How war affects its soldiers

How war affects its soldiers

This is the first interview between Dean and his brother Ben—today others call him Binyomin—on events that took place during the Iraq War in 2006. We'll discuss the impact these events have on Binyomin's life. Binyomin is a U.S. Marine who was stationed in Okinawa Japan, Habbaniyah Iraq, Fallujah Iraq, and several U.S. locations. He has a wife and five children. He is active in helping veterans advocate for themselves and their mental needs. He is involved in the Fort Lauderdale area Jewish community.

Inspiration for war

Dean: Why did you join the Marines at 18?

Binyomin: My parents got divorced and that had a big impact on me. When my Grandmom Ettie suggested that me joining was due to them getting a divorce, I was speechless. And I felt—for some reason—the need to prove to myself that I was a man. I wanted to join the hardest branch of the military, but I didn’t want the infantry. I wanted hard, but not too hard. I did a lot of research. I wanted to be in Iraq, so I chose to be a U.S. Marine. They called us POGs — person other than grunts. Those in the front lines were called infantry, or O3s. I decided to become a generator mechanic.

Dean: Why a generator mechanic?

Binyomin: I could have joined as anything—my scores allowed it. I received a 110GT score — not great, but this allowed me to do most things. I knew the recruiter from the area. He said: "find something in this book that you can figure out and make money with after you’re done with the Marines." I didn’t want to shoot people or be on the front lines.  There were people in my high school class who signed up for front-line infantry, but that didn't appeal to me. Ideally, I wanted some type of manual labor like at the farm—outdoors and working with my hands. Diesel generator mechanic electrician sounded perfect for me.

Dean: How many others in the high school class joined the military?

Binyomin: Out of 350 kids, maybe 10 joined the military (all 5 branches); 4 others and I joined the Marines.

Dean: And what did you think you’d do after the Marines?

Binyomin: I worked at a farm at the time, and Gary (the farm owner) knew electrical stuff but there were things he didn’t know how to do. He was paying several hundreds of dollars for someone to do this work. I figured I could do something like that. The book the recruiter handed me had many ambiguous jobs like data/server work. Electrical work was something I could relate to because of the farm.

Dean: What was being repaired at the farm that gave you the inspiration to be a generator mechanic?

Binyomin: A panel box, a certain light, a basement renovation. Gary was a jack of all trades but with the more complex work, he would ask for help. I read books about the military, watched movies like Full Metal Jacket, and talked to every Marine veteran I could.

Dean: How did your relationship with Gary and the farm impact your interest in going to Iraq?

Binyomin: The farm was a small operation. I wanted something bigger. I wanted to go into Iraq at the time — not Afghanistan — mainly because Iraq was in the news. I wanted to go to combat — I thought ‘I didn’t want to miss this war — there might not be another opportunity.’ I didn’t know any other way besides being a reporter. This was the only way I wanted to get to the war zone. I was also influenced by working with Gary's older brother Terry the summer before I went to Parris Island for boot camp. Terry was an infantryman in Vietnam and we spent hours speaking about his time in the Marines. Terry spoke about killing the first "gook"—a derogatory term for people of Asian descent. He spoke about how sad he felt after killing the man and uncovering his wallet, with photos of the man's family.

This reinforced my decision to join as a mechanic.

Once I enlisted, we were asked by drill instructors why we joined—and I always said patriotism and that I wanted to go to Iraq.

I really wanted to go to Iraq. Once, a Colonel (high ranking officer) gave a speech, and I went over to him after to ask him 'sir, when will I be able to go to Iraq? I want to go right away.' The other Marines were laughing at me, but I wanted to go immediately.

Dean: And do you consider yourself a patriot?

Binyomin: No, I felt patriotic maybe at that point, but once I was in Iraq, I no longer felt the same patriotism — none of us did. We evolved at varying levels. Today, I don’t feel like a patriot. I love the country and all of that, but no I don't look at it that way anymore. When I was a virgin with the whole thing, I was a patriot. But once we got to Iraq, I didn't see it the same way again. I don't think I ever will.

Dean: Why did you want to go to the war zone?

Binyomin: I had read a lot about history — Zayda told me about WWII, when he mortared other people. This generation was the global war on terror — GWOT. I was partially influenced by the airplane attacks. I wanted to participate in this war.

Dean: So, you wanted to help stop terror?

Binyomin: I just wanted to participate in whatever they were doing. I didn't agree with it and didn't think it would work — I just wanted to participate in it. I can remember sitting with my cousins Karen and Kelly and Jonathan and Lynn, and we were talking about the war and whether I should join.

I sided with them that it was a total BS war where people were dying — that it was very hard for anyone to connect Iraq with the 911 attacks. Even though I knew it was a total disaster, I was patriotic and believed in it a little bit. It didn’t seem like a racist war to me — there was a Muslim in our platoon.

Joining the war was a weird fixation for me, a personal goal of sorts—I didn't want to miss my generation's war. Today, this sounds totally nuts to me—and I feel very differently about the military. But at the time I thought this way. I had put war on a pedestal and fixated on it.

Making it to Iraq

Dean: Let’s jump into Iraq. Airplane wheels touch down, then what happens?

Binyomin: We were nervous – everyone on the plane was. Mostly first timers — some were second or third. But for most of us it was our first time. The plane did all sort of invasive maneuvers before it landed because we worried about getting shot down — it was a crazy landing. The plane had no windows. We were sitting in a cargo plane on a web, with a bathroom as a bucket bolted to the floor. The whole plane was pitch black — everyone just passed out and went to bed. We woke up, and it was nighttime when the latch was opened. Everyone was nervous. We were on a base — and started to acclimate.

