This is a paper about how infantrymen in the United States Marine Corps handle combat deaths. It was researched and written by Stephen Smith, Th.M., in partial fulfillment for a seminary course on Death and Dying. While Steve has never experienced the dark side of man, his twin brother – me – has. Together, we offer this paper in eight parts. Footnotes follow at the end of each section. Click on the links below to read the previous four posts.
This post, Part 5, describes the physical, emotional, and psychological reactions of Marines to the violence of combat.
Part 1: Post 9-11 Casualties – Part 2: The Link Between Combat and PTSD – Part 3: Learning to Kill – Part 4: Preparing for Death – Part 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat – Part 6: Memorials and Unit Healing – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD – Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography
How Infantry Marines Experience Death during Combat Operations
As we have seen, Marine training emphasizes professional detachment and desensitization when it comes to combat death: whether the death of enemy combatants or of fellow Marines. The purpose of this training is to ensure that Marines remain combat effective in order to accomplish their mission, regardless of how chaotic or bloody the battle becomes. Few would disagree with the importance of this objective. But the very nature of traumatic events is that they impact the psyches of those who experience them. Training may allow a Marine to function despite experiencing trauma, but it cannot erase the traumatic experience, nor can it erase the Marine’s fundamental humanity. While Marines may continue to function in combat as professional warriors, nothing can prepare them for the death of a friend. And despite their training in desensitization, many Marines report experiencing normal feelings of shock, grief, anger, and feeling helpless or out of control when a friend dies in combat. Problematically, the tempo of combat operations rarely allows Marines to fully process or integrate such feelings. The result is a heightened susceptibility to PTSD.
Fear of One’s Own Death
While training may desensitize a Marine to the death of an enemy combatant, there is always the question of one’s own mortality. Living in a combat zone where other men are actively trying to kill you creates a climate of fear for some Marines. And while this fear may not be debilitating, it can contribute to susceptibility to PTSD. Chris Lyon, a Marine turret gunner in Iraq, recalls his own sense of mortality:
As I stood in the relative cool of the stairwell of our rarely used company barracks on the old RAF base at Habbaniyah, staring at the cool blackened steel of the “Mark” [machine gun], I wondered how I would die. I remember now that it wasn’t a question in my mind of if, but when, and where, and how. I hoped it would be quick, but I did not want it to be instant; that was clear in my mind. I wanted time in my last seconds to gather my thoughts, my loved ones in my heart, and to gather my many sins into my soul and send them all forth together, with every ounce of remorse and hope and faith I had. I did not want to die unshriven, or barring that, unknowing. These dark thoughts were spurred by what had happened to Miller and Johnson [Marines who had been killed], to be sure, but also by rumors that had been circulating about the general bounties that the AQI (Al Qaeda Iraq) had placed on turret gunners. I can’t remember, now, what the overall casualty rate for turret gunners was in OIF and OEF, or even on our own deployment. Purely by our exposed positions we were the most vulnerable to attack, especially from sniper fire. There was hardly a gunner I knew or talked to in the battalion that had not been blown up repeatedly and had numerous close calls by the end of the deployment. Other
Marines describe the “pucker factor” of leaving the wire of a forward operating base in a vehicle. “Pucker” refers to the tightening feeling a Marine gets in his anal sphincter as he considers the likelihood that he could be blown up by an IED beneath his vehicle. Almost half of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are the result of IEDs. The fear of never knowing if you will get blown up haunts almost every Marine who goes outside the wire. This fear continues for some Marines when they return to the States and see piles of trash beside the road, which in Iraq might signify a hidden IED.
Shock of Combat Death
Most Marines describe the first friendly death they see in combat as a huge—and sometimes debilitating—shock. When Nathan Smith served as the lieutenant of a Marine infantry platoon in Iraq, one of his foot patrols was hit by an IED. A Marine was blown apart. Smith helped the corpsman triage the casualty, then directed his attention to an aimless group of Marines standing nearby. He writes on his blog: “This is the squad that was hit by the IED and they are in shock. The squad leader stares vacantly over my right shoulder at the corpsmen bending over his bleeding friend. I have to grab his biceps and physically turn him to face me before a flicker of recognition crosses his stricken face.” Lt. Col. Benjamin Busch recalls a similar incident: “The unflinching corpsman, Doc Negron, was covered with blood and looked drained as if it had been his own. The others were wide-eyed, exhausted, and silent with shock. They were huddled in a group staring at the entrance to the trauma tent, a large inflated portable triage facility. I could hear screaming and ran inside. My Marine had been sitting on the edge of his vehicle hatch when it was struck by an RPG….” Officers themselves are not immune from shock upon seeing a friendly casualty. Smith recalls the first time he saw one of his
men who had been killed. His platoon was involved in clearing operations along the Euphrates River in western Iraq, 2005. Insurgents ambushed the unit from the town of Ubaydi. Despite his desensitizing at a local ER during IOC, Smith was unprepared for what he saw. “Some snipers attached to my platoon dragged one of our guys out of a building. He’d been shot a dozen times at close range by three insurgents with a machine gun and AK-47s. It was the most horrible thing I had ever seen – his face looked like a Halloween mask. This wasn’t supposed to happen in real life. I was incapacitated and couldn’t give any orders for what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a few seconds. Fortunately other Marines were making decisions.” An occasional exception to this feeling of shock is when a Marine is killed because of his own “stupidity” or when a unit continues to make the same mistake over and over. While Marines never like to see another Marine killed, there is sometimes a feeling that a Marine gets what is coming to him if he refuses to follow standard operating procedures.
