A year after Johnson Wiley joined the Marines Corps in 2001, straight out of high school, he found himself on a plane to a base camp on the Kuwaiti boarder of Iraq. Almost two years later, the stench of sulfur filled the sky, marking the beginning of the “shock and awe” campaign, and the US invasion of Iraq. Today, after two long deployments, Wiley is finishing his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University in English and Philosophy, with plans to get an MFA and PhD after graduation. The Nation spoke with Wiley about his time overseas, the difference between his experience and his father’s – a Marine in Vietnam, and undergraduate life after the Marine Corps and what it's like to be a student coming out of the military. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up actually adjacent to New Brunswick [where Rutgers University is located] in Piscataway [New Jersey]. It was fairly close to the American Dream. We had a house, both my mother and father worked. My father was a truck driver, and is still, my mother at the time was a math teacher at a town called Plainfield. As far as the outward appearance of life, there was nothing bad.…There was an imbalance due, possibly, to the dynamic that was in the house. My father was often times on the road, busy, and he would come home usually every night but he was gone during most of the day, so he would come home, eat, and go to sleep. My mother was working during the day as a teacher. She would go to work, teach, come back, do her lesson plan for the next day or help us with our homework, plus make dinner, plus do laundry, plus clean, get my father’s stuff ready. Someone or something gets lost in that. I was one thing that happened to get lost in it. I had a mind of my own, so it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wasn’t a troublemaker as a kid…. I made my own decisions. I could have done better in high school but there was some tension in the house between me and my father that made it difficult to always concentrate on my schoolwork, in light of being frustrated when he was around. He had this way of throwing everything off – throwing off the tranquility or the focus of whatever the group, the group being me my mother and my sister, was on, he just disrupted everything. And I think I took that frustration out on my schoolwork, so I ended up taking it out on myself, though I didn’t know that [at the time].
Did you always want to join the Marine Corps after high school?
It’s interesting. When I was a little kid in the ‘80s, action figures and action cartoons were the thing. If it wasn’t GI Joe it was something similar, where you have the good guys and you have the bad guys – there’s an army on earth or in space, whether in the future, present or the past. So I bit into that part of American life, that “Grow up and be a hero. Be all that you can be” — that was me as a child. And I’d say up until my teenage years I did want to join the military wholeheartedly. I was going to maybe join the Special Forces or be a Navy SEAL, like my favorite G.I. Joe character, Snake Eyes, which I still remember, to do all that cool stuff. And then once I got a little bit older and got more frustrated with the fact that I was getting more negative attention from my father, I wanted to remove myself from certain things that he was attached to, because my father was in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. I didn’t want to be like him. …I found myself removing myself from the idea of growing up to be a part of a strict system of rules because I had that in my house. I had to deal with that with the way my father was. …What happened, what turned that around, was actually September 11. I was always patriotic…but when the World Trade Center went down it’s like the smoldering fire that was in me to want to protect the country in some way got reignited. You know, someone took the fan and blew those flames hotter. [I thought], I wouldn’t want my family to suffer in any way due to people overseas that don’t even know us but would like to kill us or destroy what we have. So I said, “I’ll join the military, we’ll see what happens from there.”
Did you talk to your father about it?
At the time that I decided, no. Once it became obvious that I was going then yes, he asked me if I wanted to join the military because I think he saw me talking to a recruiter one day at the house – I can’t even remember how I got in contact with them as a matter of fact, but I’m pretty sure that I reached out to them – and he told me that I was more or less going to have to join the Marine Corps because it has a reputation for being the toughest branch of service in the military out of the four basic branches: the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps. You have your Special Forces, you have your Navy SEALs, you have your Recon and things like that, but as far as your basic infantrymen, your basic troops, the Marine Corps has stricter guidelines, it’s harder to get in, boot camp is longer and tougher, combat training is more intense, you have to be in better shape, things like that. And because [my father] was a Marine, I knew there was no way I could live down being in the military but joining another branch of service. He’d always have some sort of a funny joke to one-up me somehow.
Did he talk about Vietnam a lot when you were growing up?
Only a little bit. He spoke about some things that he found funny. My father was a corporal when he was deployed to Vietnam, which in civilian terms could be equated with an immediate or working supervisor. One day he, a lower ranking Marine, and their lieutenant were in a tent when a poisonous snake crept in. When you’re deployed you often times live with the wildlife, and animals don’t respect boundaries. Well, when they noticed the snake, the other two guys ran out of the tent before my father had a chance to move. He was left with the snake going around and around inside of the tent trying to get out. I think someone tossed a shovel or something back into the tent and he killed it. He thought this was a funny story because of how scared everyone was, including the lieutenant, who had the highest rank.
