Letters From the Front

1st Lt. Brian Donlon granted FOX Fan permission to publish letters he sends home to family and friends as he serves the United States of America overseas in Iraq.

December 10, 2005

Just wanted to give you a heads up that I got hit on the 8th. Had an RPK (Kalashnikov light machine gun) in a combined ambush punch a round through my right quad. I will be off crutches in about five days and back with my guys in about seven or eight. I am recuperating with my Company back at Baharia in the meantime.

1st Lt. Brian Donlon

November 5, 2005

To All:

Letters will probably not follow each other so quickly, but things here have finally slowed down. Between acquainting ourselves to this area of operation, the October 15th referendum, and the heightened insurgent activity during Ramadan, October was a very difficult month.

Living conditions here are good. We live at an abandoned Baathist lakeside resort and the Marines have about five men to a cottage. Chow is good and mail comes regularly. Packages tend to get here in 5-10 days, while oddly, letters take about two weeks or more. "Moto-Mail" — e-mails sent and then printed out — come within 24 hours and are a real blessing, keeping everyone in tune with events at home.

The weather here has changed from very hot to quite cool. When we first arrived, temperatures were routinely over 100 degrees. Much has been said of the heat over here, but suffice it to say that once inside an armored HMMWV, sitting in full body armor, windows closed and the heat of the transmission beside your leg, you feel a bit like a chicken in a rotisserie. Goggles fog up, your weapon becomes hot to the touch and you long for even the slightest breeze. The first month in country, the sweetest part of every day was when I re-entered friendly lines late at night, opened my window and felt relief from air that was merely in the upper 90s. Temperatures now are in the low 50s at night and the mid 70s at noon. This would be welcome weather but with it has come with sandstorms, occasional rain and a bitter wind that makes everything feel much colder.

The terrain varies greatly, from sparse desert sands to thick palm groves along ancient canals. War has made its mark here. It is like visiting a Civil War battlefield a year, rather than a century, after the final shot was fired. One is constantly reminded of the timelessness of this place. One morning, while watching a road from atop a hill of deep silt, I chanced upon the site of an abandoned archaeological dig. Foundations of small houses, the remains of a well, the worn stone of a pathway, all that remained of those who were here two hundred or two thousand years ago. Other times, we find dilapidated British Enfield rifles and German Mauser rifles, manufactured in Iran, some carrying ammunition bearing a stamp of 1938 with Nazi eagle and swastika on the brass, reminders that we are not the first between the Tigris and Euphrates.

This fight is a difficult one. The challenge is that the war is truly about winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Fallujah is strategic both geographically and politically. Located east of the intersection of the main road to Syria and the main road to Jordan, Fallujah is the last stop before Baghdad. For the foreign fighter, this is a path of choice. Here, despite fatuous claims of a great bloodletting of American warriors, the Muj lost the battle last year with the spectacularly poor results of every conventional stand against our forces. For these reasons, there is a concerted effort to retain or regain, respectively, control of this area and its population.

Some days our lives are like that of a police officer, other days that of an aid worker, and others as killers seeking a single target. This constant change of context is not easy. Mistakes and happenstance cause damage quickly; the second and third order effects of each error engendering a negative perception. War is not scrupulous in who suffers. I met a boy who was shot through the knee while asleep on a summer night last year, innocent victim to a gun battle two miles distant between a convoy and the Muj. Another time, we watched an Iraqi vehicle inexplicably careen out of control at high speed, flipping several times. Rushing to the scene, we pulled the man from his vehicle, provided first aid and summoned the police. As we helped this man, accusing eyes peered from every car that passed, blaming us, guilty by association with this accident.

