Transcript

280:

In Country
Transcript

Originally aired 01.07.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/280

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, here's a joke that US servicemen in Iraq just love. This brings down the house, according to Tom Irwin, a comedian who just spent over a month entertaining troops in the Sunni Triangle, in Fallujah, in Mosul, near the border with Iran, all over the place. He came into the studio and told me the joke.

Tom Irwin

Black Hawk helicopters, I love them. I love the pilots. We've gotten to know many of the Black Hawk helicopter pilots. And I love Black Hawk helicopters. I do know a group of people who hate them. And those would be Iraqi sheep farmers.

Ira Glass

And that joke would kill.

Tom Irwin

Yeah, no, it's yeah, it's very strong. Because that's how everybody gets around. Because you fly very low. So you can see the people. You can see them. So it has to do with-- and you watch all the animals scatter. So it's kind of, OK, Babu, OK, last one in the pen, OK, and then, tt-tt-tt-tt-tt-tt-tt-tt-tt. Ah! American! It's just this, I don't know, I'm sorry. I can't keep describing.

It's so hard to leave that out there. Because it's just like, I am just so conditioned to have it have a different reaction. I'm sorry. I'm sitting in this studio, just like, oh my God. This is the greatest bad reaction I've ever heard.

Ira Glass

Listeners here in the United States may think we have some idea of what is going on among the American forces in Iraq. But really, we don't know their day-to-day lives. We don't know their habits. We don't know what annoys them most. We do not even understand their jokes. As Tom Irwin says--

Tom Irwin

You have to be in Iraq, sort of.

Ira Glass

And so today on our radio program, an attempt to bridge the gap between the 140,000 Americans stationed in Iraq and the 290 million of us back home. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Today on our show, trying to find cigarettes in Fallujah. What US training tells you you should do if you hit a roadside bomb, versus what you should actually do, if you want to live. And what insurgents play over loudspeakers that freaks out Americans, and what Americans play to freak out Iraqis. We have two stories on our show today. Act One, we spend some time with some National Guardsmen a few miles from Baghdad. Act Two, our own Jack Hitt talks about what the Battle of Fallujah was really like with a marine lieutenant who commanded a platoon in Charlie Company, a lieutenant who also happens to be his nephew. Stay with us.

Act One. When Weekend Warriors Work On Weekdays.

Joe Betts

The attendance was good. We had about 30-plus people there each Sunday evening at 3:00. And I think it was going along pretty good.

We know that my unit, 239, has been called up to active duty. [INAUDIBLE] my strength in the Lord. I'm going through some hard times at this point in my life. It's a trying time. I need your prayers. I need your prayers. And I also would like to admonish the ones that have been attending services to continue to come. Continue to come. Don't stop. No matter what trials and tribulations come, he is telling us to press on.

Ira Glass

Hey, Joe, when you signed up for the Guard, did you ever think that you would be deployed?

Joe Betts

Yes.

Ira Glass

You did?

Joe Betts

I did. But for me to go, they had to reenlist me. Because my enlistment was actually about up. My 20 years would have been over with. My enlistment period actually was over before we were sent. And so they involuntarily gave me another year.

Ira Glass

And if they had asked you whether or not you wanted to do that, would you have said that you wanted to do it, or that you wouldn't have wanted to do it?

Joe Betts

At the time, I wouldn't have done it. I've had 20 years. And I felt like 20 years is enough to give to your country. I feel like I've done my duties. I don't feel like I owe anybody anything. And no, I don't think I would have went, if they'd have gave me that choice.

Ira Glass

Joe is one of the people in this new documentary series that's airing on a cable channel you probably don't catch too often, the Discovery Times channel. Two brothers from Arkansas, Brent and Craig Renaud, decided to follow one group of Arkansas National Guardsmen and their families from the announcement of their deployment to the day that the town holds a big rally to send them off, and into Kuwait and Iraq. Three episodes have aired already.

The brothers are still out there filming. The unit is still there in Iraq. And because these guys have gotten to know these men and their families so well, living with them for months now, the brothers have witnessed and filmed all kinds of things that have never been documented anywhere else. 40% of the soldiers in Iraq are reservists, either from the Army Reserve or from the National Guard. What this means for Arkansas is the largest call-up of reservists since the Korean War, 2,800 soldiers. Craig and Brent followed the 57 guardsmen from the town of Clarksville, Arkansas. Here's Craig.

Craig Renaud

Clarksville is a town of 7,000 people. One of the reasons we chose Clarksville is the majority of the National Guard that's in Iraq right now comes from small, rural towns like Clarksville. A lot of people that join the National Guard there do it for an extra paycheck.

Ira Glass

What do most of these guys think they were signing up for?

Brent Renaud

When they initially signed up, like anyone else who joins the National Guard, they think they're signing up for one weekend a month, and two weeks a year. After 9/11, obviously, that changed everything. But no one thought they were signing up for a deployment. They were signing up to hang out with their buddies one weekend a month, get to shoot guns and drive trucks around, but definitely not go fight in a war. And in the early episodes of Off to War, you see how taken aback they are.

Matt Hertlein

We are out in the middle of the desert in Kuwait, eating a meal that came out of a brown plastic sack on probably the most expensive camping trip America has ever seen.

Tommy Erp

This is my response to the National Guards. What happened to one weekend a month, two weeks a year?

Ira Glass

This is Matt Hertlein and his friend Tommy. Matt signed up for the Guard because he wanted free college and extra money on the weekends, and because Tommy made it sound like it would be a good time.

