By Jono Kinkade
Jeremy Naves went on three tours to the Middle East.
James Cathcart was in Fallujah, twice.
Matthew Edwards was fifteen-years-old when he was trained to kill
These are their stories. They are told by the soldiers themselves, not by the politicians or the pundits. Because we are constantly inundated by news media and debate, sometimes we forget that the soldiers fighting these wars are our peers, and they have been exposed to a reality that we may never know. All those interviewed demonstrated a humble humanity that is not always associated with soldiers.
Matt Edwards grew up in the inner-city of Los Angeles, where he lived alone with his single mother. He was seven years old when the LA riots erupted in April of 1992, right in the middle of his neighborhood. For three days he heard explosions, gunshots, and sirens.
One morning he woke up to complete silence, when his mother came in and said they had to leave. She took him to her ash-covered car.
“As we drove I peaked my head out from the blanket that my mom put over me. What I saw changed my life,” Edwards wrote to City on a Hill Press in an email from Syria.
“Every major intersection and street had armed Army and Marine personnel: tanks, trucks, Humvees, [armored personnel carriers], machine guns, snipers, infantrymen… and what I felt was safety,” Edwards said.
“From age seven I saw the military as an instrument for the protection of the innocent.”
Joel Inman was in high school when the U.S. embassies in Africa were bombed. The attacks angered and perplexed him. His thoughts rang loud and spurred his decision to take some form of action. He contemplated joining the military.
“I thought that I could [either] go to school and study for four years, and then come out with some vague idea of what it was about,” Inman said regarding the embassy bombing. “Or I could start trying to do something about it right then.”
Inman entered the Navy SEAL program, but didn’t make it all the way through.
“I was pretty bummed with myself and I had to do a major life readjustment,” Inman said.
Inman became an Operation Specialist and was stationed in San Diego where he taught anti-terrorism techniques. On the ship, he was the watch supervisor for a crew that gathered intell by way of radio, sonar, and satellite.
In late 2001, his ship was one of a six-ship battle group that accompanied an aircraft carrier headed for the Persian Gulf. This was the first of two seven-month deployments, with the second in 2003.
While patrolling the Gulf, Inman would sometimes be among a crew thatâ€“with a pistol and a camcorder—searched fishing boats and cargo ships for contraband, such as oil or enemy combatants.
“We didn’t find much, fortunately,” Inman said. “It doesn’t take long after you look at that captain in the eye, [to see that] he is not afraid [of being] found out or that his cargo is going to get taken. He is just thinking â€˜when can I get the nets back in the water?
“It’s easy to say that the Navy doesn’t do much,” Inman said. “[But] I think we eliminated the possibility that the Taliban can leave through Pakistan on boats. Piracy in the Gulf dropped to zero while our ship was there.”
On the other hand, Inman was reluctant to emphasize how much he as an individual contributed to the overall operation.
“We didn’t sleep enough to think straight, so we turned into zombies [while] just doing our job.
“An important thing to realize about the military is that the self gets kind of smaller as you contribute to a bigger system,” Inman said. “You can call that the war machine if you want, but everyone knows their job and everyone is doing their part.”
When he finished his time in the Navy, Inman initially wanted to study politics and possibly get into intelligence work.
“But that kind of faded quickly as I realized [that] that was a goal from before,” Inman said. “I spent a long while trying to figure out what my life is about, what I am trying to do, what my goals are.”
Inman is currently a philosophy major at UC Santa Cruz.
Had he become a Navy SEAL: “I wouldn’t be here today. I would have had to re-extend my contract, so I’d â€¦ probably [still be] in Iraq right now, kicking in doors.”
James Cathcart, who lives in San Luis Obispo, California, was already planning to enlist in the Marines when the war in Iraq began.
“I didn’t want to be one of those college kids that bitched about a bunch of things but hadn’t done anything,” Cathcart said in a phone interview.
On Sept. 14 2003 he joined the Fourth Battalion, Fifth Marines Division. Cathcart flew out to Kuwait on Feb. 22 after spending Christmas in Okinawa, Japan.
