I had just gotten off of my first deployment to Iraq in the summer of 2003 and everyone in my company was feeling exceptionally blissful because we had just conquered the Iraqi Army in an epic confrontation of warfare. We were beaming with pride and we assumed that our fighting days were over. Remember, this is 2003 and we weren’t experts on nation building, so you can’t hold it against us for not predicting things to come.
We did a lot of drinking when we came back from that deployment. Not just a lot, but a destructive amount of alcohol entered our bodies at this time. It was the kind of drinking that has Marines making spontaneous decisions that will end poorly. My poor decision occurred after I had only been back in the States for two months. Some Marines got married when they were drunk. Others might get some sort of DUI, public intoxication, or assault charge. What was my drunken decision? After only being home for a short period, I volunteered for another deployment.
Before I knew it, I was boarding a ship and heading towards the Middle-East again. I was with a new group of guys, going to a familiar country. You’re a genius, Chewy! Only a smashed Marine would think that the name, “Iraq,” sounds like it would be a good idea. This is the eternal hypocrisy of military members. Marines are the most self-deprecating and bitchiest people on earth when they are operating in a warzone, but the second you take them out of there, they miss it uncontrollably.
When we got to Iraq, it was evident that it was vastly different from my first time there. For one, there was no significant threat of violence there at the time. This was the period in between “Mission Accomplished,” and the sectarian violence that absorbed the country for years. We happened to be there during a down period in hostility. We were also operating in a part of the country that I had never been. Al-Basrah was a large city on the Southeastern corner of Iraq. The area was controlled by the British Army, and our small contingent of Marines was linking up with them to perform joint military operations.
I’d never really been around British people before this stage of my life. To be honest with you, my only knowledge of the United Kingdom came from examining Benny Hill act like an idiot on PBS, and the film The Patriot. So you can understand my view of the British would be a bit skewed. The first conversation I had with one of the British soldiers was awkward at best. I did my best to try and make nice, but my sheltered American familiarity with British culture almost caused some big problems.
I yelled, “God save the Queen!” Yep, that was the first thing I said to them. I honestly thought that’s what you’re supposed to do.
I got a response from a random soldier, “Fuck the Queen!”
What? Something was not right.
I assertively asked the soldier, “What the fuck is wrong with Her Majesty?”
He responded, “We’re Scottish, save that shite for someone else.”
“You’re Scottish?! Like Braveheart and Trainspotting?! You must be rolling in H, huh?” I was a moron. I continued, “Do you know Duncan McCloud?” Alright, I wasn’t that naïve, but I was an American, so I had to be an asshole.
The young Scotsman looked furious, but he kept his cool.
So our senior officers, in their infinite wisdom, thought it would be a good idea to do a joint operation with us and the Scottish soldiers. It was basically an exchange program, where we would be going on patrol and reporting to their chain-of-command. I was chosen as one of the lucky ones that got to go out with the Scots on the next patrol.
I approached my sergeant right after I got the news, “Sergeant, can you get the LT to assign me an interpreter for the patrol?”
He responded, “The Brits already have one, you’re fine.”
“No, Sergeant, I meant for me…I can barely understand anything they say. They sound like those Pikeys from that Brad Pitt movie.” I wasn’t being a smartass, I was legitimately afraid of a language barrier compromising the patrol. I continued, “I mean…they’re not going to be playing the bagpipes when we’re going through urban Basra or anything…are they? Do they even make kilts in camouflage?”
“Get the fuck out of here, Chewy,” was his response.
We left early in the morning on a cool autumn day in Southern Iraq. The patrol started out well enough, until it got a bit uncomfortable after the Scottish officer halted the patrol and started giving out orders. I honestly didn’t know what he was telling us to do, so I turned around and asked the ginger soldier—I have friends that are gingers, so it’s ok for me to write that—behind me what was going on, “Can you ask your lieuftenant to speak English, please?”
“You’re a bloody xenophobe, boyo,” the soldier responded.
I was still in full asshole American mode, “Fuck no, I’m not a Xena-phobe…that show is awesome and Lucy Lawless is hot!” His blank ginger face was lost as he didn’t get my magnificent allusion to American telly.
See, I’ll be the first to admit that I am a grade-A nationalist. I can’t help it, I just think less of other people and where they’re from. This is not something I developed in the military either. I’ve had to struggle with this my whole life. When I was 15, I was eating dinner over at a football teammate’s house. It was a polite meal in suburban Minneapolis. His family had a good looking girl that was staying with them through an exchange program. As soon as I heard her speak, I had to chime in. Once she told me she was from Estonia, I basically went into a twenty minute tirade about how Estonians are just dumb Russians and that the only reason anybody in America knows about their insignificant country is because of awesome American screenwriters who penned them into the Encino Man script. She cried uncontrollably and I wasn’t invited back.