The simplest human emotional response to such events is expression of pity, sorrow and ultimately, resignation to frustrated surrender. It is just such a reaction that the insurgents anticipate and exploit. My Marines have to remain constant professionals, controlling their emotions, managing fear, anger, pity, and boredom; often choosing to kill or not to kill at 60 MPH at night from the turret of a HMMWV. This is an incredibly cerebral battle. It is not easy, especially with little sleep and the exhausting day-in, day-out slog of work, to reason through it all. Absolutes do not work. You can neither sympathetically drop all guards nor angrily point guns in every face. Every Marine must be ready to be a "Good Cop" or "Bad Cop" at the drop of a hat. Against this, conventional warfare, for all its complexity of maneuver and firepower, seems so much simpler. In a conventional war you can give truth to Tacitus's maxim that Roman conquerors would "make a desert and call it a peace." The existence of a front and a rear, clear enemies, straightforward goals and simple rules make a conventional war checkers to this game of chess we play. I am sure I have said nothing new here, but I believe these challenges bear repeating because despite all we face, my Marines have performed marvelously. Two noteworthy examples I want to share:

Corporal Derek Burchfield from Tennessee was in the truck with Sergeant Adams when he was killed on October 15. A week later, Corporal Burchfield was attacked again, this time when his vehicle ran over a mine. The armored HMMWV saved his life, but he was wounded in the right leg. Knowing he was hit, he nonetheless continued to lead his Marines, refusing medical attention, hobbling around the wreckage setting security. He did not accept medical attention until I arrived and took command of the scene. Two days later, he begged me to be included in an operation to catch an IED triggerman and off he limped after the enemy.

One of the biggest challenges we have here is the wear and tear on the HMMWVs, exacerbated by constant use and the added weight of armor. Without the vehicles my platoon cannot accomplish its mission. Over the last month, three of my Marines, Sergeant Matthew Fontenot from Louisiana, Corporal Markoe Beachley from Maryland and Corporal Justin Wess from Ohio have worked in their off hours, often through the night between back-to-back patrols, to keep the trucks running. They have learned on the job to rebuild transmissions, replace half shafts, suspensions, alternators and through a myriad of repairs build a "Monster Garage" of vehicles that often resemble a scene from "Mad Max." Without their work, the platoon would have failed in its mission long before now.

I share these stories for two reasons: First, to show the inspiration that these men give me daily. Heroes like these keep me in the fight. They humble me to do my job with the same passion that they do theirs. Second, because the underlying theme I see in my Marines is that of tenacity. It is this same trait that we seek to articulate to both civilian and insurgent through our words and actions. The message is simple: attack us, wound us, kill us, blow up our trucks — we will keep coming back and will only leave when we choose to. The day Sergeant Adams was killed the platoon was spread over some miles distance. Hearing of his death, I ordered a link-up and we immediately drove back into the area of the ambush. In the final minutes of his life, as he was evacuated, Iraqis along the little dirt road through the palm grove had laughingly mocked the speeding convoy. That afternoon, the second time we left, no laughing was heard behind us but many tears, and three of those involved in his death rode as prisoners in the back of our trucks.

In light of what I continue to see here, I cannot help but find relevance in Winston Churchill's comments about the battle of Gallipoli many years after World War I had ended and the battle, his inspired brainchild, was deemed an utter failure: "Searching my heart, I cannot regret the effort. It was good to go as far as we did. Not to persevere — that was the crime."

All right, enough from me. God Bless, and thanks for keeping me in your thoughts and prayers. For all those who have written me: I will try to communicate with you more regularly. Thanks again for all your support. I could accomplish nothing without your support.

1st Lt. Brian Donlon

October 1, 2005

To All:

I write this letter after a little over a month operating in and around the city of Fallujah. I am sorry I could not write sooner but communication is much more restrictive and the days much longer than on my last deployment. I get to the Internet and a phone maybe once a week. I am lucky, as some here only communicate with home once a month. We routinely work 18-20 hour days so time is an extremely valuable commodity.

This is the third time I have attempted to put pen to paper. At first, I couldn't find the time to sit and write. Then, in my second attempt, I struggled to coherently piece together all the events which had occurred in so short a space of time. I wrote a letter I never sent on October 13th, a few days before the constitutional referendum. Looking back, I am thankful I never sent it because frankly, I didn't know what I was talking about and it was all pretty much a collection of vain-eloquent tripe.

