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This is the third in a five part series, published weekly through September 11th.

– – –

Andy’s and Ralph’s deaths were an accident.

Everyone who either flies or lives in that world will eventually know someone who is killed in that dangerous course. Sadly, terribly, it’s part of it. But what happened at Columbine High School was no accident, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th were not an accident.

And now here was another component that added to my broader perspective on what had happened to all of us:

A month shy of one year before – October 2000 – I was in Germany to participate in an Air Force exercise, Trailblazer 01, just weeks after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

mec & cst

My lifelong friend – also a close friend to Andy and Ralph – Cliff Thomas, was also there. He went as part of a contingent of the Syracuse (New York) Air National Guard unit. We had wanted to travel to Germany together since we were small boys, and now here we were.

We spent time with his grandmother and other family members in Oberursel, outside Frankfurt, then drove south and west to Ramstein and Landstuhl for our work. That was the good part. But the sobering part was also there.

Barely a month before, the injured – and dead – sailors from the terrorist attack against the USS Cole had been brought to Landstuhl Medical Center, just one hundred-some yards from where I was staying. Situated in the deep, beautiful woods above the picturesque town of Landstuhl, the US Army’s Regional Medical Center was where all our casualties from the Middle East and Europe were brought. Most of the injured Cole sailors were still there when Cliff and I arrived, and some of them died there.

2009_12_24_Daniel

In the spring of 2011, it was again to Landstuhl that a soldier I had a connection to was taken with life-threatening injuries. My niece was dating a young man from Littleton, Colorado whose brother, Daniel – both of whom had attended Columbine High School – was serving with a Marine unit in Afghanistan.

While on a dismounted patrol somewhere in the Helmand Province, an IED – and Improvised Explosive Device – detonated, and when it did he lost both legs and a portion of his left hand, including fingers. After more than two intensive and tenuous months in hospital, Daniel had recovered sufficiently to travel and with his parents at his side, winged his way home.

I was privileged and humbled to be at Denver International Airport to see Daniel arrive to a huge and awe-struck, yet cheering crowd of family, friends, television cameras and supportive and thankful admirers.

Suffice it to say he is a remarkable and inspiring guy. See and hear more of his story here, from Denver’s 9News.

Today, with the help of an amazing family, dedicated friends, and a true-to-their-word US Marine Corps, he is well into discovering and developing a new life. Be sure to take a few minutes to visit his blog. Click on James Nachtwey’s photo, below to see his piece in TIME.

James Nachtwey for TIME

And so I was reminded once again that although I had at that time been retired from the Air Force for almost three years, the war still raged, then almost ten years on.

Those few weeks I spent at Ramstein’s Warrior Preparation Center – the WPC – just outside Landstuhl in October of 2000, were more than an exercise for me, as it turned out.

The month before had been the USS Cole attack and during the same period my friends in the Colorado fighter squadron were leaving Incirlik, Turkey, having completed their latest turn flying the Northern No Fly Zone in Iraq and were being replaced by my former squadron mates and friends of the Terre Haute unit.

Greg, Chris, mec, Savannah, 1994

All these people I knew, from such far-flung places and this place I was in now in the midst of world events – it all seemed in some way to be centering here. The total experience was powerful and acute, as though I was staring into the convergence of globally significant events with a personal connection to it all.

The personal intensity was compounded, too, because my wife was home and very pregnant with our son, Jace and our sixth anniversary passed during my time away. It was not the best time to volunteer for an exercise overseas, but it was nothing compared to what so many others had committed to. (I had roses sent to her to deliver at work – I thought quite a feat to pull off from half way across the world.)

kkc, jwc, mec, home, 2002 002

The experience manifest itself in a peculiar emotion that, even now, when I think of my time there, generates a unique feeling reserved for that time and place.

– – –

Photo Credits:
USS Cole, DoD photo
Cpl. Daniel C. W. Riley, USMC, Daniel Riley
Landstuhl, inaz4sun, Wonderunderground.com
Cpl DCW Riley wounded, UH-60 crew, James Nachtwey for TIME
Others, Michael Conner
– – –

Next week- Part IV – “Faruq”

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The following is an excerpt from Indiana-born Nick Popaditch’s book, Once a Marine.

We are grateful to Nick and his publisher, Savas Beatie, LLC for his contribution at AAH.

But far more than that, we are grateful for his service to our country.

