Would You Like to be Part of the Team that Fills in the Blanks?

I’m dropping in today to give you all some important news and to ask that some of you join me on a unique journey. As part of my ongoing Notice of Disagreement claim with the VA (Wouldn’t you know we are past the year mark now?!) I made the decision to continue investigating my deployment on my own. I’ve had nothing but time and I figured anything I learned could find its way in the memoir I am building to help broaden discussion about modern deployments and help me discuss service with those who visit this blog. Today, I am writing to inform you I came up empty-handed.

It is important to let you know why I am empty-handed and how we can resolve this matter. I am not asking you to contribute to help my VA claim. I have an avenue to help with that matter (when and if it becomes necessary, which I’ll discuss a bit later in this post). I am asking you–if you’re one of the qualified Iraq veterans I’m looking to find–to share a bit of your journey because our government is doing everyone a great disservice by not having these records already.

I left Iraq in 2005. Thirteen years have gone. If there were viable records, we are out of the woods in regard to operational security. I can understand my government keeping the casualty reports and significant activity reports under wraps during an operation to protect individual units’ safety in country, but I honestly thought I’d learned something about my deployment I didn’t know before beginning this new path.

So what was this path?

I put in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request. I figured if any organization had something useful this was where I needed to go. Old news articles haven’t been helpful since the data isn’t easy to gather or necessarily aligned with my deployment. Then again, other sites like the DoD’s website gives the larger picture but it doesn’t allow individuals to break down the casualty information for their respective purposes.

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In 2016, when I provided my Final Reveal of my graduate applied project, I came to you all with incomplete data. I am not embarrassed by my lack of progress, but frustrated. How many of the 31,958 wounded military casualties belong to my first deployment? The service members who died during my deployment made up 6.2% of the total deceased for OIF. My job was to process the activity reports that came in from units with this information and yet, two FOIA requests have produced nothing. IMG_5411

This reality is NOT the fault of either the U.S. Central Command FOIA office or the U.S. MARCENT FOIA office. The individuals who worked with me on the matter have been great and I am glad I took a risk to place a FOIA request. The Central Command office couldn’t locate records and encouraged me to take a chance and reach out to MARCENT (Marine Corps Forces Central Command). The second FOIA request is what really opened a door for me.

I learned the Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) Casualty Branch is the record keeper of the Personnel Casualty Reports. This information is what can aid me if the VA comes back yet again and doesn’t believe me about my deployment work and the casualty information my unit handled. Apparently, the VA claims representatives can contact HQMC Casualty Branch if they want to confirm casualties from my deployment. So, while we put in a pin in that for me, I do hope for anyone in similar circumstances you now know you have another avenue to get the VA informed by having the VA contact your service branch’s Casualty Branch.

I want you to know my FOIA Coordinator at MARCENT went two steps further than I expected. She coordinated with the specific FOIA office for 1st Marine Division. Their office has no records. In the depths of the email, I was presented a gift,an article, I am sharing with you today. The article shared with me is Peter Sleeth’s Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefits Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans. I do not know if our unit records were intentionally destroyed or wiped clean from computers but it is truly a shame our service branches did not leave behind records that can aid veterans, help educate the academic community, and build the transparency with the general public.

I do not think it is appropriate to stop at this step.

I know my fellow veterans (and perhaps active duty personnel) who served in the Al Anbar Province from August 9,2004 to February 25, 2005 can help reconstruct the history of this deployment. This project won’t allow us to have an official record of the deployment, but it will fill in the blanks. For anyone who wants to contribute, I will set up a new tab on my page soon specifically to reconstruct the deployment. I would like anyone who wants to share some information to do so at their comfort level although I provided a guideline below. I expect this process will be quite slow but I am ok if this project takes us years to complete. I think it’s worth it to honor the truth of our experiences.