As the assistant gunner in a two-man javelin team, he was dispatched as an “asset” to various combat battalions. He and his gunner were attached to India Company, First Platoon, and flew into the Al-Asad Air Force Base in Iraq, where he was stationed when the base was attacked by small rockets in March 2003.
“That made it feel real, [like we] were really there,” he said.
Eventually, he went on his first mission with India Company, to a base in Rawa, which was attacked multiple times by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during the few weeks he was there.
Then India Company was sent to Fallujah.
“Everybody had heard about Fallujah because it was the hottest spot in Iraq.
I said to my gunner the day before that I wanted to get into one good firefight, because if we were going to be there we might as well have the experience,” he said.
India Company arrived a few days later, and shortly after went to the staging area to prepare for the initial assault. They were on a steep dirt mound about 20 meters away from the houses on the edge of the city.
“They said go, we got up and ran down the hill and the engineers started blowing locks off doors. We started clearing housesâ€¦getting shot at, gunfire was going everywhere. We were progressing toward an intersection, and I took a knee behind a big light pole, and then I heard a pingâ€¦this was the first time that I knew that I was legitimately shot at. When all this was going on, I got split up from my gunner. I was running with the machine guns, and we were going through the city and myâ€¦ backpack was a piece of shit so I had to stop and fix it. Not at any time could I say that I was really scaredâ€¦ it’s almost like you expect it so much that you don’t even notice it.”
But at the same time, Cathcart said that it is easy to get all wound up when you are trying to do everything too fast.
“This guy that I hung out withâ€¦ said â€˜just calm down, have you had a cigarette yet?’ and I thought to myself: â€˜You can smoke during this shit?’â€¦so I took out a cigarette and lit it up. He said, â€˜Just pack your shit and its no big deal.’ That changed my whole game. It made it seem like as long as you think about what’s going onâ€¦you don’t have to take it too seriously.”
As they cleared the neighborhood house by house, checked the rooftops, and surveyed the surrounding ground, Cathcart remembered hearing his fire team leader yell “RPG!” He hit the ground and heard the rocket propelled grenade scream past him.
Later that day, Cathcart said that he was faced with a car was driving straight at him.
“We weren’t sure at first if it was just a scared civilian or an enemy. To figure that out you send some warning shots and if they keep coming, you shoot them. This car started coming and we were all lined up ready to goâ€¦.we just opened fire,” he said.
“I remember pumping five rounds perfectly into the driver’s side, then five rounds into the passenger’s side. Turns out there were three guys, [who died in the attack]â€¦they had AK’s and belts of amo.”
James Cathcart returned to the US after the seven-month deployment in July 2004. He returned to Iraq in February, 2005, and went back to Fallujah.
After rigorous training before deployment, Cathcart and a few others went UA, unnecessary absence, after hearing word that they would not be allowed leave before deployment. They came back 29 days later, got demoted one rank, and fined a month’s pay.
Cathcart has more stories to tell, yet said that after a while it all becomes “the normal shit, it’s just repetitive.”
“Gun shot, mortar bang, shoot, wait; hot as fuck, boring as hell, then all of a sudden something happens,” he said. “There were times when [I] wasâ€¦fighting like crazy and there were times when we would go out to the absolute middle of the desert.”
A week before returning to Iraq, other Maine divisions cleared Fallujah during the second invasion.
On his way there, Cathcart received word that his best friend since childhood was killed in the assault.
After graduating from Chapman University with a Business Degree, Joe Wheeler joined the military to pay off student loans. He signed an enlistment contract with the Army in December of 2000, and eventually enlisted in the Fourth Infantry of the Army and became a surgical assistant.
On Mar. 17, 2003, Wheeler’s unit departed for the Middle East. When they arrived in Kuwait, the base was under heavy fire of scud missiles.
As a surgical assistant, Wheeler was part of a forward surgical team of nurses and doctors that would respond to severely wounded soldiers near the front line. Wheeler operated on one soldier who tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest with an M16—who later died in surgery. In the field, he performed surgery on an Iraqi combatant that was shot in the neck, with the bullet coming out of his face, leaving a wound about the size of a fist.
