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The Iraq story: how troops see it

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To the marines of the 3/25, the explosions clearly do not tell the whole story. Across America, many readers know the 3/25 only as the unit that lost 15 marines in less than a week - nine of them in the deadliest roadside bombing against US forces during the war. When the count of Americans killed in Iraq reached 2,000, this unit again found itself in the stage lights of national notice as one of the hardest hit.

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But that is not the story they tell. It is more than just the dire tone of coverage - though that is part of it. It is that Iraq has touched some of these men in ways that even they have trouble explaining. This, after all, has not been a normal war. Corporals Mayer and Schuller went over not to conquer a country, but to help win its hearts and minds. In some cases, though, it won theirs.

Schuller, a heavyweight college wrestler with a thatch of blond hair and engine blocks for arms, cannot help smiling when he speaks of giving an old man a lighter: "He thought it was the coolest thing." Yet both he and the blue-eyed, square-jawed Mayer pause for a moment before they talk about the two 9-year-old Iraqis whom members of their battalion dubbed their "girlfriends."

The first time he saw them, Mayer admits that he was making the calculations of a man in the midst of a war. He was tired, he was battered, and he was back at a Hit street corner that he had patrolled many times before. In Iraq, repetition of any sort could be an invitation of the wrong sort - an event for which insurgents could plan. So Mayer and Schuller took out some of the candy they carried, thinking that if children were around, perhaps the terrorists wouldn't attack.

It was a while before the children realized that these two marines, laden with arms to the limit of physical endurance, were not going to hurt them. But among the children who eventually came, climbing on the pair's truck and somersaulting in the street, there were always the same two girls. When they went back to base, they began to hoard Oreos and other candy in a box.

"They became our one little recess from the war," says Mayer. "You're seeing some pretty ridiculous tragedies way too frequently, and you start to get jaded. The kids on that street - I got to realize I was still a human being to them."

It happened one day when he was on patrol. Out of nowhere, a car turned the corner and headed down the alley at full speed. "A car coming at you real fast and not stopping in Iraq is not what you want to see," says Mayer. Yet instead of jumping in his truck, he stood in the middle of the street and pushed the kids behind him.

The car turned. Now, Mayer and Schuller can finish each other's sentences when they think about the experience. "You really start to believe that you protect the innocent," says Schuller. "It sounds like a stupid cliché...."

"But it's not," adds Mayer. "You are in the service of others."

For Mayer, who joined the reserves because he wanted to do something bigger than himself, and for Schuller, a third-generation marine, Iraq has given them a sense of achievement. Now when they look at the black-and-white pictures of marines past in the battalion headquarters, "We're adding to that legacy," says Schuller.

This is what they wish to share with the American people - and is also the source of their frustration. Their eight months in Iraq changed their lives, and they believe it has changed the lives of the Iraqis they met as well. On the day he left, Mayer gave his "girlfriend" a bunch of pens - her favorite gift - wrapped in a paper that had a picture of the American flag, the Iraqi flag, and a smiley face. The man with the lighter asked Schuller if he was coming back. He will if called upon, he says.

Whether or not these notes of grace and kindness are as influential as the dirge of war is open to question. But many in the military feel that they should at least be a part of the conversation.

Says Warner of reaching an overall verdict: "I'm not sure that reporting on terrorist bombings with disproportionate ink is adequately answering that question."

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