The Marine Who Saw Too Much
Thursday 15 June 2006
A former lance corporal explains why he intentionally failed a drug test to avoid going back to war-torn Iraq.
Recruiters convinced a listless Californian named Daniel to join the Marines. On September 11, 2001, he was taking classes at a junior college near San Jose while holding down two jobs: managing a PurWater store and squeezing fruit at a Jamba Juice stand.
His patriotism combined with the recruiters' sales pitches convinced him to drop out of school two units short of his associate's degree. By the next summer he was in boot camp. When we meet, the 23 year-old ex-Marine asks me to restrict my identification of him to his first name; he's fighting the Veterans Administration for benefits and the Marines for an honorable discharge, and he fears publicity may hurt his case.
Daniel is slouched in his chair when we first start talking. He's wearing a camouflage baseball cap with the image of a Canada goose on its front. His black T-shirt carries the legend POW-MIA you are not forgotten. His forearms are covered with tattoos. His blue jeans are well faded and his black cowboy boots well worn.
"I decided my country needed me and I was pretty fit," he says about his decision to join the Marines after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "I decided to go do my part. I wasn't sure what branch until I walked into the recruiting office and a Marine Corps office was before all the other ones. They kind of pulled me in, told me all their jarhead jargon, and filled my head with a whole bunch of good stuff. I was sold quickly."
Daniel speaks fast, with a slight twang and the hint of a stutter. He says his childhood stutter returned as a symptom of his combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
By February 2003, Daniel was trained as a radio operator and was the proud owner of a brand new Dodge Ram 1500 truck. A week after he bought the truck, he was told he was being deployed to the Middle East. "There goes my truck payments," he remembers thinking. But he parked the pickup and managed to keep the payments current while he saw the other side of the world. "It was a pretty scary time," Daniel says about his three months on a ship, patrolling Kuwaiti waters during the initial U.S. assault on Iraq.
Rotated back to the States, Daniel hopped back into the Dodge and unwound. "Came back over stateside, happy to be back. Spent all my money and had a good time. Early in 2004 we was back in the desert. This time I went directly into Iraq." He found himself on an assault boat, patrolling for "insurgents." His unit saw action in the toughest neighborhoods throughout much of 2004, often beaching the boat and joining forces with land-based troops in hot spots like Fallujah. "Pretty scary, that's all I've got to say about that," Daniel says regarding Fallujah, his speech turning percussive. "You never know when it's your time to go. Explosions from mortars going off all around you. Shots fired. You try to keep your head up. Trust the guy next to you. That's about it."
Fighting in the war flipped Daniel's political beliefs. "I came back very anti-Bush. I used to be a Republican before I joined the military. Not any more." His experiences on the ground, he says, convinced him he'd been lied to. The Iraqis "are a defeated people," he says, not a threat to America. "It's a third-world country. These people walk around with no shoes, nothing. These guys are working for a dollar a day. The military would pay the village people to come on base and build sandbags so that they can be more comfortable in their tents and pay them a dollar a day, and these guys will work making seven dollars a week just to feed their family."
Watching the construction of permanent barracks on bases in Iraq convinced Daniel that the real goal of the war was control. "Iraq is the center of the Middle East. If you control the center, you control the whole Middle East. You control all the profits that you get from there," he says about the oil reserves.
Back from leave, Daniel, who was awarded eight decorations for valor, was in for some surprises. "We go back to Camp Lejeune and we get a new CO [commanding officer] who's never been to Iraq, who doesn't have nearly as many ribbons as I do," says Daniel. "He goes, 'Get prepared to go back to Iraq in January!' This was October. We just got back. All of our jaws just dropped. He goes, 'But go home and have fun for about three weeks.'" As Daniel recounts this announcement of a third tour of duty in the Middle East in as many years, his stutter becomes much more pronounced. "I felt like a weight just got put on my chest. I couldn't breathe. Panic attacks. I can't believe this is going to happen. Everybody felt the same way. A couple of people didn't come back from leave. They decided to stay home."
Daniel looked forward to going home to California, but he realized, "I couldn't enjoy my leave because I knew I was going straight back to that hellhole I just left. "They were trying to train us to go back," he continues. "We were well seasoned. We had to listen to these guys who had never been over there. We all thought, 'These dumb-asses are going to get us killed.' Some of these guys, they didn't know how to tie their shoes. They came back from recruiting duty wanting to get all gung ho. They were like, 'Yeah! We're going to go fight a war!' We had already been over there and seen what's happened."