– – –

Carnivore

The Cigar Marine

April 8, 2003

Central Baghdad

A wide boulevard with landscaped islands in the middle, lined with nice urban-type mid-rises in surprisingly fine shape. A very attractive and peaceful-seeming city, especially compared to the suburbs we just went through, where looting of government buildings has already broken out—it’s like a combo carnival and open-air Wal-Mart where everything is free.

But here, deep in Baghdad, we don’t see a soul.

I keep thinking of the old Charlton Heston sci-fi flick Omega Man, where the last non-zombie human male on earth speeds up and down the streets of a major metropolis in his car. I’m part of a column comprising two tank platoons and our infantry platoon in three amtracs, but still the silence and sense of isolation closes in. Very eerie.

In the distance, straight up our boulevard, stands an enormous statue that can’t be anybody but Saddam Hussein. His likeness is everywhere, to the point that guys make up funny names for some of the images—in a white suit and hat he’s Fantasy Island Saddam.

Photograph by Alexandra Boulat

The statue, flanked by shorter commemorative columns, stands in a round mini-park within a traffic circle where our boulevard ends. The big open area is nothing but round, but for some reason they call it Firdos Square. The tallest building on the square is the Palestine Hotel, in front of which we see a growing crowd. Westerners one and all, it turns out, most of them media types loaded down with journalistic weaponry. As our tanks pull in, the crowd crosses toward us like iron filings drawn to magnets. We follow the circle and take up positions at points where streets lead away from the square. It turns out to be a perfect set-up for a defensive perimeter. I park my tank next to the Palestine Hotel, orienting down a street that stops at the banks of the Tigris River just a block away.

People now pour out of the hotel, mostly really happy to see us and shooting bazillions of pictures. But then—can you believe it?—the first person to talk to me is a truly repulsive British woman belonging to a small flock of anti-war protestors. They call themselves Human Shields and carry a big banner that reads, “Go Home U.S. Wankers.”

Great, I’m thinking, I get the —holes. The battleaxe, who seems to be trying to bring back the Sixties, stands next to the tank and shouts up abuse like “You f—ing murderer!” while I crack up, which drives her more wild. With the banner in front of my tank, facing away, her group obviously wants international photo and video coverage, heroes in front of heavy armor like in Tiananmen Square. Of course my tank ain’t moving, much less shooting, and nobody buys their bull—-. The reporters totally ignore these clowns.

I lean down and say to my new girlfriend, “This is just grandstanding. If you really want to be a Human Shield, you should go across the river. They’re bombing over there right now. Listen, you can hear it.”

“F— you,” she says.

Great comeback. After a little more total indifference from the press, the group, disheartened, wanders away.

About this time, Capt. Lewis, puffing on a stogie, comes by and asks to use my radios. As he takes the handset he gives me the cigar.

Cigar_Marine

I look at it a few seconds.

Why not?

I take a few puffs. Can’t call myself a connoisseur, but it tastes damn fine to me.

While I am puffing on the captain’s cigar, a French journalist takes a still shot of me. Little do I know it, but my smiling mug, with Saddam’s statue in the background, will run on front pages all over the world. It’s Black Six’s cigar and only a loaner, but I become known as The Cigar Marine.

All the while, Iraqis arrive. At first they come by ones and twos, acting very cautious. After nothing bad happens, word gets out and people pour into the square until we’ve got a happy mob, an anti-Saddam Woodstock. Locals love abusing the statue, gesturing and throwing stuff. Many pitch shoes, which shows particular disrespect because to them the bottom of the foot is lower than low. Every good hit on the statue gets wild cheers.

I give passing thought to the security implications of the mob scene. Could be die-hard Baathists all around, guys checking out our defensive positions and firepower. Who cares? We can take all comers and attack in any direction at battalion strength. And who could deny the people their party? Until the loyalists hauled ass this morning, nobody would have dared to flip off Saddam’s image. A banged-up Portugese reporter shows us video footage taken by a friend. In it one of Hussein’s henchmen clubs the reporter repeatedly with the butt of an AK-47. That happened right here, just yesterday. The guy’s a mess but deliriously happy to see us. The joy and gratitude of the Iraqis beats all, though. People shout out their thanks and try to hand up flowers and other gifts. I can’t help but get caught up in the celebration and what it means, both to them and to me.

Three weeks back, I thought about nothing but defeating the enemy’s military and knocking off their regime. Now that defeat looks like a victory beyond anything I imagined. This is what I fought for. It’s why I put heart and soul into the Marine Corps way back when. A pure, one hundred percent Marine mission, setting people free from a tyrant they couldn’t get rid of on their own. Forty years, they knuckled under to this murderous son of a bitch because they had no choice. Now, with our help, he’s on the run and they’re dancing in the streets, literally, because he will oppress them no more.

