COLUMBUS, Ohio - Alone and in clusters, collars up to block the rain, thousands of people lined the streets on a gray October day in 2005 to welcome their warriors home. For 13 miles, they rose to wave, a few to salute, as the buses rolled slowly past. More than one tough Marine, homeward bound after a brutal tour in Iraq, shed a tear.
By Peter Slevin
Updated: 3:11 a.m. CT Oct 30, 2006
When they reached solid ground, still wearing their desert camouflage, the Marines embraced their families and embarked on the most jarring of transitions. They would discover in the following year that seven months in Iraq had changed them more than they could have imagined, guiding and afflicting them in ways they are still struggling to understand.
Marines who expected duty so light that boredom seemed probable instead saw almost daily combat and 23 men killed in action, more casualties than any U.S. company in Iraq. When it was over, they traded an edgy, exhausting regimen of forced alertness and sudden brutality for sheer ordinariness. Nothing at home felt as urgent or as meaningful, as thrilling or as awful.
The 160 survivors returned to work or college, to wives or girlfriends, sometimes to childhood bedrooms grown suddenly small. Many suffered flashbacks, drank hard, quarreled with their women and sought refuge in one another, laboring to replace the rugged discipline, power and purpose they had left behind in Iraq. Some turned to counselors, some to God, others to the solidarity and beery narcotic of the VFW hall.
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"It seems like everything you see reminds you of it. You drive through town and you see someone with a 'Support the Troops' sticker and it just starts going through your head again," said Sgt. Travis Brill. "Drink three, four, five beers. I find it easier to sleep when you don't have silly-ass things going through your head."
They fought as a unit and then scattered. In a series of conversations over the past year, more than a dozen Marines of Lima Company shared their experiences of Iraq and their reentry into the United States. Pieced together, scenes from their recent lives sketch a world of in-between, a landscape inhabited not only by them but also by countless others among the roughly 1 million military personnel who have returned from Iraq or soon will.
The survivors made it home from the war, but they brought the war with them.
Fall 2005: Columbus, Ohio
Staff Sgt. Guy Zierk broke up with his girlfriend on his fourth day back. He started drinking, ordering so many top-shelf vodkas and steaks that he churned through $5,000 in restaurant and bar tabs. He found himself "trying to find out the importance of things here," he said. "You think about car payments and bills and arguments in the family and who's going where for the holidays. And you try to compare that with the importance of who's shooting a rifle at you."
In some ways, Zierk, 31, had hated to leave Iraq, where he knew some streets better than he knew Columbus. He considered extending his tour. Then came the patrol when, exhausted and angry after watching so many good Marines die, he burst into an Iraqi house. He expected to find insurgents and make them pay.
Instead, he discovered two Iraqi women and a boy, maybe 16 years old. The scared teenager made no hasty moves, but it took every rational fiber in Zierk's body to keep from shooting him dead.
"The whole reason I didn't stay in Iraq was I would've killed people that didn't deserve to die," Zierk said, "and it wouldn't have served any greater good."
On Nov. 12, Zierk donned his dress blues -- white belt gleaming, black shoes shining, white hat crisp and snug -- for the annual Marine Corps Ball. Nearly 1,000 people packed a downtown hotel. His buddies were there, and so were parents and widows of the dead. The combination of clinking glasses and raw memories was too much.
He slipped away and walked through the streets of Columbus, alone.
A city's embrace
At McDonald's, customers thanked them. At nightclubs, people bought them drinks. Someone invited a group to the Super Bowl. A film crew produced a powerful documentary titled "Combat Diary." The mayor of Columbus, father of a Lima Marine, called them "true heroes."
The fact is, no one expected Lima Company to see so much combat, to become so decorated or so wounded, and certainly not to be adopted so strongly by the city. Lima was a reserve unit, an amalgam of students and workers, almost all from Ohio, who mustered every month to train for duty that might never come.
When it came, the citizen-soldiers found themselves posted at a Soviet-built dam on the Euphrates River in western Anbar province, home to some of the most violently contested territory in Iraq.
Between Feb. 28 and Sept. 30, 2005, the company launched patrols and fought joint operations amid 1,700 square miles of mostly Sunni areas from Hit and Haditha to the Syrian border, targeting anti-American insurgents and their supporters. In addition to the 23 dead, 31 Lima Marines were wounded, 17 of them badly enough to be sent home.
After the headlines and the public worrying, many well-meaning Columbus residents honored Lima's men and felt they knew them. The Marines were grateful but dubious, especially of the questions: "What was it like over there? How many Iraqis did you kill?"
A Dissatisfied Warrior
In central Ohio, 80 miles from Columbus, Travis Brill, 30, returned to work at a steel mill.
