This is What You Will Remember: Memories and Lessons From Three Iraq Tours

Christopher Gallagher, far right, with the helmet | Christopher Gallagher

This is what you will remember when you get back: your cramped foxhole, the stench of your unwashed body, MRE menu item No. 2, Jamaican pork chop. You’ll remember the way the sand of the Kuwaiti desert would drift into your eyes, your ears, everything, giving you reason to clean your weapon twice a day as you waited to cross the border. You’ll remember calling your mom, nervous but proud, after finding out in January 2003, at the end of holiday leave, that you would be going to Iraq.

Iraq.

What will you remember about Iraq?

Friends you lost. Survivor’s guilt. You’ll remember how Iraqis lined the streets to cheer your arrival in Baghdad, how the people of Fallujah just wanted you to leave. You’ll remember how different you were when it all began. Remember? You were once in favor of the war.

This is Christopher Gallagher’s story. Christopher Gallagher, U.S. Marine Corps corporal, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. Service in Iraq: 2003, the invasion; 2004, Haditha Dam; 2005, Fallouja.

Apr. 2, 2003 — “I am writing this letter from a fighting hole, behind my machine gun. I am fine for now. How is everyone back home? The first couple of days the Iraqi soldiers were surrendering by the hundreds. I have heard reports of American POW’s being murdered. What have you heard? The first hundred hours of this war I was awake. It is hard finding time to sleep out here.”

This letter is from your first deployment. It was the first time you had ever traveled overseas. You wrote your family (Mom, Dad, Matt, Joel, etc.) in Farmingdale, NY, where you grew up before moving to Las Vegas, on military stationery. A single sheet of paper with the Marine Corps emblem — eagle, globe and anchor — printed up top.

In the invasion of Iraq, your batallion fought from the town of Safwan on the Kuwaiti border through Basra and onto Baghdad. You didn’t shower for two months. Fellow Marines secured oil fields and airports. Your job was setting up radio communications and conducting security operations: “A machine gun post set up on top of a hill, or something like that. Guarding a small area around yourself.”

Your battalion was the first Marine unit to enter Baghdad, and you remember it well: “The people invaded the streets and were lining the streets of Baghdad, saying, ‘Saddam bad, Bush good.’ At the time we were considered liberators.”

People everywhere, watching, cheering. But you couldn’t talk to them. That was “off-limits.” The day after your battalion took Baghdad, however, you sat down for breakfast at the Palestine Hotel with reporters including an Iraqi woman, around your age, a graduate of Baghdad University. You remember the meal — pita bread with tea and honey. But you can’t quite recall the specifics of what you discussed.

You were 20.

That was back when the Palestine housed all the journalists who came to cover the war, 2 1/2 years before a truck bomb shook the building. Who knows what happened to those people you met. That Iraqi journalist, where is she now? Maybe she is still covering the war. Maybe she fled her country. Maybe she’s dead.

Part of what you will remember about Iraq will come from photographs. Snapshots like the one taken in 2003 of you and eight members of your platoon, posing on the concrete roof of a building in Baghdad. Behind you rise thick columns of smoke, black and tilted, carried across the smoldering city on the wings of the wind.

Five years later, sitting in your Las Vegas living room, you point out that you are the only one in the picture wearing a helmet. In Iraq, you were always careful, always on the lookout. You became, in your words, “less trusting of humanity.” In that way, the war stayed with you even after you returned home. Back in Vegas, you say you are still “hyper-vigilant, always more cautious. Kind of like — in a way, almost like a minor paranoia. I’m less trusting of people, because the people over there, they smile at you one minute, and the next day they’ll be shooting at you.”

Even so, despite the nerves and fear, in 2003 you were optimistic about the war. Writing home in on Apr. 2, you told your family the weather had been comfortable. You wished your mom a happy birthday, said you were thinking that the two of you and your grandma could visit Atlantic City when you got back.

This is how you ended your letter: “Tell everyone I will see them soon after the Marines have killed Saddam and the war is over.”

