Tours of Duty
Barbara Mujica June 1, 2009 - 9:50am
We were just sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. Our daughters and their husbands and children chattered nervously, trying to distract me and my husband from thoughts of the one family member who was missing. Our son Mauro had left for Iraq seven months earlier. He was due home soon, but we hadn’t heard from him for weeks, and we were nervous. Newspaper stories abounded describing last-minute tragedies—soldiers wounded or killed by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) days before they were scheduled for redeployment. Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me: “Hi, Mom. I’m home.”
Mauro had traveled over a hundred hours from Iraq to Washington, D.C., in order to give us the most wonderful Thanksgiving surprise imaginable. The trip had taken him from Ramadi to Kuwait, Germany, South Carolina, and his base in California. From there he had turned around and flown back across the country.
Mauro had wanted to be a Marine since he was a little boy. He had gone to a Jesuit high school and to Georgetown University. He thought that serving in the military would enable him to follow in the Jesuit tradition of being “a man for others.”
After 9/11, Mauro was ready to drop everything and rush into battle. He could see the rubble of the Pentagon from the roof of his dorm. Fortunately, the Marines thought he should finish his education first.
When the United States invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, my son and I supported the action. The Bush administration reported probable connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, and suggested that Saddam had given refuge to other terrorist organizations. Reputable sources like Colin Powell warned that Saddam was producing weapons of mass destruction that could land in the hands of terrorists. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured the public that the coming war would be short. “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he said on Infinity Radio. To be honest, in March 2003 I was anxious for the invasion to start. I wanted to get it over with before Mauro got out of school. On May 24, 2004, the day before his graduation, Mauro was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
The war, of course, was still going on. “How could you let him join the Marines?” friends asked me, as if I hadn’t tried to discourage him.
As the president’s justifications for going to war started to unravel, I kept my rage to myself. How could I admit that I was conflicted about this enterprise when my son was heading for Iraq? I wanted to be strong and supportive. As one Army mother told me, “You reach a point when you can no longer dwell on the politics of it. All you want is for your kid to come home safe.”
After boot camp at Quantico, Mauro left for desert training in California. The young man who was to be his roommate came by the house to help him move. Almar Fitzgerald—they called him “Fitz”—struck me as the consummate officer: intelligent, competent, and courteous. He was a handsome young black man, very solid-looking, with a steady gaze and a soft voice. I remember being proud that my son had chosen such nice friends.
Mauro left for Iraq that summer. He was excited and full of bravado. There was talk of kicking ass and a lot of loud music, the kind that gets young men pumped up. He was to be stationed in Ramadi, in the heart of what Americans have come to call the Sunni Triangle, where he would command a platoon of forty-six men. He called me soon after he arrived. “It’s beautiful here,” he said. “Full of color! By the way, send cat food, and don’t ask questions.”
He had adopted two sets of kittens. “Should I send cat litter too?” I asked.
“No, Mom,” he laughed. “The whole country is a sandbox!”
But within weeks the banter about kittens ceased. The e-mails became irregular and cryptic. “You won’t hear from me for a few days. I’m busy.” He was transferred to another base, but didn’t tell me that he was to replace a commander who had been badly wounded. The news in the papers was horrifying. As the casualties mounted, I became addicted to the news, reading three newspapers a day and surfing the Internet for reports on Iraq. Whenever something happened in his area, I’d dash off a frantic message: “Just send word that you’re OK.” In a few days the answer would come: “I’m OK. Stop reading the papers.” Whenever I heard of a Marine dying in another area, I’d feel horror, then relief that it wasn’t Mauro, and finally guilt over my relief. Somewhere, I knew, a mother and father were weeping. I kept a backward calendar: 280 days until he’s scheduled to come back, 279, 278.... Of course, we didn’t have an exact return date, so it was only an estimate.
I rarely slept, and when I did, I had nightmares. I prayed a lot. I became obsessive about calculating survival rates: about a half million have served and 3,000, 3,040, 3,080... have been killed. The chances of Mauro making it back are good, I told myself. But Anbar Province, the stronghold of Sunni resistance to the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government, was a dangerous place, and, anyway, percentages don’t matter if it’s your kid who’s wounded or killed.