"I was leading combat troops in Iraq, and now I'm picking up scrap metal," he said one desolate day. "They even have rules for walking through the parking lot."
Trained as a warrior, he had prayed for combat, and months after returning from battle, his brain was still tuned to his Iraq soundtrack. He remembered Pantera's "Walk" blaring through military loudspeakers as he knocked off enemy fighters with his booming .50-caliber machine gun.
"If you know you're on the verge of being blown up any second," he said, "you're feeling alive."
Brill said he and maybe 15 other Marines had a bet of $100 each on who would get the first Iraqi kill, who would be the first Marine to be wounded, who the first to die. The "winner's" sum would go to his survivors. Once the war became a grind, the bet no longer seemed so clever and they dropped it.
"I was pretty optimistic at first. I went there with the right mind-set that I wanted to help these people, and they changed it pretty quickly. They don't give a damn, and all they want to do is blow you up when you're not looking. It sucks when you lose so many of your buddies for no good reason."
Even as he cursed the war's slow progress, he felt grateful to be part of a fight bigger than himself. As he left, he felt certain he was leaving business unfinished. Now, in the house Brill rents from his mother-in-law, he wakes up every night with Iraq on his mind. His baby daughter -- named Cami, for Marine camouflage uniforms -- cannot share her parents' bed. Brill is afraid of throwing a punch in his troubled sleep.
Open about how Iraq has changed him, Brill commented while playing poker at an Elks club that the challenge of killing enemy fighters took the fun out of hunting deer. "I'd rather kill a person," he said. "I love the hunt."
Fellow Marines have told him he needs counseling. He does not feel the need.
'You come back and . . . you're lost'
George Wentworth, a Navy Reserve medic known universally as "Doc," is the person Lima's Marines call when the walls are closing in. At 11 at night, at 3 in the morning, in the darkness just before dawn, they dial his number. Once when he tried to squeeze in a long weekend with his wife, he felt he never got off the telephone.
Within days of Lima's return, he abandoned his early goals of seeing no divorces and no domestic violence. He was not surprised: "You come back and, literally, you're lost."
Col. Charles W. Hoge, chief psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, recently told Congress that 10 to 15 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq have post-traumatic stress disorder and a similar number have symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety. The rates are higher for reservists, a distinction that appears to emerge months after troops return home.
Wentworth, who has taken calls from panicked wives and distraught Marines, said: "There's no timeline for anybody to get over this. You look at Vietnam vets -- some of these guys didn't have problems until they retired from their civilian careers. And all of a sudden 20, 30 years later, it all came back to haunt them."
Spring: Washington, D.C.
One night at Shelly's Back Room in Washington, half a dozen lobbyists and Capitol Hill staffers pressed Cpl. Jason Dominguez to tell war stories over Scotch and cigars. Instead, Dominguez, a legislative aide to a Republican congressman, offered a parable.
He recalled a political fundraiser three days after he returned from Iraq. As he studied contributors laughing and digging into the main course, he saw in his mind's eye a young American in uniform patrolling an Iraqi street, about to be blown to pieces. To the Ohio crowd, the dead Marine would be a news blip, barely noticed, quickly forgotten.
With a tongue sharper than usual, Dominguez, 26, wanted his new Washington friends to see what he saw, the American cause for which 23 of his fellow volunteers gave their lives.
"When I see things on the Hill, I think, 'This is all some big joke?' " he lectured. " 'This is a party?' This is not a party. It's a commitment. The men and women who died treated it that way. You need to treat it that way, too. If not, get out of our house, get out of our Congress."
They listened. He wonders whether they heard.
"There are times when I'm walking the halls of Congress and it would feel so good to strap on my body armor and be back in the fight," Dominguez said. "When I was there, I knew: This matters. We were able to bring them one step closer to what it means to not live under tyranny."
About day-to-day political life, he is less sure.
"Is this what my friends died for?" he finds himself asking on days when he feels alone in a crowd. "It's amazing how oblivious we are as Americans to how much all of this costs," he said.
March: Drill weekend
Lima Company mustered March 24 for its first drill weekend since its return. Radio bulletins reported that 26 Iraqis were killed that day in Baghdad. President Bush, speaking at a Republican fundraiser in Indiana, declared the United States could be beaten only if it lost its will.
"Democracy," he said, "is on the march in Iraq."
Inside headquarters, Marines traded high-fives and hugs. One walked with a wooden cane. Another had a special boot to hold his ankle in place. A third had a noticeable limp. Roughly half the company had mustered out or moved on, their places filled by fresh reserves who needed to be trained.
