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Baghdad, family crisis and intercultural cooperation

Task Force Tarawa Marine reports on the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom
By Eric Johnson (’95)

JMU alum Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson ('95)

Wedding anniversary, then goodbye

When activated for war, reservists typically receive a 30-day warning — my unit received notice four days before departure. On Monday, Jan. 6, 2003, I received an e-mail saying that I was one of a detachment of 35 Marines bound for Kuwait. I reported on Friday morning, and after completing several stacks of paperwork, we were released that afternoon to spend the rest of the day with our families.

That day, Jan. 10, was my wedding anniversary. My wife, Paige, and I went out to dinner as we had planned, but this was the last time we’d be alone together for a long time. She was eight months pregnant with our third child. The next day, I kissed her, my son Charlie, 3, and daughter Anna, 2, goodbye. The kids acted as if I was going to be gone for the weekend, not realizing that they wouldn’t see me for months.

Crisis in the delivery room

Two days later my unit was on a ship headed for the Persian Gulf. The night before we went ashore in Kuwait, my son Christopher was born. I sat on the mess deck of the USS Ashland, reading a biography of John Adams, attempting to use the ship-to-shore telephone to check on the baby’s progress. I was completely unaware of our family drama playing out 8,000 miles away. Christopher’s delivery was complicated; his head was crushing his umbilical cord. The doctors and nurses rushed Paige into an operating room where they performed an emergency C-section. Because Christopher was in mortal danger, they gave Paige anesthetic but had to start the surgery before it kicked in.

By the time I talked to Paige, it was all over — through a drug-induced haze, she told me what happened. She ended up healing just fine; and although the doctors thought Christopher was probably brain-damaged from oxygen deprivation, today he is a rambunctious and perfectly normal 1-year-old.

Task Force Tarawa gets ready

My unit spent more than a month in the northern Kuwaiti desert, waiting for the war to start. The conditions were primitive but not intolerable since the winter days were mild. Nights were surprisingly cold, however, and sand-filled winds regularly swept through our tent city. Our group of about 8,000 Marines, called Task Force Tarawa, readied ourselves and our equipment for the journey into Iraq.

Our detachment split into eight-man teams, which were attached to infantry battalions for the duration of the war. My unit was the 4th Civil Affairs Group, whose main mission during combat is to keep civilians away from battle areas, as well as arrange for humanitarian aid where possible. Intelligence reports indicated that as many as 1 million Iraqis would flee their homes after the invasion started, clogging main roads and impeding the coalition’s drive to Baghdad, so our training focused on that probability.

As it turned out, there was no mass exodus from the cities, nor was there a humanitarian crisis. The Iraqi regime had issued several months of rations to each family, so no one was seeking food. In contradiction to reports of widespread hunger under U.N. sanctions, we did not see any malnourished Iraqis. Since electricity had been sporadic before the war as the Iraqi government diverted the supply to regime-friendly areas, people were used to doing without it.

Clearing battle areas

Our other mission was clearing battle areas. The unit to which our team was attached, the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment, was ordered to capture and hold a bridge in southern Nasiriyah, while two sister battalions held the city’s other two bridges. In keeping with the sterling quality of pre-war intelligence, our reports said that Iraqi resistance was expected to be light or nonexistent, and the Shiite population would welcome us with open arms.

My job was to be the communicator, which meant making sure our equipment was loaded with the right cryptographic codes and radio networks. I got to be rather fanatical about preventive maintenance. If the equipment wasn’t cleaned every day, it was prone to failure. If you’re getting shot at, the two things you want working are your rifle and your radio.

On Sunday morning, March 23, our massive column of vehicles ground to a halt on the road to Nasiriyah. A soldier at a checkpoint had mistakenly sent an Army supply convoy north through a part of the city nicknamed “Ambush Alley.” Had the convoy simply continued along the road, they would have eventually rejoined the main body of their unit, but the captain in charge turned his trucks around and drove right back through the city. The fedayeen, who were stunned to see the Americans roaring past them the first time, were prepared the second time. They demolished the convoy with rifles, rocket propelled grenades and mortars, killing 11 soldiers and taking six prisoners. Two Marines from an adjacent battalion died while attempting to rescue the soldiers, one of whom was Jessica Lynch.

Making bad decisions in the heat of the moment is completely understandable. You do what you think is best, and you do it as quickly as you can.

A citywide fight

The Marines of Task Force Tarawa were suddenly in a citywide fight concentrated between the southern bridge, where our battalion was, and the northern bridge, held by 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. For the next 10 days, the infantry battled Saddam’s forces as they attempted to stop the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from moving across the bridges on the way to Baghdad.