Mauro didn’t tell me when Fitz died in an IED explosion. I read it in the newspaper. He was just Mauro’s age: twenty-three. I cried constantly for four months. I wanted to contact Fitz’s mother to offer my condolences, but when I asked my son for the address, he kept putting me off. I knew he had it because when he returned to their shared apartment after completing his tour, he had to gather up his friend’s belongings and send them back to Fitz’s family. Finally, I stopped asking. I realized that this was his grief, and he wanted to deal with it in his own way. He didn’t want me involved. I know it affected him deeply, though. He wore a bracelet with Fitz’s name on it for a year.
In Washington, the newspapers ran stories about the Bush girls—what clubs they went to and with whom, what they wore, what they ate. It was a cruel reminder that most of the politicians who were sending our kids to war were making no equivalent sacrifices. Later, when the Bushes were planning Jenna’s spectacular wedding, all I could think about were the thousands of military families who had had to plan funerals.
After Mauro returned from his first tour, he said very little. It was clear from his clipped responses to my questions that he didn’t want to talk. Out of some eight hundred men in his battalion, fourteen died. In a single attack on Mauro’s platoon, one Marine was killed and six others lost legs. Mauro went to Walter Reed Hospital to visit those who had been maimed. I found out from newspapers and other sources that he had saved the life of a journalist, pulled two Marines out of a burning vehicle, and dismantled an IED. I’m glad I didn’t know about these events while they were happening. Hearing about my son’s heroic deeds did not put my mind at ease. I knew he was going back. More disturbing still, he wanted to go back. “You have to fix what you break,” he told me. “The only reason for invading a sovereign nation is to leave it in better shape than you found it.”
I found him changed. He had lost his bravado. His commitment hadn’t faltered: in order to make sense of sacrifices like Fitz’s, the country had to forge ahead. But he thought we were going about it in the wrong way. When he talked, which was rarely, it was about the need to confront the root causes of the insurgency and the need for economic development. “It’s a war that can’t be won solely with weapons,” he said. Once back on base in California, Mauro studied Arabic and read extensively on the Middle East and Islam.
One distinctive feature of the Marine Corps’ modus operandi is the “debrief,” a post-action discussion in which all participants, including junior officers and enlisted men and women, evaluate a recently completed operation. The practice of welcoming input from all members of the unit results not only in increased camaraderie but also in a more efficient fighting force, as good ideas from any source are taken seriously. Although Mauro met with skepticism at first, he was able to convince his superiors to divide his platoon into units of ten, each of which would be embedded in an Iraqi detachment rather than operating from a U.S. base. By living and working closely with Iraqis, he believed, the Marines would be able to foster a healthier relationship with the people. This might facilitate some new economic development projects that would help to stabilize conflicted areas by giving people a vested interest in keeping things calm. The men formed a plan, and open-minded, supportive superiors helped turn it into reality.
When Mauro returned to Iraq in April 2007, he expected to find Ramadi violent and chaotic, as he had left it. Instead, thanks in part to the “surge” and the Sunni Awakening Councils, the area was relatively quiet. Mauro was assigned to a police station in the Thaylat district, where, as the U.S. commander, he managed a base of ten Marines and between two hundred and three hundred Iraqis.
“The Sunni sheiks had a change of heart,” Mauro told me. “They began to realize that they had more to gain by working with us than with Al Qaeda, with its constant diet of intimidation and killing.” Of course, the surge entailed certain moral ambiguities: many insurgents cooperated with the Americans because the U.S. military put them on the payroll. Yet it did help to quell the violence in Thaylat and make possible the kinds of projects the platoon hoped to pursue.
At first, the Marines were confronted with widespread distrust. Many inhabitants of Ramadi had lost relatives in the violence. People averted their eyes and walked on when they met U.S. soldiers. The streets were empty and garbage-strewn, and the souk, or marketplace, was moribund.
Mauro began by encouraging his men to build relationships with Iraqis. That meant getting used to new customs. Mauro set the example by eating with Iraqis, seated on the floor and scooping up food with his hands from a common dish. He fasted for Ramadan and broke the fast each night with a different family. He bought livestock to be sent to the mosque to feed the poor. He observed that Iraqi men hug and kiss each other. Sometimes they hold hands, and close friends might even touch each other’s thighs during an animated conversation. These gestures contain no sexual innuendo, but they made the Americans uncomfortable. “As guests in their country, we just had to get used to it,” Mauro explained.
In order to stimulate economic activity, Mauro directed the men to buy all their supplies in the souk. As they saw Americans circulating freely in the marketplace, local people began to assume that security had improved. Little by little they ventured out to the stalls. By the time the platoon left, its biggest challenges at the marketplace had become traffic and parking.