At home, Americans watched the siege of Baghdad on CNN, marveling with sick wonder at the fireworks display — the buildings exploding, the red and yellow tracer rounds flying across the sky, shooting stars endowed with bullet speed. Magazines and newspapers carried pictures of the carnage, bodies floating in marshes, refugees fleeing.

Your mother Catherine Jackson worried, unable to watch the news while you were abroad.

“I became very depressed,” she remembers. “I checked the mailbox every day, religiously. I cried every day, religiously. I was just worried about him and his health. Would I get him home? Would he come home? And when he did come home, would he come home in one piece? I didn’t know what to expect.”

To her, your letters meant a lot. They meant that somewhere thousands of miles away, her son was still alive.

Meals, Ready-to-Eat.

Thai chicken: “A bowl of snot with some water chestnuts, little pieces of chicken.” This is your description. You also offer these choice words about MREs in general: “I remember them all, all very unfondly. … It comes in a sealed package. And imagine a piece of chicken in there. It looks like a piece of chicken, I don’t know if it is. They had a variety of food, but none of it was good for you. It had so many preservatives in it.”

By your estimation, the only good thing that came in those rations was the candy — Skittles, Charms or M&Ms. Marines would trade with one another, Skittles for M&Ms and vice versa. Charms ended up in the garbage. They were, by tradition, bad luck.

MREs aside, living conditions at Haditha Dam were good in 2004.

You slept in a bunk bed, lifted weights, showered twice a week, sometimes with hot water. Your family sent you snickers, cigarettes and powdered Country Time pink lemonade.

On occasion, when townspeople protested outside, airmen “would fly fighter jets over the top of them, really low to scare them.” You never saw that yourself, but that’s what you heard.

In March, you wrote home to your mother and Joel, telling them you’d received a package they had sent. The postscript reminded them that you smoked Parliament Lights. The message was scrawled in black ink on the back of a postcard bearing the image of the Apr. 11, 2003 front page of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The headline “Baghdad falls to U.S. forces” ran large down the right-hand side, set against a photograph — an iconic image — showing the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down.

“Do you remember this day almost a year ago when Marines from taskforce 3/4 took the statue down,” you wrote.

In Haditha, you were a radio operator, part of a skeleton crew of Marines guarding the dam. Most of the men in your battalion had been called to Fallujah to fight in Operation Vigilant Resolve, the first major battle there. Some never made it back. You lost a couple of friends.

“One minute they’re there. One minute they’re gone.”

Some of the letters you’ve kept were never mailed.

“To Shannon,” one such note to your older sister begins. “Hi I am sorry for this tragic event you are going through, you helped raise me when mom and dad were not around. … All you have to do is close your eyes and pray, I will be there. I wanted to be a good uncle for James and Alyssa. I would have liked to see them grow up and live a good life.”

And to your younger brother: “I wish I could be there for you Matt. I love you so much and you will never know how much the time that we have spent together hanging out since I enlisted meant to me. If you have noticed all the extra gifts I have gotten for you, it was to try to make up for my absence.”

In your final letter to your mother and father, which they would have received had you not come home alive, you wrote that you loved them, that you’d watch over them in heaven alongside Grandpa Rich, Grandma, Grandpa Jackson and Uncle Joe.

“Let everyone know I died with honor, keeping all Americans free from foreign dictatorships,” you wrote.

“I was not always the best kid to have, I joined the Corps to straighten my life out and find direction. Mom you were my best friend and were a great emotional support. Dad you were always there, from the time you taught me to bowl until I got on the bus for Parris Island.”

“As I write this letter and look back on my life I only remember how much i enjoyed living it. They say ‘Everyone dies but not everyone lives.’ I just hope I turned out to be a respectable and upstanding person like you raised me to be.”

This is the letter your mother said she could never read.

“By the end of the third deployment, I’d say I was wondering what we were doing there. Because we were essentially driving around just waiting to be blown up. Nobody wanted to be there anymore, everybody just wanted to come home.”

The Iraqis, you said, didn’t want you there either. You remember the disgust, the anger in their eyes.

