Sharing War Stories To Fend Off Trauma
By Michael M. Philips
The Wall Street Journal
April 12, 2003
BAGHDAD (April 11) - Marine Cpl. James Lis, 21 years old,
is worried that for the rest of his life he'll be haunted by the image: A
clean-shaven, twentysomething Iraqi in a white shirt, lying wounded in an
alleyway and reaching for his rifle -- just as Cpl. Lis pumped two shots
into his head.
"Every time I close my eyes I see that guy's brains pop out of that
guy's head," Cpl. Lis, from Shreveport, La., told his platoon mates
Thursday, as they sat in a circle in the ruins of the Iraqi Oil Ministry's
employee cafeteria. "That's a picture in my head that I will never be able
to get rid of."
For Marine infantrymen now occupying the eastern half of the Iraqi
capital, the worst fighting is probably over. But they're just beginning
to cope with the psychological aftershocks of having faced death and
One lesson the military learned from painful experience with
post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam is that troops may come home
more mentally intact if, as soon as possible, they talk to each other
about what they've gone through. In infantry school, Marine officers are
taught to encourage their troops to talk about their experiences after
battles. So, platoon by platoon, many Marines in Iraq are starting to hold
informal group-therapy sessions -- "critical incident debriefings" in
military parlance -- in which they share their feelings about what they've
seen and what they've done.
"The touchy-feely stuff -- that's no joke," Second Lt. Isaac Moore told
the platoon he commands in Lima Company of the First Marine Division,
Seventh Regiment, Third Battalion. "If you keep picturing this guy and you
shot him in the head, you've got to talk about that.
"Though a few had been shot at in Somalia, none of the 47 Marines of
Lt. Moore's Second Platoon had seen any real combat before arriving in
Iraq. Even during the war's first weeks, it seemed unlikely that they'd
have to test their mettle. Iraqi forces always ran away before the platoon
arrived. The platoon's first scrape was a minor encounter three weeks ago
near Zubayr in which somebody took a few shots at the Marines, who
returned fire for 40 minutes to no practical effect. No one on either side
As they moved into Baghdad, however, the platoon ran into an escalating
series of firefights with pro-regime militants armed with rifles and
rocket-propelled grenades. The fiercest was a battle Tuesday in the shell
of a large building under construction in the city's southeast. The
platoon began taking sniper fire, and the Marines soon found themselves
shooting at enemy fighters just a few feet away, in a maze of pillars and
It's a fight that has left deep marks on the young men. That's what Lt.
Moore wanted them to talk about. So as they relaxed on cushions stripped
off Oil Ministry sofas and awaited orders to patrol the city for Fedayeen
holdouts and foreign suicide squads, the lieutenant invited each Marine to
tell the platoon what he experienced, and how he felt about it.
Cpl. Anthony Antista, 29, from Monrovia, Calif.,
initially celebrated after he shot dead two Iraqi paramilitary men in a
corner of the building site. But the exhilaration instantly gave way to
guilt, especially for having felt glad that he had taken lives. "Hey, I
shot two people," he told his comrades immediately after the fight.
The rest of the platoon brushed him off. He persisted: "I shot two
people." They thought he was bragging. What he was really doing, he said,
was trying to find someone who might understand how bad he felt.
It's an issue that was still on his mind two days later. "I can't share
my pain with you because you don't accept that I killed two guys," Cpl.
Antista told his comrades. To emphasize his point, he removed the magazine
from his rifle, emptied the round from the firing chamber and acted out
the encounter. He showed how he raised his rifle and fired. Then he sat on
the ground and demonstrated how the Iraqis slumped when the rounds hit
The life just flowed right out of them," he said in a pained voice.
"They were like Jell-O."
Staff Sgt. Matthew St. Pierre, 28, from Vallejo,
Calif., faced off with an Iraqi fighter whose eyeglasses and face reminded
him of one of his own Marines, Lance Cpl. Lance Carmouche, a 21-year-old
machine gunner from Beaumont, Texas. The sergeant, the platoon's senior
noncommissioned officer, took two shots as the Iraqi popped up from behind
a low wall five feet away. He wasn't sure whether he hit the man, but the
sergeant saw his body later."
Now every time I see Lance Cpl. Carmouche, I think of him," Sgt. St.
