On the ground in Iraq

An important source for the Super Hornet story in the Baghdad | Los Angeles project by USC Annenberg and CIR was Marine Sgt. Jason Lemieux. He spent hours describing his experiences in Iraq so I could get a better understanding of what things are like on the ground and how soldiers spent their time there for large parts of the war.

Marine Sgt. Jason Lemieux doesn't buy it when other veterans of the Iraq War say they don't experience lingering combat symptoms.

"You can't be okay," Lemieux said. "All these people who are saying they're okay are just fooling themselves. You can't not have problems."

Lemieux did three tours of duty in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines Lima Company, stationed in 29 Palms, Calif., between 2002 and 2006. He invaded Iraq on March 21, 2003, through Az Zubayr north to Baghdad, and did five months of stability operations in Karbala. He returned to Iraq in January, 2004, and was stationed in Husaybah. Then he extended his contract to redeploy to Ramadi until July of 2006.

Now a student at Columbia University, 25-year-old Lemieux is working towards a Bachelors degree in a social science and a Masters degree in International Security Policy. He is plagued by post traumatic stress disorder, patellofemoral syndrome, and tinnitus in both ears — meaning that in addition to PTSD, one of his kneecaps slides outside its joint and his ears ring about once a day. Often he sent e-mails at 4 a.m. his time.

Lemieux joined the Marines right out of high school and left for boot camp on September 9, 2001. He thought he was "too cool" for college, and expected to head to Okinawa in December of 2002. When he found out he was Kuwait-bound instead, he didn't think he would survive the initial invasion of Iraq — let alone two more tours of duty.

"From what they taught us about urban warfare, I knew it was just a fucking complete disaster to be the attacker in urban warfare," he said. "Untrained units can take 80 percent casualties, and with good training you can pump that down to 40 percent.

"[I thought], 'If we're really going to go to Iraq and invade a city of 8 million people, there's no way I'm coming home.' So I'm calling my mom and telling her it's bad and I'm crying and I'm not expecting to come home alive if we invade this country."

Lemieux doesn't sound like much of a crier. He and his fellow Marines listened to "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" on a smuggled Walkman as their unit sped towards the battle. Lemieux said he couldn't believe it was actually happening.

Once they reached Iraq, the Marines realized every unit they were supposed to attack had fled — including ones in Baghdad. Lima 3/7 set up stability and support operations, something none of them expected to do. Marines are supposed to be expeditionary fighting forces that come in, take control of an area, and turn it over to the army. The hanging around began to devastate the Marines' morales.

"I felt like, 'If I'm going to be risking my life, I want it to be doing a job that only I can do,'" Lemieux said. "Any soldier in all of our massive army can sit here and smuggle whiskey and eat half-chickens and walk around Karbala like we own the streets."

Lemieux doesn't think his unit suffered a single major casuality in their five months there. Although the soldiers got used to the non-threat situation — many of them stopped wearing their armor and did not keep security watches while eating in restaurants — tense situations arose when Marines would talk to women and violate gender customs. There was almost no infrastructure, and the soldiers had to go out into the town and pay $1.50 to use a satellite phone if they wanted to call home. It was just one of the ways the Marines helped the local economy.

"This guy would sell juice and soda to Marines on a bicycle; by the time we left, he was driving a gas-powered scooter," Lemieux said.

Lemieux went home and celebrated his "glorious victory" over Saddam Hussein. He drank a lot and assured people that he wouldn't have to go back to Iraq — that was the army's job. But when he returned to 3/7 Lima, he was deployed to Husaybah, a border town that was once home to about 300,000 people.

Lemieux's unit entered a hostile situation because the economy depended largely on smuggling goods across the border from Syria, but the military saw that as a threat to security. The residents of Husaybah were also terrified by the mounted infantry that was patrolling their streets, and winning over the population proved to be more difficult than the commanding officers had anticipated. Insurgent attacks were frequent.

"Husaybah was a blood bath," Lemieux said. "A meat grinder."

The Marines went out on security patrols with two goals: catch someone planting an IED or wait to get attacked so they could fight back. They would set up for hours at a time in a family's house, forcing the family to stay in one room and making the home a target for insurgents. Often the ambush never came, and the American soldiers were mostly killed by IEDs left long before they got there. The Marines had no one to fight back.

"Your friends get hurt, and this psychological thing happens," Lemieux said. "You don't know who did it and you can't get the person. The most comfortable thing to do is believe that everybody is the enemy. So as more and more IEDs go off and more people get hurt and killed, that's what everybody believes. They don't have any outlet for their aggression."

When they weren't being attacked, the Marines experienced sheer boredom, Lemieux said. He also thought their training left them ill-prepared to deal with insurgency warfare. In California, they had been trained on 6-foot dummies that stood still out in the open. In Iraq, moving people shot at them from behind the cover of buildings. The Marines did drills that were supposed to teach them to identify IEDs, but in reality this was a nearly impossible feat, Lemieux said.

