Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation

by Ryan Berg, MA

Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.

Marines inside the C130 during the flight from Kuwait to Baghdad International Airport

We were one of the first flights that landed at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), and in order to avoid rocket propelled grenades or small arms fire from potential insurgents on the ground, the C130 performed a corkscrew maneuver as it landed. The corkscrew began around 18,000 feet, where we were still out of range of a missile, then the plane turned sharply and descended, pointing its nose toward the runway, similar to a child descending down a spiral slide on the playground.  Except we weren’t children, and down below the playground consisted of fighters determined to kill us. We weren’t playing guns with the neighbor kids, we were 2nd battalion 24 Marines, an infantry unit, deployed to replace 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines in the Triangle of Death.  Inside the plane, there was a green hue from lights above us.  We were packed in sitting on bench seats facing another row of Marines.

A C-130 like the one we flew in landing at Baghdad International Airport.

After many turns, the pilot carefully pulled out of the rotation, straightened out, and landed.  It took about eight minutes from that altitude.  After we landed, a member of the flight crew said that a few insurgents shot at the plane with small arms weapons but missed.  The war began to become more real for me. I remember the moment that I stepped down the steel stairs of the C-130.  I saw the most beautiful sunrise, and then heard the sound of .50 caliber machine gun fire miles away. “What’s that?” I thought. Ever since then, something changed within me.

As a Marine, I was only used to hearing those noises when we were training. But we weren’t training this time. We were in an extremely deadly war zone, and the sound of machine gun fire in the distance scared me. We were on the “two-way range” as Marines say. A gun range where bullets are fired not only “down range”, but “up range,” or at you, as well. That adds a different dynamic to everything, a much different one.

Members of Weapons Platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion 24th Marines, sitting in the back of 5 ton trucks.

After stepping off the plane, we all got into the back of trucks and made our way to another location. I remember wondering how vigilant I should be – since I wasn’t sure if where we were was subject to enemy threat. I nervously instructed one of the Marines in my team to put his protective goggles on. In retrospect, we were relatively safe at that time, but I didn’t know it – nor did my nervous system. This was the beginning of living in a constant state of vigilance.

We eventually made our way to a location where we waited for more trucks to take us to our new home.  Once those trucks arrived we all marveled at them, running our hands and eyes across their steel exterior. Not because we’d never seen them before, but because they were riddled with dents and holes from enemy bullets. “What kind of weapon could do this to a solid steel truck like this one? What would those weapons do to my human bones and soft flesh?” were questions that ran through my mind, and I’m certain others’.

Lance Corporal May and Lance Corporal Long loaded up in the back of seven ton trucks with others.

We never talked about concerns like these though. It’s simply territory not acceptable to explore with one another, because if you did, you would be dropping your shield, and acknowledging a vulnerability that we typically dealt with privately.  It was as if while staring at those bullet holes, that bent steel, I was supposed to act as if I didn’t care, was unafraid and un-phased. We never intentionally verbally communicated the ultimate vulnerability about what was at stake in putting our bodies on the line. We did, however, each have our own tell. Some of us nervously chain-smoked, incessantly chewed tobacco, or anxiously yelled commands at those junior to us. Others sat quietly, staring into nothing, absorbed by depths of fear they had never felt.

Once we were all in the back of the trucks, we began our descent into the depths of hell. Just prior to the first Marine checkpoint, we noticed a vehicle scorched and blown to pieces, still smoldering. “What happened?” I asked myself in a mild internal panic. We soon learned that the enemy drove a car into the checkpoint and detonated itself, injuring some of the Marines inside. This was the kind of “welcome to Iraq” that our enemy would have wanted us to have. It struck fear into me, and in that moment, just minutes into being in Iraq, I realized that people desperately wanted to kill me too.

We trucked along and eventually made it to the base that would be our home for the next seven months, Forward Operating Base, Saint Michael, located in Mahmudiyah, Iraq – about twenty miles south of Baghdad.  The base was relatively large, housing about 1200 Marines, and sat right next to a major highway with tons of traffic. We were really in the heart of it all, we learned. Rumor was that since the invasion of Bagdad, and the battle about to take place in Fallujah to the north of us, many of the fighters were pushed south into our area. Hearing about enemy fighters being in our area wasn’t good news, especially since we would soon be traveling extensively across this area on foot and in our vehicles.