They failed, contenting themselves instead with hit-and-run attacks and sniping. Knowing that Americans would not deliberately place noncombatants at risk, one of their favorite tactics was to shoot at Marines and then run into a crowd of civilians, or fire from occupied houses and buildings.

Their tactics backfired. The city’s occupants decided to support the invaders instead of Saddam’s forces, which included a large number of foreign fighters, whom Iraqis held in complete contempt. When our team, which included a Kuwaiti translator, used loudspeakers to order civilians away from places where fighting was imminent, the people obeyed immediately.

One of my most vivid memories is the first time we were called out to warn of an impending ammo dump explosion. (The regime’s defenders liked to hide weapons and explosives in residential neighborhoods, and our engineers had to explode the ammunition in place because moving it was too dangerous.) Almost as soon as we switched on the speakers, a sniper began firing at our Humvee. We kept broadcasting for a couple of more minutes. I was seated at the back of the vehicle, monitoring the radio. We were sitting at the end of a bridge, and below me I could see the Euphrates languidly flowing through reeds by the shoreline as a white bird glided past gently rustling palm trees. It was a weird juxtaposition — watching a scene of natural beauty while listening to the sounds of men desperately trying to kill each other.

For 10 days, we worked with the population to keep them out of danger. In doing so, we learned that although they hated their oppressors, they were also wary of Americans because we did nothing to support their uprising in 1991 after the Gulf War when they were brutally suppressed by the Republican Guard. Gradually, the people became convinced we were there to help them, and then they were more than cooperative.

Intercultural cooperation

Once, I heard a Marine call for fire against a sniper in a downtown building. “Negative,” came the reply from headquarters, “You can’t possibly see that building from your position.” To minimize the risk to civilians, the rules of engagement forbade artillery strikes unless someone could directly observe the target.

“Well, I’ve got about seven Iraqis pointing at the building and gesturing that somebody’s shooting from it,” the Marine responded.

“Good enough for me!” replied headquarters. Moments later, I heard a cannon go off. “Target destroyed,” the observer reported.

That was my first glimpse of the intercultural cooperation that I would witness many times over.

On the road to Baghdad

After leaving Nasiriyah on April 2, we spent the rest of the war moving steadily toward Baghdad, to support the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s assault on the city from the east. Every day or two, we moved to a new city, our team went on patrols with the infantrymen and talked to civilians, and then we moved on. Our major problem was keeping the throngs of Iraqis at arm’s length as the crowds pressed close to us so they could use their English words — “America, good!” “Bush yes! Saddam donkey!” — or attempt to sell us Iraqi cigarettes or dinars. The 1st MEF never needed us; the regime collapsed without a massive assault on the capital. Task Force Tarawa garrisoned Wasit province, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. All of the teams from our attachment rejoined each other, and we helped stabilize the province in the aftermath of the regime’s dissolution. By the time we left, all of the public services were operating at pre-war standards in the province; albeit, those standards were not very high. Aside from the followers of an Iranian-backed imam, the people treated us with kindness, or, at the worst, indifference.

Returning home

The Marines’ mission was winding down, and the Army gradually took over all Marine-controlled territory. Our unit began sending people home by twos and threes since the full unit was no longer necessary. As I was with one of the first groups to be deployed, and my wife was caring for three young children all alone, I went home before most of my unit. I felt bad leaving before so many others; but I hadn’t asked to go home early, and nobody seemed to resent it. I arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., on July 19. The next day, we did more paperwork and flew home that evening. When I walked out of the airport’s passenger area, Charlie and Anna yelled, “Daddy!” and ran to me at full speed. I grabbed them both in my arms, and they began to chatter about what they’d been doing for the previous half-year. Then I set them down as they grabbed onto my legs, and I met little Christopher for the first time. “Big Christopher” might be more appropriate — he was 5 months old and weighed 23 pounds. Paige, who deserved some kind of medal for running the family in my absence, was pretty glad to see me, too, and so were my extended family and in-laws.

For a while after I got home, some people thought I “needed my space” and wouldn’t talk to me at all, as if a conversation would push me into madness. Others wanted all the details. I was reluctant to talk much about the war, not because I was traumatized by it — at 31 years old I figure I’m way too old to have formative experiences — but because I was tired of thinking about it. I just wanted to relax for a couple of weeks, play with my kids, and enjoy the new baby. So that’s exactly what I did.

Read about Eric Johnson’s “literary experiment” and the creation of his online Shakespeare database in "Searching Shakespeare" on MadisonOnline’s features site.