THEY'RE NOT CELEBRITIES. THEY WALK PAST YOU ON THE STREET, BRING YOU YOUR FOOD AT A RESTAURANT, AND LIVE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD. THEY'RE EVERYDAY PEOPLE. JUST LIKE YOU.
AUGUST 2003: MARINE SGT. JOSEPH UNSUNG
THE SCENE IS A WOODEN, WEATHERED GREY GAZEBO, LINED WITH SIMPLE BENCHES. THERE IS A BUTT CAN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR, AND THE AREA AROUND THE STRUCTURE IS LINED WITH PINE TREES. THE AIR IS A PRE-STORM GREEN, AND THE SMELL OF PENDING SUMMER RAIN IS IN THE AIR.
Smokin': Okay. The tape is rolling, and I'm talking to Marine Sgt. Joseph Unsung about some of his experiences in Iraq.
Joseph: What do you want to talk about, man?
S: Well, I’d like to hear the story you told me this afternoon. I mean, I realize there is security stuff you can’t really get into; so just start with dealing with reporters, the gear you wore, and we'll go from there.
J: I didn't really have to deal with reporters; my buddies did. It all takes place in Iraq, for the most part. I was in Kuwait for a while, I'm not really sure of the dates, but it was basically when the war started. You can probably figure out the dates.
J: Actually, March 25th. I'll probably never forget that date.
S: Why is that?
J: That's when we rolled through Al Nasiriyah. That's one of the cities in southern Iraq. Did you get that? We rolled through,.. do you know what Amtraks are?
S: Yeah. Amphibious assault vehicles.
J: Yeah. I was in one of those. We rolled through the city of Al Nasiriyah, and we didn't see much. The city was still unsecured, so we’re rolling through in the Amtraks. There were grunts and infantry guys everywhere, and Marine corps snipers were up on the roofs. M1 Abrams tanks were everywhere, and more Amtraks were posted everywhere, pulling security for us along the highway. Grunts were posted in the middle of the road, facing outboard on both sides. Every time we rolled past one of the alleys, one of the tanks would fire machine gun rounds down the fucking alleys to suppress fire. They weren't even fucking firing at us. I think the city was only about two miles out. Once we got to the city, we got only a couple miles down the road, and LAR (Light Armor Reconnaissance), they look like small tanks with tires-- a 23mm cannon is the primary weapon, and I think they've got machine guns. Anyway, the LAR rolled in front of us by a couple of miles, and they were given the order to kill everything they saw. So, that's exactly what they did. (long pause) We're headed northbound on this highway, I don't know the name of it, but they destroyed everything they saw. It ended up being a lot of civilian vehicles headed southbound on the highway. Mostly, well,.. we didn't see too many children. It was mostly men and women, civilians, just fucking blown to hell. (pauses, smokes) Vans, buses,.. shit like that. We saw people hanging out of the fucking windows; some of the people were still on fire. Some of the vehicles were still on fire. It had only happened 20 or 30 minutes before we got there,.. if that. I don't exactly know if they were strictly civilians, but there were a lot of bodies stacked on top of each other. I don't know if people went through and tried to clean it up a little bit before we came through, but I remember some of the specifics. There was a guy laying in the middle of the road, blown directly in half, you know,.. his intestines hanging out and shit. His upper body was laying in the middle of the road. (long pause) There was another body, I don't know if it was male of female, laying in the middle of the road that had been run over by the tanks that were in front of us. The M1s had run over it, the LAR,.. I don't know how you describe it; it looked like a fucking pancake.
J: Yeah. Like I was saying earlier, we went through that highway all day, and saw close to 100 bodies everywhere. It was pretty gruesome, you know, at first. At the beginning of the day, I had seen it all firsthand; just sitting in the fucking hatch of the Amtrak, eating, watching everything. At the beginning of the day, it was hard to take in; it grosses you out. It almost looks fake, in a way; like something you'd seen in the movies. But then, towards the end of the day, after seeing it all day, it didn't bother us. We could pretty well stomach it. (pauses) I don't remember what we did that night. We saw a lot of buildings that were blown up from LAR, you know? Fucking caved in, still on fire.
S: Yeah. It's crazy. You're painting the Apocalypse. I can see the whole thing.
J: Yeah. It was crazy. It was really weird. Just seeing everything, it almost didn't seem realistic.