The next morning, Maj. Gen. Douglas O'Dell, commander of the 4th Marine Division, addressed the company and awarded medals to the families of the fallen. At 58, he keeps his gray hair short and his handshake firm, but tears ran down his cheeks as he faced the young widows, the parents and the children too young to understand.
Speaking later, O'Dell said that consoling those grieving a loss from Iraq was his toughest duty in his 38 years as a Marine. "Every one of them I have felt very personally. They're like my kid brothers," said O'Dell, a father of five whose own brother died at 17.
O'Dell believes Lima Company performed admirably, with guts and restraint, but was asked to do too much. That is as far as he will go. "These are not decisions I agreed with," he said, "so I will not be on the record until I retire."
Before he left the drill deck, the general announced that Lima Company probably will be deployed again next year, to Chad.
Beyond the casualties
To a man, Lima Marines wish outsiders would recognize them for their commitment and their successes, not for their casualties. They point to weapons confiscated and insurgents killed. They talk about holding ground where Iraqis voted in large numbers and delivering soccer balls to children.
The Marines say they were not inclined, by instinct or training, to question the mission.
"It was just like, 'Hey, we're going.' There was never any discussion of the whys," said Sgt. Andrew Taylor, who studies Arabic in hopes of becoming a U.S. agent overseas. "We didn't join up to argue about the right or wrong. I don't think anybody cared."
"If it fails," Taylor said of the Iraq campaign, "that doesn't change the fact that we were trying, we were making an effort. It's kind of a bad analogy, but it's kind of like Christmas: You give someone a present they don't like, but at least you gave it to them and made the effort."
What now, as Iraq struggles and a majority of Americans oppose the war?
"If we pull out of Iraq too soon, every single American who died over there will have died in vain," said Gunnery Sgt. Larry Bowman, 36, an Ohio state trooper who blames his recent divorce largely on friction over his Marine devotion. "I'm a big believer that fires you don't put out are going to burn bigger."
April: Arlington National Cemetery
The dogwoods and azaleas stood in glorious bloom at Arlington National Cemetery on April 27 when half a dozen Marines arrived from Columbus. With the Pentagon visible through the trees and the Washington Monument rising in the distance, they made their way to Section 60, where names of the Iraq war dead were newly chiseled into white headstones and the seams still showed on fresh sod.
Finding familiar names, they crouched close in silent conversation. There lay Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Youngblood, a husband and father attached to Lima as a medic. Nearby were Staff Sgt. Anthony Goodwin and Lance Cpl. Christopher Dyer.
One of the visitors, John Dyer, had been to his son's grave before.
"You walk up," he said, "and you hope it's not there."
Dyer found himself replaying his final telephone conversation with his son.
"Are you getting enough sleep?"
"Dad, when I get home, I'm going to sleep for a week."
A few days later, a roadside bomb exploded and 19-year-old Chris Dyer was gone.
"To a certain extent, you reconcile yourself to never being comfortable," Dyer said, motioning toward the surviving Marines. "You just fake it, which is what I do."
Pride and pain
Staff Sgt. Steve Hooper tells of Marines swerving suddenly on suburban Ohio roads after spotting what in Iraq would be likely hiding places for bombs, and of Marines on an Indiana training mission refusing beef jerky because it reminded them of seared flesh.
When he is with his girlfriend, he does not discuss combat.
"I don't tell her a thing. I don't want her knowing a lot of things I did over there," said Hooper, a quiet Bronze Star winner who talks often with fellow Marines. "Some people are proud of it. Some people wonder if God will forgive them for what they did."
Hooper's sharpest pain is the death of Cpl. Andre Williams, 23, his second-in-command and closest friend. Williams died while hunting insurgents not long after videotaping a message for his daughter's sixth birthday. Hooper keeps reaching, asking himself if he could have done something, anything, to keep him alive.
Late one June night, as Hooper was driving to a bar after finishing his shift as a prison guard, the radio began playing the melancholy Green Day song "Wake Me Up When September Ends," adopted as a theme by some Lima Marines as they counted the days until their tour ended on Sept. 30. Later, it was the soundtrack of a memorial video for Williams.
"Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began," the song goes. "Wake me up when September ends."
Here comes the rain again,
Falling from the stars.
Drenched in my pain again,
Becoming who we are,
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost .
As the song came on the radio, tears filled Hooper's eyes. He switched stations.
The war-peace switch
A skilled assassin in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Brian Taylor is a healer back home.
"Lift your heels up, girlie. Like this. You've got to help me out," he gently and playfully coached a frail woman with a brain dysfunction and a broken hip. "Can you catch a ball? We're going to play ball. Here. Catch the ball."