Matt Hertlein

The man I am today is because of that [BLEEP] right there. He is the one that I said, yeah, man, join the National Guard. Get drunk on the weekends and go to drills, and we can have all kinds of fun in college, partying. Yeah. Yeah.

Tommy Erp

I see how much fun you're having in college.

Matt Hertlein

When's the last time you signed up for registration?

Craig Renaud

Well, Matt Hertlein and Tommy Erp, the 19-year-olds who joined, coming out of high school, they've talked about there's not a whole lot of opportunities for them. Matt even made the comment that if I wasn't here with all of my buddies in Iraq, I don't know what else I'd be doing. Because one, everybody's in the National Guard that I know, and so they're here. And if I was back home, there's not a lot of opportunity for us. When we were at a party, their last party that they went to, just before they left, all of their friends were joking about how they couldn't wait for their friends to leave, because now there would be more jobs available that they could get, once they were in Iraq.

Ira Glass

At the very beginning of the documentary, before they're sent out, Matt and Tommy are the only ones who actually seem to kind of look forward to going to Iraq. They're younger than the other Guardsmen, didn't have responsibilities at home, and didn't know much about what was going on the war. Sitting on the couch in Matt's house with some family, they talked about it.

Matt Hertlein

It's an opportunity to me. We can go over there and get the job done. And I think it'll be fun. I'll try to make the most of it. I think I'll have fun.

Tommy Erp

Friends are going. I've got family going. Going to be pretty fun.

Matt Hertlein

My mom's not too happy about it. She's-- yeah. Every time she even starts talking about it, she starts bawling, man.

Susanne Hertlein

He's 19 years old. He just turned 19.

Matt Hertlein

We know what we're doing. It's not like we're going over there, and we're just going to be sandbags getting shot at. We know what we're doing. And we know how to control ourself.

Susanne Hertlein

Those suicide bombers and stuff, they're willing to kill their self, and they don't care who they kill.

Matt Hertlein

If I got to shoot somebody, I want to shoot them. I don't want to. It's not like I just want to go over there just to shoot people. But if I have to shoot somebody, I'm going to do it.

Susanne Hertlein

I just don't know if he realizes how dangerous it's going to be.

Ira Glass

The Renaud brothers helped arrange for me to talk with Matt Hertlein from Camp Cooke, where he and his unit are stationed, in Taji, just a few miles north of Baghdad.

Ira Glass

When you see that early footage of yourself saying, oh, it's going to be kind of fun. It'll be an adventure. Do you feel like, man, you don't even know what you're in for?

Matt Hertlein

Oh yeah. It doesn't even seem like me saying it anymore. Just have been here for nine months, and then you watch that scene from that episode, and doesn't even-- I don't know. It's like I'm not even watching myself.

Ira Glass

In the documentary, after the Arkansas Guardsmen are called up, but before they're shipped to Iraq, they're sent to training for six months at Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Polk in Louisiana. And seeing the footage of what they're like in training, the reality hits you, I think, of what it means that 40% of our forces in Iraq are reservists. Most of these are middle-aged guys who never thought that they would be deployed. In fact, some of them had served in the Army, and then switched to the Guard, specifically so they could get a pension without being deployed overseas. And so you notice something right away about their physical condition.

Brent Renaud

I think like most people in America, a lot of these guys were out of shape.

Ira Glass

Filmmaker Brent Renaud.

Brent Renaud

Remember, they were only doing one weekend a month, two weeks a year. They weren't expected to be in war shape, in combat shape. And like the rest of America, a lot of them were not in that shape.

Man

Here, get a shot of my big belly. Here you go. That'll be gone about the time I get home.

Man

Come on, blow the whistle.

Ira Glass

Imagine being sent back to junior high school gym class as an adult, and you get the picture of what's happening here, a bunch of homeowners and parents in gym shorts and t-shirts, jumping up and down in a row, most of them with these looks on the faces like they cannot believe this is happening to them.

[WHISTLE]

One soldier asks if he can smoke during calisthenics. When they do situps, another guy barely picks his shoulders up off the ground.

Man

Aw, [BLEEP], situps. Aw, [BLEEP].

[WHISTLE]

Ira Glass

Told to run in a circle, one soldier takes off in the wrong direction completely.

Man

Clockwise. Clockwise. Think of a clock, clockwise.

Ira Glass

And when they're put into formation and ordered to march, this is what happens.

Man

Mark time, march.

[CONFUSED MUTTERING]

Ira Glass

Half of them just look around. One guy scratches his jock. It's momentary chaos. And then they start over.

Man

Lock and load.

Ira Glass

Even on the shooting range, there's a Bad News Bears quality to these early scenes.

[GUNFIRE]

Man

You fired three rounds. Three rounds. How many holes do you see? [BLEEP]

Man

This is going to be a lot different than just hunting back home.

Ira Glass

Sergeant Joe Betts, the minister who was re-enlisted against his will, who was in his 40s, remember, as he went through all this training, says he was overweight by official Army standards, but was still able to do all the pushups and situps and running required by the Army.

Ira Glass

In the film, Joe, early on, you say this, that a lot of the guys weren't taking the training seriously enough.

Joe Betts

Right.

Ira Glass

What did you see that made you say that? What was happening?

Joe Betts

The laughter. When we were training, you would see people just sitting around, saying, aw, man, this is not going to happen over there. This is not what's going to happen.

Man

Welcome to Fort Hood. This stuff is pretty simple from here on out.