The crowd goes especially wild when a big, burly Iraqi whales away at the statue’s pedestal with a sledge hammer. This guy is huge, like a circus strong man, and he attacks the statue’s base so it will fall over. Not such a bad idea if he had a jackhammer, but it’ll take forever with his hand tool.

Kadom al-Jabouri attacks Saddam Hussein's statue 2003

I don’t know who should get credit, but the Marines come to the strong man’s aid. People go beyond wild hearing the V-12 diesel on our M88, our maintenance vehicle, fire up and then seeing its long boom swing up and out in front like an arm. Here’s our statue killer. It’s a miracle nobody gets run over or hurt climbing on the vehicle’s deck while it creeps through the crowd toward the statue.

Now all eyes are on the M88 guys. After the driver, Lance Corporal Riley, positions the machine, a mechanic, Corporal Chin, climbs up to throw a loop around Saddam’s neck and hook it up to the winch cables that run out the boom. Our corpsman, Doc Rose, also rides the M88, the reasoning being that broken tanks will likely have broken Marines on board. He assists Chin. Pictures of Chin and Doc Rose will go out all over the world, great for them because they usually labor in obscurity. After one good pull on a heavy rope loop around Saddam’s neck breaks the rope, the guys rig a towing chain.

Later rehashes by unfriendly press aside, nobody in the square takes the least bit of offense when an American flag goes over Saddam Hussein’s head. The Iraqis cheer like crazy. The flag doesn’t mean we conquered anybody—just “Saddam, you’re through.” Obviously, though, it doesn’t play so well politically, because an order comes down from on high to remove the Stars and Stripes. So an Iraqi flag goes up, and people cheer for that, too. The McDonald’s flag would do the trick, or a giant bedspread. I like both flags fine and dig the image of Saddam with his head covered by cloth and a noose around his neck, like he’s about to be hanged.

The M88 commander, Gunnery Sergeant Lambert, a famously methodical and fastidious individual, makes a major production out of pulling the statue down. He does it by inches, backing up and winching out cable bit by bit, retrograding to where the statue won’t fall on his vehicle. “Come on, Gunny, yank that f—er down already, you’re killing us.” Though we expect the statue to topple over, it does something cooler, buckling and breaking at the shins so two feet still stand. Not only is the guy down, we can see inside his statue. He’s hollow.

My crewmen ask if they can dismount and mingle. Sure guys, you earned it. They come back looking starry-eyed, and then it’s my turn to get down and be amongst the crowd, one happy Moe among many. One man and I actually show each other our kids’ pictures. The more I get to know the locals, the more I see they’re just like me, and the more I want them to have a shot at a life as good as mine. Glad to help, more than glad, and proud.

Inadvertently, I’m a huge help to that Frenchman who took the cigar picture. A couple hours after he took the picture, he finds me in the crowd, shakes my hand and says, “You have made me a lot of money, my friend.” As I understand, his shot got picked up by the Associated Press and made a big hit worldwide.

After some back and forth, I say to him, “Since I did this for you, I want to ask you to do me a favor.”

“It will be my pleasure,” he says.

“I will write down my home phone number. Could you please call it and tell the woman who answers to watch what’s happening here on TV? I want her to see this.”

“Call her yourself, my friend,” he says and flips me a satt phone. After April picks up, I tell her to turn on the news, and she laughs and says she and other wives have been watching together and taping everything, having their own Firdos Square in Twentynine Palms.

“We haven’t missed a thing,” she says, “We’re so proud of our guys.”

Can it get any better than this?

Well, yes, it can. We were married twelve years ago today.

“Happy Anniversary, Beautiful Woman,” I say.

* * *

NickPopaditch

Firdos Square was an incredible moment, as anybody lucky enough to have been there will tell you. I was fortunate to spend a few more weeks mopping up and keeping the peace on the streets of Baghdad. When I think of that city during those times, I think of people I liked, kids, smiling faces, laughs, and happiness. The promise of freedom was pure and real.

However the situation in Iraq comes out, I’m proud that I fought to give those people a shot at a better life.

MJHPhotography

– – –

You can read more about Nick including his biography and those of AAH’s other contributors here.

You may read more about Nick here, too, at Cigar Marine.com.

For you Kindle users, an audio version of Once a Marine is available as well:

OAM Paperback (LR)

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