"Improvised explosive devices are so easy to camouflage. You can pave one in the sidewalk, bury it in the dirt," he explained. "You can't find them. They're nearly perfect, and you'll never find the guy who detonated it. He could be a mile away, in any building, with any remote."

In the end, the soldiers didn't want to "play nice, make friends, and win over the population," Lemieux said. People started treating one another badly, roughing up civilians, and a vicious cycle formed.

Lemieux said many of the Marines thought American causalities were completely arbitrary in Iraq. They compared life and death to the lottery, but Lemieux thought the randomness stemmed from improper execution of urban warfare. He said there were times when the whole platoon would come to a stop in the streets for an hour or two, and he was sure they would get hit. Other times the micro-terrain was ignored, and often soldiers were told to stand on rooftops even though it silhouetted them against the sky and made them easy sniper targets.

"This kid gets shot right in the back of his armor plate. Dead center, beautiful shot," Lemieux said. "It was clearly not taken in haste. Luckily the plate stopped the round — otherwise it might have hit him right in the spine."

Lemieux said the lesson learned from that was not to keep people off the roof, but rather, "Don't vote for John Kerry because he votes against SAPI (Small Arms Protective Insert) plates."

Although the goal of the patrols was to catch Iraqis laying IEDs, Lemieux could only recall five times his unit caught people with them throughout his three tours of duty. Lemieux and a friend in his unit began reading books about the Soviet/Afghan wars in hope of finding something they could apply to their situation in Iraq.

"[The Iraqis] would do the exact same things to us that were going on there," Lemieux said . "It was just eerie."

Lemieux's platoon leader was not interested in the history lessons, though. He would tell Lemieux he couldn't believe everything he read, and that, "You can't always go by the book."

"He would ridicule me in front of the whole platoon so I looked like a piece of shit," Lemieux said. He believes many parts of the military are completely insular, and, "everything they need to know, they know already. It's maddening."

Lemieux left Husaybah in September, 2004, and the whole unit had "massive psychological problems."

The soldiers all had to fill out post-deployment health questionnaires that consisted of three questions:

1. Did you experience an event in the past month that you go out of your way not to think about?

2. Do you have upsetting nightmares?

3. Do you have trouble or difficulty concentrating or remembering things?

Lemieux, like most of his unit, answered yes to all three questions. Each yes is considered a red flag. The only people who didn't answer yes were the ones who didn't want to get identified with psych problems, Lemieux said. A month or two later, the Marines met with a medical officer who asked if the answers still held true. Lemieux lied and said no; he estimated that about 90 percent of the others in his unit did the same.

"I didn't want the stigma from the unit," he said. "I thought I would be kicked out of the Marine Corps in shame. That record would follow me out in the civilian world."

After his first tour of duty, Lemieux began seeking psychological help. His commanding officers refused to get him an appointment, and when he made one on his own, they asked him to keep it quiet.

"The stigma gets to the point where if I'm seeking treatment, it makes the platoon leader look weak because he has someone who didn't get the training or leadership he needed," Lemieux said.

Despite his dislike for his Platoon Commander in Husaybah and the psychological trauma of war, Lemieux extended his contract with the Marines for 10 months in 2005, and returned to Iraq.

"I'm staring at the contract," he said. "I'm sitting there thinking, 'This is fucking crazy. This is nuts, why I am doing this?'"

Lemieux agreed to go back, though, because he wanted to help bring home all the new, inexperienced Marines.

"You develop this very tight bond and they're like a family," he said. "You've gotta take care of these guys."

On September 4, 2005, Lemieux left for Ramadi. Although there were many similarities — boredom, insular mindsets, unwavering faith in current tactics — Lemieux had significantly more respect for his commanding officer in Ramadi. Many platoon leaders had figured out that security patrols were not helpful, and Lemieux's commanding officer began requiring two or three intelligence reports before they went on a raid in search of insurgents.

"We got a 40 percent success rate, which blew us out of the water," Lemieux said.

Before, residents would accuse their business rivals of hiding weapons because they knew the American soldiers would destroy the property in search of IEDs and put their competition out of business for a while, Lemieux said. By late 2005, intelligence officers were getting better at identifying legitimate claims.

Soldiers also began to show more restraint when dealing with civilians because penalties increased and commanding officers were more strict about the rules of engagement. There was also less pent-up aggression because fewer attacks were directed at the American troops.

Lemieux smoked cigarettes non-stop in Husaybah because he thought an IED would kill him long before lung cancer had the chance. He finally quit in Ramadi because he realized he would probably make it out of Iraq. There were still constant attacks in the region, though.

As soon as his military contract ended in July, 2006, Lemieux sought help for his PTSD. He moved to Anaheim, Calif., and waited for his classes to start at Fullerton College in August, 2006. At the encouragement of a former roommate, he applied to and was accepted to Columbia University in 2008. He is paying for his education with vocational rehabilitation money from the U.S. Veterans Affairs office.

Lemieux signed up for Iraq Veterans Against the War almost as soon as his enlistment was done in July, 2006, and he served as the secretary of the national Board of Directors until January, 2009.

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