So he mostly told you anecdotes and stories he didn’t talk as much about —?
Like the combat aspects or anything like that? No. I asked him some things because you can’t get around – being in the military – the question of whether or not you’ve at least shot at the enemy, or been shot at yourself….and he said he had been in combat but not, let’s say, not how they romanticize it on television. His specific job skill was as an anti-tank gunner… From what he said, I don’t think he had to deal with the type of combat where you have people charging at you and you see the whites of the person’s eyes and you may take his life. But he did say that his best friend, who was with him at the time, as they were getting fired upon, had a grenade thrown on his body and was blown up. So I said, “Well did you cry?” I was a kid at the time, I don’t even think I was ten years old. He said, “No.” I said, “Why not?” He said there was no time to cry. You just keep firing and that was that. And out of anything he could have told me that was the worst that he ever did tell me.
What was your daily experience in the Marines like?
It was a varied experience. I was a heavy equipment operator – that was my job skill. …So while I was on the base, there was a lot of waiting. We did combat training up until the point before and intermittently between our first deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 (OIF1) in 2003. And in between those times. We did runs [using] a forklift to move pallets of ammunition. “Down at the dump, x amount of miles away, they need pallets of ammo,” so I would do that, on the slow moving forklift, on the road bouncing all the way, cars behind me impatiently waiting for me to get where I need to go. I’d do whatever they needed me to do and then I’d go back to what we call our lot, which was just a large dusty white lot that had our equipment, container handlers, rough terrain forklifts, mobile cranes, things like that. The cranes were the most fun to use but also the most dangerous. So that was life on base…. If you were low on the totem pole like me, you usually always had somewhere to go to either move some material for someone else in a vehicle, or to assist a motor transport a truck driver and drive from point A to point B. Or delivering some type of good somewhere, or they put you on what’s called a work party, a working party, to do anything – from cleaning some office to picking up trash somewhere, you name it I’ve pretty much done it. With the exception of moving a dead body. I’ve touched things that I don’t ever want to touch again. Deployment was different. The Marine Corps was originally set up for short deployment. That changed with these recent conflicts in the Middle East, because it was a type of conflict the United States had never seen before.
And, am I right in understanding that when the war started you weren't told where you were going?
No, no, we were strictly on a need-to-know basis. Once we left the country all we needed to know was we were getting on a plane and were supposed to have this gear, and that piece of gear, and so on, and when we landed we were going to be spoken to by our superiors about what to do next. …We were very much on a need-to-know basis and that’s everybody, from officers as high as colonels, down to the lowest private. No one is told anything they do not need to know – and for good reason. But it’s very frustrating.
So you got there and weren’t doing much, you said?
Pretty much. Things were moving behind the scenes, of course, but when we got there, there was no war. There were still no weapons of mass destruction found anyway, but when I was in the country first there was not even a task force or a group of inspectors to go into Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction, there were only rumors that Saddam had these things. But the Marine Corps is under the direct control of the President so if he says deploy, you deploy. Congress doesn’t need to get involved, he can send us where he wants to. …I don’t know what the people behind the scenes were thinking about, I was another piece on the checkerboard being moved.
And before your deployment, you’d been at the base for how long?
I’d been in the Marine Corps for about a year, a year and a month. My official time of joining was January 2002, so by the time I left in early February, I was only in the Marine Corps – including boot camp, including combat training, including skill training – I was only in the Marine corps for a total of a year. I’d only been with my platoon in the Fleet Marine Corps for about 5 months or so, so I was very new to everything. When we got there we really didn’t know what to expect. …Another thing I didn’t expect is that there was a large satellite television in this massive tent where we would eat our meals and we got BBC news channel, CNN, stuff like that, and some evening we could see, I still remember seeing Condoleezza Rice or some other inspectors coming out of the palaces in Iraq and saying [there was no discovery of] weapons of mass destruction. And I looked over to a friend of mine and asked, “What do you think is going to happen here?” And he said he didn’t think they’d move us all over hear for no reason. “I don’t think so either but look at what we’re seeing on television versus us being here as a military force? What’s going on with that?” Not too long after that we woke up, I think this was in March, and the sky was dark because of all the sulfur — they’d started the “shock and awe” campaign overnight. And again, at that time I was in a camp in Kuwait. So we didn’t know when anything was going to start. I doubt too many people at our level – E5s [sergeants] and below – knew when this was going to happen. Just wake up the next morning the sky is black, smells like sulfur, something happened. And that’s pretty much when the invasion started. From there we were split up.
