SAQLAWIYAH, Iraq -- The soft, even tone of his voice, and the caring, soulful look in Seaman Clarence Washington’s eyes belie the atrocities this 26-year-old sailor has witnessed during his past four months in Iraq.
The carnage of war touches every service member here somehow, but in this Caruthersville, Mo., native’s case; it is he who touches that carnage back.
Washington, a Caruthersville, Mo., native serves as a corpsman with Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, a unit currently working beside Iraqi Security Forces to secure the rural township of Saqlawiyah on the outskirts of Fallujah. In these village streets and fields, the young sailor has left behind parts of his soul.
“I’ll never forget the events on June 10,” said Washington, a former volunteer at St. Mary’s Hospital in Jefferson City. “I’ll never forget having to take their bodies out of the vehicle. It’s something I still see in my mind everyday.”
That sweltering late-spring day, Lance Cpls. Mario Castillo and Andrew Kilpela were killed by an insurgent-emplaced roadside bomb. These engineers were supporting Washington’s unit by erecting signs along the road, warning the populace to beware of these bombs. It was Washington and a group of his Marines who were called upon to react to the explosion.
“They had told me there were two possible (Marines killed in action), but I didn’t really believe anybody was actually dead,” Washington said. “They told me to take body bags just in case.”
“When I got there, I saw the destroyed vehicle,” continued Washington as he cast his eyes down in solemn remembrance. “I walked to it, thinking to myself, ‘I have to do this quickly, because I don’t want my Marines to see this.’”
The events that day opened Washington’s eyes to the realities of war, but no barbaric act of violence would deter him and his Marines’ resolve to fight the terrorists who had claimed their friends’ lives.
The troops continue conducting daily missions, raids and patrols to wrest the insurgents’ grip off Saqlawiyah.
Washington, who is also a former University of Tennessee student of social work, hikes and walks the streets with the best of them.
“My job out here is to look out for my Marines, and provide them with an adequate amount of care,” he explained. “I deal with first aid, preventive medicine and hygiene concerns.”
“Sometimes, this job is kind of like being a (parent),” Washington said with a slight smile. “The Marines might not always listen to me, but when they have some problem they don’t want to discuss in front of their friends, they come to me.”
More than three years of naval service remain on Washington’s contract, during which he will continue pondering what career possibilities his future holds.
“I plan to re-enlist if I get to attend (Basic) X-Ray technician school,” he stated. “If not, I’ll probably go back to school to be a nurse’s assistant. I’ve already gotten plenty of medical experience in the military.”
The mission at hand remains foremost on Washington’s mind for now, as he enjoys the rough work to which he dutifully devotes himself.
“Being a corpsman is everything I’ve always liked doing, wrapped into one package: medicine, psychology, and counseling,” he said. “I believe this to be one of the most rewarding experiences ever. There are lots of things I wish I hadn’t seen out here, but they’ve helped me mature. I can hold my head high, stick my chest out, and say that I’ve done something special with my life.”