By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sitting at the kitchen table in his parents' comfortable DeSoto home, looking out on the line of miniature American flags his father has placed on the front lawn, Marine Corporal Lee Strange is relaxed and smiling. Now into the second week of his 30-day leave after lengthy service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the war, for the moment, is a million miles away and a young lifetime ago.
Stationed in the Middle East for eight months, the just-turned-21 member of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine infantry was among the American troops that ultimately advanced northward from Kuwait toward Baghdad. Their mission: to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. It was a seemingly endless routine of firefights in the pitch dark, blinding sandstorms and daytime temperatures that routinely soared to the 130-degree mark, battles with aggressive insects that saw mosquito netting as no real challenge and long stretches in which there was little time to sleep or attend to personal hygiene. And, yes, along the way on the battlefields of northern Iraq, there were casualties and occasional field memorial services. And, always, a healthy fear of dying.
It was, in every sense, the war Strange says he'd been prepared to fight. On the other hand, he now knows that it is impossible to simulate the exact conditions of war. "You think you know everything to expect," he says, "but once the shooting starts you quickly realize that there's no way to anticipate every situation you will encounter. At the same time, you really don't have time to be scared. You just do the job you've been trained to do.
"One minute," he adds, "you're being shot at and shooting back. Then, a few miles up the road you encounter Iraqi people standing beside the road, cheering you, glad you're there doing your job." It was, he says, the latter that made him fully realize his presence had a purpose.
Up close, the face of war is fresh-scrubbed, handsome and far too young-looking to be involved in such life-and-death duty. Only the USMC T-shirt he's wearing differentiates him from friends now strolling college campuses or the streets of Deep Ellum.
And, while Strange plans to attend college once he's completed his tour of duty (at California's Camp Pendleton) a year from now, he's quick to point out that he's already had a "remarkable educational experience." He's walked the looted halls of one of Saddam's ornate palaces, dined in the homes of Iraqis and handed out candy and soccer balls to members of Iraq's next generation. His M-16 always in hand, he also fought.
On this midweek afternoon, after meeting his Irving city utilities inspector father, Tom, for a welcome-home lunch and planning of a fishing trip to Mexico, it is not the dead and wounded he talks about, except to say, "When you hear about one of your fellow Marines dying, it only makes you realize that what you're involved in is very real." The occasional summons by the chaplain to a brief battlefield memorial service, he admits, was dreaded by all.
"Fortunately, we had very few casualties," he says. "Though we encountered a lot of resistance, particularly in the early days of the advance, the firefights never lasted long." In most cases, helicopter gunners had already cleared the way and surrenders came quickly. "Even a lot of those we were fighting seemed glad when we took them prisoner, glad the war was over for them."
The war Strange saw and was part of differs from that many back home have been hearing and reading about. "Morale [among the troops] isn't low," he firmly insists. "In fact, it is very good." Why? "Once you become aware of how much you're helping people who not only need it but want it," he says, "you feel good about what you're doing. I saw a lot of happy faces along the way. That's the kind of thing that kept us going."
Reluctant to discuss the political furor the war has generated stateside, the young Marine says he's avoided reading newspapers or watching the news since returning home. Only when prodded will he suggest that the media reports he's been made aware of in recent months "have put out things a little differently" from what he saw and experienced. Words like "quagmire" clearly are not part of his vocabulary.
Now, briefly back in the civilian world where electricity and running water and the smell of mother Donna's cooking are taken for granted, it is "the journey" that Strange remembers; being at the wheel of an armored Humvee for long stretches, then alternating with a gunner and, finally, being ordered to the back of the lengthy line of advancing military vehicles for a brief catnap and an MRE. They rarely stopped, except to dig foxholes in the hardened Iraq soil and engage in a battle.
The names of the cities and hamlets soon became a blur--An Nasiriyah, Ash Shatrah, over the Euphrates to Ad Diwaniyah--as they advanced northward. "You could tell," he says, "that at one time it had been a beautiful country, before Saddam took all the money for himself. By the time we arrived, the towns were run-down, and living conditions were obviously not what they should have been."