Ira Glass

It's night. Dozens of Arkansas Guardsmen in formation, at attention, staring forward. They've just arrived at this base in Texas.

Brian Mason

All you have to do is be where you are supposed to be when you're supposed to be there. And everything else is a cakewalk. Hoo-ah? All right. That's all I got. Oh, and turn them stupid cell phones off when you're standing in formation. Got it? Thank you.

Craig Renaud

That's Brian Mason. He was brought in from a different unit to bring leadership to the engineer unit.

Ira Glass

Again, filmmaker Craig Renaud.

Craig Renaud

And when he did notice, maybe, some people being a little more lackadaisical than they could, I think the responsibility started weighing on him that he's got to get these guys home alive. He had been in Desert Storm. He didn't want anyone to die on his watch. He says a lot. You see him saying speeches. You guys got to get your game face on, you got to get your game face on.

Brian Mason

Company [? a-ten-tion.

Ira Glass

This is in their barracks, guys on benches, lockers, everywhere. They stand in a tired sort of way. One guy stands on his bed.

Brian Mason

I want to thank each and every one of you for embarrassing the [BLEEP] out of me with this sad display of disrespect. Get down off those bunks. Stand at ease.

A colonel, lieutenant colonel just walked into this company, walked past 20, 30 people, probably. Not one of you called the room to attention. Not one of you said, sir. Who the hell do you people think you are? Hell, half of you don't even salute me when I'm outside, or the other platoon leaders, or the company commander.

Ira Glass

Who they are, of course, is grown men, mostly, not career military, not young recruits. And it's strange to watch them get chewed out like teenagers. They stare ahead, faces blank.

Brian Mason

You want to make life hard for yourself? Keep that [BLEEP] up. First Sergeant, they're all yours. Take care of them.

Ira Glass

The 39th Brigade went through three weeks of combat training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, part of a joint readiness program. This was the army's attempt to simulate, as best as it could, what operations would be like in Iraq. Again, filmmaker Craig Renaud.

Craig Renaud

And the idea was, they brought in a lot of Iraqis, mostly Kurdish Iraqis who live in the United States, to do a lot of role-playing. And they would speak only in Arabic to the soldiers. And they would have to undergo things like you would do in a peace and stability operation.

They did one training exercise where they had to go on a convoy through a town. And as they came into the town, there was a protest of Iraqis. And they had to come in and ask the Iraqis if they could pass their convoy through. And what it turned out is that the Iraqis were actually protesting a rise in the meat prices, but the soldiers assumed that they were protesting the American presidency.

[GUNSHOT]

[YELLING]

Anyway, the way they handled it escalated the situation. And the commander ended up getting killed.

Man

Take that two right there. [INAUDIBLE], stay where you're at. [INAUDIBLE], stay where you're at. Hold your weapons to your right.

Ira Glass

An industrial-sized smoke machine, who knew the Army owns an industrial-sized smoke machine, billows white smoke. People scatter everywhere. Civilians in headscarves wail over their fake dead. Officers and trainers stroll through the melee, observing and saying things like, well, I guess that'll teach them not to leave their vehicles unattended.

Man

Incoming!

[SCREAMING]

Matt Hertlein

I wish we could have had a little more training, to be honest.

Ira Glass

Again, 19-year-old Matt Hertlein, talking with me from outside Baghdad.

Matt Hertlein

I don't think we got enough.

Ira Glass

How well-prepared were you for what you're doing now every day?

Matt Hertlein

Oh. Actually, we weren't really prepared it all. We were prepared for going up and down the road and things like that. But the kinds of missions that we've been doing over here, that's not the kind of thing that we trained for. It's not even close. They don't compare at all.

David Short

The people that trained us, you've got to understand, even if they had been over here, it was for Desert Storm, which was a completely different war than what we're fighting here.

Ira Glass

Sergeant David Short is a policeman in civilian life. In Iraq, he commands a combat unit in the Arkansas National Guard. He's another person in the film who spoke with me from Taji, outside Baghdad.

David Short

The people that did the training actually did the best that they knew to do. They were under the impression that the war was over, and that we would basically be doing security and stability operations, where we were just in the rebuilding phase of the country. Because they figured the major combat was over. And when we got here, that's not really what happened. We immediately started combat patrols. In fact, the second day that I was here, we were given a photocopy of a piece of a map and directions to a gate, and told to go out and start patrolling, looking for insurgents.

Ira Glass

Sergeant Short and Matt Hertlein both told me they wish that they'd had more regular combat training, how to patrol, how fire weapons from different positions, how to capture and detain people. Part of the problem is just a coincidence in timing. The 39th Battalion arrived in-country in April 2004. Here's Brent Renaud.

Brent Renaud

And if you remember, April of last year is when the security situation really started to deteriorate in Iraq. That's when Fallujah really started to take place. And--

Ira Glass

That's the month that they captured those private contractors and killed them and hung them from that bridge. That's when it really all changed.

Brent Renaud

Exactly. That happened the day before we pulled out of Kuwait to convoy into Iraq.

Craig Renaud

They started doing things like going on patrols, looking for roadside bombs, guarding prisoners. These sort of things that they weren't trained for, because nobody envisioned that they would actually be doing them in Iraq.

Ira Glass

One simple but important piece of training that they lacked: what to do if their vehicles rolled across an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device. Back before they arrived in Iraq, IED explosions were much less common than they are these days. Now they're so frequent that Sergeant Short's unit has been blown up two dozen times by IEDs. Three of those times, Sergeant Short himself was in the convoy.