Administering surgery to both US soldiers and Iraqi combatants is a requirement of the Geneva Convention, but Wheeler said that unique war-time situations, like Iraq, are not always in tune with such international laws.
While stationed in Tikrit, Wheeler was forced to go on guard duty and patrol the city, even though the Geneva Convention says it is illegal to force medical personnel onto guard duty.
“Abuses of power like that were common occurrences,” he said. “I would say even a daily occurrence.”
He was also never issued a bulletproof vest.
“They said that I was medical personnel, so I didn’t need a bullet proof vest, which is bullshit.”
When Wheeler returned to the United States, he had to introduce himself to his daughter, Ivy, who was born the day before he went to Iraq.
“When I came back my daughter of course didn’t know me, and it took her a long time to accept me, about six months, before she realized I wasn’t going to leaveâ€¦.which of course was very hard for me.”
Wheeler eventually became active in the Bay Area with Iraq Veterans Against War, and was interviewed for this article as a representative of the organization.
Joe Wheeler was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was honorably discharged in early 2004. It took a couple years to be awarded disability coverage, which annually pays him 50 percent of the salary he made in the military. He is seeing a psychiatrist through the Veteran’s Affairs office.
After high school, Rahshan Williams decided to join the United States Marines for many reasons, including a high school GPA slightly over 2.0 and a feeling of obligation toward his country.
“The US is what it is, and I’m a citizen, and I benefit from it,” Williams said. “It’d be sort of hypocritical to live up these benefits and think of the military as a separate entity from the country.”
Williams joined the Marines in 1993, at a time when he didn’t expect US involvement in any major military conflicts.
Rahshan Williams spent most of this time serving state-side, where he was trained to be a Spanish linguist, and spent a few months in Panama. While studying linguistics at the Defense Training Institute in Monterey, he met his bride-to-be, Thaleia Williams.
Thaleia Williams grew up in a small town in Oregon, and remembers hearing her grandfather’s stories about World War II as a child. She was tired of school upon high school graduation and wanted to get out of town, learn another language, and travel the world. She enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1995.
Williams became a Persian linguist, and spent time in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Turkey and Germany. She served as an active-duty cadet for six years until 2001, when while on “ready-reserve,” she was recalled to serve in Afghanistan for four months, she was part of an airborne crew that collected intell and performed surveillance missions. She never was in direct combat.
Williams did get a taste of what it is like for women in the military, but only a taste. She occasionally overheard questionable comments from Commanding Officers, but that was the most grief that she faced.
“I can only speak from individual experience,” she said. “I don’t count myself as a credible source for how it is in the military, and I can’t speak for women in the military.
“I was never was shot at [and never] shot at someone [else], and as soon as that happens it makes for a completely different experience. I just did my deal, to the best of my ability, helped people how I could, that’s it.”
Her Husband, Rahshan, has similar thoughts.
“When you go in [to the military], you hope that the political leaders are right minded, but politics is politics,” he said.
“It is what it is, I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it is how the world works.”
When Matt Edwards was 12-years-old, he and his best friend left Los Angeles to join the U.S. Navy Sea Cadet Corps.
He was 15-years-old when he was taught to kill.
“I was taught to shoot, fight, and create in my mind the concept of â€˜other,’ which is how soldiers can justify murder,” Edwards said.
When he was 16, Edwards and two of his best friends enlisted in the Marines. At age 17, two months after graduating from one of the best high schools in the country, he went to boot camp.
“Boot camp was easy, but it was there that I decided that the military was an institution not for defense and protection but for domination and violence,” Edwards said.
“I was put into one of the platoons with one of my best friends. It was through him that I was able to watch [someone] plunge into fear, hate, anger, and aggression. He lost his sense of humor, he became withdrawn, he became angry. I started to see these traits in my daily activities.
“In boot [camp] I learned to kill efficiently. I was taught to make head shots from 500 meters. At that distance you cannot even see the target—it is a far away blur. Having that skill shook me to my core. I was worried that if I did too well I might be selected for some purpose that would actually make me have to shoot people. Its not good for a Marine to not want to kill.”