The patrol continued. After a while, I began to feel a bit alienated as we were supposedly doing a serious combat patrol. I didn’t see much, just a bunch of trashy locals—not all Iraqi’s are trashy, but Basrah is definitely the Little Rock of Mesopotamia—and angry dogs. The Scots had on their pasty skinned war faces, but I was just looking around with confusion. I was confused for a couple of reasons. For one, I was still a young Marine, so I genuinely didn’t know what the hell was going on. Two, their Scottish accents were thick with verbal nonsense, and my simple hip-hop polluted mind couldn’t grasp their complicated dialect.
As we were at about hour three of the patrol, I noticed an old burnt out tank on the highway we were walking down. Anyone who has served in Iraq has seen this image before. An old Soviet style tank sitting on the side of the road, left over from the first time we showed our American might in Desert Storm. The Iraqi’s are notorious for being slow to clean up their trash, or maybe they just liked having a reminder of their defeat on display. I don’t know.
I was uninterested with the monotonous patrol, and my American yearning for a sense of explorative fun got the best of me. I broke off from the patrol when we took a quick breather. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. At that point in my life, the fun to be had was a lot more beneficial than listening to some silly red-headed Scottish people.
I went A-D-D on the patrol I was on. Slowly and subtly, I began to step away from the mission at hand and eventually made my way into the empty tank. As I arrived at the base of the giant tracked vehicle, I looked back to make sure none of the Gaelics were watching me. Then I climbed the historic heap of junk like I was a four year old exploring a jungle gym. Like any young American service-member would, I thought I was about to find my way into an enchanted world of old Soviet glory. It had been pounded into my head since day one of my military training, the brilliance of Russian armor and the long rivalry we as a country stood against it.
When I finally climbed inside the coveted piece of armor, I realized that there was nothing really spectacular within it. All the guts of the turret had been ripped out and I was just staring at a bunch of loose wires. It was a huge disappointment—like when Geraldo muffed Al Capone’s vault. Nevertheless, I continued to adamantly spelunk my way through the old piece of armor for a good ten minutes. When I popped my head out of the turret, the whole patrol was standing outside of the vehicle, just giving me a white deviled, European death stare.
I had to give an instant defense for my actions, “I’m searching for enemy intelligence!” That’s what I yelled, and they knew it was bullshit. Luckily for me, I was an American, so they just waited patiently as I hopped out of the tank and rejoined the patrol.
As we continued down the road, the ginger soldier behind me had to say something, “Hey, Yank…you know those tanks have depleted uranium in ‘em, huh?”
“That’s nice, Rob Roy…is that a threat?” was my only ignorant response.
The ginger soldier calmly responded, “No mate, but these parts have a lot of cancer problems from tanks like that.”
Cancer problems? I timidly responded, “What?”
He gave his reply, “Yeah, boyo, you Yanks gave it to the rags a decade ago…now you left your nuclear material in their yard.”
Nuclear material? I was humbled at this point and asked him in a whimpering voice, “What do you mean nuclear material?”
The ginger Scot responded, “This area of the world has the largest concentration of cancer owing to depleted uranium…that tank you where in had the most of it.”
I come from a long and illustrious line of hypochondriacs, so this news was the worst possible thing I could have been informed about. When I got back to my Marine camp, it wasn’t twenty minutes before my testicles began to break out in massive pain. I was pacing around in paranoid fear, and then the most disturbing thought hit me, “Even if I survive my self-diagnosed testicular cancer…I still might have Chernobyl babies.”
This was a haunting thought, so I did what any Marine would do. I ran straight to my Corpsman in a fit of obsessed fear. Now, my Doc wasn’t an expert in the effects of nuclear exposure, but I trusted his opinion medically–mostly because it was the only free one I had.
“Doc, I just had a Hiroshima moment. I think I have the nut cancer, what do I do?” I asked.
My corpsman had only one answer, the best someone in his position could give, “Well, drink some water and take this Motrin.” Other than direct combat situations, Navy Corpsmen have developed a Pavlovian response to Marines’ medical problems over the years. When a Marine has any health issue other than bullet or shrapnel wounds, the corpsman can only suggest over the counter medicine, water, and condoms in a robotic type of response.
My poor platoon. They had to hear my paranoid ramblings of testicle tumors and future flipper children for the rest of the deployment. That was almost eight years ago, and although my fears have generally subsided, I still freak out every time there is the smallest abnormality on my body. I’m quite sure that at least 50% WebMD’s searches for “Cancer signs” are coming from my IP address.
This could have all been avoided if the Marine Corps would have just assigned me an English speaking interpreter for my patrol with the Scots.