Some of our platoon moved farther north, some of us stayed in that camp, and this is where my memory splits apart. I distinctly remember telling my best friend that I wanted to stay at the camp we were at because I didn’t like the tension that was being brought to the platoon because of the nervousness I felt some of the platoon commanders exhibited. …My convictions, as far as being there, were not as strong as if I had been sent to Afghanistan where I [originally] thought I was going because that was where, for those of us that joined after September 11, we were under the impression that the real enemy was: the Taliban, in Afghanistan. You want to defend the country, you go there. That’s where I thought I was going and I was wrong. So I said, you know, I don’t know how I feel about all of this. Do they have weapons of mass destruction or do they not? What are we here for? People are in danger, so on and so forth. If you tell me to do something, as a Marine I’ll do it. But if you’re giving me the choice to volunteer for what could or could not be dangerous—I think I’ll just hang back here [at the camp] and I’ll work myself like a dog until everything is finished [is what I was thinking]. And I did stay at that camp if I recall correctly, or so I thought. Now on the other hand, something happened where I was at that camp or possibly somewhere else. …what happens is I have two sets of memories. I have those, and then I have another of being convoys and getting ambushed and getting shot at, also shooting at some others. The things that people like to put in movies and stuff, it’s only cool if you don’t have to live with it. …Not knowing whether or not you’re going to survive from one second to the next, forget one day. If in a split second it’s all going to be over, it can be nerve-wracking until you learn to get used to that. These are the things nobody really wants to talk about and in trying to get to the bottom of it, some of my friends who were there with me won’t talk to me about it. It’s hard for me to find out what happened when the people who were supposed to be there with me will cut off the conversation and say, “We end here, because this is not –I’m not going down that road.” I don’t know what happened. I just know I remember things and I have gaps where there’s literally nothing but blackness between this day and another day, and I can’t place what came between.
To jump ahead from deployment, because I stayed there longer than 6 months, I was there for about 11, when I got back to the states for a month, close to December or January, I was with another guy in my platoon. We were on our way from a medical building or some other office on Camp Lejeune [the Marine Corps Base in Jacksonville, North Carolina] and another Marine stopped me. He knew me and he called me by my last name, he said “Hey Wiley how are you, how are you doing,” basic stuff you would say to a friend [but one] that you know very, very closely…. But I had no clue, still have no clue, who this person is. To me he’s as recognizable as a member of the North Korean Royal family. He said, “You don’t remember me,” do you? And he got this really sad look on his face. And I said no. “You don’t remember all these things we used to do?” he started to name, and I just shook my head and cut him off and said, I don’t remember any of that. He looked rejected. He looked very sad. And I just walked away from him. …That made it obvious to me that some things took place that I’ll never be able to remember….[I also have] problems hearing loud noises, being jumpy, being hyper-vigilant, being very irritable at the sound of babies crying or dogs barking, things like that.
Where you deployed a second time?
Yes, I was deployed twice. The second time I was deployed for 7 months and during that time I felt that was a cakewalk compared to the first deployment. That was considered OIF3 [Operation Iraqi Freedom 3], we had a better handle on the situation, I was definitely in Iraq for sure that time. This was in 2005, February until let’s say September or so. The local populace made sure to let us know more routinely that they didn’t like us by bombing the camp…. On the second deployment we had a bit more interaction with some of the locals. Also some Marines helped with the training of the [Iraqi security] forces – I was not one. My interactions were I would say more limited.
We discussed this a bit earlier [pre-interview] but what was your experience as a person of color in the Marines?
In the Marine Corps I’d say I didn’t run into any racism in boot camp, although the majority of my platoon mates in boot camp, let’s say 20 or so of 30, were from rural areas where they have a reputation for ignorant kind of racism. I didn’t experience any of it. I think the drill instructors had a good handle on it, plus they kept our brains so completely wrapped around the games we had to play in boot camp that it was almost like the mind had no time to go there. …If I were to break down the demographic I would say it was mostly white, followed by Latino, followed by black with few Asians and even less Middle Eastern, South Asian, etc.