Taylor, 34, feels as though he came equipped with a war-peace switch. In Iraq, he spent endless hours silently studying insurgents through the scope of his powerful sniper's rifle, feeding on the tension of deciding "whether they take their next breath."
"Most of the time, you've got to go with a gut feeling," he said. "More than likely, you're right."
A good day, he said, was "when we got a bunch of bad guys and we had no casualties."
But the insurgents' successes, particularly their killing of six Ohio-based snipers ambushed while supporting Lima, left Taylor begging for more missions.
"I don't feel we were defeated," he said, "but I wish I could've killed a lot more. They got a lot of us."
Back home, he focused on moving forward, even as his war experience sometimes colored his days; a ringing car alarm in his quiet cul-de-sac left him "huffing, puffing, trying to get out of bed. I felt like an idiot." He proposed to his girlfriend on an Irish vacation. She gave birth to a baby boy in August. He returned to his physical therapy practice, flipping the switch, even as he continued to train for the next deployment and to remember his dead friends.
"Thinking about that stuff sucks," Taylor said. "Really, it's a crapshoot. Some end up winners and some end up losers."
The day the Marines returned to Columbus, when legions of Ohioans embraced them, Jason Dominguez drove to the grave of a friend, Andre Williams. To his surprise and dismay, he felt nothing.
"I was so frustrated. One of my buddies from my squad was lying there, and I couldn't feel a thing," Dominguez said. "I went to Arlington and five of our guys are there. Same thing."
Dominguez never looked at the clippings that friends had saved for him. He chose not to open the trunk holding his Iraq gear, still dusted with desert sand and flecked with blood. He threw himself into his Capitol Hill job and later campaign work, in part to avoid remembering.
For months, through intense stretches, Dominguez held things together. Some nights, he would stare at the ceiling, only to fall asleep and struggle to wake up. On the worst nights, when he felt a powerful urge to be drunk, he willed himself to stay sober.
The last weekend in August, he drove south by himself to Louisville to see Sgt. David N. Wimberg's grave.
"I'm there to pay my respects, but man, something happened to me. I just dropped to my knees, wrapped my arms around his headstone and started bawling like a baby."
"It was bad," Dominguez said, "but it was good."
When Guy Zierk was in Iraq, a former girlfriend began sending e-mails. Her name was Kelly Koby, and when they were together, long before the Iraq deployment, she was not ready for a long-term romance. But she wrote to Zierk in Iraq, and he sent war soundings.
"I thought things were going to get easier as we come closer to our return date . . . but they haven't," Zierk wrote. "We've taken a few losses . . . and it's messing with me a bit. I just need to get my head in the game and things here are just making it difficult for me."
Zierk was dating another woman when he left for the war, but he ended that relationship soon after his return. Still, Koby did not hear from him. She held back, saying later, "I knew he needed to come to me on his own terms."
Seven weeks later, the telephone rang one night at Koby's apartment. Zierk wanted to pull his life together. To be, in Marine-speak, good to go.
Within four days, he told Koby he wanted to marry her.
Koby, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher, remembers glimpses of the world Zierk had not wanted her to see. He struggled in his sleep. A wine bottle crashed to the floor and he jumped. He sometimes seemed distant.
"Those guys are always with him, who didn't come back," Koby said. "It's not just a job to him, it's a sense of being. It is who he is. He is a war fighter."
Sometimes, back in school at Ohio State, Zierk is hungry to return to Iraq, to finish the battle and to lead Marines who understand and care. He is considering a new round of Officer Candidates School but has also taken the Columbus firefighting exam, thinking it may be time to stay close to home.
For days, he ignores his ringing cellphone and withdraws into solitary projects, most recently woodworking and an Iraq video montage. He falls into conversation with Marine friends about Iraq and life. The nightmares that shook him awake are ebbing. He feels more at ease than the Marine who nearly lost his cool and shot an Iraqi teenager.
One mellow evening in Gallipolis, Guy Zierk and Kelly Koby were married on a green lawn near the fast-flowing Ohio River. He wore his Marine uniform, and she wore a grand white dress. Together they passed beneath the raised swords of 10 Lima Company Marines, warriors home from Iraq.
They entertained their guests beneath a white tent, setting aside an empty chair and a black-shrouded table for the fallen. On the table was a lemon, for the bitter memory of loss. Salt, for dried tears. An overturned wine glass, for toasts no longer shared. And a rose, for love.
More than anything or anyone, it was Koby who helped Zierk get back on track.
"It's having her with me when I'm having a bad night," he said. "She's good to go."
While guests danced and friends told tales as they worked their way through the 32 cases of beer on ice, Zierk thought about being home, far from the war being fought on the Euphrates. He could hardly complain on this, of all nights.
"Yeah," he said, "but I still wish I were there."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company