Marines discuss combat experience in Al Anbar

1 Apr 2007 | Cpl. Luke Blom

As a combat correspondent attached to the Hawaii-based 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment I’ve had the privilege to go on patrols and conduct various missions with dozens of different units inside the Haditha “Triad” region – a tri-city metropolis in the middle of the western Al Anbar desert along the Euphrates River.

Each time I get attached to a platoon, whether it was for a three hour patrol or a multi-day operation, I get the opportunity to talk with the grunts about what they’ve seen and experienced and what their perspective is about the war.

I sat down with two Marines who I've been on patrol with numerous times to discuss the War from their points of view as Marine infantrymen on the front lines.

Sgt. Jason Tarr, a squad leader and 27-year-old from Great Mills, Md., has been deployed to Afghanistan and is currently on his first tour in Iraq with 2nd Battalion. Since arriving in Iraq in September 2006, Tarr has served as a section leader for a Mounted Assault Platoon (MAP) and recently as a dismounted squad leader. He has also been awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained while attached to MAP.

Cpl. James Steuter, an infantryman and 21-year-old from West Point, Neb., serves as a team leader with Tarr's squad. Like Tarr, Steuter has also been deployed to Afghanistan and is currently on his first tour in Iraq with 2nd Battalion.

Steuter has also been nominated for the Navy Achievement Medal with Combat V (Valor), for helping to save the life of a Navy Corpsman while under fire.

After a patrol through the streets of Haditha, we sat down to discuss the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, politics, combat and the people it affects.

What are some differences between the wars Iraq and Afghanistan?

Tarr – In Afghanistan we would go on patrol through the mountains and basically wait for someone to attack us. Out here, we’re actually going out to get the bad guys.

Steuter – There’s a huge tactical difference between here and Afghanistan. Here we’re in the middle of a city whereas in Afghanistan we were in the middle of the mountains out in the open. When we got hit in Afghanistan it was usually from 500 to 600 yards away, but here you’re getting hit from about 50 yards. It’s also a lot harder to tell who the enemy is here because their so integrated into the population.

As a grunt you’re in contact with local Iraqis on a daily basis. How would you describe them?

Tarr – Most of them are really good people. For the most part, they want us here and they want us to repair their government. They want to make sure that their Army and Police force is stood up before we leave. That’s why we integrate the Iraqi Security Force into our missions so much, to get them ready to take over eventually.

Steuter – Most of these people are just regular people who want to live regular lives without having to worry about getting killed everyday. I talk to people everyday out here and they always tell me that they just want a normal life; they want to be able to go to sleep at night and not get woken up by a bomb or gunfire. I ask them what they think about us being here and they tell me, ‘we didn’t really want you here in the first place, but now that you’re here you need to stay here.’ If we left now the insurgents would run this place. I’m not talking about Iraq as a whole, but in the Haditha area, the insurgents would have total control if we left right now.

Do you think you’re making a positive difference in their lives?

Tarr – Absolutely. When we first got here we would get attacked every time we left the wire. Not only does that suck for us, but it had a huge effect on the population. People were afraid to leave their houses for fear of getting shot. The last couple of months have been very different. The violence is down dramatically, more people are walking around the markets than I’ve ever seen. In general, people are starting to get a small sense of security.

Steuter – From when we got here in September until now the city has done a complete 180. I don’t know about the country as a whole, but we’ve made a huge difference in Haditha. When we first got here we got shot at three or four times on each patrol, locals were being threatened by the insurgency and the insurgents pretty much controlled the Suk (market) area. Now things are starting to get under control.

Back home there’s a huge political debate over the future of Iraq and what role the U.S. military will play in Iraq’s future. What do you think about it?

Tarr – As far as I’m concerned, Marines shouldn’t focus on politics too much in the first place. Of course it plays a role in the big picture, and all the Marines here are well aware of what’s going on in Washington. But we’ve got a job to do. Politics don’t really come into play on patrol.

Steuter – I don’t think about our politics at all. I think about the Iraqi political situation more than our own because right now, the Iraqi government is so new and not everyone trusts it. Everybody I talk to on patrol says their government is in trouble and they don’t have a lot of trust in it yet. The people think that it is too divided between the tribes and Shiites and Sunnis. As for our politicians, they’re going to make decisions and do what they want. It’s out of our hands. We can’t do anything about it but go out and do our job as good as we can.

What’s the most difficult thing you’ve encountered out here?

Tarr – We’ve lost four Marines from my squad, and it’s been very difficult. Unfortunately, we’ve all lost friends, and for me as a squad leader, Marines I was in charge of. We keep busy and try not to think about it all the time, but it’s hard. I can see in my Marines eyes that they’re hurting, but you’ve got to get past it.