Once I got to my platoon or what we call the Fleet Marine Corps, then I got to see some instances of racism. Once, a buddy of mine in my training platoon, when we were training to be heavy equipment operators, he asked me if it was true that all black people smoked crack. And I couldn’t believe he said it, you know, it was surprising. It was also hurtful and insulting in a how-could-you-be-so-stupid? kind of way. He was from somewhere in Texas and because I was the only person of color [he had ever met]… I simply said that was a stupid thing to say. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings since he didn’t intend to hurt mine….He was upset at himself that he offended me, but didn’t really know what he had done wrong. These guys were from places where they had literally no experience talking to or seeing anyone other than white people in their daily lives. If they saw any other race it was just on television or in magazines or something. So they grew up with these preconceived notions about people of other racisms that were so deeply engrained in them that they thought they were totally natural. …I guess you can say it’s part of the American bubble and once we were in the Marines corps that bubble was forced to be popped. …At the same time it was a bit different for me as a guy that takes pride in being considered intelligent and articulate, that some of the black Marines that I met said things like I was the whitest black guy they knew. Some of the white marines also said that, so you have to ask the question: does being inarticulate and maybe responding negatively to what you aren’t familiar to, is this how all black people act to you? I guess there are also ideas of cultural norms: all black people can dance, all black guys listen to rap music, pick a stereotype I think I’ve faced it.
Did you feel it was assumed you'd be a teacher of sorts? Like it was expected you would be a representative of people of color or black people in general, for some of these fellow Marines?
Maybe if I had perceived that many [fellow Marines] were that ignorant about other peoples’ experiences I might have thought that. I’d say until I got to maybe close to around my second year or so in the Marine Corps I had no idea that people were that clueless even with the things I’d experienced. …Still after that I didn’t feel I had to teach people anything, unless somebody asked me a question. I was who I was. …I found that the black Marines that didn’t know me well, they didn’t know, I guess, how to interact with me because I wasn’t what they were used to. And at the same time, the white Marines were going through this process of figuring me out, asking questions about what I liked or didn’t like and so on, because I wasn’t what they had imagined other black men to be. So it put me in a place where I was a kind of enigma of sorts at first. And because of that I guess I just let that be … One of my last roommates was a black guy from Chicago and he had the hardest time trying to figure me out. Because I didn’t represent, aside from my skin color and some experiences that we shared growing up as black, I didn’t represent the idea socially of what other black guys are [thought to be] like. So instead of some of the white Marines, he actually had the hardest time I would say. But I guess I shouldn’t talk because there are so many different instances …There’s trying to navigate that stream between what ideas of racial and social norms are when you don’t fit those, when you are of – or mostly identify with – a certain race but certain characteristics are different, maybe physical or behavioral characteristics and mannerisms and things of that nature. You know the mind works best when it can take something and group it with something else.
After you got back to the States and started school at Rutgers University, what were some of your initial experiences and reactions?
When I first got to Rutgers I was very nervous. It was only the second time in my life that I was actually on a university campus, possibly the third time. …and it was just so nerve-racking being around so many people. I kind of got used to it at Middlesex County College [where I went before Rutgers] and when I got to Rutgers I had more of a handle on that, the difference between not just regular civilian life and being in the military but also being around the students and different activities, that Rutgers was a bigger step. …I’d figured that there [would be] more veterans [on campus], but there aren’t many, especially in the arts and sciences. It seems like [there aren’t many] former military in general. I’ve only met one other former Marine in the Arts and Sciences. He’s a Psychology major and Philosophy minor I believe. It surprised me, I expected to run into a few others but no. Just him and another student in my class that was in the Navy and she’s an English major. So yeah, few and far between.
How did you feel in relation to other students, being older, having very different pre-college experiences?
Feeling older was interesting because it didn’t feel that different. …seeing as how I look the same age if not younger than most students, I usually wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag as far as how old I am . I still don’t. I think it’s a funny surprise when I let people know my age. I guess I felt that although I was part of the student body, I was still kind of apart from those younger students who were just getting away from their parents home, who are just starting to branch out and learn things about life by themselves. I was thrust into those positions earlier so it was different. I guess I’m still trying to put a finger on that.
Do you find yourself sharing your military experiences? Does it come up in friendships? In class?
It comes up in friendships eventually, depending on the type of conversation we have…. In terms of class, it comes up in all of my creative writing classes because I’ve written poems about my feelings while deployed, or things that have happened afterward. I’m actually doing a memoiristic honors thesis about my first deployment and it comes up in the creative nonfiction class I’m in. People are interested in the story and in I guess all that entails, whether you’re an older adult or younger student, it’s something a lot of people haven’t experienced so I try to be honest. I don’t try to romanticize anything, I’m not trying to sign a movie deal.
What are your plans for the rest of your studies? Do you have post-graduation plans?
I’d like to first obtain my MFA after I graduate, which I’ll be delaying until next year because I want to finish [what was originally] my minor in Philosophy as a major, which will require two more semesters. I’d like to graduate next year and obtain my MFA in Creative Writing. I had originally wanted to make that a PhD in Creative Writing which is extremely new. Right now I definitely want to get an MFA in Creative Writing, and then a PhD in English. [Johnson Wiley is also currently working on a memoir.]