This past Memorial Day, I took a trip to St. Louis to interview Marines that took part in the April 2004 Battle of Husaybah in Iraq. I am currently working on a documentary about that battle; something I’ve wanted to do for a lot of my adult life is tell the stories of the Marines that made me join the Corps in the first place.

I recall with great clarity sitting in front of the TV watching the news in early 2004 as a sophomore in high school seeing these warriors kick doors down all over Al Anbar province, and I knew right then that I wanted to be a Marine. You know the ones I’m referring to; the dirty, exhausted, and angry soon to be 20-year-old kids, that to me, looked like they had a purpose and dignity that was unmatched by any civilians I’d ever encountered. 

The Marines I’m describing wore mismatched flaks with usually one, sometimes two (if they were lucky) SAPI plates. Very few were issued optics, night vision, or even M16A4s at this time. The SAWs were long, impractical, and had worn sears from firing so many rounds throughout the 80s and 90s. The ammunition, rockets, and grenades they were issued were corroded from being in storage for so long. The HMMWVs they occasionally drove were soft skinned, and the IED threat was starting to become a big problem. The Marine Corps, knowingly or unknowingly, used these men as an experiment to better train and equip follow up generations of Marine grunts. 

Fast forward to 2007, and I’m an 18-year-old PFC at the School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton, CA. I had graduated boot camp and thought the mind games and “hazing” were through.

Unbeknownst to me, those 19- and 20-year-old Lance Corporals that I had looked up to as a young man were now 22- and 23-year-old battle hardened sergeants with more combat experience than 99% of the US Military at the time. Looking back on that with what I know now about PTSD, combat stress, and mental health in general, these men were not only battle hardened but also going through struggles of their own. Some didn’t drive or ever leave the area because of panic attacks induced by irrational fears. Most of them were violent and all of them were insomniacs.

At that point, the School of Infantry was still doing the same training they had done since the end of Vietnam, conventional warfare. While it is very important for the Marine grunt to understand the fundamentals of conventional warfare, as they do have a purpose in an unconventional war. These instructors knew what was important to know if we wanted to survive in Iraq. Any and all free time between the classroom and training was spent doing a modified form of MOUT in the training barracks. Weapons maintenance was a priority, and god forbid if they ever found a dirty rifle. “Iraqi dust will stop an M16 and SAW from firing,” they’d tell us, “but you better believe it won’t stop an AK-47 or PKM from cycling and killing your boot ass.” 

Counter IED procedures were almost nonexistent in SOI’s training manual. However, those instructors knew they were the real threat and they were continuing to get larger and more lethal. They made sure we knew how to spot a VBIED or a suicide bomber and give basic commands in Arabic. They pushed the importance of 5s and 25s and keeping your head on a swivel, because you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if you missed spotting an IED that kills your homeboy.

I remember at that time the instructors just seemed to hate our guts. Now, don’t get me wrong, they did hate our guts, they wanted us to feel pain just for existing. There is something to be said however, about the care and time they put into training us during that 8-week cycle. They executed the job of an infantry instructor with the utmost discipline and attempted to teach us everything they knew. They could have just as easily checked the boxes they had to to graduate us and hope our units would pick up the slack.

Upon reaching my unit, this time really thinking the hazing and mind games were over, me and my fellow boots were indoctrinated into the brutality and violence that is the Fleet Marine Force. My team leaders/section leaders were direct products of those Marines I had looked up to as a teenager and had trained me how to be a basic infantry rifleman. They had followed those men into combat and were bitter, salty, and ready to begin training the Marines they too would lead into combat.

The brutal cycle of warfare continued. The brutal cycle of warfare continues, but I am long past its reaches now, left only with memories and believe it or not, gratitude

An open letter to my infantry instructors, team leaders, section leaders, and squad leaders:

I have a love and respect for all of you who trained me from the top down and were able to comprehend the severity and absoluteness of war at such a young age. You were the champions among men that not only molded me into the man, husband, and father I am today, but also provided me with the knowledge I needed to survive war so I could live a life after the Corps. I passed that knowledge onto my Marines when I became a leader and I made sure they understood it the same way I did.

I’ve been able to continue using the skills and traits you taught me. The discipline instilled in me has made me the rock, the solid anchor, for my family and for my local community as well, from assisting veteran organizations to doing fundraisers for Toys for Tots. You’ve made me realize the importance of a community and everyone’s importance within it.

Because of your collective example, I aspire to be the anchor within my community. I strive to be the one who others look to when times are hard, be the most dependable person in my neighborhood. I recommend all veterans do the same. It can and will be a burden, but we are trained to take on that burden and the sacrifice of leading, making our communities and nation stronger should never end just because our enlistments do.

Unknowingly, because of the leadership I had in the Corps, I’ve molded my son to be a protector of the weak, defend those who can’t defend themselves, not to be a bully, and treat people with the utmost respect.  I am constantly complimented on his character and the way he treats others. 

I am forever in your debt; I love you all.

Milkman is an aspiring author and journalist. He was an infantryman in the Marine Corps from 2007 –2011 deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is passionate about his family, exploring the mountains of Montana, and telling the stories of warfighters past and present.