Politics & Policy

‘God Bless and Semper Fi’

A spiritual surge on the frontlines.

Rolling out of Baghdad’s Green Zone into the city’s scarred and dangerous Mansour district, one could sense the no-more-kidding-around alertness among the U.S. soldiers aboard the Humvee I was traveling in. Not that there was any uneasiness among them: After all, these were 1st Cavalry Division troopers, and most of them were combat veterans. But it was a sense of “Okay, guys, this is war” and that the complacency of the Green Zone — though it is regularly mortared — will get you killed in the red zone.

In our briefing a half hour earlier, Maj. Chris Norrie — operations officer for the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (and the commander of this mission) — reminded us that an American soldier had been killed out here the previous day when his vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. He didn’t need to remind me, nor I suspect any of his troopers. Though I wasn’t with the unit that had lost the soldier, I had seen the thick, black smoke from the attack billowing up into the afternoon sky from my relatively safe vantage point just outside the 1st Cav’s command post.

As our Humvee sped across the line-of-departure into “Indian country,” and the topside-machine-gunner began his 360-degree turn looking for bad guys, the onboard radio squawked to life through my headset.

“God bless, God bless you all,” crackled the voice through the radio static. I quickly recognized it as Maj. Norrie’s.

“It is an honor to be serving with you here and to now be riding with you into this contentious place,” he continued from his position in one of the lead vehicles. “You are serving our country in a just and righteous cause. We are going where others would not go. Stay sharp. Stay alert. Be ready for anything. We are red, direct, and rolling. May God bless you all.”

Of course my first inclination was that Norrie’s ultra-brief, radio address, and abridged prayer breakfast was for my benefit. Here I was, the journalist, probably listening in over the comm (which I was), and then writing about it (which I am). But as I would discover, Norrie was — and is — known for his pre-battle pep-talks and blessings. And he not only refuses to put on a show for journalists, he forbids his men from doing the same. For Norrie, it’s all business, all the time. And in his business — the business of life and death — expressed spirituality comes naturally.

As I’ve said before: though some members of Congress might cavalierly suggest U.S. soldiers and Marines are “cold-blooded killers,” the very nature of their work — something few Americans fully grasp — demands they be some of the world’s most moral men if they are going to be effective at what they do. That doesn’t mean soldiers are perfect. But it does mean many of them have been forced to face God in a way most of us have not, and it’s often reflected in their characters and unconscious behavior.

While in Iraq, I was struck by two things that might be considered unusual in modern civilian society.

First: There seemed to be no thievery among combat soldiers and Marines. None. Anywhere. Period. Not even in the transit hootches in Kuwait. I could leave my computer and other gear on my rack, and walk 1,000 yards to the chow hall, and know that no one was going to touch any of it. At Camp Striker in Baghdad, I left my armor and helmet sitting on the deck in the public day room for nearly 24 hours. So did everyone else. None of it moved an inch. The entire country — at least among American units — was like that. I’m sure there has to be exceptions, but I never saw a hint of thievery. Nor did anyone feel a need to guard against it. There was an honor code in place, and it was always in affect.

Second: Combat soldiers and Marines prayed openly and unashamedly, as did their officers. Not all of them mind you, but a noticeable number. Even the ones who cursed, pardon the cliché and the reference, like sailors.

As I mentioned at “The Tank,” I never sat down to a meal with Lt. Col. Jason Bohm (task force commander of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines) that the man didn’t fold his hands and bow his head to thank God for what was before him. And there were always hundreds of his Marines and sailors sitting at tables around him.

I’m convinced this openly expressed spirituality is one of the reasons Army and Marine officers seem to be making greater headway in terms of ground-zero diplomacy with sheiks and tribal elders than the rank-and-file civilian diplomats. The Iraqis simply trust American soldiers, their word, and their sincerity, because of their spirituality.

Whenever Col. Bohm and other officers met with an Iraqi, it was always with an ever-so slight bow, a right hand over the heart followed by an extended right hand; a warm smile and a greeting, “Salam alikom, (peace unto you), my friend.”

The Americans meant it. The Iraqis knew it. And the Marines were taught to get into the practice of doing the same thing on foot patrols … but only if it was a sincere expression of “peace” toward another.

When I left Task Force 1/4’s headquarters in Al Qaim to transfer to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit near Al Taqaddum, Bohm extended his right hand, put his left hand on my shoulder, thanked me for being his guest, and said that I was “brave” for being there. E-mail messages sent from him since have all been signed, “God bless and Semper Fi.”

A couple weeks after leaving Bohm, when I left Maj. Norrie and his cavalry troopers, I extended my hand to Norrie. He took it in his, then literally wrapped his arms around me in a bear hug. “You’re as brave as I’ve seen,” he said. “God bless you.”

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. Smith is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. He blogs at The Tank.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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