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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 11, 2005

I was growing concerned that the increasing tempo of operations leading to the December 15th elections would prevent me from writing home prior to this watershed event. Luckily and unluckily, events have provided a few days for me to reflect on my experiences and pen a few thoughts. For those who did not already know, I was wounded on December 8th. My platoon was protecting a logistics element inside Fallujah when we were caught in an ambush. A rocket struck my vehicle to no effect, the armor saving the two Marines inside from harm. Both walked away from the attack with just their "bells rung" and even the truck will return to duty in a few days. When the rocket hit, I was outside the vehicle setting security with another Marine. We immediately came under small arms fire from a machine gun some blocks away. We were able to fight our way out of the ambush, but in the process, I was shot in the right thigh. I am in good physical condition, back with my platoon, and just a little sore. The wound was clean, punching through my quadricep without hitting a femur or femoral artery. Unfortunately, I will be on crutches for at least a week before I can fully return to duty.

Recent weeks have been very successful for the Battalion. Shortly after Thanksgiving we conducted a large operation, resulting in a number of enemy caches uncovered and insurgents captured. The Marines are becoming increasingly proficient in our area of operations, and with the incumbent tactical success, morale is very high, even with the holidays approaching. As the recent pronouncements suggest, the enemy has identified our area as a strategic focus in the coming weeks. The October 15th elections, with the exception of Sgt. Adams's death, featured almost complete calm for the city of Fallujah. We defended a high voter turnout for both Sunni and Shia. While the vote was an overwhelming "no" to the Iraqi Constitutional referendum, largely due to Muj intimidation, the populace chose to express their dissent through the democratic process, not violence, making the election a resounding success.

Regardless, there are many signs of success here. One of the most notable is the Iraqi Army. I have operated with them and argue that the issues of administration and discipline they face are not fatal but merely endemic as in other Third World militaries I have trained beside. Not that our own military history has always enjoyed the same spirit of volunteerism, high morale, low desertion, rigid discipline and extraordinary combat efficacy as now. The Iraqi Army battalions here are very brave, bordering on recklessness. They are always eager to tangle with insurgents and bring an enthusiasm for combat, rivaling that of my Marines. The most valuable capability they bring though is their understanding of the cultural context of the people. Where we might search a home for hours or interact with a village for several days before we comprehend the inner workings of the village, an Iraqi Army patrol, already know where to look for hidden weapons. They can quickly sift out the wheat from the chaff of information, the "head man" from the "loud mouth," and the "poor illiterate farmer" from the "local man of esteem." To best illustrate how considerable this is, allow me to explain some difficulties I routinely encounter.

The day here begins before the sun rises and after it falls. We patrol in and out of the firm base, to and from our assigned sector for the day, sometimes driving with no ambient light, using only night vision goggles. It's exhilarating when through my left eye I can see the green of the goggles, the sides of the roads rushing by, the infra-red headlights illuminating everything clearly for several hundred meters. While through my right eye, I can only see black with the roller-coaster consciousness of blindly hurtling into darkness.

The adrenaline rush rivals coffee to start the day. We normally patrol to sectors of the city or surrounding countryside where recent contact has occurred or where enemy presence is suspected. Experience makes it possible to template where the enemy likes to hide equipment and munitions. Experience has also made more apparent what is normal and abnormal, a difficult feat two months ago when literally everything seemed out of the ordinary. While mistakes still occur, my Marines can now look down a stretch of road and quickly point out the one or two things that are not quite right. The one challenge that experience has not yet made us equal, is working with the Iraqi population. I cannot speak Arabic beyond a few sentences, but I have learned enough of the vocabulary and gestures that I can understand what I am being told. Many of our conversations are predictable. My favorite is the "I know nothing." It goes something like this (Arabic purists please forgive, I have written these phonetically):

Me: "Salaam" (Arabic Greeting)
Him: "Salaam"
Me: "Shlonak" (How are you).
Him: "Zien" (Good) or "Mu Zien" (Bad - when they say bad they always
point with their hand at our vehicles and Marines setting security
around with a tone of annoyance).
Me: "Wane Eish?" (Where do you live?)
If he points at the ground or the area around I ask with an inquiring tone "Biet" (House), usually
they point to their house.

At this point my Arabic is almost exhausted so my interpreter, by far one of the bravest men I ever met, begins a pre-planned spiel on why we are here, and exchanges pleasantries, asking about local crime and any needs of the population. We ask about crime because one "black ski mask gang," native or foreign, is like another, bouncing between "Mujahadeen" (Holy Warriors) and "Mujarem" (Criminals) as the mood suits them. The wants of the population are always one of two things, either electricity or water. Water is usually the more prevalent of the needs.

I listen politely to the requests for water, power and security, and promise to do what I can to get these to him. Usually the man I am talking to thanks me (Shukran), and I say "You're welcome" (Afwan). Pleasantries complete, I ask him whether he has seen any strangers. The answer is always "No." At this point, any English speaking ability the man has immediately disappears, from "Oxford to Al Anbar" faster than zero to 60. I then ask, "Have you heard any loud noise, seen anyone with guns or anyone acting strangely?" The answer is always "No," repeated multiple times, two hands waving in front of his face and head shook side to side. Usually he invokes Allah's name a few times to testify to his honesty.