This veteran of some of the worst fighting in the Iraq War, now a lance corporal and faced with a third tour of duty in the war zone, asked to see a counselor of some type, "because my head was not right." Nothing happened. He told his first sergeant that he was a conscientious objector, and he says the sergeant responded: "Get those words out of your mouth right now." Daniel was trying everything he could think of to avoid shipping out to Iraq again, and couldn't see a way out.
So he made a fateful decision.
"I was pretty frustrated," he explains. "I wanted them to listen to me, so I decided to do something where I would stand out and get everybody's attention. I knew by doing this I would not have to go back to Iraq and harm any more people. I decided to take drugs that Friday, knowing I had a piss test on Monday. I did drugs. I did the urinalysis test on Monday. Went home for a Christmas break on Friday." Back on base after the holidays, Daniel was told he had "popped," failed the drug test.
Daniel picked cocaine as his drug of choice, convinced that if he only smoked marijuana the Marines would just slap his hand and send him packing for Iraq. He says it was the first time he had used cocaine. "I knew that if I did that they would listen to me." He finally was awarded a meeting with the battalion's commanding officer and was told that as long as he trained a replacement radio operator, he would be discharged "in a timely manner."
The day Daniel's unit shipped out to Iraq, the Marines put him on a four-day bus trip back to California, with an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge. "I felt really bad. I felt really bad." Other Marines in his unit failed to show up for Iraq duty, he says, and still others followed his example and used drugs in order to fail the mandatory drug test. "None of them wanted to go back, none of them did. But they did not know how to get out. I feel bad for all of them. Sometimes I wish I was with them because they were my family over there. But I have to do what I do for myself."
With three years in the Marines, two tours of duty in the war zone, eight decorations, and one bad drug test, Daniel went to the Veterans Administration in San Jose complaining of post-traumatic stress disorder, seeking help. "I showed them my papers and they said, 'Wow, you're pretty decorated. We need to get you some help.' Then they looked at the OTH and said, 'Can't do nothing for you.'" In addition to being denied help from the VA, Daniel forfeited the $1,200 the Marines took out of his first year's pay as his required contribution to qualify for GI benefits.
"I still have bad dreams every night," he says. "It's like a video that rewinds and every time I go to sleep it plays back and I wake up distraught. It just doesn't go away."
"And what are the images?" I ask him.
"What are you seeing?"
"I'm sure you've seen pictures. I don't have to describe them again. I don't want to."
But Daniel is anxious to analyze the status of affairs in Iraq from his perspective and personal experience. "A lot of innocent people get hurt over there. For the most part, their people are good. They want to raise their families.
They're actually very happy that we got rid of Saddam Hussein. We had to dig a potty hole one time and we found a mass child grave. Saddam was just a bad person. These kids over there are walking around with hardly anything, barely able to feed themselves. These people are skinny. A lot of troops are giving them their extra boots. We'll give them a little bit of food. For the most part, these people just want to get on with their lives. They're not terrorists, the Iraqis. It's all the insurgents coming in from other places that misinterpret the Muslim religion. I didn't know much about Islam at the time. But I have a cross, a Catholic cross on my arm," he shows off the massive tattooed cross decorating his right arm. "A lot of them would point it out and say, 'Oh, we believe in Jesus, too. He's a prophet.' I learned a lot from the Iraqi people I got to talk to, so don't be prejudiced if you ever meet one over here. They're not bad people at all."
As for the rest of his life, "Basically I'm starting over from scratch," says Daniel. "I'm not working right now. I'm looking for a job that I'll be happy with. I'm a hard-working stiff. I've just got to find something that I'll love and enjoy. Then I'll start all over again." As for the truck? "The Dodge is gone." Repossessed.
Daniel hopes to convince the Marines to change his discharge classification so that he can be treated by the Veterans Administration for the problems he's suffering as a result of his service in Iraq. But Kit Anderton of the Resource Center for Nonviolence, the caseworker who is helping Daniel with his appeal, is not optimistic. "This is not a good path," he says about Daniel's decision to use cocaine as an exit strategy. "It is particularly not a good path if you do not have evidence that you have tried to get the attention of your commanding officer, that you've done everything you possibly can to get pastoral or psychological help. Daniel did both, but I'm not sure we're going to find evidence that he did. This was a step of desperation for him. If he had called us, we certainly would have told him not to do it." Anderton laughs with frustration. "It's really the worst thing he could have done. He's in much worse shape than he was when he enlisted."
And, I suggest, he is arguably a national hero.
"He's a national hero," Kit agrees. "When we talk about supporting the troops, what are we talking about? We're taking these kids, we're using them up and throwing them out, and not taking responsibility for it. If people knew stories like this, they wouldn't be so cavalier about saying they're supporting the troops, putting stickers on their cars, and feeling like it's done."