David Short

And the thing that a lot of people, that I didn't know, until I'd actually been in one and got hit, is your radio is no good to you for about 10 seconds. So you may be trying to talk to somebody, but the explosion creates blast waves that interfere with the radio waves. And your communication equipment is no good for approximately 10 to 15 seconds. So it's imperative that everybody pay attention to what everybody else is doing. If you hear the explosion, you need to be looking to make sure everybody that's supposed to be with you is with you. So if for any reason you need to turn around and go back and pick somebody up or recover their vehicle, you can. But these are things we learned ourselves.

Ira Glass

And so you didn't actually do drills on what to do if you're in a vehicle in a convoy and an IED goes off? That's not something you practiced for.

David Short

No, no. We just learned the hard way on those. The first time we had an actual Improvised Explosive Device go off, it disabled the truck. They were ambushed. One of the guys was killed.

They did train us. They did give us the standard procedure of what they wanted us to do. We followed those procedures.

And basically, what happened is a truck got left by itself with no combat support, because they did what they were trained to do, push forward 300 meters, and then assess the situation. Well, they had a truck that was disabled, and they pushed out 300 meters and left it there. And so those guys are in a firefight, fighting for their lives, and then they guys say, oh, we got to go back and get them. And then we got back, and the leaders all sat together and said, we did what we were trained to do. But it doesn't work.

Ira Glass

And how could they have trained you to prepare for those?

David Short

Well, to be honest, really, in their defense, it would be very difficult for them to train us for something that they had no personal experience with. By the time they finally do go to Iraq, the guys have lost weight. In-country, they lose even more, wearing 60-pound vests all day in a place that gets up to 120 degrees. And some of the most disturbing moments in the film have to do with the equipment that they take with them, vehicles that the Arkansas National Guard's had for years, decades.

Man

So these five ton dump trucks, the youngest one we have is 1956. The newest one we have is 1964.

Ira Glass

Only 4 of the unit's 42 vehicles were properly armored. Again, filmmaker Craig Renaud.

Craig Renaud

And brigade-wide, I think this is pretty representative in terms of the armor situation that they had. The vehicle that I convoyed in into Iraq, I was in the a back of a vehicle that had a pine box around it with sandbags in the middle of it. And they said that they hoped that they might slow the bullets down. They didn't have any hopes that it would actually stop a bullet, but it might actually slow it down and reduce the damage that it would do to you. So it certainly wasn't comforting to be convoying into Iraq in those type of vehicles.

Man

We were promised up-armor kits. We didn't get them. And so we're going to go ahead and try to fabricate something.

Man

Thank you sir.

Man

You think we could use some of this stuff?

Man

Yeah, let's take that with us.

Ira Glass

What follows next is soldiers in the most powerful army in the history of man scrounging in scrap heaps for sheets of iron to weld to the doors and floorboards of their own vehicles.

Matt Hertlein

We're trying to use as much of the metal as we can, of the steel. But we only have a limited supply of it. So we have to resort to these old bulletproof vests. And honestly, I don't feel too comfortable with doing that. But we've got to do what we've got to do, man. We've got to use what we can.

Ira Glass

That's Matt Hertlein attaching the old armored vest to his truck door for protection. When I asked him about this moment in the documentary, he told me--

Matt Hertlein

It was like a scene out of The A-Team.

[LAUGHTER]

I think we're just on the bottom of the list. Priority goes to the regular Army, and the Marine Corps, and whoever else. We just get whatever's left over.

Ira Glass

It takes three months for the 3,000 person brigade to get armor and all the vehicles that need it. They still have some un-armored vehicles. But those usually don't leave the base. Other reservists who have been there less time are not as far along in getting the armor that they need. And the Army Times reported last month that it will be June before all the trucks and Humvees in Iraq all have proper armor. A third still lack it, 11,000 vehicles. Again, here's Sergeant Joe Betts, the 42-year-old minister that we started our story with.

Joe Betts

We wasn't armored the way we should have been armored going into Iraq.

Ira Glass

And did that make everybody mad? Were you mad?

Joe Betts

Of course that make people mad.

Ira Glass

Now over a half a year after all that, in December, National Guardsmen from Tennessee brought up this exact problem with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in this town meeting they held over there.

Joe Betts

Exactly. And I did see that.

Ira Glass

Now, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said that they're getting out the armored vehicles as quickly as they can. And he said, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. What do you think of that?

Joe Betts

Well, actually, that is true. You do go to war with the army you have. But prior to us going to war, they knew we was going. They had already talked about us going. So why didn't they do something about the up-armament that we needed prior to going to war?

Ira Glass

But they didn't anticipate that there were going to be these insurgents at this level. They didn't necessarily know that there was going to be a need for it.

Joe Betts

Oh yeah. Any time you go to war, you need armor. So that's not something that even in World War I, II, they knew they needed armor. You don't go to war thinking that you're going to go out there with no armor on, and you're not going to get hurt. So to me, for them to just send us over there and say that you don't need this gear, you don't need this up-armor on your vehicles is saying that I don't care about the soldiers. That's what it says to me.

Ira Glass

The day they actually drive from Kuwait into Iraq, things change for the Arkansas brigade, in a number of ways.

Brian Mason

Today's the day. This is our first interaction with the Iraqis. Be polite, be professional, and be prepared to kill. We're in transition phase right now. We go from the training, the game, to the Super Bowl, to the war.