At a minimum, here’s what I am hoping to compile, but again, I am open to more information:

Date of Injury:

Type of Incident:

Location in Iraq (city or military base, if known):

Branch of Service/ Rank:

Gender:

If you’d like to join me in this endeavor, please email your date of injury information to shewearsdogtags@gmail.com and feel free to share this post with other individuals you served with in Iraq. Thanks for listening and being willing to share your story.

~Cheryl

 

November Reflections

Today marks the anniversary start date of the second assault into Fallujah.

November 2004 was the single worst month for us on deployment and I am always a bit hesitant to discuss the situation. I do not wish to add additional grief to family members who lost their loved ones fourteen years ago by opening a discussion that borders on invading their right to private grief. It is therefore important to mention reviewing the casualty information associated with my deployment is a difficult task for me. I first looked at the human toll of my deployment back in Spring 2016 when I prepared my graduate applied project and on two other occasions, one to further open up war discussion regarding intentional harm and accidental circumstances and the last to help explain to the VA why my deployment circumstances lead to an absence of medical documentation relating to anxiety-induced chest pains. I am fortunate I had a supportive group throughout this process because it was (and is) stressful to be reminded we couldn’t save any of these individuals. While my feelings about losing our service members in no way equates to how loved ones feel about losing their family members, in sharing my sentiments I hope it is understood I write for transparency purposes and to honor our fallen.

Each person we lost could have gone on to be one of the veterans our nation will honor this weekend. I make this solemn statement in the hopes my fellow veterans understand the chances we’ve been given to live life fully. It also serves as a gentle reminder our war veterans wear the label ‘veteran’ differently. It is a matter of luck we made it home. Some did not receive a warm welcome home, like our Vietnam veterans experienced. Others came home physically, emotionally, or mentally broken or found their personal lives falling apart. The ‘beauty’ we associate with homecoming may not have been beautiful for them at all. The charity associated with this weekend is both a blessing and an awkward circumstance. As some veterans roadmap their weekend to hit up each free drink, meal, or service offering of their liking, some of us will likely pick a quieter weekend routine.

I am among the latter group. I do not find the gluttony of veteran discounts appealing. It gets under my skin and makes me feel ashamed. I see veterans (and/or their family members) who complain about long waits and limited selections at franchise restaurants although I also know our most disenfranchised veterans equally are benefitted by the community efforts doled out this month. I do not feel I need the courting of my community because I was (relatively) well cared for by receiving an array of benefits during my service followed up by the robust education benefits earned through my honorable service. The generosity of the organizations offering a discount is not the problem; it’s the way we’ve come to view the opportunity as an entitlement.

If I let you see November 2004, in its incomplete picture, you get a different sense of who I am and why pandering for free food and services bothers me. I gathered this information about my deployment from the Military Times’ Honor the Fallen website back in 2016. As someone working in the command element, I know I felt like I was running on fumes at times while we pulled twelve hour days and I cannot begin to imagine how my brothers serving in Fallujah felt. Again, this is an incomplete list as it does not include the names of Iraqis inadvertently caught in the crossfire of our forces and the insurgents in Fallujah or any other part of our area of operations in the Al Anbar province.

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Wikipedia condenses the operation better than I’ve found in different bits and pieces around the internet. From their site, the second assault in Fallujah, Operation Al Fajr (or Operation Phantom Fury, as it was briefly known) is broken down as follows:

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Retrieved from Wikipedia, Second Battle of Fallujah

I do not mean to be brutal to my fellow veterans who enjoy a feast of drinks and food on Veterans Day. It just does not have meaning to me and I would like to see, if someone will partake in such activity, that he or she also meaningfully contribute to our veteran community over the weekend.

When I was deployed, I could not share the details of my deployment–and the constant killing and wounding of people–to my family. Instead, I could share the hope I felt about one day returning stateside. Over the course of November 2004, I wrote eleven MySpace entries for my family and friends expressing an eagerness to love fully and plan a wonderful life upon my return and separately, I wrote 4 private journal entries–3 about Iraq and how things were looking with the second assault into Fallujah and one to mention Yassar Arafat died. Back then, I was just living in the moment and I think now as a veteran, I realize how much more important it is to use our experiences and agency in a thoughtful manner.