“There was no point to any of the patrols,” you said. “We were told that Al Qaeda was causing all the trouble, but yet, it was mostly the people living in these towns. It was Iraqis.”

In Fallujah, you served as radio operator for an 81 millimeter mortar platoon. You worked at a checkpoint outside the city, a job you likened to herding cattle. Everyone coming through had to have their retnas scanned. Everyone had to get an ID card. Everyone had to be searched. To find out if anyone was carrying a weapon, everyone had to pass through thermal imaging scanners that didn’t work properly because it was too hot out.

Your schedule was eight hours on duty, eight hours off. When you weren’t manning the checkpoint, you did patrols, in vehicles and on foot, sweating under a scorching Iraqi sun. You searched people’s homes, felt no guilt, no remorse. You became angry when you gave information on a firefight to your higher ups only to find out later that “the report that they filed was not what I said.”

You wondered why you didn’t have proper armor. During your first deployment, you didn’t have plates in your vest to protect you from bullets and shrapnel. Until the end of 2005, you said, your humvees had what you called “hillbilly armor,” a piece of metal in the shape of a door hanging off the side of the vehicle.

“I was pissed off I was in Iraq,” you remember. “I removed my emotions. I supported the war and supported the troops. I thought they were one and the same. I didn’t want to be there anymore, but I supported the mission.”

You slept on a cot in a wooden hut housing 20 guys. Fellow soldiers on patrol found propane tanks and 30- or 40-gallon drums and used them to fashion a makeshift shower. Once a week, you got hot food — prime rib, beef stew, “something generic like that.” It didn’t make you sick like the other meals or the dirty, substandard water you said the military gave you.

It’s 2008. You are 26 now. You have been home, on U.S. soil, for three years.

You have no regrets. Back in May, 2001, as a senior in high school, you signed up to join the Marines to see the world, to “become someone.” Your mother worried, afraid of what might happen even though it was a time of peace. On Sept. 11, you were at bootcamp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Training together in the humid Southern summer, you and your fellow recruits knew war was coming.

Looking back, you say the Marines made you a better person. You are more focused, more disciplined. One of the worst students in your high school class, you pulled a 3.5 grade point average in the short time you spent in college before leaving school to learn the trade of an electrician. You make good money, help support your mom. You can take direction, but you also have leadership skills. Along the way, in Iraq, you made lifelong friends, some people you normally wouldn’t hang out or talk to. What brought you together?

“We were willing to die for each other.”

You were once in favor of the war. Remember?

How much things have changed.

After returning to America, you read about the war, watched movies about the war, talked to friends about the war that left you with so many memories.

There were no weapons of mass destruction. You felt the country’s leaders had lied to you. You learned as many U.S.-paid civilian contractors were stationed in Iraq than troops. You read about how war brings profit, raining fortune upon steel companies, food companies, rubber companies… the list goes on. You believe the government was responsible for September 11, a view many people consider radical. But you, you believe it’s the truth. People like to believe in what’s easiest to believe, you say. You’ve read more about the terrorist attacks than many fellow Americans.

And the Soldiers, the Marines, the Airmen, the young people like yourself who fought abroad? You felt when you came back, the country, the Veteran’s Administration, abandoned you. A friend of yours who was shot in the leg saw his disability benefits reduced. Other servicemen and servicewomen struggled to get care when suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“These are people that their friends blew up in front of them,” you say. “They still have a lot of death and destruction (on their minds), and they’re just messed up.”

You are disgusted.

“The defense department recently came out with a memo saying all troops must remain apolitical about their views in Iraq, saying that you’re a soldier, you have no opinions, you don’t count. I think soldiers should have more of a voice, be able to speak out.”

So you started Nevada’s branch of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Some of your memories of Iraq are hazy. Others are clear. Some of what you remember you won’t talk about.

For you, the war is over, now. You won’t be going back.

But Iraq will stay with you, always — in your photographs, in your letters, in this story, your story.


Story written in November 2008 and reported in 2008. A version appeared in December 2008 in the Las Vegas Sun. Read Gallagher’s letters here.

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