An Excerpt from Wounded by Ronald J. Glasser M.D.
So this is how it happens. And it happens all the time. A bright eighteen-year-old kid decides that college is not for him. He asks around and somehow finds out that the Marines have a deferred enlistment program available at the beginning of the senior year in high school that allows recruits their choice of any three Military Occupational Specialties: artillery, tanks, or low level antiaircraft. Always interested in cars and trucks, and realizing the advantage of choosing the type of duty that he wants or at least fancies, the eighteen-year-old chooses to be a tanker and decides to enlist at the beginning of his senior year. Whatever else may happen, at least he will not have to walk into battle.
The parents, not pleased with the decision, take their son aside and caution him that this should not be a frivolous or casual choice, that there are real, grown-up consequences to deciding to go into the military, including being killed, getting wounded, or even being taken prisoner with the risk of torture. But “Paul” will have none of it, insisting that he will be careful; and so, unable to either stop or dissuade him, a month after high school graduation he is in the Marines. Two weeks later, after saying good-bye to his friends, he is on his way to San Diego for thirteen weeks of basic training. He is strangely pleased and oddly comforted that basic training in the Marines is the longest and most demanding of all the armed forces. Paul might be young, but he is no fool. He understands that if you want to be the best, you have to be taught how to be the best, and that always takes time—lots of time.
Paul never wavered or faltered. With a growing maturity, he accepted the rigors and even the foolishness of basic training as a method as well as a system, sure that, even if not quite comprehensible to those going through it all, the training had real value in the long term and was best tolerated and even embraced, if not so much to get along, so to gain something useful and maybe even of permanent value.
After basic training, he went to four weeks of MCT, Marine Combat Training. In the Army, it is called Advanced Infantry Training, but for the Marines, it is simply something everyone does. MCT was a month of weapons firing and weapons management. He learned how to use all the individual and crew-served weapons in the Marine arsenal. There was little joking around and less humor. Weapons were a serious business. Everyone understood that this was no longer merely training, but life and death.
Following MCT, Paul went on to two and a half months of tank school at Fort Knox, where he learned machinery, maintenance, and some gunnery. Most of the month was straight classroom work with less than a week in the field. But on the second day out on the tank course, he knew he’d made the right choice.
The M1A1 battle tank had a 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon. The British Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank had a 120-millimeter rifled barrel. But the rounds from the M1A1 had a higher muzzle velocity than the 120 rifled cannon, leaving the gun at more than 3200 feet per second. And the M1A1 weighed seventy tons and, with its gas turbine engine, could go through or over anything at fifty miles an hour. Whatever else anyone might think of armor, he’d be the biggest kid on the block.
There was more training, more honing of skills, more understanding of what it was to be a Marine and then what it was to be a Marine at war. Paul liked it all. He liked the camaraderie. He liked the effort and being in something bigger than himself. He liked the sense of commitment and duty, of responsibility and honor. He even liked the crusty old sergeants who never married because the Marine Corps had never issued them a wife.
Following tank school, Paul became a member of Alpha Company, First Tank Battalion, First Marine Division. Two years after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, with Alpha Company, First Battalion, he arrived in Iraq to become part of a regimental combat team designated RCT 2.
Unlike conventional formations where armor is massed to attack other armored units or held in reserve to crush pockets of resistance, the Marines, despite the pronouncements coming out of Washington that the war had been won, understood that the war had simply changed, demanding different tactics and a different military structure. They gave up the large units that had raced to Baghdad in 2003 and reorganized their force structure to meet the new challenge.
The Marine command distributed their tanks out among the combat platoons, putting the tanks up front with the troops on the ground, rumbling through the streets of Iraq’s towns and villages, inching forward side by side with grunts as they put up roadblocks and swept through towns and villages, supplying both offensive power and, when necessary, immediate backup.
A regimental combat team is a powerful, focused military unit combining ground troops, tanks, cobra gun ships, and when possible, air support. The Marine doctrine is not so much “quicker, faster, more agile” as it is to “hurt ‘em and kill ‘em.” RCTs are not nation builders, nor are they promoters of democracy. They break things.
The tactics and rules of engagement are simple. Ground units move forward with their tanks for cover. The tanks, with their enormous weight and firepower, keep pace with the grunts. It is an intimate and immediate kind of warfare, with little room for error and none for mistake.