I didn’t always realize how lucky I was to come home. That was a difficult matter for me back in 2005 and I have become better at forgiving myself for the ways I abused my body back then. In many ways, one of the best life decisions I made was to start working with student veterans back in 2013. I want to continue reminding veterans they should find some way to make another veteran’s life better. Our service to each other should not end when our military commitments expire. Sometimes, my family and I have been fortunate to donate money to different causes that serve veterans. This year, I am trying something new.

Tomorrow I am volunteering with the Town of Gilbert for their Veterans Day ceremony. I have never contributed my time to a public ceremony. It is an awkward position for me stepping out from behind the computer as I like behind the scenes work and/or academic  settings where it is quieter and more controlled. If I can take this baby step though and get outside my comfort zone, I know you can, too.

I encourage you to please find something this weekend (or this month, if your weekend is already jam-packed) to serve veterans that is outside your norm. Think about your life experiences, your proximity or distance to veterans, and the need for positive veteran transitions. Serve where you are and let the experience be as private or as public as you feel comfortable but serve with an open heart.

(NOTE: If I have many any mistakes regarding a service member’s name spelling or rank, I offer my sincerest apologies. I worked to transcribe this information dutifully from Military Times’ Honor the Fallen in 2016, but again, it was a difficult assignment for me. Opening up each bio and seeing someone who had previously been ‘nameless’ to me made the loss a fresh wound. Any mistake is mine, and mine alone.)

MOS School: The Path I Chose

Becoming a Marine is one matter, but it is equally as important to discuss our individual roles in the Marine Corps. All jobs are important regardless of organization, but when the average person thinks of the Marine Corps an Infantry Marine is who they usually think of. I cannot blame them for their viewpoints because representation plays a significant role in our knowledge of the world and the people within it.

When I made the choice to step in the recruiter’s office, I wanted a new path in life. I wanted to serve in my late friend’s place after his murder. I felt I could volunteer and become a Marine, finishing an enlistment (or longer) in this role. While he chose explosive ordnance disposal as his military occupational specialty (MOS), I opted for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense. I was adamant I did not want admin or supply because–although I knew next to nothing of the Marine Corps–I felt these would be roles women were naturally pushed towards. I liked the idea of Combat Camera but I was not confident I was as proficient as I needed to be to serve in this capacity.

When I reviewed the job description for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense, which transitioned to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense, it intrigued me. I shouldn’t be so surprised because this was after 9/11. I saw an immediate need, other people I knew supported the idea, and I met the ASVAB score for this particular responsibility.

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MOS school was more of a challenge than I expected.  My typical academic study habits and strengths did not serve me well. I left high school with a 3.75 GPA but having the cadre criticize us when we chose not to study and micromanage other aspects of our training left me feeling drained. The 24/7 mentality of being a Marine from boot camp, MCT, and MOS school (later followed in different ways in the fleet) was a real struggle for me. I like having a separation of my work/academic life from my personal life and it was nearly impossible to find during training.

I felt out-of-place especially with our female instructor who was highly critical of the fact I was dating a Marine outside our schoolhouse. MOS school was more an exercise in misery than an opportunity for me to become more embedded in the Marine Corps.

This is a hard reality to reflect back on, particularly because I wanted to serve to honor my friend.  Unfortunately, I learned early on that my maturity would not translate to being treated as an equal and my desire to “walk away” and feel at home at the end of the day wasn’t going to happen.

I learned to adopt a “learn it,” “regurgitate it,” and “brain dump it” way of behaving to get through schoolhouse life. This attitude is not conducive to longtime learning, but I hit the markers I needed to in order to graduate. To this day, I will tell you, I always wished I learned my MOS better. The knowledge was not an easy thing for me to learn, and years later, I cannot recall the basics. Practical application exercises were just as difficult as understanding the knowledge areas. Aside from not being a natural fit for my job, I was starting to feel like I would never fit in as a Marine.