Ira Glass

This is Lieutenant Brian Mason, who you heard earlier yelling at guys. Now they're sitting on bunks, listening, attentive, worried-looking.

Brian Mason

So you guys need to put on your game face, right here, right now. These Iraqis, they know who we are. They know you're National Guardsmen. Yeah, they're going to target you, because they think you're just a bunch of lazy, fat National Guardsmen who don't know how to do their job.

Joe Betts

Welcome to Baghdad. Keep your eyes open.

Ira Glass

This is Joe, the minister, in a convoy into Iraq.

Joe Betts

I've been here for about 10 minutes, and I already know I hate Baghdad. I hate the country. I don't want to be here.

Man

I hear that.

Joe Betts

Hertlein, just got a mortar round fired. A mortar round was just fired. Welcome home, guys. Camp Cooke. 1 day down, 364 days to go.

Ira Glass

Filmmaker Craig Renaud.

Craig Renaud

Well, the very first day that this brigade arrived to the base, there was an Arkansas National Guard soldier killed within the first 10 hours. A mortar came in. I would say as a whole, that's where you really saw people realize that this is for real.

David Short

Of course, my unit, unfortunately, took the first National Guard casualty from the entire brigade.

Ira Glass

Again, Sergeant David Short, who commands a combat unit, talking to me from Iraq.

David Short

And we had been here one day. We got hit with a rocket attack, and it killed Sergeant Labadie, and it seriously wounded Sergeant [? Leisure. ?]

Craig Renaud

The thing about a brigade like this with the Arkansas National Guard, all those guys that we were following knew that first soldier that was killed. And the minute he was killed, everybody's demeanor changed, and everybody knew this was for real. I don't know. At least in the unit we were with, it seemed like a lot of guys weren't taking it that seriously until that happened. Two days later, another soldier was killed. I happened to be at the motor pool when they brought that vehicle back in. I saw the medic get out, completely covered in blood.

Ira Glass

Right. He got killed in an ambush of a Humvee.

Craig Renaud

Exactly, in an ambush.

David Short

The windshield shattered when the IED went off. This was the last place that Sergeant Del Greco was.

Ira Glass

This is Sergeant Short in footage from the movie, standing in front of the shot-up vehicle with his men. Matt and Tommy are there, looking stunned, vulnerable.

David Short

I hope it gets real for you guys, I really do. Because this is very difficult for me. Because I love every one of these guys in this troop. And everybody means something. And we're all here. And there's nothing that we can do to change it.

It's not worth it. But we're here. And we got a mission to do. And we're going to keep doing it. I'm going to take it to them. I'm going to take the fight to them.

And I'm going to try to eradicate every one of these people that I can off of the face of the earth, because they've taken people of mine away from me. And I'll see that justice is done for them, for nobody else but ourselves. I just hope that everybody's prepared for it, because it's ugly out there.

Ira Glass

This footage in the documentary of you talking to your troops about it, they all look pretty shaken up as you're saying this stuff to them. Did some of them come and talk to you about it later?

David Short

Yeah. I had a lot of people come to me and say, look, what do I do? I'm terrified. I don't want to go outside here. I'm consumed with fear.

I had one young man come to me and tell me that he had lost all his faith, that he was saved. His father was a pastor. He had been a Christian all his life. He said, I've lost my salvation. I can't deal with this. And so there was a lot of time spent talking to people, reassuring them, praying with them, praying for them.

Ira Glass

Yeah, what do you say to somebody when they tell you something like that? What can help them?

David Short

Well, the main thing that I had to do, and it was something that I had to reach deep down inside, was to show them that regardless of what happens, I was going to be there. We're going to go out there. We're going to do this together. I was going to be there.

Ira Glass

What happens next is that the guys turn it around. They totally step up to the jobs they were sent to do. They work well together. They look out for each other. Matt turns out to be one of the best gunners in the group. In 10 months, no other Guardsmen from Clarksville have died.

And people don't complain. There's barely any complaining anymore, unless something very unusual happens. Here's Craig and then Brent Renaud.

Craig Renaud

As the deployment goes along, and as the film follows this deployment, they find out, just like the rest of the country did, things about 9/11 and the investigations that they were doing. There was actually a day when I was with them in Iraq, where the Stars and Stripes, which is the military newspaper that comes out, the front page was about the 9/11 panel commission, and the hearings, and there not being a link between Iraq and 9/11. And they were shocked when they read that.

Ira Glass

And what would they say? They're patriotic guys, so they're doing their duty and all that, want to support the President. But what's that do to them to see that?

Brent Renaud

Since then, I think, maybe, they wished they had toned it down a little bit. But at that particular time, they said, we're angry. We were fooled. And we feel betrayed. And we're over here, risking our lives, and it's not what we thought it was, and that people were dying for something that they weren't sure if it was going to accomplish anything.

Ira Glass

Throughout this whole documentary, the Arkansas Guardsmen show this mix of doubts about their mission and a willingness to suspend those doubts and follow orders. When I asked Matt if he's hopeful about the way things work out in Iraq, he says, sure, they're definitely trying to help people there. Even Joe, who thinks there was no reason to go to war in the first place, is convinced that God must have some plan, some good reason of his own for putting Americans in Iraq. Here's what Sergeant Short thinks.

David Short

I don't want to say that it's a lost cause, because I've lost good friends over here. And for me to say that would mean that they died for nothing. But it's very disheartening to me, because I work with the Iraqi National Guard. I've worked with the the new Iraqi Army. I've worked with the Iraqi police force.

