Phil Northcutt saw the map of Iraq on the wall and started recalling his time there. He’d been stationed in Ramadi, Al Anbar Province, in 2004.
Phil Northcutt: There was this main street, ‘Route Michigan,’ like a 4-lane highway going through town with a 12-inch tall median painted yellow and black. When we first got there you could see big holes in the median. By the time we left, there was no median. It had been blown up along six or seven miles of roadway...
There were two different kinds of fighters we engaged. When we first got there it was like local fighters. You could tell. They were wearing the man dresses and flip-flops and they had old rusty AKs. They were like beat-up, ragged-out goat herders but with weapons. They didn’t use squad maneuvers, they didn’t use military tactics, it was a shoot and run kind of thing. And pretty much we killed all those guys or they went away.
And then the second wave came in. These dudes were wearing brand new Adidas, American jeans, they were wearing tactical rigs like American contractors, baseball hats, sunglasses –they looked like American contractors.
Fred Gardner: When did that second wave appear?
Northcutt: Let’s see... I got there in late August or September... That first wave lasted for three months and then it died down and then we heard, “Guys are coming from Syria.” Next thing you know there were these new guys, and they operated in squads, it was obvious they’d been trained. But they didn’t have the logistical support that we did ?supplies and weapons. So they didn’t really last long, either.
I think they decided “This coming out in the open stuff is not working, let’s hang back and let’s do more IEDs and suicide bombs.” That’s when things got really scary. More scary than guys shootin’ at you, now you’ve got people hiding and trying to blow you up.
We lost our commanding officer to a suicide car bomber like 1500 meters from the gate. Captain Patrick Rapicault, 34. Fucking solid guy. One of the best officers I ever worked with in the Marine Corps. He got killed when a VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] rammed vehicle Whiskey Six. Marc Ryan, 25, and Lance Thompson, 21, were also killed. Ben Nelson was seriously wounded but survived.
The psychs came out to see us. They said “We’re going to do a screening of you guys. We want you guys to get help... They sent us to the Battalion aid station, which was Udei Hussein’s old guest house. They had turned his main house into a helipad. They leveled it with Cruise missiles and landed helicopters there. The took the guest house and turned it into the Battalion CP [Command Post]. At the far end of it was the armory and the medical building. So we went over there and got interviewed by a Navy captain. That’d be a colonel in the Marine Corps –a full-bird captain. He said, “what you have is called chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a natural result of you being in combat and seeing the things you’ve seen, blah blah blah.”
Gardner: And the diagnosis was written down in your file but it wasn’t grounds for taking a leave or anything?
Northcutt: Not at all. They would have had to send half of everybody home. And if everyone had told the truth, they would have had to send everybody home. “Take these anti-depressants and get some sleep. You’ll be fine. Here’s your M-16. Back to work!” And then we’re out on the front lines.
Gardner: They gave anti-depressants to everybody in the company?
Northcutt: All the guys who didn’t lie. The questions were, “Are you having nightmares?” Fuck yes. Are you kidding me? Do you know what I saw yesterday? “Are you having intrusive thoughts?” Yes. Fucking of course. They went through this whole series of questions that obviously, if you’re in combat and you’re being honest, the answer is “yes” to all of them.
But a lot of guys say, “Well you just gotta suck it up. You’re in the Marine Corps.” That’s bullshit. Some of these guys are fucking yelling in their sleep. And naturally everybody’s so hyper-fucking-vigilant that everybody wakes up. (softly) Oh, okay, it’s only Sergeant Tolson yelling in his sleep, okay, cool... Sometimes we’d get woken up because fucking mortars would be hitting next to the hooch and rocks would be crackling down on the roof. And you’d just be laying there like “fuck, I think I’m still here,” with nothing but a tin roof over your head.
Basically our job was like, they would say, “Hey, there’s an ambush set up at checkpoint 295, you guys go check it out.” Okay. We’ll check it out. We go there and see if they shoot at us. If they shoot at us –this is really the tactic! You’ve got bullets hitting around you, concrete flying in your face... What can you do?
Northcutt is now 36. He joined the Marine Corps in 1998, after not finding fulfillment as a music promoter (ska and punk bands) and screen printer. He went through boot camp in San Diego, excelled, and was made platoon guide (first in his unit). After School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton he trained in “Military Operations, Urban Terrain” at an off-the-map base in Virginia. He was stationed in idyllic Iceland and the Hellish Mojave Desert, didn’t see combat, and finished his four-year tour without a scratch well before the US invaded Iraq.
In the spring of ’04 he was about to start attending Santa Rosa Junior College when he got a call: the Marine Corps was looking for NCOs with his training to participate in the “combat casualty replacement program.”
Fred Gardner is the editor of O'Shaughnessy's, a quarterly journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical Group.