Mauro tells about a neighborhood tailor who didn’t care much for Americans. One day Mauro stopped by his shop and ordered a suit. The tailor made a nice-looking, well-cut garment out of fine English wool. Other Marines started ordering suits, and before long the tailor was showing up regularly at the big American base with bolts of fabric in hand. His attitude toward Americans was changing. “What most Iraqis really want is to work and become self-sufficient,” explained Mauro. “By giving this tailor the opportunity to use his skills and sell a product, we helped to restore his sense of self-worth. And we got some nice suits!”
One of Mauro’s most frightening stories concerns a barber who refused to deal with the Americans. “I kept going back to his shop and asking for a shave and a haircut, but he always refused,” Mauro told me. One day Mauro just sat down in the chair. “Now, you have to realize that Iraqi barbers use a straight razor,” Mauro explained, “so I was taking a calculated risk.” But it paid off. After that, the attitude of the barber softened and he started cutting the hair of many of the Marines. Mauro is convinced that these small actions produced important changes. “In Iraq, news travels by word of mouth. The tailor and the barber tell their friends that the Americans aren’t so bad after all. Every day I saw signs of friendship and bonding.”
One day when Mauro was patrolling, he met a man named Yahia, who was a sculptor. During the long and oppressive reign of Saddam Hussein, Yahia had become so distressed that he stopped sculpting and became a carpenter. “He felt that he just couldn’t create beautiful objects anymore,” Mauro told me. One day Mauro asked Yahia to carve a battalion seal for the commander, Colonel Turner; the men wanted to present it to him as a gift before he left Ramadi. “I gave Yahia a small, post-card-sized picture of our emblem, expecting him to carve a rough likeness into a little piece of wood,” laughed Mauro. “I gasped when I saw the finished product. It was a work of art-a gorgeous emblem as large as a tabletop on stained wood.” From then on Yahia visited the base daily, and soon he was sculpting again. “He’s the best human being I know,” said Mauro. “He’s pure goodness.”
I had no idea what the platoon was doing during this period, as the scarcity of computers on base made e-mailing almost impossible. I assumed the platoon was still involved in combat. I was amazed when someone sent me a video that showed my son patrolling streets, greeting neighbors in Arabic, hugging men, and laughing with children.
Although he doesn’t underestimate the dangers that still beset Iraq, Mauro believes that the vast majority of Iraqis yearn for peace and just want to lead normal lives. He does not see sectarian violence as inevitable. In many communities, he insists, Sunnis and Shiites do live together. When the fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr subjugated areas of Baghdad, many moderate Shiites fled to Ramadi, where Sunnis helped them resettle. “When Iraq won the Asia Cup, we all watched it on TV and cheered!” Mauro told me. “The victory didn’t belong to the Sunnis or the Shia. It was an Iraqi victory. The teams were integrated. At that moment, there was a real sense of national unity.”
In order to make Thaylat more livable, the Marines cleaned up the streets and initiated reconstruction projects. They fixed sewers and water pipes. Then they began to work with Iraqis to rebuild the area. Schools had been closed because of the violence. Marines and Iraqis refurbished the buildings, replacing broken windows and painting walls. “It was a joy to see little girls sitting in their new classrooms, each one with a colored headscarf, looking up at their teacher,” Mauro reported. “We wanted to win over the six-year-olds. Old people are set in their ways, but children grasp new ways. They aren’t bound by habit and convention. Slowly, the adults also come to see what a new Iraq can look like. That’s why the reconstruction projects were so important.”
The Al-Anbar hospital in Ramadi had also been devastated. Equipment was missing or broken, and funds had been squandered. Many doctors had fled to Syria. Patients were routinely turned away without explanation and the remaining doctors worked only from nine to five. The hospital director had no administrative training and constantly threatened to quit. Mauro began paying visits to patients, often late at night, to hear their concerns. He also met with department heads and physicians, encouraging them to communicate with each other. Eventually new rules were established. Patients could no longer be denied services without justification. Doctors accepted shifts so that one of them would always be on duty, day or night. New medicines and equipment were supplied by the Americans.
These activities helped the Americans earn the respect of the local inhabitants and created a sense of security. Little by little, signs of hope appeared. People started restoring their houses. “They never did that during our first tour,” Mauro noted, “because bombs were going off all the time.” As the Marines earned their trust, Ramadi’s citizens began reporting suspicious activity and weapons caches to them.