S: Yeah. Like somebody came along with a really huge production budget and staged it all, with a soundtrack and credits.
J: Exactly. (takes a drag off his cigarette)
J: It doesn't even really hit you that much, either. We had 18 EPWs (Enemy Prisoners of War) for two days; there were 72 total. We got the order to transport 18 of them. So we went to an open field on the side of a highway-- there were five Marines guarding 72 EPWs-- and a majority of them, I’d say at least 80% of them were civilians. They just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. So they got picked up. I'd say 90% of them were zip-tied behind their backs; the other 10% were zip-tied around the front. There were only a couple of them in uniforms; most of them were in civilian attire. Barely any of them had on shoes. They don't even wear shoes in that country. They're either barefoot or wear flip-flops. We pulled up, and there were four Amtraks that could take about 18 apiece. We were the last Amtrak to pull up, and we were supposed to pick out 18 of these fucking EPWs. I remember seeing one guy laid out on the ground on a stretcher. He was pretty bad, fucked up; his knee was all wrapped up, all bloody and shit. I guess he had a shattered knee. I think he got shot. We didn't want to have to pick him up; we didn't want to deal with this fucking guy on the stretcher. But, sure as shit, we ended up getting him and 17 others. So we had them at gunpoint and loaded them on the Amtrak. They were pretty scared at first. They didn't know what was in store for them. And they were stinky,.. bad hygiene, you know? It was pretty cold out; it was in the morning, so it was still pretty chilly out. They filled up the whole Amtrak in the back, sitting on the benches; a lot of them had to sit on the floor. And the guy with the stretcher sat on the floor as well. A lot of them were wounded. There was one guy that spoke broken English, and he told me he'd been shot in the lung. He showed me his bandage, but he was in pretty good spirits about it. He was smoking and shit. It was pretty wild. We were pretty strict with them, at first. We wouldn't allow them to talk or anything. Then, after a couple of hours, they'd try to keep talking amongst themselves. We told them to shut up, but they wouldn't listen. So I was like, "Go ahead and fucking talk. I don't give shit." You could tell they weren't gonna try to do anything; they were all zip-tied. They couldn't do anything if they wanted to. The one guy that was shot in the lung, he kept talking to the other guy; he was a private in the Iraqi army. They kept rambling on about something, and looking at me. I had a translation sheet, so I kept asking them, "What do you want?" And they start giving me the sign for a helicopter. Basically, they thought they were going to America on a helicopter. They thought that we were taking them. I ended up telling them we weren't going to fucking America, that we were going to Baghdad. They were from the south, and they knew they weren't allowed in Baghdad. And they knew that's where the action was; they were scared shitless about going there. (pauses) We traveled with them for two days. On the second day, we were at a pause on the side of the road taking a break, fixing the Amtraks. All the Amtraks go on the outskirts to provide security. We got a machine gun and a grenade launcher-- a 50 caliber and a MK19 grenade launcher-- and I was sitting at the back of the Amtrak with the turret right behind me. I heard my Staff Sergeant start yelling, "If they stick their fucking heads out again, start firing." And I was like, "Holy shit. I'm not sitting down here with these guys. I want to go up top and see what's going on." One of the other Lance Corporals was sleeping, so I woke his ass up. There were three other Lance Corporals watching the EPWs, so I told the EPWs to get the fuck down on the ground, on the bottom of the Amtrak. But they didn't understand, so I grabbed one of them and pushed him on the ground. They all hopped on like a big dogpile, laying on the deck plates. I grabbed my M-16 and climbed up to the outside to look. There were two guys, approximately 700 yards away, and it looked like they had rifles. They'd been sitting out there for about 20 minutes, and we didn't know what they're up to. Basically, the word over there was, "If you see people with rifles, they were a threat." We got confirmation on the radio to take them out. So I started shooting my M-16, but I don't think my bullets were even coming close; probably 500 yards, max. Whatever they were, I think they thought that we couldn't hit them; that we were too far away. So they started running forward a little bit. They only got about 20 yards. In the meantime, my Staff Sergeant is in the turret, sighting in with the 50 caliber. He took them both out with that. I didn't have binoculars at the time, but a couple of the Marines who saw it said they flew back about five feet when they got hit. We didn't have enough time to check them out; we took off down the road. (long pause) We ended up dropping the EPWs off at a bigger camp, where they were gonna be held for a while, and then let go after the war was over. I was lucky enough not to see a whole lot of action. We saw a good amount. We got fired upon a couple of times,.. going down the road and hearing gunshots as we took off.
