On a cold, clear March morning, eight Duke seniors file into a basement room in the West Duke Building. They are typical students, indulging in typical pre-class talk about weekend plans and weeknight sleeplessness--except that they're all dressed in military uniforms, and their seminar room is filled with wall displays detailing subjects like "Group Leading Procedures" and "Warrior Ethos." The students jump to attention and salute as their ROTC instructor, Lieutenant Colonel E. Todd Sherrill, walks in.
Most of this group joined ROTC after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and they have all stuck with it through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even as they were moved by patriotic sentiment, they knew they might eventually find themselves in harm's way. Says Lemke, "I'm prepared and I'm ready to do what I signed up to do." Another cadet, Abhay Singh, says, "With the war in Iraq, I think a lot of us look at it as an exciting opportunity to go and use all these skills that we've acquired. Of course, there are always other feelings that come into play"--namely, anxiety over facing combat. A third, Mel Baars, says that the war in Iraq has given her a greater sense of purpose. She mentions an early-morning workout routine associated with ROTC. "When I started having to wake up at 5:30, I hated it. And then, I would think to myself, I've got this friend who's in Iraq, and what the heck am I complaining about?
"You realize how blessed you really are. If someone's got to go to Iraq to preserve those blessings, I want it to be me."
Adds Miranda, "I really think no one joins a team to sit on the bench. Everyone in this room would tell you the same thing. They don't wish war upon anybody. But if it's happening, they want to be the ones who are fighting it."
In their own ways, these cadets, on the cusp of a commitment to military service, are rebels. They are refusing to fall in with a cultural trend described, and lamented, in a recent article by Josiah Bunting III, a Vietnam veteran and a former superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. In his essay, "Class Warfare," published in the Winter 2005 issue of The American Scholar, Bunting discusses a time, World War II in particular, when civic duty and national sacrifice energized America's private schools and elite universities.
Now, he writes, the business of war is "remote increasingly from a particular segment of the American people," the privileged intellectual and professional classes. "But a citizen who sees and acknowledges the deepening chasm that is separating those who serve from those whom they serve (which no number of eyewitness news teams and Veterans Day editorials can usefully bridge) can only deplore a civic culture that removes the burdens of military service from those it has blessed most abundantly."
The themes that resonate through ROTC--patriotism, service, duty, leadership, the strong bonds formed within the unit--are echoed by Duke graduates and graduate students who have served in Iraq. From their time in the field, whether scouting for roadside explosive devices or trying to secure porous borders, they seem convinced of the need to persevere in the effort. One of them is Marine Major Ted Probert '84, a Navy ROTC cadet as an undergraduate and, since then, a Marine reservist. "I have always considered myself patriotic and feel strongly that all Americans should do something in service to our country," he says. A good friend, with whom he had served in the Marine Corps, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. Serving his country in the midst of the "war on terror" is an honor, he says.
Probert returned to the States earlier this spring after seven months in Iraq. He was commander of an engineering company stationed at an airbase, and then officer-in-charge at a base near the Syrian border. He recalls one instance in which a rocket attack landed close by, and he could "feel the windows shaking and stuff hitting the sides of the building." Just two days before he started for home, insurgents hit a fuel storage tank. "That was about 150,000 gallons of fuel that exploded," he says. "It was a rather large boom."
This may be a war waged in some new ways, but it inspires the camaraderie long associated with forces in the field, a quality that Probert is quick to note. His worst day in Iraq, he says, was loading American casualties into helicopters. He says he was shaken, too, watching the video recording of the beheading of an American hostage. "It is something every American should see," he says, "because it shows the true character of these fanatics." On the other hand, he revels in the memories of being in western Iraq on November 10, 2004, the 229th birthday of the Marine Corps. At the time, he officially applauded his company for their "incredible accomplishments" and "professionalism." He wrote, "I am, indeed, a lucky officer to command such a fine group of Marines."
For Captain Dan Lutz '01, it's been all about the Army since earning ROTC distinguished-graduate honors. His undergraduate coursework included military history and Arabic. "I had some very good instructors at Duke in ROTC," he says. "And their focus was on creating a method of thinking as an officer--adapting to change, being able to operate in chaos, being innovative."