As difficult as it was to integrate into the schoolhouse, it was an interesting time period in my life. I saw historical events through a different lenses, seeing the darker side of science and technology not truly discussed in lower level academic classrooms. We got a grittier version of historical events, learning more about how humankind created destructive products and gear to combat such threats.

If I can leave you with one good recommendation on this topic, it is to read The Biology of Doom: The History of America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project.  As well, I would also like to encourage each of you to stay open-minded in your learning process. It is not conductive to only learn things that show a positive representation of your country and culture.

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Me (on the left) and a former friend who was attending the MP (Military Police) training school at Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri.
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One of my former NBC roommates (on the left) and I during our training. FYI, I just borrowed the glasses for the photo.
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Roger Castleberry, one of my classmates. Unfortunately, he was killed in Iraq, but he was a pretty neat person to come across in my training because he choose to lateral move into our MOS. Sometimes, it’s great as a young Marine to come across individuals with more experience who are easygoing and prove the Marine Corps is more multi-faceted than instructors let on.

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One of the Marines I met in training who I am still friends with to this day.

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I do not have photos from our most important training endeavor when we walked through the Chemical Defense Training Facility. Prior to walking through the building we ran a practice walk-through outside so we understood how to safely walk through the building. We also tested our masks to ensure everyone had a functioning product prior to commencing our training exercise. The live nerve agent training was an event that felt quite surreal; it was hard to believe as we stood around and watched our instructors bring out containers with the agents those weren’t simulated products. Thankfully, nothing went awry and we performed the necessary tasks asked of us. The experience certainly taught me to trust my equipment, but I have not always found it easy to instill that trust in others.

One of the most difficult things is encountering Marines resistant to annual training. I am not a confident public speaker anyways so teaching classes always made me feel uncomfortable (and still does). I like work behind the scenes and I had inadvertently chosen something that would put me in a public element on a number of occasions in my short career. I felt my confidence was harder to build when senior Marines, for whatever their reasons, would be rude and disruptive to our work. I had one Marine in particular that made some commentary about a different style mask when I worked with 3rd MAW. I felt he made the remark to make me look incompetent and thankfully, I had a senior Marine on my side who shut him down and publicly indicated that mask was no longer in use.

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Me (front left) with some of my fellow Marines on our graduation day.

As I continue to share my experiences please remember I am an imperfect person who served in the Marine Corps. I was not particularly skilled in many areas like my peers. I lacked military bearing (and still lack it). My judgment bit me a couple of times, in quite big ways. I marched terribly (whether I was leading or following). This place is an intimate look at the Marine Corps, through my eyes. I have been just as difficult at times with other Marines as others have been to me, and I acknowledge my failures as a leader. I try not to make those choices again.

As I bring this entry to a close, I am fortunate with my educational background I met the criteria to serve as a CBRN Defense Specialist. It allowed me the opportunity to serve a different role in Iraq. There is a tenacity I brought to my work in the Command Operations Center I don’t feel everyone can do. It is emotionally taxing work, and it is not visible the way infantry work is seen by our culture. The jobs are connected and it is not a matter of pride that guided my work but a dedication to my fellow Marines. In the years that have passed, I’ve only met a small handful of Marines who served in Iraq the same time I did. It is an honor we contributed in different ways to keep our Marines safe and I am happy I found a purpose in my Iraq role I never felt in my stateside duties.

It is always possible I would have served in Iraq if I had chosen a different MOS in the Marine Corps, but it’s not something I could say definitively. Each choice we make opens a door to certain possibilities and closes doors to others. The path I chose brought a number of Marines into my life who are still here by my side years later but most of the people I met in the schoolhouse are names but nothing else to me now. The few who I remain in contact with are excellent people and it is a joy to know life is treating them and their families well.

I am also happy I walked away from this job in the Marine Corps. It wasn’t something I did particularly well, and as one of my current classes is discussing in our assigned materials, sometimes we must leave certain jobs to others so we can serve in more appropriate roles for our strengths.