Editor’s Note: The following commentary is based on an interview by Z.P. Heller, editorial director of Brave New Films.
I was on liberty in Australia, dancing at a club I can’t remember sometime around midnight, when it happened. The music shut off and an announcement came on: “America is under attack. Head back to your ships.” This was the worst–the impossible. This was September 11, 2001.
Back at my ship, ambulance sirens blared. Hundreds of Marines stood on deck, anxiously awaiting word. Someone said the Pentagon had been attacked. My platoon sergeant stood up and delivered a fiery speech filled with “No one [expletive] with America!” and “We’re going to kick some ass!” Later that night, the same sergeant turned to me asked me if I was ready.
Without giving it a second thought, I replied, “This is what I joined for.”
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, as I recalled those words testifying before Senator John Kerry and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I sat where a young Kerry was once seated as he awoke the nation to the grim realities of war in Vietnam. I explained to the committee that I always desired to serve my country, ensure basic freedoms and fight for justice and the American way. This had been my dream since childhood, a way to honor my Mexican immigrant parents who worked tirelessly to give my family a better life, a way out of an East Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by gang violence. Yet what I witnessed and experienced during a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan followed by another in Iraq has forever shattered this once noble ambition.
As an infantry rifleman in the Marines Corps, I saw so much of these wars through nightly patrols. We were trained to approach a point of interest on foot, coordinating with translators whose sole vested interest in supplying us intelligence was to earn money and aid. We would gather information that often proved faulty, and question locals to the point we felt comfortable conducting a raid. After receiving an order, we would ransack homes, destroying windows and doors, chairs and tables, families and lives–detaining and arresting anyone who seemed suspicious. The problem, of course, was that it was impossible to distinguish militant Taliban members or Al Qaeda from innocent civilians. Everyone became a suspect.
In one instance, my squad leader gave me orders to pursue possible terrorists leaving the scene in which we had established a perimeter. My four-man fire team and I followed these suspects undetected for about 100 yards along an exposed ravine. When we were four feet from them, I drew my M-16 and pointed it directly at their faces, yelling, “Get down on the ground!” We beat them in search of nonexistent weapons, breaking limbs in the process. Later that day, I learned these men were innocent. Another time, my squad and I detained, beat and nearly killed a man, only to realize he was merely trying to deliver milk to his children. These raids compelled me to tell Congress we have been chasing ghosts in Afghanistan and Iraq.