Early in his ROTC days, he recalls, "The colonel who was in charge of the unit said, 'Look, probably most of you are here for the money.' But during that first year, I really got into the program." He says that he's come to enjoy the idea of working with "a group of people who are all volunteers and all share, I think, common ideals."
In Iraq for four months at the beginning of the war, Lutz was a rifle platoon leader. His company infiltrated a western province, then worked to control the main border-crossing points with Syria and Jordan. "Western Iraq is the moon, in terms of landscape," he says. "I mean, nothing is there. I actually have a map of nothing. God bless the Army, they gave me this map, and it is entirely white. The only things on it are the gridlines to determine north, south, east, and west. There's not a single feature on it." One of his strongest memories is watching Iraqis on the border with Syria pelting a mosaic of Saddam Hussein with rocks, and then hitting it with their shoes, a profound insult in their culture.
When Lutz was in Iraq, the military was just putting in place a feature that has been a hallmark of this war--speedy communications technology made available to the troops. He says he didn't get to use a phone for the first six weeks of the conflict. Then, during a treasured week in June 2003, he could place a call every night for almost an hour. With a new posting, a satellite phone was provided once every ten days for ten minutes.
That July, his unit received two computers with satellite Internet connections. "We were able to use them 24/7, which seems like a lot, but doesn't divide well, what with forty soldiers competing and the power going out about ten times a day," he says. He used the Internet to send his wife flowers on their wedding anniversary. Still, he indulged in e-mail only sporadically, in part out of a "desire to keep my family and friends at arm's length" from the war. "You would think that you would e-mail ten times a day from a combat zone, if you could. But the truth is, there isn't that much to say. I didn't want to give too many details, both for security reasons and their mental well-being. And one can only type 'I love you' so many times."
Old-fashioned letters appealed to him more. He first got mail in the border town of Trebil, in the western desert. After that, he could get or send mail once every seven to ten days. In those four months, he estimates he received close to 200 letters. "Getting an e-mail is nice, but nothing puts you in touch with the outside world like a letter, something in my wife's handwriting, that I know has touched her hands. And, I swear, I could smell her."
Lutz says he never thought about a need to censor letters or e-mail messages. "I trusted that everyone's sense of self-preservation was high enough not to send the grid coordinates to our compound." There were times, however, when e-mail and snail mail were off-limits. That was called officially a "communication blackout," and it always occurred when they had suffered a casualty. "My commanders never wanted the unofficial notification to get home before the official one."
For the family of First Lieutenant Matt Lynch '01, official notification brought the most painful news out of Iraq. At Duke, Lynch thought about joining Navy ROTC, only to decide that he wanted to keep open the option of a professional baseball career. But it was the Marines, not baseball, that ultimately attracted him. On September 11, 2001, already committed to the Marines, he was having his wisdom teeth pulled; in the course of a single dental procedure, the hijacked planes would strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the nation would move from peace to war. His father, William Lynch, a former Marine, says that Matt was drawn to the idea of serving his country and the adventure promised by a stint in the Marines. According to his father, he compared his experience at Officer Candidates School with his early childhood, when he and his older brother, Tim, would crawl through the mud and play with toy guns.
Matt Lynch's unit was among the first U.S. troops deployed to Iraq in February 2003. (Tim, also in Iraq with the Marines, had been among the first sent to Afghanistan.) After about six months, he completed his tour. He returned for a second tour, for three months beginning the following April, with a different unit; he had been picked to relieve another officer, who had been injured by a roadside bomb. When his original battalion was redeployed in August, he was determined to be with them, and he worked the Marine bureaucracy to make it happen. "He wanted to be back with his guys," family and friends recall, and so he embarked on a third tour. William Lynch recalls a family wedding last August 21, and a photo taken there of Matt in "that beautiful dress-blue uniform." He dropped off his son at the airport the next day. "I remember saying to him, 'We want you back, kid.' And he said, 'Don't worry about a thing, Dad.' That's the last time I ever saw him."
Two months later, Matt was killed in Iraq. A citation posthumously awarding him the Bronze Star praised his "zealous initiative, courageous actions, and exceptional dedication to duty." According to the citation, "Coming under enemy fire and leading his platoon from the front to move in and close with the enemy was commonplace for him."