My first mission off the base, we were more nervous. Mission briefs, checking fuel. We had to call in every time we saw a piece of trash — it could be an improvised explosive device, an IED.

5 and 25s — a way to spread out — would be used in training — but we stopped using it after we were getting blown up. But that’s what we had done at the beginning of the deployment. Get out, assess the threat.

So, the first job we did was to repair a blown-up highway — 3/4 lanes in each direction, Main Supply Route Irons, Route Steelers, Route Redskins — in Arabic and in English — were some of the highway names.

In this repair, someone had detonated an IED meant to target American forces. It ended up blowing up the entire route. We were called the 9th Engineer Support Battalion. Our job was to make the road passable, clear remnants from the IED and repair the road.

We had dump trucks filled with cement. People made money blowing up American troops. If they could get a mortar to land — they would get paid for that. That’s when I felt it was game-on in Iraq.

4 days after we landed, I went on that project. That’s when I really felt a threat. People would pull up and begin launching and the machine gunners would start firing.

Dean: What is a mortar tube?

Binyomin: It’s a tube with a base plate, you drop in something that looks like a football and when it goes up it spreads shrapnel on the ground. Further in the deployment, I saw lots of these things go off. And it makes a bit of a crater and spreads the shrapnel over a big distance so you can kill quickly. Effective killing range would be about 100 feet. It's an indirect fire weapon, so it’s hard to use.

Dean: So, insurgents were being paid to kill the Marines?

Binyomin: Yes, if they couldn’t get a job, they could take an 81 mm mortar tube and attempt to kill in return for payment. I remember machine gunners laying down fire. I can remember watching the whole thing like a movie. Machine gunners are spraying wherever the truck is. And of course, this is while I was repairing the road.

One job I had was to set up these flood lights to light up our repair work. But this would attract mortar fire.

Dean: What was the distance between you and the gunner?

Binyomin: On that mission, it was about 200 feet, but on other projects it was much closer. Many were less than 100 feet away — the gunners would drive and shoot at the same time. On a 6-lane highway, they were usually parked on the other side of the highway. Gunners would drive their Humvee (military truck) and shoot as they chased the people who were trying to kill us.

That job was like a desert area, so people were just pulling up — very flat, not much vegetation — they would pull up in a pickup truck with hopes of killing us.

Dean: Did anyone die on this first mission?

Binyomin: None of the mortars on that mission hit us. I had come from Japan with a team of gunners — they were my buddies. They were called the security platoon. We worked and they fought. We would call in IEDs or things that looked like IEDs, while listening to who was getting shot and where. Other gun trucks were protecting us. We would plan out convoys ahead of time. Mark 19, 240 Gulf, M2 50 cal; they had to be properly put in the convoy. A lot of it seemed like a cat and mouse game, especially with that first mission. We made it back. We stamped the highway concrete with our engineering logo and the mission was complete.

And then I was FAPed — meaning I was moved from my unit to another unit. I got sent to the hospital, called Shock Surgical Trauma Platoon, or SSTP. I was there because I was a generator mechanic. I was also the electrician for the hospital. And I was on the security platoon for SSTP.

We treated anybody, even insurgents. I remember insurgents coming off the same ambulance—some dead, some almost dead. I kept the generator running and did security for the hospital. Searching everyone — making sure the doctors stayed safe. We checked that those entering the hospital were not at risk of cooking off ammunition — i.e., unplanned explosion — and that patients were free of weapons. We were responsible for transporting, triaging.

We were responsible for all detainee and prisoner hygiene and food. I remember teaching one Iraqi prisoner how to take an American shower - which is very different than an Iraqi shower. I used a language pamphlet to translate English to Arabic, and often we would just talk to the prisoners to pass the time.  The pamphlet also had phrases like 'halt', 'freeze', 'put your hands up', 'I will kill you'. And sometimes we would point our rifles at detainees’ heads and shout Arabic at them to get them to comply—which sounded absurd in our American accent and only added to the chaos and confusion.

Dean: Tell me a story or two from the hospital.

Binyomin: One of our bomb techs had been brought in dead — I had to identify him. We kept a logbook on who had been killed. We were told to keep our ID card in our left breast pocket in case we were killed and needed to be identified. I opened this bomb tech's left breast pocket. His ID was there. He was a gunnery sergeant I knew—let's call him Martone. The irony is that just a few months prior, Martone taught us how not to get blown up.

Some days, when the generator would encounter issues, the surgeons would run outside and tell me that I killed the patients. Surgeries happened more in the nighttime, and so I spent the day preparing. Fuel, extra parts, that sort of thing. The equipment was junky.

There was a 9-year-old Iraqi girl who came in one day to be treated for shrapnel (from an IED). Though IEDs were targeted at Americans, they sometimes hit civilians. I sat with her and her parents — this would be the last person I met before I left the hospital. I spoke to them with my hands and tried to spend time with them.

Dean: What are your goals with our conversations?

Binyomin: I’m trying to make sense after the fact — in hopes that I can meet someone that can really explain it to me. Or meet someone that was there — a lot of people don’t want to talk at all.

I want to share my story — to find ways for my story to help at least one person. It could be someone who works at that hospital with me — someone that can relate to me. To help a veteran — or anyone — but especially I want to find a way to connect with people who have shared experiences.

And I want to focus on the psychological story. We've seen two suicides in my unit. Before Phillips died, he reached out to me. The psychological trauma affects us and our family. Another Marine from the hospital also became a religious Jew like me, so maybe religion and the war have some connection; I'd like to explore this connection more.

If the whole knowledge of this war is a football field long, I have a one-foot soldier view. I understand it's limited, but I want to give things to people that they can use. Maybe I can help people who were there.

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