When we arrived inside the base mid-day, I stepped off the truck and it literally felt like hell. The heat was extreme. It was 120 degrees or hotter, and the 40 pounds of gear I was carrying didn’t help. As I looked around, I felt a torching heat consume my body. To the left of me was an exhaust pipe of a gas generator blowing even more hot air in my face. It felt like I was standing behind a jet engine as beads of sweat screamed out of my pores, desperately looking for a way out.

A Marine walking down “tent city”, the living quarters where we slept.

“Pick up your shit and get to the tents!” was screamed at us. Unfortunately, I had packed too much gear, and when I tried to pick up my pack and swing it over my back, it didn’t make it. I nor my pack could bear the weight of everything I brought with me, not to mention the gear I had laying on the ground. I looked at my fellow Marines and they responded with how we sometimes treated one another, they let me fail. I felt terrible. I’m in Iraq, already frightened, overheating, and I can’t even make it to our quarters because I have too many things. “What have I done? Am I prepared to even be here? How could I have not known what to pack? See, I knew I shouldn’t have packed all these comfort items. I’m a failure and not ready for combat.” And “what kind of start to a deployment is this? Will the Marines let me fail when we are on patrol and shit hits the fan?” I felt alone, scared, and angry. I wanted my fellow Marines to help me, but if I spoke up, I risked being perceived as the guy who isn’t self-sufficient, who puts the team at risk because he requires help from others. Eventually, one of the junior Marines saw my struggle and helped me carry my things.

What would ensue was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life: a near 7-month deployment in a deadly war zone. I was scared, to some degree, every single moment of the next 200 days. Sure, there were moments where nothing was happening, where I was just laying around in my bed listening to music or dozing off. But I still held the fear. Driving around outside the wire, we were constantly concerned that a bomb would explode underneath our vehicle. While walking around the area on foot patrols, the threats were many: potentially taking small arms fire, vehicle or other explosions, and mortar or rocket fire.

The Mortar Squad on patrol in Mahmudiyah.

The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn’t leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for the past three months, the sweltering heat, and the weight of carrying a full combat load weighed on us.  We carried around 60 pounds of gear, and some even more with radios and machine guns. We had already walked around 12 miles, we were driving hard, and the patrol was turning out to be too long.  We were over-extended and running out of water.

A palm grove in Iraq.

Eventually, one of the senior Marines on the patrol reported that he could walk no further, and our squad leader, Sergeant Rivas, took some of his gear. We eventually made the decision to take a tactical pause in an Iraqi palm grove in order to assess the situation, and consider what to do next.  With some Marines facing outboard 360 degrees, we held a defensive position amid the palms, and I began to nibble on MRE crackers and take a much needed breather. I unbuckled my chin-strap, noticed how numb my legs were, felt my aching upper torso pulsating from all the gear, and began to catch my breath.  Sweat-sopped heads, hair matted down from our turtle-shell-like Kevlar helmets pulling down on our skulls for the past three hours, I remember leaning my back up against a palm tree.  Before we had a chance to settle in, in the distance we all heard three distinct THUMP THUMP THUMPS. Being a squad of mortarmen ourselves, we knew all too well what was coming.

A picture that one of the embedded journalist took of a Marine in my company. The blurred effect captures the intensity of the environment we were in.

Choir-like, some of us slammed our Kevlars back on, fucked buckling chin straps, jammed our snacks back into our side cargo pockets, and clung to the ground, scratching our way into the dirt, perhaps a last ditch effort to make a trench, clawing our way ever closer to the planet. My anus puckered and I felt like crawling into the center of the Earth to protect myself from this volley of rockets that were about to land any moment. BOOM BOOM BOOM they fell all around our position.  We all popped up like groundhogs after Rivas yelled “run!” As we sprinted through the open field, I remember hearing more thumps.  The rockets were on there way.  I will never forget this moment, and even today it replays in slow motion in my mind.  The mental and emotional terror of imagining what would happen to me should a rocket land on the top of my skull, poured over me.  In a flash, I thought of the way that my whole body would burst into red fragments, bones exploding, my heart stopping, being no longer — the horror my mother would feel learning of her youngest son being killed. “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die”, I uttered internally as I kept my legs moving.  I just ran. We all kept running.

