“I think I have a friend who would want to join,” a poolee named Josh Snyder told me. I liked Josh, a cocky country boy who seemed wise beyond his years. I liked his swagger and wished I had been as confident as he was when I had joined.
“It’s my best friend, Norm,” Josh said. “He wants to join the Army, but I’m trying to get him to sign up with me.”
I decided that recruiting Norm would be my personal mission. After a recruiting event—a pull-up challenge at his high school—I talked to him alone for a long time in the recruiter’s office, the fluorescent lights making my dress uniform almost glow.
Norm said he wanted to join the Army to be like his father. He towered over me, but I dominated our conversation with a playbook of sales techniques. “Why wouldn’t you want to be the best of the best?” I said. “Why would you want to go to war with the second string?” I knew he played football, and that analogy seemed to work. I coaxed him into being one of the few and the proud.
I left the recruiting office after three months on the job. Less than a year later, I started my first tour in Iraq.
When Victoria told me her husband’s name, I turned away from her and dropped my head into my hands.
“I recruited your husband,” I said when she tugged me around.
“It’s okay,” she said. Amazingly, she didn’t seem angered by my revelation and even tried to soothe me. “I’m proud of him and what he did.”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He’s going to get the Bronze Star. In a place called Al Qa’im, he stopped a suicide bomber. He saved three lives by stepping in front of the vehicle and forcing him to use the bomb early.”
I had served in the same place about a year earlier, and her mention of Al Qa’im brought a scene rushing into my mind. A civilian vehicle, the size of a Toyota Tercel, zoomed toward me while my battalion patrolled along the Euphrates.
Iraqis are horrible drivers. I thought this vehicle was unlikely to be a suicide bomber. There wouldn’t be a lot of room to pack explosives into such a compact car, and I could see people inside—it wouldn’t make sense to kill three or four bombers at once. I had heard that suicide bombers usually commandeered larger vehicles such as cargo vans and went on their missions alone.
“You’ve got a vehicle coming up your six!” my sergeant screamed at me over the hissing radio. “Shoot it, D-Bo, shoot it!” I fondled the trigger of the M240 Golf machine gun with my index finger. I didn’t want to kill civilians.
About 15 meters away, the car skidded to a stop, kicking up dust. The other Marines scrambled toward it with rifles raised and ripped out the passengers to search them. The Iraqis said they were just driving home, but they could have been testing us. The insurgents liked to observe how the Marines would act in a certain area and then craft their plans accordingly. Someone—an observer near our patrol or one of the men in that car—would report my inaction to the enemy’s leadership. They were always watching for weakness.
I didn’t have the right to make the choice I did—by not shooting, I decided that the Iraqis’ blood was more important than ours. That was unfair to the other Marines’ families, friends, and wives.
There were many suicide attacks after my battalion left. One of the combat photographers on my team who stayed behind died after a suicide bomber crashed into his Humvee. A few months after that, a base on the edge of Al Qa’im, near the Syrian border, endured three consecutive bomber attacks in a few minutes, including a fire truck that crashed against the base with several hundred pounds of explosives. A lone lance corporal caused all three bombers to detonate prematurely by shooting at them with his M249 SAW machine gun.
And now the attack against Norm. I couldn’t help but think these were all somehow connected to what I did not do—I did not kill like a good Marine.
Next: Josh is killed in a sniper attack.