My favorite trump card to play is to then ask them what they were doing yesterday (the time of the attack). Then walk them to the crater of yesterday's attack, or in some cases, the still smoking crater from that day's attack. Of course, their response, now much more vociferous in its physical emotion is still, "No, I know nothing." Eventually, my interpreter uses the facts in front of us to verbally persuade them to admit what they saw. For an Iraqi Army unit, quicker to scent duplicity, these interactions are immeasurably briefer and often more successful.

I do not mean to say that no Iraqis help us ever. Quite the contrary. There are those rare brave souls whose hatred for the Muj or for the situation in general, willingly step forward and help us. These men, like my interpreter, are true heroes. Usually though, most Iraqis will not assist without a relationship developed over time, trust gained by longevity and the provision of basic necessities. They do not want to risk all without demonstrated staying power and proof positive you can impact the local situation. My life was saved by one such man about a month ago.

In some cases, they request the impossible. But often, it is easy to make changes on their level. In one instance, I visited a water-starved village. After an hour of the mayor recounting the figuratively and literally "dry" history of the village, he finally explained that their water source had been stolen by a neighboring town who had tapped into the piping to increase their irrigation supply. This was an easy fix, as people usually do not say "no" when ordered by a Marine patrol to turn off their pirated water flow. The second and third order effect of such fortunate interaction is immeasurable.

With all this said, the challenge of working in the cultural context is a pleasant intellectual hurdle to overcome, possessing an intimidating and stimulating duality. Far more difficult to overcome are the daily battles my platoon contends against complacency and fear. It is easy to become complacent here. Creature comforts increase, familiarity breeds relaxed vigilance, Marines start counting down the number of days until we go home and suddenly the mistakes I mentioned earlier occur. Similarly, fear creeps into the subconscious. The difference between Marines new in country and combat veterans is that a veteran knows that, unlike film depiction, you don't see the sniper, you hear a crack — and a Marine falls. At the moment of detonation, you don't see the IED that explodes under or beside you. You never see the dramatic blazing orange ball of flame, just the terrifying mid-sentence thunder of the blast, the instantaneous cloud of dark smoke and the overwhelming force of the overpressure from the charge pushing through the armor and shaking your entire body. The wounded do not cry out when they get hit. It all happens too suddenly to say a word. It's this knowledge, that everything can change in less than a heartbeat that gives combat Marines a bit of an edge, a confidence tinged with alert nerves. What carries my platoon through these struggles is the courageous leadership of my non-commissioned officers, my corporals and sergeant — hardened perfectionists.

An example of the impact and heroism that these NCOs have is Sergeant Isaac Luna of Kansas. Sgt. Luna is a vehicle commander in another platoon in the Company. In the last month we have had sniper attacks on stationary units. Several have been killed and injured by this threat. A few weeks ago while operating in the city, Sergeant Luna's crew came under fire from a sniper. Private First Class Kimungu of New Hampshire was wounded across from his vehicle, the round penetrating his helmet. Though the shot was followed with a burst of small-arms fire, without a moment hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Sgt. Luna rushed into the open street, administering a pressure bandage to PFC Kimungu. Though completely exposed, Sgt. Luna did not abandon his position until relieved by the platoon corpsman, HM3 Cruze from the Bronx, New York. Throughout, Sgt. Luna remained in the street, securing the wounded Marine. This courage under fire is what NCOs bring to the fight.

Examples like Sgt. Luna's are important to me because they defy the alleged norm of human conduct. A recent essay I read contrasted the artwork of Mary Cassatt, glorying in simple beauty, with the more aesthetically erratic work of Joan Miro. The author sought to disprove the theory of critic Theordo Adorno that the horrors of modern war, exemplified by the Second World War, had forever thwarted the ability of art to convey the wonder of everyday human existence. This argument, carried to its logical conclusion, would point that in the face of brutality, the triumph of the human spirit over evil is now rendered impossible; that no action or expression can ever again convey humanity's finest qualities. I bring this relatively obscure argument to light because I think it is emblematic of the mindset that no good could come of what we do here. I will not lie, there are days where the things I see, the things I do, infest my heart with doubt.

No one said war was a pleasant thing. Time and time again though, it is Marines like Sgt. Luna who cleanse my soul. They have seen death at its ugliest, in the face of the wrecked body of a child. They have seen their brother in arms carried away in their final moments. They have faced fatigue, fear, boredom, complacency, a lack of personal space and homesickness. Yet for all their adolescence of years, they continue to soldier on as "warriors for the working day" with the dark humor of combat infantry. I don't know whether they understand or care about the politics of this war. I have never asked them. All I do know is that I have seen them at their best and worst, as they have me. As much as they would rather be home, enjoying holidays with their family (for most of us this is our third Holiday season away in three years), they seem demigods when they can see the difference they make. Whether it is fighting the enemy, protecting the innocent, aiding the weak or defending one other, they are at their highest when most directly challenged. While I cannot paint, I wish I could because in those often unheralded moments, I see something approaching the sublime, despite what all the naysayers, cynics and critics might claim.

I know this was a very long e-mail, largely because I am stuck in my "dry dock" for a few more days. To everyone, thank you for the outpouring of thoughts, prayers, letters and packages. Special thanks to the citizenry of Tinley Park, Illinois, whose generous outpouring of care packages have ensured yet again a Merry Christmas for the Marines here. I will try to use the next few days to write back to those who have sent letters and e-mails. Thanks again and God bless.

Semper Fidelis,

Brian Donlon


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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