Those of us unfortunate enough to have witnessed combat carry with us the things we did and saw until we take our last breaths. Life-changing acts and moments weigh heavily on our souls.
I joined one of the greatest fraternities the world has ever known, the U.S. Army, on Dec. 26, 1988. I began in the infantry and aspired to be a special operator. Unfortunately, fate — actually, God — had other plans that did not include a lifetime of service to my beloved Army.
As I begin my story, I need to clarify that I write this in honor of the eight men who died in my 3rd Brigade, 2nd Armored Division Forward, either with Task Force 1-41 or Task Force 3-66. One of the eight was my driver and friend, James C. Murray Jr., who had a baby girl he never got to see. She was born two days after he was killed. I still reel with pain when thinking of that third depleted uranium round, traveling at 1 mile per second before it went through the driver’s compartment of our Bradley Fighting Vehicle. I was only 10 feet away and was thrown through the air and concussed. I still ask myself, “Why wasn’t it me that day?” “Why couldn’t it have been me?” The guilt is still there, even 30 years later.
In war, the thing that haunts a man is what he does, doesn’t do, or could have done. When asked to explain, I sum up war as the absolute worst of humanity. What I cannot explain is the putrid stench of a dead or burned body. I can’t explain the fear or adrenaline that rushes through you. I cannot explain the graphic mutilation of friendly or enemy soldiers, images forever etched in our minds. I cannot explain the rage or guilt we experience. I cannot explain why we have flashbacks, anxiety, and nightmares. I can’t explain in a way so others can understand.
And anything Hollywood creates is like a G-rated Disney movie.
In the Gulf War, my unit fought in two of the largest tank battles since World War II. It’s where I was wounded. I recall one of our commanders left, abandoning two Bradleys and half a platoon of infantry soldiers. We fended for ourselves against the Republican Guard.
After the war, I, a non-commissioned officer, experienced gross disrespect from my unit, the Department of the Army, and the office of Congressman Jim Oberstar. It still embitters me to this day.
On Feb. 24, 1991, we crossed into Iraq and immediately took fire from the enemy. The infantry is all about killing the enemy and destroying equipment. We were good at that. Two nights later, we hit a bomb crater, causing us to stop suddenly. Our platoon leader came over to assist and our commander said to catch up. “He didn’t want to be the last one drinking a beer in Kuwait.” We were abandoned. Our communication wasn’t the greatest, and we lost contact that night, maneuvering through the largest nighttime engagement in more than 50 years.
The next morning, we came across an enemy bunker and began taking prisoners. We finally made radio contact with the commander and offered a situation report, or sitrep.
Shortly afterward, we began taking fire. Delta 26 took two rounds. Delta 21, my vehicle, took three rounds. This was when my driver was killed and a few others of us were wounded. We thought the enemy reneged on surrendering; the enemy thought we reneged on taking prisoners. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were fired on by friendlies, meaning other U.S. troops. The families back home didn’t learn the truth about that for six months.
I was wounded outside one of the bunkers. In the chaos, an Iraqi with a Quran came and offered me water and a cigarette. I didn’t trust the water, but I took the cigarette. “Why are we here killing each other?” I asked him.
I was in four or five medical units and eventually was sent to Landstuhl hospital and then Bremerhaven hospital, both in northern Germany.
Six months later, I was diagnosed with cancer, leading to medical retirement from the Army following six and a half years in TDRL status, or the Temporary Disability Retired List. The Army only gave me 20% disability, which is a crime since I am 100% permanently disabled. I’ve had cancer twice over the years as well as a plethora of medical maladies.
Congressman Oberstar’s Office failed me with regard to my Army rating. Ironically, another man in all the same areas as me but who wasn’t wounded and didn’t have cancer received 30% disability from the Army. I never cared about the money, but the health care for me was vital.
This is just a fragment of my story. My entire family has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Like with alcoholism, everyone around a person with PTSD is affected.
I have hurt my family many times, not physically but emotionally. They have forgiven me. I am blessed they love me, and I am blessed God has put so many people in my life who have helped me heal. They even saved me from a suicide attempt.
Today, I honor all those who put on the uniform because there is sacrifice made by all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Even if they have never gone to combat, they and their families have sacrificed for all.
I like to say that every day is Memorial Day for all those who gave their tomorrows for our todays.
John W. Marshall is captain of the Duluth Honor Guard. He wrote this at the invitation of the News Tribune Opinion page in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the start of the Gulf War ground offensive.