Lynch's base camp was near Ramadi, sixty miles west of Baghdad. He had started out that day getting a haircut from his best friend there--a bad haircut, to which Lynch called attention with mock annoyance. From there he joined what was presumed to be a routine road sweep, a mission of searching out improvised explosive devices. Lynch and five other Marines were traveling in a Humvee--Lynch sitting in the passenger seat next to the driver--when a bomb hit the vehicle. Four of the Marines were injured; Lynch, fatally.
"The ironic thing about it was that Matt was the farthest from the blast," recalls William Lynch, a consultant with the FBI after more than three decades with the agency. "This is what kind of keeps me awake nights. He was wearing a neck protector, but whatever got him--a piece of shrapnel from the bomb or something shredded from the Humvee--just came over the top of that neck protector and clipped his carotid artery. A centimeter up, down, left, right, and probably he would have had nothing more than an interesting scar."
One of William Lynch's duties with the Marines, in the mid-Sixties, was handling casualty calls, the term for notifying the families of military personnel who have been killed or seriously wounded. After one particularly awkward encounter, when a woman fainted on her front lawn, he was assigned to develop a standard operating procedure. Last October 31, he and his wife had just come back from the beach. "It was a beautiful day. We were just talking about how lucky we were to have these two terrific sons. And when we got back, they were waiting for us, the two Marines. My own standard operating procedure was used on me."
"If I had to pick anybody who could survive in that environment, I would have picked Matt," he says. "He just always landed on his feet."
The consequences of random events is a theme that underlies life--and death--in Iraq. Had he not volunteered for an additional tour, had he not aligned himself on that tour with his original unit, had he not been sitting precisely where he was at that moment in the Humvee, Matt Lynch might be alive. Then again, fortune treated Jonathan Kuniholm quite differently.
Kuniholm, a Duke graduate student in biomedical engineering, was sent to Iraq last summer as a reservist in the Marine Corps. (His father, Bruce Kuniholm, is a professor of public policy and history at Duke.) He found himself part of a platoon that ran security patrols, built barriers for force protection, swept for mines, and destroyed more than 400,000 pounds of high explosives in the form of artillery shells and mortars. Much of the time, he says, "there was not a whole lot happening. We probably had on the order of three significant events a day. That could include a Marine firing a warning shot at a car that failed to stop at a checkpoint, small-arms fire received from the enemy, the discovery of a mine. So it was relatively quiet compared to, say, Fallujah or Ramadi. But that doesn't mean that we weren't constantly considering the possibility. In some ways, waiting for it to happen all the time is worse than actually having it happen and having to deal with it."
Kuniholm had become interested in applying his engineering know-how to protecting U.S. troops from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Working with another
Marine under his command, he had begun testing a device called "Bubba"--a remote-controlled, battery-powered vehicle that he housed in his footlocker. It would be equipped with a miniature wireless camera and would be capable of delivering a plastic-explosive charge to destroy an IED or mine. Bubba was deployed to his platoon in Iraq. But it was used in the field just a couple of times--mainly for its remote video capability. It was not used on the mission that almost cost him his life.
On New Year's Day, he was on foot patrol near Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River. An explosion, from a rocket-propelled grenade or a hidden mine, killed one of his comrades, injured another, and shredded Kunhiholm's right arm below the elbow.
"My first thought was a practical one," he recalled recently, sitting in the living room of his house just off East Campus. His injured arm rests against a red-and-blue beanbag cushion. His four-year-old son, Sam, plays nearby. "The explosion blew me off my feet. I leaned forward and immediately saw what had happened to my arm. My hand was basically hanging from a piece of skin, and I could see that it was useless." He yelled for help. "Then it became apparent to me that we were involved in a firefight. Everybody had something to do besides worry about me. My rifle had been blown in half by the explosion. So after I realized that I wasn't going to accomplish anything where I was, I got up and ran out of the clearing and back behind the pump house. I think some of the Marines yelled at me to get down."