S: You had said you were laughing after awhile?
J: It was really pretty crazy. At the end of the night, after getting shot at a couple of times, we had a couple of close calls. We came real close-- about two-and-a-half feet from running over an anti-tank mine.
J: Yeah! This son of a bitch was huge, man. It looked like a manhole cover. We were scared shitless when it happened. But then, at the end of the night, we were just so happy to be done for the day; so relieved. We would just drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and laugh about it; about how crazy it was. Like I was saying, even that didn't seem realistic. We would get shot at, and we would take off, you know? Or we'd fire back, and then haul ass. You never really thought it was real life. It almost seemed like you were in a movie. I don't know,.. it's hard to describe. It didn't seem realistic. It just seemed like you were almost invincible, and it can’t happen to you. You just can’t get killed like that. But we had some wild times over there, man. When we rolled into Baghdad, the war was pretty much over. Just a lot of policing of the area to do, a lot of security; waiting, seeing if anything else would happen, you know? And we started dealing a lot with the civilians. We started constantly trading money back and forth. Their currency was wiped out, so their money was absolutely worthless. We would trade money with them just so we could bring back Iraqi money, even though it wasn't really worth anything. I got an Iraqi soccer jersey, brand-new. I've got that at home. It's one of my favorite things. I bought one of the turbans, and the red and white headband they would wear. I have a bunch of Iraqi money, actually. Dinar, they call it.
S: Yeah. I've got some from Saudi Arabia, some old pound sterling before the Eurodollar took over, Pesetas from Spain, and some from Hong Kong, China.
J: Well, I'll tell you what? As soon as we're done, we'll walk over to my truck. I have a shitload of Iraqi money, and I'll give you a couple of bills. It's got Saddam's picture on it; it's not worth a damn.
S: Yeah. That would be awesome, man. Thanks.
J: We had some nasty hygiene over there. I went for about two-and-a-half weeks without taking a shower, wearing full MOPP (Mission-Oriented Protective Posture) suits, flak jacket, and Kevlar. We'd take baby wipe showers. Every once in awhile, I’d wash my hair and face with a bottle of water. Eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), two, sometimes three times a day. We were drinking bottled water from Kuwait, until we ran out. Then we were stuck drinking the purified water the Marines would make. I'm pretty sure that's why we all got sick. Damn near everybody in my fucking company got dysentery at least once. I got it twice. That was pretty much the nastiest I've ever been. Disgusting. Just eating MREs all day, getting sick, mosquitoes, and flies. Our toilets were wooden boxes. During the war, we'd use ammo cans. After the war, they built wooden shitters. They were burning shitters everyday. I don't know if you've ever had to do that. (laughing) You pull out metal barrels and cut them in half with rakes, dump in some diesel fuel, light them up, and stir them. You see it in the movies. I didn't know we still did that.
S: Damn! That would gag a fucking maggot!
J: Yeah! (laughs) You obviously know what an MRE is, but we also had what's called humanitarian rations. Same size as an MRE, made by the same people who make MREs, but it was yellow. It always came with one main meal, and they had food that anybody could eat, like if they didn't eat meat. It was lentil stew with red beans and rice, and it came with toaster pastries, crackers, and peanut butter-- stuff that anybody could stomach, no matter what religion you were. We passed those things out during the war. People would run up to the Amtraks begging for food, so we'd give them out. It was pretty good. Any candy bars we had we didn't eat; we were always giving them out to the kids. It really felt good. We got to deal with the public a lot, and they were always coming out to talk to us. It was a good experience, overall. It made you feel good about what you were doing, you know? We were helping people. It was like a parade wherever we went. People would run out and want to shake our hands or give us cigarettes. They'd thank us for what we did. It really felt good. It made me feel that we had done something good, and that we had been appreciated.
S: Wow. That's a perfect note to end on. Let's head out,.. it's starting to rain.
J: Yeah. We'll walk over to the truck, and I'll give you those notes.
S: Thanks, man. I’d like that. Oh, hey! I almost forgot, does a dog,.. never mind.