And you've got the three security forces for this country that are in no way on the same sheet of music. They do not like each other. They do not trust each other. And their heart's not in it. And a lot of times, it's just very frustrating, because they just don't seem to care, one way or another.

Ira Glass

Filmmaker Brent Renaud.

Brent Renaud

I was out with the armed patrol the other day, and one of the Iraqi translators, as we were going up and down the road, we were talking to the local people and asking them, who was putting these roadside bombs out into the road. And the locals said, it's the Americans putting them out there, because they're trying to destabilize our country. As we went along the road, person after person was saying this same thing, which is very upsetting to the soldiers, because people in their unit had been killed by the roadside bombs.

Joe Betts

Joe Betts, the minister, says that being in Iraq has made him question his faith many times. He talks openly in the film about how the deployment is ruining his life, causing trouble in his marriage. Before he left for Iraq, he had some problems with neck, muscle spasms that were aggravated by all the weight that they were constantly carrying around in the military. Then a month into his deployment, he got this tingling and numbness in his arms and his fingers. It reached a point where he couldn't hold up his gun. And doctors said that a disc in his spine was out of place.

Joe Betts

They looked at me, did x-rays, said, hey, we need to get you out of here, sent me to Landstuhl in Germany. They looked at me and said, you're on your way home, bud.

Ira Glass

Is there a downside to coming home?

Joe Betts

The down side to me is coming home is I'm not in Iraq with my guys. That's my downside. And the downside again is that I have to hear all the bullcrap from people that don't understand what I'm going through.

Ira Glass

What are you talking about?

Joe Betts

There's "if you didn't get hit with a shrapnel, you shouldn't be at home," you understand?

Ira Glass

People say this to you?

Joe Betts

Yeah. If your arm isn't broke, you didn't get shot, so why are you at home?

Ira Glass

As they show in the film, he's actually quite hurt, in physical pain. Doctors locate the problems in MRIs and in x-rays. But in Iraq, Joe had been so vocal about how he didn't want to be there. He was more vocal than anybody we see. Some guys now think that he was just trying to get home early. Here's Matt Hertlein.

Matt Hertlein

A lot of people believe that that he faked the injury to go home because he was having problems with his wife.

Ira Glass

And what do you think?

Matt Hertlein

I don't know. I don't know for sure.

Ira Glass

Did you see him when you were home?

Matt Hertlein

No.

Joe Betts

It bothered me in the beginning that they looked at me as if I was a deserter. It's crazy. Basically, I try not to go anywhere that much, because I don't really like dealing with public. And basically, that's all they want to talk about. So I just, I try not to, but I can't keep from it, because I got two girls that plays basketball. And so I'm out there all the time.

Ira Glass

At their games.

Joe Betts

Right.

Ira Glass

Wow. So you're at their games in this small town, so all these people you'd rather not be having to deal with, you have to deal with.

Joe Betts

Right, exactly.

Ira Glass

And the guys in your unit, what kind of attitude are you getting from them?

Joe Betts

At first, I was given negative attitudes from them, very negative. Because they would come home on leave, and no one would call me. They wouldn't call to say, hi, or anything. To me, that bothered me. I didn't understand that. And then I had even my platoon sergeant, he came home, didn't call me.

I called a few of them that I knew was in. They didn't return my call. It was frustrating for me. I didn't understand it. I thought that they was just faulting me for being home. And actually, I found out, some of them really was.

Ira Glass

The people signed up for the regular Army, or the Air Force, or the Navy, they and their families know that it's going to take over their lives. They're going to move from base to base. They might go to war and have to deal with that. The National Guard is different. And much of this documentary series ends up being about people, complete families, who never expected to go to war, and what war does to them.

Matt's mother cries on the phone with him. He grows up amazingly fast. Sergeant Short ends up proud of the work he does in Iraq, keeping his men safe. And for Joe, who was re-endlisted against his will, after all, it's hurt his marriage, given him permanent injury, and he lost his church. When he was away, attendance dropped to seven people. And then, nobody was coming to services anymore.

Until his unit's deployment is finished, and the rest of them come back from Iraq, his job every day is to go to the National Guard armory, where he and two other injured guys do some paperwork, when there's paperwork to do. They sit by the phone. They answer it when it rings. He reads the paper. He started reading some technical manuals to pass the time. The phone doesn't ring much.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "TENDER COMRADE" BY BILLY BRAGG]

Coming up, the Battle of Fallujah. At the end of it, Marines wondered if this was one for the history books, if this is one that they would teach someday. When you hear one lieutenant describe what his men did, you'll understand why. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Marine Life.

Jack Hitt

Good morning, Fallujah.

Rob Miller

So, Jack, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], how are you doing?

Jack Hitt

How are you?

Rob Miller

I'm doing pretty good. I'm trying to light a cigarette. Right when I went on emergency leave, I ended up smoking again. And then Fallujah's like, it doesn't deny of your nicotine habits. It's like a mandatory. So people who don't smoke, now smoke. People that used to dip now dip and smoke.

I say, I was absolutely out of cigarettes. And we had Marines that were coming up with these little Iraqi cigarettes. Because we were paying the interpreters to get cigarettes for all the Marines.

And lo and behold, my old buddy friggin' sent me a package. And then it was like six packs of cigarettes. And all he wrote was, I started smoking in Fallujah when I went. Here's some smokes for you. I'm like, oh my God.

Jack Hitt

So what's been happening today?