As soon as the shooting stopped, a Marine ran up to him and began administering first aid. He was airlifted to a nearby field hospital for emergency treatment and stabilized at the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany. Then he was flown to Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington and soon after was transferred to Duke Medical Center, where he underwent six hours of delicate reconstructive surgery on the damaged limb.
Kuniholm credits his surgeon, Scott Levin, with giving him a usable forearm. The demanding microsurgery is performed routinely only at Duke and a handful of other top hospitals. Levin, who served in the Army Reserve for fourteen years and participated in the first Gulf War, says he felt a special bond with his patient. While Kuniholm's Marine training helped make him "a perfect patient" in terms of his resilience and his willingness to carry out doctors' orders, his body armor probably saved his life, Levin says.
"What usually kills soldiers on the battlefield is a devastating injury to vital organs. Body armor can protect them from fatal injury to the heart, lungs, or abdomen. But they are prone to extremity injury and to the amputation of an arm or leg from the force involved," he says. "The other issue is that advances in military medicine have contributed to quick evacuation and frontline care, so things like hemorrhage and shock are treated much more expeditiously."
According to Levin, Kuniholm will require several more operations before he's fitted with an artificial arm--either a myoelectric type, activated by the residual muscles in his forearm, or a conventional prosthesis, activated by shoulder movements. He says he has challenged Kuniholm to apply his biomedical engineering expertise to come up with a better prosthesis. And Kuniholm seems prepared to take up the challenge. He talks about exploring "the interface between patient and prosthesis" and "sensing and actuation" technology. His focus, he says, will be helping people who are more severely affected by amputation than he is. Still, he acknowledges, "I suppose that the opportunity to tinker with a project for which I could be a subject has a certain appeal."
Two years after the American invasion of Iraq, the public remains deeply divided over the justification for the war. Kuniholm, like many of his fellow veterans, is circumspect on that theme, saying, "Whether or not you believe that we should have ever gone into Iraq, and whether or not you believe that we should have gone the way we did, since we are there, I firmly believe that we have an obligation to fix Iraq. We have an obligation to leave it capable of functioning as a sovereign country and without becoming a threat to other countries. I think that any reasonable person in America can and should believe in the current mission, because anything else, for us to withdraw at this point, would be totally irresponsible."
Another graduate student and Iraq veteran, David "Jack" Marshall, sees a divide between how soldiers and civilians perceive Iraq: Getting the job done trumps musing over geopolitics. "I think the average American would look at television and think that the average Iraqi absolutely despised us. The truth is that the average Iraqi was glad that we were there. Even if a soldier were to harbor misgivings about Iraq," he adds, "he's duty-bound to hold those reservations in check and to do what he's trained to do."
Regardless of their views on this particular war, soldiers believe deeply in their duty to country, he says. "It sounds really hokey to a lot of people, but I have this love for a country that took me in and has brought me so much." Marshall grew up in Panama. He joined the military at nineteen, just over a year after immigrating to the U.S., motivated in part by "the desire to find out what I'm made of" and "to gain life experiences." He says, "A lot of people talk about money for college and all these nice little benefits, but I was actually almost horrifyingly naÔve about the benefits that you get from going into the military."
Marshall plans to finish his master's in public policy and his law degree this summer. Right after September 11, Duke instituted a policy that grants any student called up for military service an immediate leave of absence, and also gives the student a full tuition refund. He says that he's grateful for that policy. He also says that he received nothing but support from the faculty and his fellow graduate students. Now a reservist in the North Carolina Air National Guard, he had ten years' active duty with the Army, including time in Afghanistan. He spent the past summer and fall semester in Iraq as a flight medic; he wonders whether Kuniholm was among the wounded he transported.
On one of his medical missions in Iraq, Marshall was flying in a C-17 cargo transport plane on its way to Germany with some fifty injured soldiers. "If you're taking them all the way to Germany, to Landstuhl, that means that they're probably pretty hurting. It was hard just seeing these young kids. There was only a handful of us medical personnel going around administering morphine, changing dressings, putting a valve on a chest tube, starting IVs. So we were busy from the moment that we left Iraq all the way until we got to Germany.
"But every once in a while, I would talk to them, and just to hear their stories was amazing. Their absolute love for their country--I mean, here we have kids who have lost their limbs, and they're talking about how bad they feel because they're leaving their buddies back in Iraq."
