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Marine Battles the Scars of War

June 05, 2005|Ravi Nessman | Associated Press Writer

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — An Associated Press reporter who was embedded with Marines during the invasion of Baghdad reconnected with the same unit for this report.

*

As his new bride, Amanda, and her friends chuckle at stories over dinner, Jack Self stares in silence. He doesn't laugh much anymore.

He 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, Jack and I quickly bonded then amid the chaos of war.

We were confused together and nervous together. I watched as he fired grenade after grenade from his Mark 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 Jack now, in a different Humvee at a Marine base in California's Mojave desert, it quickly becomes clear that the invasion we thought was chaotic and dangerous was nothing compared to what was to come.

That first deployment Jack now calls "Disneyland." His second stint in Iraq, fighting the deadly, amorphous Sunni insurgency -- that was "Vietnam."

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.

Officially, the mission of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines was to help stabilize the country, train Iraqi troops and lay the groundwork for democracy.

"My mission," Jack said, "was to keep my guys alive, and kill [the enemy] before they got us."

Jack knows he has changed, but it is hard to tell how. Amanda tells him he is more serious than he used to be, perhaps more aggressive.

He has tried to shield her from details of his experience, but now another trial looms.

The 3/7 Marines are heading back to Iraq.

*

When I first climbed into his Humvee in the Iraqi desert two years ago, a few days into the invasion, Jack 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 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 Jack was far more complex than his image. He showed himself a sensitive and complex man, who, although never wavering from his mission, was deeply reflective about the violence around him.

As the Marine column moved north toward Baghdad, he warmed to the Iraqis he met. Many were farmers, reminding the self-described "farm boy" of the people he knew back home in Arkansas.

His empathy and sense of mission 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. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby, and the Marines were on alert.

One car did not stop.

The Marines frantically waved it back, but it glided past a line of civilian cars that had heeded the warning. The Marines screamed for it to stop. Now dangerously close, the car flashed its headlights and continued.

Jack, perched behind his gun on top of the Humvee, squeezed the trigger. Seven grenades tore through the windshield, and the car exploded in flames.

The Marines watched in silence, waiting for the fire to detonate any explosives or ammunition inside the car. Nothing happened.

The three people in the car were almost definitely civilians. And they were dead.

Still behind the gun, Jack looked down at me and let out an angry, defensive yell: "Yeah, I'm a monster!"

That night, after the Marines took up positions in Baghdad, Jack was faced with another driver racing toward him -- a motorcyclist approaching 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. An instant before the Marines seemed ready to shoot, Jack 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," Jack said later.

An hour afterward, a ramshackle truck rolled up, not stopping fast enough. A Marine lifted his rifle and took aim. Jack looked at the Marine and at the frightened driver and yelled: "He's pumping his brakes." Again, no shot was fired.

"If I don't have to kill another man, that's fine with me," Jack said later.

But he did kill again. He is still haunted by the image of the burning sedan, and the thought of the other victims of his gun.

"That's something I think about: If I'll see the faces of every person I killed," he said.

*

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