On October 15th, my platoon sergeant was killed by a roadside bomb while conducting security between two polling sites. His name was Sergeant Mark Adams and he was from Raleigh, North Carolina. He was 24 years old and was without a doubt the best sergeant I have ever worked with and the best platoon sergeant I have ever had. For those who know, I arrived in country with about 80 Marines. Realizing the extremely high operational tempo here, we split the platoon and spread the leadership across the board. I chose Sergeant Adams as my Platoon Sergeant because I knew he was an exceptional leader of Marines. I would like to share a few things about him:

Sergeant Adams left the Marine Corps a little over a year ago, completing his four years of service and attending NC State. At some point in his second semester he realized how disconnected he truly was from his college peers. He realized that he still aspired to lead Marines in combat. Sending off his sons to the trenches of World War I, Teddy Roosevelt advised his young namesake on the eve of departure that "it is best to satisfy the heart's desire, and then abide the fall of the dice of destiny." I cannot think of a quote that better describes Sergeant Adams. Many fear a draft, complain of constant deployments, or begrudge the recall of our reservists, National Guard and inactive ready reserve. The only recall Sergeant Adams answered was the recall inside his own heart.

The first time I met him was early in the summer when he showed up with long hair, dressed like a frat boy with that casual, carefree attitude of the happy times when life lacks tangible consequences. Within a minute, he turned serious and said that he wanted "to get into the fight." After lunch and an hour's conversation, I was convinced that his words were not idly spoken, and that he was perfectly suited to lead men into harm's way. Sergeant Adams was the kind of non-commissioned officer that makes the Marine Corps what it is. He led by example, was firm but fair, knew and loved his men dearly, and was absolutely selfless. His loss was like the loss of a limb to me, and like the loss of an older brother to my platoon. Sergeant Adams was killed while leading from the most dangerous place, from a place where he was not required to be as platoon sergeant. He died leading from the turret of a HMMWV (High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) so that a tired machine-gunner could rest.

Some would argue that Sergeant Adam's life was not worth what we are doing here. Some would say that the constitutional referendum and the democratization of this country are not worth the life of one American. These accusations dishonor Sergeant Adams and cheapen his sacrifice. I will not pretend to speak for his family, their burden is one to which I can never give adequate words. I will speak though for myself and my Marines. Knowing the kind of man that he was, our hearts thunder inside us, telling us that if he had to die, Sergeant Adams died as he would have chosen, leading from the front, from the most dangerous place, from what is called the "cone of aimed fire." In other words, where the mujahideen are trying their very hardest to kill you.

In the last conversation I had with him, looking over a map, discussing the area he would enter the next day, he became adamant that he was tired of being afraid of the enemy, he was tired of walking on tender feet:

"We're Marines, sir. Fifty years ago we beat a better-trained, better-equipped enemy without armored HMMWVs and body armor. We can take these guys. We gotta get after these guys, gotta hunt them down where they live. We can beat them. We can't try to avoid them."

I'm not sure what I meant to accomplish by this letter. I am not trying to inflate my experience or claim it is unique -- here death is common for both Iraqis and Americans. Many of my peers have suffered greater losses than I. I'm not sure if I write tonight for myself, for you all, or for Sergeant Adams. I guess I write because watching a BBC broadcast I heard that "only five people died yesterday" to give the Iraqi people the right to vote. As I sat in my chair, a chill passed over me, "only" seeming particularly sharp and hollow in the description of so valorous a loss of life. I guess I wanted you all, my friends and family, to know a bit about one of these men of honor, to know that for all the numerical reckoning of a "quagmire" and rumors of "low morale," that the man I knew, respected and loved, died a hero in my eyes because he fought here only because he knew it was the right thing to do. Sometimes your heart tells you what is right, sometimes a voice speaks inside and guides you, despite all the eloquent conjecture of every panel of second-guessers, arm-chair quarterbacks and purported experts, Shakespeare's "one ten thousand of those men…who do no work today." I will never forget Sergeant Adams' willingness to leave all the comforts we take for granted, those simple pleasures he already so richly deserved for his service. His willingness to enter the fray with full knowledge of the potential costs, to gamble all, to hold nothing back, will stay with me the rest of my life.

God bless and thank you for all your thoughts and prayers.

1st Lt. Brian Donlon

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