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."
It is, in fact, the people that have stayed with the young Marine, the faces of waving children peering from behind a mother's dress or hefted onto a father's shoulders as the American motorcade passed. Strange enjoyed handing out the small gifts he and his fellow soldiers carried with them. "You realize pretty quickly that all kids, regardless of their language or the country in which they live, love candy. And soccer is the main sport over there, so when we'd pitch a new soccer ball into a crowd of little boys, eyes just lit up."
His mother, he remembers, had sent him a small stuffed turtle with a request that he pass it along to one of the Iraqi children. "I wish she could have seen the smile on the face of the little girl I gave it to," he reflects.
Those, he says, were the good times. "The little things like that were what made me feel good about what we were doing. At first, I was a little surprised at the welcome we were receiving. But, quickly, it became obvious that the vast majority of the Iraqis were glad we were there, glad we were helping them."
Strange was not in Baghdad when the Saddam statue was toppled and the capital city was taken over by coalition troops. "By the time we got there," he recalls, "Baghdad was pretty well secured, so we were sent east into the Karbala-Babylon region." There they quickly quelled minor uprisings as the main combat wound down.
It was in the ancient and historic city of Babylon that the young corporal got a firsthand look at Saddam's greed. "There were all these beautiful historic ruins dating back to the days of Alexander the Great that had obviously meant a great deal to the people," he says, "and Saddam had built one of his palaces right in the middle of them. The place was absolutely amazing, so huge and unbelievably ornate. As I wandered through it, I found myself wondering how anyone could feel the need for such an elaborate place."
Only after the Saddam regime had fallen did Strange get to know some of the people he had helped liberate. Assigned to a unit that provided security for a colonel who toured various cities to determine conditions and safety, he was routinely invited into homes to share meals with the natives. "The Iraqis are great people. I ate a lot of lamb and fish during the last months of my tour," he says. There were also a lot of memorable and feel-good embraces and handshakes.
And, of course, the isolated and ongoing battles with small pockets of enemy soldiers still loyal to the Saddam regime continued. "Every unit has experienced some of that," he admits. And, in his absence, it is still ongoing. Continuing danger and death, he acknowledges, remain a part of the Iraq landscape.
Yet for every sniper encountered, there were also friends made. "There was this Iraqi interpreter who traveled with us," he says, "and we became good friends. He could speak excellent English and wanted to know everything about America, the music, the food, the nightclubs, things like that. He badly wants to come here for a visit."
And lessons learned. "Being over there opened my eyes to things I'd never really thought that much about; the freedom we have here to do what we want and go wherever we please. And when you're that far away, you gain a new appreciation of family and friends."
Then, there were the occasional wistful moments: In the early days of the conflict, when there was grave concern that the enemy would use chemical weapons against American troops, Trina, a carrier pigeon, sat perched in a small cage anchored to the hood of the Humvee that Strange drove. "Actually," he explains with a laugh, "we had a male name for the bird until one day it laid an egg." The pigeon's purpose, however, was deadly serious. If it suddenly died, it was a signal for the soldiers to put on the gas masks they kept at arm's reach.
"Fortunately, Trina lived, and we never had to use the masks." She did, however, eventually escape. "During a routine cage-cleaning, she got out and flew away. I think she'd had enough of the war."