Rob Miller

Today's pretty laid-back. All my guys are out in the old firm base. And we're still hardening the firm bases. It's pretty funny. We go to these places, and we harden these firm bases. And you fill, I don't know, 10,00, 15,000 sandbags. You lay 200 rolls of Concertina wire. You put out trip flares, fill the earthen berms. With Charlie Company, specifically, we do that for 7 to 10 days, and then they say, hey, you're moving. You're like, oh, you're kidding me. Then you turn it over to somebody else. And they're like, hey, nice firm base. You're welcome, bastard.

Jack Hitt

So you were doing this house-to-house clearing stuff. This is what we're seeing on our TVs here.

Rob Miller

Oh yes. This is pretty crazy. We push from the north part of the city through the breach on foot, all the way to the center of the city. And anywhere you went, you'd look out a window, and a sniper would try to shoot you.

Every time you moved, you don't just walk across. You don't walk anywhere. Everywhere you go, you're moving to get behind cover, even if it's a telephone pole. Telephone pole, if that's all you've got, that's good cover, if that's all you got.

I saw tons of Marines hide behind gutters in the roads, shooting from underneath gutters. Four inches of cover, that's nothing. But if all you've got's four inches, four inches is beautiful. The whole first night, we went basically two blocks the whole first night.

Jack Hitt

Can you describe what was it like? What did you do?

Rob Miller

Well they had the first day of the initial bombing. And it was actually really good. We sat all day. And we watched the city just being bombarded.

They were hitting targets. They were hitting key fortifications. And people were moving around. They were hitting them. JDAMs, laser-guided bombs.

And so we sat all day. There was this symphony of destruction. And it just played out until it got dark. And then when it got dark, it's like, all right. Now that it's dark, it's time for the grunts to go in.

But yeah, the first night we went in, going through the breach, this was pretty weird. We had psy-ops behind us. And they're blaring music into the city. It's just huge speakers are screaming music into the city.

Jack Hitt

What music?

Rob Miller

I don't know what the tune was, from Full Metal Jacket. At the very end of Full Metal Jacket, they're walking through Saigon, I think it is, or, it's one of the big battles at the end of the movie. And they're on patrol. And there's this funky '70s music going. And that's what they were blaring, as I crossed the breach. And all I could think of was Full Metal Jacket.

And I was like, you got to be kidding me. You're playing that while I'm crossing this breach? That's not what I want to hear.

Jack Hitt

Yeah, what music would you have chosen?

Rob Miller

"Let the Bodies Hit the Floor," that's a good one, really fast-paced. But yeah, they were just playing crazy stuff. And they've got some kind of method. I don't know how it works. It was definitely annoying me. I can't imagine what it was doing to the bad guys.

Yeah, we were pushing into the city. Even on certain days, you push into the city. And as you progress further, the mosques would be screaming for people to rise up. And there was one, it was the middle of the night. And we were pushing through these alleys to push forward.

And I just remember this mosque, the guy on the speaker was just screaming. He was just like yelling in Arabic, a-la-la-la-la. And he's like, ha-la-la-la jihad, ha-la-la-la jihad, jihad, jihad. Ha-la-la-la-la, jihad. And I was like, God, will somebody shoot those speakers. 10 minutes later, there was just this mass of gunfire, and all the speakers went silent, because they shot all the speakers.

The fourth day into the fight, we went from the-- I was at the [? al-Hidra ?] mosque with my mortars. And we got the word we were pushing to the mayor's complex, which is right in the center of the city. And we pushed to the mayor's complex in tracks. And we were maybe less than 100 meters between where the tracks dropped us off and the building we had to go to.

And our foot movement from there, it was basically a sprint, our sprint from the track all the way to the building. And we had snipers trying to peg us the whole way. Just rounds zinging by, hitting the dirt.

And we got into this building, and that's when we found out that the entire mayor's complex was surrounded by snipers. And they were just pinging at anybody that could frickin' walk in the open. So we initially took all our extra mortar ammunition, and each mortar can probably weighs, I don't know, 30 to 40 pounds. We have our Marines divvy up. And they're carrying mortar rounds in their pack.

And then we have an extra, probably, 8, 10 cans that we're taking into combat. So we tie these things onto these huge D9 tractors. And we cinch them down. And everything was good until we go through the breach and one of the D9s gets stuck in this huge mud bog. It sinks, because it's so heavy.

And so we got to send people back into the breach to get our ammo. But the problem was, when they pulled it off the first D9, they cut the straps, instead of untying it. However they got it off, they cut it off and they brought it. We can't reattach it. So we had to use a casualty stretcher.

So we use this casualty stretcher, and we heap all of our ammo on it. So when we move, I got two Marines lugging 200 pounds of ammo. You're not moving fast. You move across a road in a dead sprint carrying 200 pounds of ammo, the two of you, it's a shuffle. It's a shuffle. You're shuffling across the road, like, don't get shot. Don't get shot. Don't get shot.

Jack Hitt

Oh, man. By the way, were you ever scared?

Rob Miller

Well, to a certain degree, yeah. You're definitely freaked out at certain times. The first night we were moving forward, and it's probably the only time I was ever scared for my company and my battalion, we were pushing forward. It's pitch black. There's no moon. And it's raining, and it's drizzling.

And it's 40 degrees out. And everybody's freezing. And my unit's pushing forward. And it's just contact the whole way.