When Edwards went to hand-to-hand combat training, he saw 500 recruits with “shaved heads and hard faces, all moving in rhythm, shouting: â€˜kill, kill, kill.”
“That was too eerie to ever forget,” he said. “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, killâ€¦”
Jeremy Naves graduated from Camarillo High School in 1998. During his first year of community college, he started thinking about joining the military. Because his parents’ income was too high for him to be eligible for financial aid, yet not high enough to completely cover tuition for a UC, Naves decided to enlist in the Marines.
In Aug. 2001, Naves, a [Communications] Chief, went to Camp Doha in Kuwait, where the military routinely collected intell on the Iraq government.
“We heard [the 9/11] attacks over the radio station, and I thought it was the Mars Attacks,” Naves said, explaining how surreal the moment felt.
“The Lieutenant came up and said â€˜Hey, the twin towers just fell, lock and load.”
The unit was slated to go to Afghanistan, but a 2,000-member Marine Expeditionary Unit went instead.
“We were kind of hoping we could go. The allure of itâ€¦I don’t know why it appealed, but it was again something that we were trained to know, and something that we never experienced before,” Naves recalled.
After his first tour in Kuwait, Naves was deployed twice to Iraq
“[During operations we would] kick in the doors, round up the inhabitants, tie them up, get them ready for interrogation, and find their weapons. I’d go in, look for any intell and take it back to have the analysts look at.”
Naves never had to fire his weapon.
In the fall of 2006, Jeremy Naves transferred to UCSC and joined the College Republicans; a decision that came more from personal reasons than for political action.
“What happens in politics I don’t really care about, or I am still indifferent about. I want a small government; I don’t want the government coming into my home,” he said.
“I think growing up I was pretty closed in. In the Marines most the time I was also closed in. We didn’t really discuss politics. It didn’t matter who was in charge, we still had to go along with whatever their directions are.”
Though growing violence in Iraq has created a different atmosphere from what Naves felt during his time in Iraq, he did not feel it was his place to speak definitely about the situation.
“I think if we can make their lives better, and they can enjoy a free society where they are not living under the thumb of torture and oppression, I think it is worth it. It is going to take the Iraqi people to really want it.”
“I have no regrets about my decision to go. I’m actually very proud that I have done it. It was a life changing experience.”
Like Jeremy Naves, Matt Edwards’ experience directed him toward political involvement as well.
When Matt Edwards finished boot camp, he went on leave to visit his girlfriend, who at the time was going to UCSC. He found himself “fresh out of boot camp with the military high-and-tight hair cut, hanging out with the hippies of Kresge.”
The acceptance that he encountered on the campus made a lasting impression. When he returned to the base he became a Conscientious Objector. His officers were not happy—they confined him to the barracks, took away communication access and assigned him extra duties. They tried to convince him to return to training through food and sleep deprivation methods and threatening him with prison time.
A month later, Edwards broke his hip. It took him a month to get proper medical attention.
“When they found out that I was a CO they told me to buy my own crutches and would not prescribe me pain killers,” Edwards said.
Matt Edwards was discharged on March 19, 2003—the day that the war in Iraq began.
He transferred to UCSC from community college, and studied Middle Eastern history and politics. He also became involved in Students Against War.
“While in the cadets I helped recruit a lot of kids. Recruiters lie. I lied. I got my friends involved in the military,” Edwards said.
Matt Edwards is currently in Syria, where he is experiencing the country from a civilian’s perspective and learning to speak Arabic.
For others, assimilating to their home has been a much harder experience.
When James Cathcart returned to the United States from his second deployment to Fallujah, he punched through a window and hurt his hand. He got arrested and was sent to the ER, where he started frantically yelling and was sent to a mental health expert. Cathcart was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They determined I was unfit for duty and I decided not to fight it, then I started the slow process out,” he said.
“It’s kind of weird saying all this stuff as far as telling my story or any of that shit becauseâ€¦. it’s not really my story; it’s not something I want to be recognized for as an individual. It is not like anything I did was different than any of those people.”