Helpless/Out of Control Feelings
While shock is a normal reaction to experiencing the death of a friend in combat, Marines sometimes may feel helpless or out of control as a result of the circumstances. Marines who feel this way are particularly susceptible to PTSD. Dr. Hoge notes, “There are some unique situations in which warriors will acknowledge feeling helpless, and it appears that these can contribute to them developing serious PTSD symptoms on return from combat. These are situations in which warriors are unable to respond militarily, either because the enemy is elusive or because they’re constrained by the rules of engagement (ROE).” Unfortunately, much of the combat in Iraq—and sometimes in Afghanistan—falls into this category. For example, the nature of the insurgency in Iraq involves hit-and-run attacks where the enemy combatants blend into the civilian population or use IEDs to inflict casualties remotely. Marines find this type of warfare maddening. When a Marine unit suffers a casualty, the Marines naturally want to exact vengeance and eliminate the threat. With IEDs in particular, Marines rarely obtain this cathartic release of emotion. Instead, they are left feeling helpless, victimized, and frustrated. Nathan Smith recalls that in his entire first tour in Iraq he only fired his weapon at enemy combatants once. And that was just at muzzle flashes. When his dead Marine was pulled out of the building in Ubaydi, Smith recalls feeling out of control. “I felt exhausted and overwhelmed,” he says. “I instantly got a migraine which lasted for the rest of the day. I wanted to be in control—as a Marine officer you are trained to always be in control—but a dead Marine is about as out of control as you can get. Things got so bad so fast.” Benjamin Busch remembers feeling helpless after one of his Marines was shot by a sniper in Iraq: “I went outside as the helicopter was being called in, and the platoon had condensed into a silent pack nearby. They seemed full of something unsettled and beyond words. I knew the feeling. They were, again, incapable of exacting revenge, unsure if they should blame the mission, the leadership, or the city…. I went over to talk to them, but they were sullen with fury and fatigue.” Later, when he himself was blown up by an IED, Busch longed for revenge: “I wanted at that moment to locate the triggerman and kill him, but there was no one standing nearby waiting to confess to fighting us. Nothing but Iraq falling away in every direction, surrounding us.” Given that nearly half of all casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are from IEDs—and considering the tightened Rules of Engagement for Marines—feelings of helplessness are now a major contributing factor to the rate of PTSD in returning veterans. This may be especially true for concussed Marines with traumatic brain injury or for officers who second-guess decisions they made which resulted in friendly casualties—whether a different route would have been safe, or a different plan of attack might have resulted in fewer casualties. “What if” questions are a Marine officer’s secret Purgatory. “You can act professionally even while your soul is dying,” says former Captain Smith.
Lack of Time to Grieve or Integrate Feelings as a Result of Operational Tempo
While feelings of fear, shock and helplessness are normal reactions to combat or the traumatic death of a friend, Marines have little time to process such weighty emotions during combat operations. The normal deployment for infantry Marines is currently seven months. During those seven months, infantry units may experience an intense operational tempo. Compounding an intense schedule of combat operations is the need to guard bases, protect convoys, and respond to unexpected threats. The very intensity of combat operations can make warriors susceptible to PTSD when they encounter a traumatic event—exhaustion is a multiplier of environmental stress. Such up-tempo schedules also mean that Marines cannot take time to grieve and integrate their feelings during combat operations: they are too busy “sucking it up” and pushing through to execute the mission, just as they were trained to do. Units are often undermanned and overworked. Marines patrol out in the “ville” then return to base and man machine guns
on guard towers or go out on night patrols. “We would send guys back to the base just to get a shower and hot food. Sometimes I didn’t shower for 30 days,” Nathan Smith recalls. With such a rigorous combat schedule, grief takes a back seat. Smith remembers two incidents where there was no time to grieve the loss of a Marine during combat operations. After his Marine was pulled dead out of the building in Ubaydi, Smith had no chance to gather his unit together: all of the Marines in the dead Marine’s fire team had been wounded in the ambush and needed to be medevaced. “We were still in contact with the enemy at that point,” Smith recalls, “and then we had a five day clearing operation north of the river. We just kept pushing on. I remember asking the squad leader how he was handling it, but otherwise we just kept moving. There were nine guys killed on that seven day operation.” In the incident on his second tour when one of Smith’s foot patrols was hit with an IED, the affected squad was not functional. “They just wanted to kill people,” Smith says. “No one except me had seen a dead body before. I put them on a 7-ton truck and sent them back to the company command post. We continued the operation with the two remaining squads. For the remaining time in country we wouldn’t let the squad leader of the dead Marine out on patrols without myself or my platoon sergeant with him. He was ‘off.’ He blamed himself for the death and just wanted to shoot something.” In Sangin Province, Afghanistan, Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, suffered over 200 casualties in just a couple of months in 2010. Lance Cpl. Derek Goins, who lost two of his best friends when they were murdered by an Afghan soldier within a U.S. base, says that the only way to cope was to forget about the losses and
continue to carry out orders: “It’s a day-by-day thing and you don’t know if you’re going to be the guy to get hit the next day, so you just keep on pushing.” 20-year-old Lance Cpl. James Fischer agreed. His platoon lost a Marine on their first patrol. After seeing many friends killed and wounded, Fischer said that he no longer felt emotion even when confronting gruesome scenes. “Afterward, you just don’t get that shock anymore…. You’ll have to deal with it at some point, but right now the most important thing is keeping everyone around you alive.” In an up-tempo combat environment, emotional integration of the loss of a friend may not occur. This can result in feelings of numbness as Marines shove their feelings deep inside in order to continue with combat operations. This can make Marines more susceptible to PTSD when they return from combat. Ideally, Marines should take time to process the death of a friend with fellow Marines. Talking about the death allows Marines to process their grief with fellow warriors who understand their experience and who will provide support to them.