Still, today's troops can look forward to happier homecomings than was true for a past generation. In the Sixties and Seventies, many soldiers returned from Vietnam not to parades and public acclaim but to abusive comments and public disdain. As the yellow ribbons and "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers suggest, Iraq veterans find much different attitudes. It may be a painless patriotism, devoid of meaningful sacrifice, but patriotism in any case. Throughout his time in Iraq, Marshall says, he felt the support of the American public. Soldiers regularly received packages of goods provided by companies and individuals who had no particular ties to the military. He's thankful that he has not had to confront the kind of "brazen and callous questions" that surfaced in the Vietnam era, he says.
A few weeks after the meeting of the ROTC seminar, fifteen students in a history seminar mull over the presumed contradiction: adamant support for the troops, divided opinion over the war. The class, "Leadership in America," is taught by Gerald Wilson, a professor and senior associate dean of Trinity College. Several of his students point out that relentless delivery of information and entertainment--the parade of violent images through television and video games, the tendency of celebrity news like the Michael Jackson trial to push aside deeper news coverage--has numbed Americans to the consequences of war. For that matter, the war and its related moral quandaries hardly impinge on their lives. They don't think about it much. Others observe that the September 11 terrorist attacks made America feel at once more vulnerable and more reflexively patriotic. The students refer to Pearl Harbor and its energizing impact on America in a much different global war. As one of them puts it, for many Americans, accounts of torture seem excusable if the torture might turn back a threat to America's well-being.
From a scholarly perspective, it's not surprising that returning members of the military are greeted with enthusiasm, says Duke political scientist Peter Feaver, an expert on national-security issues. Compared with Vietnam, he says, the military starts from a much higher baseline; in surveys, it is often the government institution in which the public has the most trust. That's in part a function of success, he says. "For over fifteen years, we have been calling our military the 'best trained, best equipped, most capable fighting force in history,' and this has been true."
Feaver also refers to a deliberate effort, by war supporters and opponents alike, to avoid "the mistakes of Vietnam." One of those mistakes was to blame the troops for the war when, in fact, decisions were made at a much higher level. But there's something peculiar about this war, he says, that has largely insulated American troops from criticism. "The public very much views Iraq in the context of the larger 'global war on terror,' which is considered ongoing and still important. The public has a 'wartime' mentality about this issue, and so they take extra caution in criticizing the military, per se, for fear that that will undermine military morale and thus undermine the war effort."
Robert Sigrist '80, M.B.A. '88, a captain in the Naval Reserve who was in Navy ROTC at Duke, became part of that war effort when he was recalled to active duty in January 2004. He spent several months in Kuwait, where he was the senior naval officer for the Coalition Provisional Authority, and in Iraq. "I was always very patriotic when I was growing up, but I never wanted to serve in the military, even though my father had," he says. "I was determined that I was going to college. I wasn't sure whether my parents were going to be able to afford it. I looked around for scholarships, and the Navy had a neat program at the time through NROTC."
The insurgency may be far from contained and the international coalition may be shrinking, but like other soldiers, Sigrist sees Iraq as an evolving success. The media, he says, are missing "the basic story" of Iraqis yearning for freedom. The focus on "horrific acts" obscures the fact that "we have rehabilitated over 3,000 schools and hospitals, that we have brought in over 500,000 metric tons of grain, that we replaced the corrupt United Nations Oil for Food workers, that we were able to get food out much more efficiently than what was being done before, that we have brought sanitary water supplies to villages that have never had it, that we have brought electricity to the entire country."
Conditions under Saddam Hussein also haven't received adequate exposure, he adds. "The first thing that you needed to look at was the mass graves. And there were dozens of sites of mass graves--hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Number two, you look at the abject poverty that so many of the people lived in. Saddam took the money from the Oil for Food program and enriched himself, enriched his family, enriched his cronies, built those magnificent palaces, and then ended up not taking care of his people."
