One terrified his wife when he swerved across lanes of highway traffic to avoid a bag of garbage, fearing it was a roadside bomb.
Another told of grabbing his girlfriend and running for cover at the crackle of fireworks after a college football game and of checking the rooms of her house for guerrillas when he woke to use the bathroom in the night.
Self, in a sleepy daze, leapt out of bed when he mistook the red light on a hotel smoke detector for a tracer round. Amanda told him he coordinates troop movements and calls out grid positions in his sleep.
The first time he returned to an American shopping mall, he was unnerved by the wide open spaces and by the numerous places snipers could hide. He wanted to back into a corner. “You don’t have security to your rear, to your flanks,’ he said.
He turned and hurried out.
Two different wars
Self speaks fondly of his first Iraq deployment in the spring of 2003, after I left his unit and before the insurgency exploded.
The Marines policed the placid streets of the Shiite holy city of Karbala, removing the doors from their Humvees and putting away their bulletproof vests and helmets.
They worked as a team with local Iraqis, who reported weapons caches and gave them other intelligence.
In return, the Marines built a playground, held a children’s day and gave away soccer balls. Self smiled as he talked of pushing a child on a swing and of the cash-strapped newlywed couple he befriended and gave $50 a week.
“It was awesome,’ he said.
After the 3/7 moved to Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, the men encountered their first makeshift roadside bomb and were occasionally targeted by rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire. Still, the level of violence remained relatively low through September 2003, when they went home.
Self was especially excited to return to the states. He had met Amanda in a sort of blind phone date arranged by a fellow Marine when he was in Iraq. Soon after he got home, they began seriously dating and he spent much of his free time driving from Twentynine Palms to idyllic weekends at Amanda’s home in Austin, Texas.
The idyll ended in February 2004, when he returned to Iraq.
The Marines of the 3/7 talk of their two deployments as if they were two different wars. The first was a mission of liberation.
The second was an apocalyptic nightmare.
By the end of the first deployment, including the invasion, the battalion lost two men. In the second, it lost 18.
The Marines were sent to Anbar Province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency.
On their first patrol, near the Syrian border, a roadside bomb intended for the troops killed two Iraqi children instead, Self said.
“Every single day this time we encountered something,’ he said. “The longer we were there, the worse it was getting.’
The bombs quickly grew more elaborate. Soon they were being detonated by remote control, making it nearly impossible to find the attackers. Iraqis were burying land mines upside down so small civilian cars wouldn’t trigger them but heavy military vehicles would.
The bombers were joined by snipers, and their weapons supply was continually replenished by allies in Syria, who stuffed rockets and explosives into styrofoam-filled garbage bags and floated them down the Euphrates River into Iraq, Self said.
Local Iraqis were no longer interested in helping the Marines.
“Everybody just sits there and looks at you like, ‘If I had a gun, I’d kill you,” Self said.
The violence could come from anywhere at anytime. In many battles, Self only saw the shadows of the men he was shooting at. His unit began clasping hands, bowing their heads and praying before each patrol.
“There’s no safe spot over there. None,’ he said.
Killing had become far less of a concern for Self than being killed.
He saw nine comrades killed. Many others were badly injured.
“I don’t know what’s worse, a guy that’s dead or a guy with his arm and half his face blown off. He’s only got one eye and he’s crying out of his one eye and he’s patting his arm looking for it,’ he said.
At first, Self was reluctant to talk of his friends’ deaths. In time, the stories poured out.
One Marine was laying concertina wire when he suddenly fell over dead. A single sniper’s bullet had pierced his heart.
Another jumped on a grenade and covered it with his helmet, sacrificing his life to save his friends.
Once, a Marine was shot and vomiting. The medic couldn’t bring himself to do CPR, so Self did. The Marine died anyway. “I can still smell it. I can still see his eyes and know he’s dead,’ he said.
One morning Self and his radio operator were playing cards. Hours later his spades partner was dead.
On a mission searching for bombs, Self’s vehicle cruised past an elaborate explosive device: two rockets hidden in a roadside pile of garbage. As the next Humvee passed, the rockets were remotely launched into it, tearing through a group of Marines sitting in the back.
Self and a medic sprinted to help and found the vehicle, which had been filled with their friends, soaked with blood and carnage. Three Marines died.
“That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,’ Self said.
Some Marines reacted to their buddies’ deaths by wanting to kill everybody, Self said. Others froze up.
As a leader in his platoon, Self felt he had to remain calm for his men, but sometimes he wanted to break down, too. One day when a friend was killed, he went behind his Humvee and let himself lose control for a moment.
Then, he said, “I dried my eyes, wiped my nose and went back to work.’ One more nightmare
At a shooting range at the base in Twentynine Palms, Self found himself navigating the parallel paths of his future, planning his new life with Amanda and preparing for a third deployment in Iraq.
He gruffly led new recruits through live-fire drills, teaching them how to clear buildings in urban areas, shoot insurgents, “two to the chest, one to the head,’ and fire heavy machine guns from moving vehicles. He yelled with impatience at times and erupted in fury when one new Marine broke a crucial safety rule, shooting his rifle too close to his comrade.
In stolen moments, Self made last-minute preparations for his April 23 wedding, sneaking behind a Humvee when Amanda called on his cell phone to talk about flowers and invitations. He slapped his head in mock anger when she sent him text messages from Texas telling him how much she just spent on her diamond-encrusted wedding ring.
He was a little nervous about the merger of his two worlds. Amanda has never really seen Self as the Marine now nicknamed “Beast,’ and he was worried about her reaction when she moved to the base.
He was concerned about life after the war, the effects the violence has already had on him and the hidden scars.
But he and the Marines were also focused on their next assignment.
They had been thrilled to hear they would be sent to Afghanistan, which appeared relatively safe, but those plans changed.
Now they wondered what new dangers await them in Iraq.
During the Iraq invasion, Self was cavalier about his mortality. He talked about wanting to get shot, just to see how it felt. He even talked about getting killed.
“I have a father and brother back home and a mother and sister in heaven. It doesn’t matter to me who I see,’ he said with a bravado I didn’t really believe.
Now Self has Amanda and his dreams of their future together. He has already sent out applications to fire departments in Texas, looking for a job for after he leaves the Marines early next year.
He just has one more nightmare to confront first. The 3/7 is scheduled to return to Iraq in September.