Steuter – The op-tempo (operational tempo) has been pretty tough, everyone’s getting run pretty ragged, but it’s a necessary evil. It allows us to do everything we want to mission-wise and it cuts down on the free time where we can just sit and think about all the negative stuff like Marines dying. It’s hard when you loose Marines because you feel like you can’t do anything about it. I mean, we can patrol and do our IED (Improvised Explosive Device) sweeps, but when someone gets hit with an IED you can’t do anything to stop it. It’s hard as a leader because you can’t help your guys out as much as you want to.

How do you get through it?

Tarr – It’s still hard, and none of us are over it. Just today I picked up a Leatherneck Magazine and saw the names of Marines in my squad on the KIA (Killed In Action) list, that brought everything back to the surface. But within the squad we talk about the guys we lost and all the good times we had together. I’m not going to say it doesn’t affect us day-to-day, because it does, but the Marines are here for each other and they push through it together.

Steuter – You’re going to loose guys, and that same day you’ll be right back out on patrol back in the thick of it. You’re mind gets taken off it pretty quick because it has to. If you’re thinking about the guy that just died, you’re not fully concentrating on the mission at hand, and that’s when you miss something. Within the squad we talk about it a lot. It’s not like we sit down for an organized discussion or anything, but when we’ve got some down time and we’re just chilling with each other, someone usually brings it up.

How much do you and your squad members rely on each other for support?

Tarr – When we’re on a mission we have to be kind of self-sustaining. We have to rely on each other for everything because when it comes down to it, we watch each other’s back. Those Marines to the left and to the right you, they’re the guys that are going to get you through this.

Steuter – We are everything to each other. We’re with each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week so we’re pretty close. Our squad has changed a little since we’ve been here; new guys take the spots of guys we’ve lost. It doesn’t matter if someone has been with us for the entire deployment or just the last couple months, they’re part of the team. We rely on each other 100 percent.

Speaking of squad members, a Marine in your squad once said that you could probably take apart a NASA space shuttle with a leather man. Really?

Steuter – (Laughs) No. I’d only need a number two pencil and a rubber band.

When you get home, what are you going to tell friends and family about your experiences in Iraq?

Tarr – To be honest, I’ll tell them we did our job and made a difference in this city, but trying to explain what it’s like out here to someone who’s never been here is hard. What I will tell them is how amazing the Marines I was with were. The guys I work with are incredible, except Cpl. Steuter (laughs).

Steuter – I probably won’t say anything unless people ask questions, which I’ll answer as best as I can. A lot of people back in the states have absolutely no idea what the actual situation is here. I mean, 20-30-40 people are dying everyday in Baghdad alone. There’s so much that people don’t understand back home. Like the difference between a Shiite or a Sunni, or how tense the tribal relations are. I hear people back home say, ‘Iraqis are bad people.’ No they’re not, most of them are really good people. There’s a bunch of people I see out in town a lot and I consider them buddies. They’re regular people, and just because they don’t have the same belief system as you doesn’t make them a bad person.

There’s no doubt that someone back home will ask you what combat is like. How do you describe combat to a civilian?

Tarr – I’ll tell them to read two books, ‘On Killing’ and ‘On Combat.’ They are two of the best books I’ve ever read about combat. They should be required reading for every Marine coming over here. The human body does amazing things when it’s getting shot at. I’ve seen Marines do some of the most courageous, amazing things out here while getting shot at. It’s like everything gets kicked into overdrive. Cpl. Steuter ran through some pretty heavy fire to save the squad corpsman’s life. It’s absolutely amazing what your body can do when a friend is lying in the street wounded.

Steuter – There’s no way I can fully explain what combat is like to someone who’s never been in it. People watch movies like ‘Black Hawk Down’ and they think they’ve got an idea of what it’s like, it’s not even close. In real life when you’re on the ground getting shot at and returning fire, there’s so much more to it than what you see in the movies or on T.V. I’ll try to explain it to people, but I don’t think they’ll understand.

What’s one of the misconceptions about Iraq?

Steuter – The people of Iraq. It seems like a lot of people back home think that Iraqis in general are bad people. Not true. Yeah, there are some bad guys here but the majority of the people are average working class Joes. Some of them support us being here and some don’t, but only a small percentage of the people are trying to kill us. When you go out and talk to the people of Haditha, they are actually embarrassed by the people shooting at us. The guys trying to kill us are an embarrassment for the rest of the population.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get back to the states?

Tarr – To be honest I haven’t even thought about that yet. I’ll probably give everyone in my squad a big hug and a shake their hand and tell them what an incredible job they’ve done.

Steuter – I don’t know, take a hot shower.