By Najib Aminy
Stony Brook University is 5955 miles away from the heart of a highly-criticized war that began on March 20, 2003. Five years later, support for the war has exponentially declined as death tolls have increased along side the budget deficit. As journalists failed horribly to diligently perform their jobs, much of the American populace fell into the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The fact is that after five years, not a single weapon of mass destruction has been discovered.
As the initial cause became questionable, the idea of liberating Iraq from the oppressive rule of former president Saddam Hussein filtered through the channels of broadcast television, including CNN and Fox News, and through the prints of The New York Times, The Washington Post and even Long Island’s “coveted” Newsday. The historic image of Saddam’s statues collapsing symbolized the victory of winning the land, however the current battle is ruling over that land.
With failed parliamentary systems, a number of proposed constitutions, and an Iraqi Army that appears heavily reliant on the US military, it remains unclear whether a true victory is realistic. Five years later, over four thousand soldiers have given their lives in this war. Three trillion dollars later, nearly 9,000 men and women have been severely wounded. 3.9 million Iraqi refugees later, there is an ongoing struggle between the US military and insurgents over securing areas of Iraq. Behind the statistics, the numbers, and the facts are individual people endangering their lives for the protection of America and its beliefs. The people sacrificing their lives that wind up becoming another number to a morbid and ever growing statistic, that are often forgotten about, are the people who are and will be fighting this war. They are the soldiers, specifically the student soldiers here at Stony Brook.
For Stony Brook Junior Lieutenant Ricardo Jean, Iraq was neither a headline nor a two-minute broadcast, rather it was a two-month experience that he said, changed his life. “I remember before I went to Kuwait [before heading to Iraq], I said to myself, I might die. This might be the last time I see myself in the mirror,” said Jean. Serving in the Marine Corps, Jean enlisted for numerous reasons. It provided him an escape from his family, an opportunity to know his limits, and an excuse to not attend college. As Jean said, “Education should be something you want, not something you have to do. It should be something you want, cherish, and respect. I didn’t have that desire at the time.” Enlisting in 1999 right out of high school, Jean went through extensive training that lasted a year and a half. Normally, marine training lasts six months. Jean deployed in Japan in early of 2001. While there, he was constantly training, ready if war to was to strike. After the attacks of September 11th, Jean knew the situation was serious as the Camp Guard went from threat level alpha, a time of peace, to threat level delta, where an attack appears imminent. “I am not totally a pacifist, but I am not the first one to say ‘let’s go.’ Let’s think about it,” as Jean, commented on the scenario of jumping into Afghanistan.
Though Jean did not serve time in Afghanistan, he was well aware that he would be going into Iraq well before the actual invasion took place. Jean said the military was “planning to go to Iraq a year or a year and a half before it even started. As a marine you just hear the rumors through the grapevine.” These rumors appeared true to Jean as he and his fellow soldiers conducted a thorough gear inspection, ensuring that x amount of clothing was available, and to ensure the quality of the equipment was new. Jean said “we knew it wasn’t for Afghanistan, especially for the amount of people that were needed. We knew it was something bigger and the thing was is that was happening in bases all over.”
Jean took part in the very beginning of the Iraqi war as he described as a blitzkrieg style of attacks. “We were more like a shock troop where we hit hard and we hit fast not allowing the enemy with anytime to recoup,” said Jean. During these two months, Jean experienced his heart jumping, a reserve of internal fear that he kept hidden, and a level of alertness that would essentially protect his life as well as his fellow soldiers. Jean explained that it is the mental aspect of war that is worse then the physical side. “I was very deep in thought at times, that’s when situations like family and girlfriends eat at them. The ones that had girlfriends either went crazy or were really depressed because they kept thinking about them,” said Jean.
As Jean served his two months in Iraq, essentially doing the “dirty work,” he said that marines win battles but cannot win the war. It is the army that shuts down the enemy lines, whereas Marines simply penetrate through the enemy’s wall of defense. During these two months as well as the years prior, Jean explained the deep camaraderie he shared with his fellow soldiers. He proposed the scenario of a grenade being dropped, saying that the bond between himself and his fellow soldiers was so strong that he would be willing to sacrifice his life by jumping on the grenade for the lives of his fellow soldiers. The one thing that Jean got most out of his experience is the Marine motto, Semper Fidelis, which is Latin for “always faithful.” Jean said that at first he was unfazed by the term, but afterwards, “It really touched me deeply. Being loyal to your friends is the best thing I got out of it.” Jean went on to say that at the end of the day that he is fighting for himself and his fellow soldiers. “As long as the guy to the right or left of me comes home, that’s good stuff.”
For junior George Escobar HN E3, receiving no combat training left him very nervous as he stepped off the plane landing into Baghdad Airport. Escobar was in the Navy but was a medic for the marines, as marines are a smaller group of the Navy who are less funded. Escobar who enlisted in 2005 was later deployed in April of 2006 providing medical assistance to his fellow troops, Iraqi civilians, and even Iraqi insurgents. When asked how he felt on assisting the insurgents, Escobar said, “It pissed me off. Here they are shooting my guys and now I have to go and attend to them.” Escobar had developed a system where he would tend to his soldiers first, followed by civilians, and then the insurgents. Escobar, who carried the responsibility of saving the lives of his group said, “It becomes less of a responsibility and more like I want to help my friend, my companion.” Escobar explained how after the first mission, one becomes close with their troops and it was then that the responsibility became less of a burden and more of a desire.