That is what happened during Operation Matador, an attempt to make up for the earlier mistakes to suppress insurgent activity and clear the bad guys out of the towns and villages surrounding the Sunni Triangle. This time they would do it right—no hesitation, no compromise. Paul’s tank moved down a side street with a squad of Marines going house to house to check for weapons and insurgents. A quarter of the way through one of the dozens of towns, a number of grunts entering a house came under fire.
The Marines had entered the house where insurgents were hiding in the basement. Shooting up through the floorboards, a half-dozen Marines were killed and wounded within minutes of their entering the house.
The rules of engagement had been quite clear: any tank rounds were to be used sparingly with every effort to limit collateral damage. As soon as the Marines exited the house carrying the dead and wounded, Paul’s tank put three rounds into the building, with rocks and debris and shrapnel careening through the neighborhood. The rounds killed everyone inside the building. After a few minutes, the tanks and the grunts moved on. Leveling the building probably saved a lot of Marines coming up behind them, but it didn’t win them any friends on that street.
A week later, the insurgents changed their tactics. They started placing the explosives in the center of the road and pressure plates as detonators along the curbs. The roadside bombs had been just that, roadside bombs; when they were detonated they might blow a track off a tank or destroy one of the wheel mounts, but little else. But these bombs exploded under the vehicles. The weight of the tanks set off the pressure plates. The first time it happened, the force of the blast was so great that it warped the six-inch steel plates along the bottom of the tank. The blast killed or wounded everyone inside.
There isn’t all that much a nineteen-year-old can say about dying. Few in an RCT think of death. They might think about getting wounded, but not being killed. When you are young and in the Marines, death is for someone else. But his friends had been there in the morning and gone that night. Paul missed them and was terribly troubled, as he helped the captain box up their gear and belongings. He knew something, something important, that none of their families knew, that no one who had cared for them or loved them or waited for them knew or could even have guessed. And that seemed wrong. The real meaning of those deaths and of loss would come later.
There was a kind of grimness that settled in after the bombings. The sweeps continued and more Marines were killed and even more wounded; but so were a lot of Iraqis. Bad guys and good guys were killed. And sometimes, in trying to kill Americans, they killed their own. There were days, moving on from dawn to dusk, where one town and village merged into the next and when out of nowhere, quite unexpectedly, a bomb would go off. It would go on to level a street or maybe a whole neighborhood. They slept next to their tanks and didn’t shower for weeks. There were days when supplies could not get through and they had to cut to half rations. They worried about having enough gas just to keep going.
There were rumors that insurgents had begun to hang their TEDs, improvised explosive devices, from the overhead lampposts that lined the areas’ major boulevards. When they blew, the explosion and shrapnel rained down instead of up, killing or wounding everyone riding on top of the armored vehicles. Paul heard they literally blew off the heads of drivers using the opened forward hatches of the armored personal carriers to steer their APCs. He didn’t know if any of it was true, but it could have been.
But what he was sure about was what happened one evening at one of theft checkpoints. A car, turning a corner, didn’t stop. It was dusk and difficult to see, but the car simply kept moving. A car bomb could kill anyone within fifty-five meters. There was never a lot of time at checkpoints, and when the car, ignoring the hand signals, seemed to speed up, the Humvee blocking the intersection opened fire. The 50-caliber machine gun tore the Toyota apart. Inside, they found a family, a mother and three girls, killed, the fully jacketed high-velocity rounds having blown them apart. None of them knew what to do. So they left the car where it was and simply moved on.
All of the letters home, all the e-mails and even the calls were the same. Despite the increasing numbers of casualties and deepening sense of disorder, if not confusion, everyone said things were fine and they were OK, and that if not winning, they weren’t losing. But mostly they told their families not to worry. Paul made sure when there was time that he wrote or sent an e-mail home every day. For the most part, he wrote about the other guys in the unit, how they were all doing what they’d trained to do, how they made sure they took care of each other as well as taking care of themselves. That seemed enough. You don’t lie in the Marines. But that doesn’t mean you have to tell the whole truth.
They pushed their tanks well past maintenance guidelines. They had no choice. There were no tanks in reserve, and with replacement parts at a premium, they just kept moving. But the constant wear, as well as the sand and dirt that got into everything, began to cause breakdowns. The heat only made it all worse. By midday you could fry an egg on the tank’s armor plate. After three weeks of unending alerts and constant fighting, the hubs on the drive wheels and the main bolts holding the wheels to the treads locked up.