And all of a sudden, we get the call over the radio, we got a Marine down. We got a Marine down. We got IEDs in this alley. An IED just went off. So two Marines, they went in to get this guy. Boom. Friggin', these two other guys go down. So now they got three guys in this alley that they think is-- the whole alley is IEDs. And that was the big fear, is that there were just going to be IEDs all across the city. I was like, oh my God. We're going to take so many casualties. It's going to take forever for us to move. Can we do it? Sure. But it's going to be absolutely horrible.

At the same time, 3rd platoon had massive contact further down to the east. 1st platoon was actually held up, because they were in a massive engagement to our flank, far east. Bravo Company was just shooting all across their line. And I was like, how can they-- they wanted us to push all the way to the Hidra mosque that night. And I was like, how can they expect us to push to the Hidra mosque.

It's totally non-feasible. We got three Marines that are down, and they are wounded. And it was two, three minutes later that the platoon commander came back on. He's like, it wasn't IEDs. It wasn't IEDs. There's a guy in a second story, and he's frickin' throwing hand grenades in this alley.

And so they just light this guy up with everything they own. They're throwing the kitchen sink up at this guy. They finally kill this guy.

And then the same time, our tanks that were attached to us, Panzer, these guys call us. And he's actually on the road facing east. And he's like, when he calls, you can hear his 240 Golf shooting, and his 50-cal shooting. And he's just like, oh my God. He's like, you need to get somebody else down here. He's like, there's 50 to 60 people retreating from the north to south. And they're just flowing across the road. He's like I can't kill them all.

And he must have killed 30, 35 people. And he didn't, he couldn't even-- I don't even know if he made a dent. They were just flowing to the south away from us.

Jack Hitt

This is your second time in Iraq, correct?

Rob Miller

Yeah.

Jack Hitt

Yeah, and the first time, you didn't see combat, anything like this, right?

Rob Miller

No, no, no. It was pretty cool. My platoon was the first Marine unit on the deck in Mosul. And so we got there expecting to get off and get into a firefight. But it wasn't like that. It wasn't anything like Fallujah.

It wasn't really out of control. As soon as we got there, CNN showed up. And they were like, the Marines are on the deck in Mosul. And then everything quieted down.

Everybody was like, oh, US forces are here, good to go. Everything's good. Go home, relax. And I did a lot of missions where I would go and just stand on the road and wave at cars. And I really felt like I was trying to collect money. Money for the poor. And I'm out there with a gun.

Jack Hitt

Now that you've seen combat, would you want to go into it again? Or do you feel like you're cured?

Rob Miller

Yeah. It's a good question. Some people definitely are, they're like, that's it, we're done. But I don't know. It's a tough thing. It's really tough.

Jack Hitt

Well, now that you--

Rob Miller

I will say that now that I've been in pretty intense combat, you could say, I'm like, that's good to go. We need to [UNINTELLIGIBLE] dragons, as we say. We're good. We need to get our job done and get home.

Jack Hitt

Yeah. Right. Did you ever get the boxes we sent you, of food?

Rob Miller

Oh, I got them. Yeah, the artichoke hearts? Yeah, that was great.

Jack Hitt

It was mostly junk food.

Rob Miller

Oh my God. And those artichoke hearts, I was laughing. I was laughing to tears. And a foreign observer came in, this lieutenant, and he's like, no way. I love artichoke hearts. And I was like, well you are in luck, Neville. And I was like, because I've got a whole jar of artichoke hearts that's got your name on it. And he was like, oh yeah.

But we get a lot of good stuff. We get tons of stuff from kids in schools. And we get a lot of crayon drawings that are, you know. The marine is this huge person. And the Iraqis these little small people. And we're throwing hand grenades. And they're like, run away.

We get some, though. Especially when you get into middle school and high school, then you get the political kids. The funniest one that comes to my mind was from some youth group out of New York or something. They sent us a bunch of stuff. A couple of them were like, I think President Bush is crazy, and you got to be kidding me, and what are we doing over there.

[LAUGHING]

Jack Hitt

So listen, I have a joke for you. I love Black Hawks. But you know who hates them? Iraqi sheep farmers.

Rob Miller

Iraqi sheep farmers?

Jack Hitt

Yeah.

Rob Miller

Iraqi sheep farmers hate Black Hawks. I don't get it.

Jack Hitt

OK so also on this program is this comic who's been touring in Fallujah. His name is Tom Irwin.

Rob Miller

Oh yeah, no, he was out here, and all the pogues got to watch him, because everybody else was in the field. That was pretty funny.

Jack Hitt

Oh, you didn't see him.

Rob Miller

No. We were in Fallujah. I don't know. It burns up all my boys. And they always get ticked off at that kind of stuff. They're like, why are they doing a show for them? They're not getting shot at.

Jack Hitt

Wow, well, we can't wait to see you here back home.

Rob Miller

I can't wait to get back, see my little boy.

Jack Hitt

Yeah. All right, man. Well, listen, thanks again for all this--

Rob Miller

--talking to you.

Jack Hitt

--al this time, yeah. Be safe, as we say. That's all we can say from back here. But anyway, we can't wait to see you.

Rob Miller

Sounds good.

Jack Hitt

All right, man.

Rob Miller

I'm going to talk to you later. Give everybody my love, OK?

Jack Hitt

I will. All right, Rob.

Rob Miller

All right.

Jack Hitt

Until then, bye-bye.

Ira Glass

Marine Lieutenant Rob Miller outside Fallujah, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, talking with his uncle, Jack Hitt, one of our regular contributors here at This American Life.

Credits.

Rob Miller

Ha-la-la-la-la, jihad. Ha-la-la, jihad. Jihad, jihad. Ha-la-la, jihad.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.