Eventually we made it to village where we discovered that people were badly injured and homes were completely destroyed. I saw a dead dog lying in the living room of a home, nearly flattened, bloodened, covered in dust. It appeared to be an Iraqi labradoodle. I stared at it as my gut wrenched. Iraqi civilians were crying, screaming at us in Arabic, and rushing their loved ones off to the hospital. Their horror needed no translation.  After this, we eventually made it back to base.

Mortars and rockets were consistently landing inside the perimeter of our base, not far from our sleeping tents, chow hall (or cafeteria in civilian lingo), and company headquarters. Outside the wire, or off base, I was even more tightly wound with alarming vigilance since the prospect of being killed or injured drastically increased. Each moment that my body was whole while outside the wire in Iraq was a good one. And that is how I lived, thought, and looked at life now. The ever-present threat of an improvised explosive device (IED) blasting through the bottom my feet made me live in constant fear. Not to mention the possibility of rockets raining down from above.

To cope with this reality, I began consuming shots of whiskey to help calm my nerves when simply walking to the chow hall or up to the commissary to grab comfort items. I couldn’t help it, I felt nervous all the time, and my speech was affected to the point where I felt embarrassed to talk around my friends at times. I dreaded the thought that another Marine would find out how I was feeling, so I held it in tightly. Each day for nearly seven months I carried what felt like an extra forty pounds of fear among all the other gear I had designed to keep me alive.

Corporal Ryan Berg standing outside his tent in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, 2004.

What changed within me ever since deploying to Iraq is a constant feeling that the world is a dangerous place, and that if I don’t do everything near perfectly, something will either explode underneath my feet, or other lives I care about will be taken from me and I’ll be at fault. Presently, back home in California, I triple check the locks on my back door every night. I leave the house to run some errands only to park on the street and run back to ensure I locked the doors. I daydream while doing the dishes only to feel my heart hit the ground as the garbage truck make its customary loud bang, and the concussion felt teleports me back to Iraq at light speed – which then sends my entire body into panic and fear. I peak over my shoulder and my wife continues to nibble on her breakfast. Meanwhile, I’m now shook up, while feelings of anger, rage, sadness, shame, hopelessness, and depression come oozing fourth, in that order. “No one can know about this”, I utter internally, then implement strategies I learned in psychotherapy: I tell my wife. I open up to her. I allow myself to be fully seen. I trust she doesn’t think I’m a scaredy-cat. Of course, that is the risk.

It often surprises me that more than a decade after deploying to Iraq, I’m just beginning to learn about how the experience affected me. I think for so long I was running around after I got home pretending that I was OK. That it was others I needed to serve and help. While helping others gives me a sense of purpose, the Veteran that I’ve needed to serve the most has been myself. And I strive to do that work, to cultivate a sense of internal safety in my life, to feel my emotional responses to my environment – which I often suppressed during my time as a Marine. What has been most enjoyable yet seemingly contradictory about this process has been discovering the fact that experiencing emotions can lead directly to my feeling safe and whole again. Prior to beginning the work, it was emotion, feeling, and memories that I would avoid – with the help of various addictive and distracting behaviors. Now, I recognize that in order to more fully step into my life and continue on the warrior’s path, I need to recall, talk about, and acknowledge my life experiences, particularly the trauma of spending time in a war zone. And while I’m trying to do so at a comfortable pace, sometimes seeing the perceived finish line triggers the Marine in me, the part of me that wants to win, fight, and kill at all costs – and I’m reminded to slow down. Slowing down, feeling, reflecting, absorbing, integrating, and healing has helped me to feel more hopeful, and guided me as I work to support other Veterans in their transitions to civilian life.

Because I felt such terror and fear in Iraq, I’ve held that against myself for a long time, shaming myself, and believing that I wasn’t a good Marine, and not enough of a man. But I’m learning that we were all scared whether we admit it or not. And I’m finally finding space to be more courageous and compassionate with myself in order to fully embrace the fear I felt and my own humanity – while suspending judgment and blame.