Sigrist's frustration at what he regards as incomplete reporting out of Iraq is shared by Stan Coerr '89, an early participant in the war. Coerr, who was in Navy ROTC at Duke and is now a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserve, was in Iraq as the senior American attached to a rifle battalion of the British Army. One of his grandfathers was a two-star Navy admiral; his other grandfather, an ambassador. "Guys tend to join the Marine Reserve because they want to go fight," Coerr says. "And in fact, our big concern back in 2002 was that they were going to crank up this war, and we weren't going to get to go."
As he writes in an essay he posted on the Web and later adapted in a letter to the Atlantic Monthly, two months after he was activated in January 2003, he was thrust into battle. "I became part of one of the largest and fastest land movements in the history of war," he says. "I went across the border alongside my brothers in the Royal Irish, following the Fifth Marine Regiment from Camp Pendleton as they swept through the Ramaylah oil fields. I was one of those guys you saw on TV every night--filthy, hot, exhausted. I think the NRA and their right-to-bear-arms mantra is a joke, but by God I was carrying a loaded rifle, a loaded pistol, and a knife on my body at all times."
Coerr compares Iraq's Ba'ath Party to Germany's Nazi regime. He talks about directing air strikes and artillery, and seeing up close dead bodies, parts of dead bodies, helmets with bullet holes through them, handcuffed prisoners of war sitting in the sand, and oil-well fires with flames reaching 100 feet into the air and a roar that he could hear over a mile away.
He also tells of seeing thousands of Iraqis in cities like Qurnah and Medinah running into the streets, crying, waving, and cheering the invading forces as liberators. He says he could finally understand what the Allied troops must have felt as they marched into Europe as liberators in World War II. Iraqis "ran from their homes at the sound of our Humvee tires roaring in from the south, bringing bread and tea and cigarettes and photos of their children."
As a Duke freshman, Coerr had taken a class on the literature of the Vietnam War. One reading that has stuck with him is Michael Herr's Dispatches. "Herr has the usual sort of highly educated, New York writer's kind of cynicism about the whole thing. But he also has a very deep affection for the Marines that he was with. And snatches of that book were popping into my head while we were getting shot at. I have no idea why. This is kind of the curse of a liberal-arts education, I guess. Everything has to have a reference back to something else."
He also thought back to A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, who was a Marine officer in Vietnam. "He had a very similar background to mine--upper middle-class upbringing, nice happy suburban family, good college, and then he goes into the Marines and he gets thrown into this war. And he was in his first fire fight basically the first day he was in the country. A bullet went right past his head, and he said something like,
I understand them shooting at Americans in general, but what do they have against me personally? And the second thing was that he sort of went into autopilot. His emotions were telling him basically to lie on the ground and curl up in a fetal position, but the Marine Corps training kicked in. There's a reason that Marine drill instructors scream at you for weeks on end."
Coerr--for whom Iraq provided the first taste of combat in fourteen years--says he can identify with Matt Lynch's insistence on returning to the warfront. Soldiers often want to thrust themselves back into combat, he says, to find again that moment of absolute focus, to feel that "combat rush" that he compares with an athlete's performing at the highest level. And they want to do the right thing for their comrades. He says American soldiers may not care much about Iraq, but they'll jump in front of a thrown grenade for each other. So his first priority in Iraq was "to bring my guys back alive," as he puts it. "The next issue was the military mission. The third issue was getting Iraq back on its feet. But what worried me was that my guys would do something dumb, that they would get themselves in harm's way."
A few months after he returned from Iraq, Coerr was having dinner with a Marine officer who had been in Vietnam. "He said something that I've never forgotten: 'The war will never leave you.' And he's right. It's always an undercurrent of your life. But for the vast majority of people, it was a good experience, which sounds a little ironic, but it was. It was a chance to do our jobs, a chance to do something that was right."
The war will certainly never leave the family of Matt Lynch--even though, as William Lynch says, these days the family tries to tune out news from Iraq. He's not bitter or angry at the government, he says, only at the terrorists who, in his view, set off a third world war. But months after Matt's death, the memories are searing.
He interrupts a phone conversation to greet his wife, Angela, who unexpectedly has come to visit him at work. She has brought papers for him to sign, turning over Matt's car to his parents. "This is painful," he says. He had expected to be a passenger next to Matt as his son went charging through life.
From Campus to Combat
June 1, 2005