Escobar enlisted in the Navy for different reasons such as the ability to travel, personal gains, and a means of education. Yet, according to Escobar, it was the experience that he cherished the most. Escobar’s first realization that he was in a war was as soon as he got off the plane. “Everything was going so fast. I was told to get my Kevlar armor on and to suit up. And from the start you are careful and you are on the lookout for what is going on,” said Escobar. When it came to witnessing the drama of war, it was when a new soldier fell into fetal position out of fear that Escobar witnessed a fellow soldier hold the new soldier at gunpoint. “It was crazy and I understand where the guy [holding the gun to the new soldier] was coming from.” Escobar explained that a deep trust is formed in terms of protecting each other’s lives, and if that trust is threatened, then tension arises.
“Hot.” According to Escobar, hot was how he described Iraq. “It’s kind of a guessing game. You don’t know what is going to happen and it kills your nerves. Because you don’t know what is going to happen you are always going to be on alert,” said Escobar. Due to intense level of alertness many war veterans experience post-traumatic stress syndrome. “After I got back I had a little issue, I couldn’t sleep. I still can’t sleep normally. If I hear a loud noise [when sleeping] it becomes uneasy.” Escobar received an experience of a lifetime and he is reminded of it every night as he goes to bed.
Both Escobar and Jean agreed on many of the same topics, both insisting that politicians should experience war before voting on anything, that President Bush is an unworthy president, and that despite it all, they would go back if asked to. For Jean, the biggest thing he got out of being in the military was understanding his limits, being able to rely on himself mentally, and to build a strong relationship between his fellow troops. For Ricardo, war provided an opportunity to have a first-hand experience to the similarities between people from around the world. “Almost everybody is the same. You can put people in a certain position but in the end they aren’t so different. It depends on little things that make people unique,” said Escobar.
In terms of acclamation, Jean explained in full detail why it might be difficult for soldiers to adjust to civilian life. Being in the military, specifically on a base, many commodities are taken care of, such as a place to sleep, food to eat, and health services, in addition to utilities. If anything, car payments and cable are the only things one may have to pay for, as Jean put it. But when soldiers leave the military, they also leave the paid commodities and often find it hard to find a job that can make ends meet. Escobar adds that many soldiers fail to plan ahead. “I had a plan,” as Escobar said, “Most people don’t. People don’t adjust because they don’t plan it out right.”
When asked about whether they support the war, Jean felt it was a Catch 22 scenario. “You can’t just leave and you can’t just stay there,” said Jean who went on to say, “I remember I went to Iraq, and I was parking my vehicle in some ones backyard. Just occupying space and I asked myself how are people grasping this?” Jean continued by saying they either saw it as Americans doing their job or as destroying the country. Escobar felt that the war was a lose-lose situation. “I don’t think it’s a smart move at all. We lose more than we gain. We may get an insurgent, but for that one insurgent we lose so many more people.” When it comes to the youth joining, both Jean and Escobar feel that one should only join if they fully want to, with no pressure, and with no regret.
A student who is currently enrolled in the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is junior Mark Serevino. Graduating in 2005, Serevino joined the ROTC program to fulfill his desire of both receiving an education and enlisting in the Army. Serevino will first have to complete his four years of training in the ROTC program before being deployed as a lieutenant. “I chose ROTC because I wanted to become an officer. To be someone in charge rather then merely someone taking orders. I am 21 years old, and I’ve already done things that nobody is going to do in their entire lives, like jump out of planes, use weapons, and eventually rappel from a helicopter,” said Serevino. Truly believing that soldiers are protecting America, Serevino’s biggest fear is not dying, rather the fear of failure. Serevino says, “one day I am going to be responsible for the lives of other people, and the one thing I fear I am going to make a decision or not make a decision that’s going to harm them.” When asked about whether or not he was too young to go and enlist, Serevino said that it is merely up to the individual. He said that it is hard to say that people are to young to do anything.
The number four thousand brought an expression of somberness to Jean, Serevino, and Escobar, as for them, four thousand was not a number, but a huge chunk of a family gone for a cause they believed in. As Serevino said, “I think it’s sad. It’s tough to look at it. I’ve been tracking it ever since I joined knowing the numbers have increased and part of you feels like you don’t want to be there but then the other part of you says its your duty to be there.” When asked whether they are proud to be an American, Serevino, Escobar, and Jean responded with a firm yes. Patriotism, freedom, democracy were all mentioned. But Jean described it best as he said, “although we have messed up things that happen, with Indians, slaves, and immigrant groups, behind all the negativity, there are still people fighting.”
There are still people fighting. To some it may be a war of unjust cause or a war of providing freedom. Regardless of where one stands, there are still people fighting. Not numbers. Not statistics. People.