Mauro saw the exclusion of women from the political and economic life of the city as a moral issue as well as a security risk. The role of women was a delicate matter, however, because Mauro wanted to show sensitivity toward Islamic customs. As base commander, he ran the city council meetings and suggested a woman be present at all of them. Once he got to know the town elders fairly well, they were willing to comply. “The women brought a special perspective,” Mauro explained. Now that the area was stable, they wanted to be able to go out with their children. The Marines responded by building a park with the help of donations from the people of Thaylat. The women also wanted public transportation, since they do not drive and taxis are expensive. So Mauro’s team helped put in a bus system.
Mauro credited two “sharp, tough civilians” with facilitating this work. Donna Carter, of the Department of Defense, worked with the women. John Gerlaugh, a counterterrorism expert and retired Marine, connected the platoon with influential people at the State Department. Both were members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team. One impressive project was a women’s union that facilitated microloans to help establish businesses. The women themselves started a daycare system and even a gym. “The change in them was visible,” said Mauro. “When I first arrived in Iraq, they were all wearing black burqas. By the time I left, they were still wearing burqas, but in colors—pink, green, turquoise. That shows a change in attitude.” The Iraqis indicated their appreciation by naming him an honorary sheik.
Looking back, Mauro is quick to point out that his experience in Iraq was limited to two seven-month tours in one small corner of the country. He is wary of making generalizations or predictions about the future. Not only is it not his place to do so, but it is too early to know whether the progress made in areas like Thaylat will have a lasting effect. This is not a war between nations that will end with surrender and a treaty.
Certainly, challenges remain. The spike in violence in April, when 371 Iraqis and 18 Americans were killed, is cause for grave concern. Attacks in Sadr City and the deaths of 80 Iranian pilgrims on their way to the Imam Musa al-Kadhim shrine, one of the holiest in Shiite Islam, could exacerbate sectarian conflict. On May 4, a U.S.-backed militia leader was arrested and charged with terrorism, showing that not all our Sunni allies are reliable. At Camp Ashraf, which holds more than three thousand members of the Iranian opposition group PMOI, Iraqi authorities are reportedly withholding fuel and medicine from the inhabitants, including women and children, despite protests from the European Parliament and Amnesty International. And tensions still exist between Arabs and Kurds in Kurdistan. President Barack Obama has stressed that extreme caution is required as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, so that the progress we have made is not undone. Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t another article in a major newspaper about the “fragile and reversible” situation in Iraq.
As an American, I can only hope for the best. As a mother, I see Mauro’s second tour as a spiritually transformative experience for him. By working with Iraqi civilians, he was able to appreciate the humanity of people he had previously seen as enemies. He developed as a man for others by being able to see others as men...and women. Mauro’s story is that of many young people who find themselves profoundly altered by their experiences in war zones. Of course, Mauro was lucky. Contributing to the reconstruction of Thaylat gave him a true sense of accomplishment and, to a degree, helped to vindicate the sacrifice of cherished friends like Fitz. For many others who served multiple tours, the second and third were as bad as the first, making the healing process much more difficult. And, of course, nearly 4,300 soldiers never made it back.
Although Mauro answered my questions for this article, he remains reticent about his experience in Iraq. He wants to move forward, not dwell in the past. I realize that many readers of this magazine considered the war to be wrong and immoral from the very start. Nevertheless, I think it is important to know about some of the constructive things our men and women in uniform are accomplishing. Most people know little about the day-to-day lives of our soldiers or the relationships many have forged with individual Iraqis. These stories deserve to be told. No matter what our opinions on the war, we can appreciate the extraordinary achievements of our men and women in uniform.
I expected Mauro to look for a job in defense or government when he left the Marines, but he refused to consider those avenues. Instead, he applied to graduate schools and was recently accepted by the Kellogg School of Management. “I have seen war,” he says. “I want to devote the rest of my life to peace.” He believes economic development and the integration of women will create more just, stable societies; and he is anxious to bring the lessons he learned in Ramadi to other postconflict areas. This summer he plans to travel in Africa and the Middle East to identify areas where his skills might be useful. One thing that hasn’t changed is his desire to be a man for others—but now he pursues this goal in a different way.
About the Author
Barbara Mujica, professor of Spanish at Georgetown University, is the author of Sister Teresa (2007) and Teresa de Ávila, Lettered Woman (2009), among many other books. She is faculty adviser of the Student Veterans of America chapter at Georgetown and associate facilitator of the GU Veterans Support Team.