March 24, 2005
The Story of a Marine Shot 4 Times in Fallujah.
The path Darrell Carver chose out of his Salt Lake City high school was similar to that taken by other overachieving classmates. He’d married his Granger High sweetheart when he was 20, had three wonderful kids by the time he was 26, and was leading an elite team for his company by the time he was 28, sating his mild addictions to fitness and hunting when the occasional free hour presented itself.
But Carver followed a calling imbued in just a sliver of the population. On November 20th, 2004, while most of his peers were in office parks earning money with keyboards, Darrell Carver was approaching a tin-plated door in the heart of Fallujah, Iraq, with his rifle stock held firm in the crook of a shoulder tattooed with “USMC” and two terrorists praying to end him on the other side.
Gunnery Sergeant Carver is a member of an elite slice of America that has emerged on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq: the warrior class. Drawn from across the socio-economic spectrum by an uncommon confluence of duty, adventure, and martial spirit, this all-volunteer cadre has demonstrated that it belongs among history’s elite fighting units.
That men like Carver choose to serve in combat arms, a deadly profession in which few transferable civilian skills are gleaned, says a lot about the fabric of the country. Before September 11th, America carried a feckless reputation among its mortal enemies. Beyond low-risk, high-tech tactics—cruise missiles, invisible bombers—they concluded that America had no will to fight. Now those enemies are meeting America’s core military strength: young men with an innate desire to carry rifles for a living.
Infantrymen like Carver were sent into Fallujah to rip the terrorists out of closets and bedrooms were they had scattered in small packs, muting America’s technological advantages. The battle was face-to-face, intensely personal. On one side of the doors stood men who believed they would be judged how they lived. On the other lay men who believed they would be judged on how they died.
How these two groups of men, who were more alike than different as boys, had traveled tens of years and thousands of miles to kill each other was best answered by the professional philosopher. For a professional warrior like Carver, combat was the natural culmination of moral divergence. A murderous enemy had infected Fallujah. Politicians could not excise them. Marines and soldiers could.
It was “tiring work,” as Carver puts it. For most Americans, the office is a cubicle tract where conflict is limited to harsh emails. For a Marine, the office is a smoldering, stinking, ear-splitting arena filled with young men who are trying to kill each other.
Fallujah had been parsed into familial nicknames. Clearing the Upper West Side had been hard enough, but in Queens, a particularly nasty corner of the city near the Euphrates, Everything seemed upside-down. Religious leaders demanded violence. Stray cats feasted on fallen men. Zarqawi had constructed a torture chamber twenty-five feet away from a small amusement park.
Even the smoke settled strangely. In his first firefight on November 20th, Carver charged into a room behind a grenade. The acrid dust had climbed the walls and spilled across the ceiling, broiling in the top half of the bedroom. He heard the terrorist shuffle toward his men. Instead of dropping into a firing position that might have exposed him, Carver leapt up into the smog and onto a bed where he ended the threat.
In the second house, the door swung open and there were two terrorists lumbering toward Carver like zombies in some horror movie. He and the other force reconnaissance Marines had honed their shooting skills over hundreds of hours and thousands of bullets. Four bullets did the trick.
The day was an hour old.
The Marine team crept down the hallway of the third house in a human centipede stack bristling with rifles. Carver had moved into point position and now he stood outside another door wondering what the hell was waiting for him inside. Hundreds of doors opened already. Hundreds more to go.
He opened the door with his left hand, keeping his front sight post moving with his eyes. Someone coming out of a closet, firing an AK-47. The flat, booming report reverberated under his body armor. Carver had to shoot the terrorist several times before he flopped onto the spent casings.
Now more firing from behind the door on his left. Two rounds slammed into his thigh and another passed clean through his calf. They felt more like baseball bats than hot needles. Carver wheeled to maintain his balance and center his weapon. Saw smoking holes in the door. Another bullet popped through and smacked his shoulder, ending any hope of remaining on his feet.
It was an enemy grenade that saved him. Without it, Carver would have tumbled inside the room, into the kill zone. Instead the grenade came bouncing out toward his boots, as mesmerizing as a giant wasp, and blew him clear out of the room.
Twenty-one minutes later Navy doctors were plucking dozens of fragments from his body and sewing the four quarter-sized holes. Twenty-one hours later Carver checked out of the field hospital with a crutch in his armpit instead of a rifle and the hazy memory of a phone call to his wife, Holly.
Holly got the call in the afternoon. “Honey I got hurt,” her husband told her. Of all the casualty notifications given to family members, a phone call from the wounded warrior is the best. Phone calls from doctors or officers are bad. Doorbells are the worst. Darrell was now one of the twelve thousand casualties in Iraq. One of the lucky ones.
The untold story of war is the burden shouldered by the families. Devotion to their soldiers is well known. But the hidden buttress of an all-volunteer war is devotion to the cause. Families are serving the country every bit as fervently as their soldiers. Without their commitment to the war, second and third deployments to Iraq would be zero sum decisions for soldiers. “If he had to go back (for a third tour), I support him,” says Holly. “It is worth the sacrifice of separation to help the people of Iraq.”
The costs of the war on terror may not be spread wide, but they are deep. Families like the Carvers are willing to shoulder the costs of the national interest for the lowest risk-adjusted wage in America and zero fanfare. In other societies, warriors are motivated by externalized power. Ours are motivated by internal duty. Geopolitics aside, the country should be thankful that it has cultivated a tiny warrior class that can dominate an overseas battlefield while upholding its best values.
Owen West is a trader for Goldman, Sachs who served with the Marines in Operation Iraqi Freedom.