Late one morning, they finally had to pull over and work on the gear train. Exhausted, having pushed on for days, Paul and the gunner, tired and grim, took the main spanner out of the toolbox and, climbing out of the tank, started to work on the hubs. A couple of grunts set up a mini-roadblock at the nearest intersection to give them some cover. Pressing down on the back of the spanner for leverage, the head of the spanner slipped off the hub, shearing off the neck of the bolt. There was a moment when the pain left him stunned. A spasm of nausea swept over him as he grabbed his face and fell to the ground.
Even weeks later, it would be impossible to know exactly what happened. It could have been anything—a heat-expanded hub, an overworked bearing, not wearing the prescribed eye protection, too much force on the spanner, a weakened piece of metal from weeks of taking sniper rounds, or even some shrapnel from IEDs or mortars denting the rotor mounts—but a piece of metal had torn into his left eye.
A Humvee took him to an FST, a Forward Surgical Team, set up about a kilometer outside the town they had just guaranteed and begun to sweep. The surgeon examined the eye and putting on a simple bandage, called in a chopper that took him to the Twenty-fourth Surgical Hospital at Balad, forty miles north-northwest of Baghdad. An hour later, his eye was patched and he was being flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. At Landstuhl, they sewed up the major laceration of his eye and within half a dozen hours he was on a C-130 medevac to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
A CAT scan in Germany had shown metal fragments embedded in the globe of Paul’s eye close to the retina, as well as in the tissues at the very back of the socket near the optic nerve. Whatever had happened, the damage was clearly the result of a low-velocity impact. It hadn’t been lost on him, listening to the doctors talk among themselves, that had it been a splinter from a round ricocheting off the side of the tank or a piece of shrapnel from a mortar or a roadside bomb, the metal fragments would have surely penetrated his skull and entered the frontal lobes of his brain.
There was some initial hope that the retina had remained intact and that the globe of the eye that had filled with blood would eventually clear so that some sight would return to the damaged eye. Still, there were problems outside of the traumatic injury itself. One of the problems was infection; another was getting out the fragments without making things worse. A CAT scan only gives a two-dimensional image; so the surgeons working within a very small space would have a difficult time finding the fragments in what in reality is a three-dimensional field. And simply exploring the eye might just stir things up, increasing the pressures within the globe, damaging the eye even more.
But to leave the metal in place might lead to an allergic reaction, a kind of massive response from the body’s immune system to the foreign objects, as well as to the already damaged parts of the eye itself, resulting in the immune system not only attacking and destroying the tissues of the bad eye, but of the good eye as well, leading to the possibility of total blindness.
The surgeons decided to wait, to give the damaged eye a chance to calm down and to allow time for some of the blood to clear in order to give them better access to the intraocular fragments, all the while watching for any signs of infection in the damaged eye along with rejection in the good eye.
Paul was told the risks and the benefits of waiting. There would be a better chance of removing the metal fragments if they waited, but by waiting he might lose the vision in his right eye. There are no easy or simple decisions in a war. Once committed to the battlefield, the world is no longer the same. Old customs lose importance and familiar rituals their power. No second opinions here, no informed consent forms, no search of the Internet, no discussion of best practice guidelines. At age nineteen or thirty-five, a Marine decides for himself.
Paul took a deep breath and decided to wait. It would be a race; but his life had become a kind of race. When he finally did call home, it was only to tell his parents that he had been wounded, but that he was fine, that he was healing and the doctors were confident that he would be all right. And he meant it. He understood that whatever might happen, he’d survive. No small thing…
Four weeks later, the vision in his left eye had returned to 20/80. He could see—not well—but he could see. His good eye had remained normal, but he was having headaches because of the blurred vision on the left. The plan was to wait another two or three weeks and then go in after the metal fragments.
But over those weeks the vision in his damaged eye had dimmed a bit more and there was some growing concern that the nerves might have been damaged; it is all still up in the air as to how it will end.
What is clear though, and will never change, is that like so many others, despite resolve and determination, his life will never be the same. At best, there will always be that blurring to whatever he sees. In any war, but particularly this one, you can run, but you can’t hide…
This except is taken from Wounded: Vietnam to Iraq, which was published by George Braziller, Inc. this June. Reprinted by permission of George Braziller.
ContributorRonald J. Glasser
Ronald J. Glasser is a physician and the author or seven books, including 365 Days, his classic account of serving as a US Army physician during the Vietnam War.