Pierre told his men. A few minutes later in the fight,
Sgt. St. Pierre found four Iraqi men in a small
enclosed area. Three were apparently dead, but one, wounded, reached for
his weapon. The staff sergeant shot him between the shoulder blades. The
man again reached for his rifle, this time more slowly. The staff sergeant
shot him in the back of the head.
When the gunfire quieted, the staff sergeant
"eye-thumped" the Iraqi's body, to make sure he was really dead.
The process involved poking the man in the eye with a rifle muzzle, the
theory being that no man alive can avoid scrunching up his face in
response to such a provocation.
It was an "eerie feeling," the staff sergeant recalled, "like I just
did what the Lord in the Bible says not to do." But he added, "we did
nothing wrong. They made no attempt to surrender, and we put them down."
Lt. Moore, 26, tried to comfort his troops by relating his own
experience as a hunter, growing up in Wasilla, Alaska. He shot his first
caribou at the age of seven or eight, he told them. It was thrilling to
see the animal fall. When he got closer, however, he saw the caribou was
still alive, convulsing in pain. The boy was unsure whether he was
supposed to feel good or bad.
Over years of hunting caribou, bear and other animals, he grew
accustomed to eye-thumping and death. So when Lt.
Moore looked down from a staircase in the building in Baghdad and saw
three Iraqis below, he didn't hesitate. The men had been wounded by a
burst of machine-gun fire, but they were still moving. The lieutenant shot
one man point-blank in the head and watched the results; the next man was
twitching and got the same treatment."
It's gross, but here's the thing," the lieutenant
told his Marines. "That queasy feeling -- I don't get that at all."
Keep in mind, he continued, the kind of die-hards they are fighting. To
illustrate his point, Lt. Moore told them about something that had
happened earlier in the day: A man who had escaped from one of Saddam
Hussein's prisons after 13 years walked back to Baghdad to look for his
family and somehow got past Marine guards at the Oil Ministry. The Marines
found him curled up asleep in a corner. The man, Lt. Moore recounted, had
acid and electric-shock burns on his legs.
The people who did that to the prisoner, the lieutenant said, are the
sort of people the Marines were killing. "This is not somebody you need to
worry about killing," he assured his troops. "When you stand outside the
Pearly Gates or whatever you believe in, you're not going to be looked at
any differently for what you did here."
Cpl. Lis, however, couldn't shake it off so easily. A genial jokester
with a sand-colored buzz cut, the corporal has had the platoon's closest
brushes with death in Iraq. He recounted them, one after another, for his
fellow troops. On Wednesday, when the Marines seized the Oil Ministry,
Cpl. Lis climbed to the roof to take a look at
downtown Baghdad. A bullet heading towards his face missed him only
because it hit the narrow metal rail in front of him.
At one point during the gunfight at the construction site, Cpl. Lis
threw a hand grenade at an enemy fighter, only to have the Iraqi throw it
back at Cpl. Juan Nielsen, a 26-year-old from Los Angeles. The grenade
exploded, sending small pieces of metal shrapnel into Cpl. Nielsen's outer
left ear -- a painful, but minor wound that turned out to be the only
American casualty of the fight.
Later, Cpl. Lis saw a pineapple-shaped Iraqi grenade land less than
eight feet in front of him, and two others -- Sgt. Timothy Wolkow, 26,
from Huntington Beach, Calif., and Cpl. Dustin Soudan, 21, from Girard,
Pa. Cpl. Lis yelled at the others to get down, and they crouched, covering
their heads as it exploded. None of them were injured.
Then there was the moment that he worries will always haunt him:
He saw the young Iraqi in the white shirt lying on
his back, his right arm extended above his head, where a rifle lay.
Another rifle was near his left arm. When the man moved his right arm
toward the rifle, Sgt. Wolkow shot him. The man started moving again, and
this time both Marines shot him in the head, Cpl. Lis firing twice.
Then Cpl. Lis performed the eye-thump ritual on
the man. "It's the sickest feeling I've ever had in my life," he said at
the therapy session.
Sgt. Wolkow had a more fleeting reaction. "As
much as I love the Marine Corps and want to kill people, for a few seconds
there was a kind of eerie feeling," after the first time he shot the man,
he said. "It went away, and I shot the guy some more."
Write to Michael M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org