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Sgt. Northcutt’s Homecoming

Phil Northcutt saw the map of Iraq on the wall and started talking about his time there. He’d been stationed in Ramadi, Al Anbar Province, in 2004.

PN: 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.

When did that second wave appear?

PN: 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 Rapaco. Fucking solid guy. One of the best fucking officers I ever worked with in the Marine Corps. He got killed by a suicide car bomb five months into our tour.

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 heli-pad. 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.”

And the diagnosis was written down in your file but it wasn’t grounds for taking a leave or anything?

PN: 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.

They gave anti-depressants to everybody in the company?

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 success as a music promoter (ska and punk) or fulfillment as a 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.”

PN: I  told them “if you guys are looking for gate guards at Camp Pendleton, forget it. But if a Marine can come home because I take his place, then I’ll do it.” I was seeing Marines get killed all the time on TV. And being a Marine I started to feel guilty about it and take it personal.”

He signed a one-year contract, supposedly non-renewable, and got assigned to Two Five -Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, the most decorated unit in the USMC.

PN: They put me in a regular weapons company, infantry unit. We were replacing Two Four in Ramadi. They had seen more combat than any unit since the Vietnam War. We got there and they’re like “Thank God you guys are here, we’re going home!”  A couple of them stayed behind to show us around. The first day out, all of a sudden -wap ping ping poong-“Ambush! Ambush!” I start to dismount because that’s what you’re trained to do when there’s an ambush, dismount, spread out, and find the bad guys and get ’em. “Negative! Negative! Don’t dismount!”  I’m just a corporal. There’s the vehicle commander and the patrol commander, a lieutenant over me. “Stay in the vehicles. Button up.”  So we just sat there taking hits. Ping ting toong ting.”  I’m like this is fucking crazy.

Next thing you know a fucking football goes across the hood of the Humvee but it’s not a football it’s a fucking RPG![Rocket-propelled grenade]. I’m thinking that could have hit this vehicle and we would have gone up like a box of fireworks. So I’m like why if we’re not dismounting don’t we get out of the fucking kill zone? We sat there for what must have been a whole minute -it seemed like a whole hour- just taking bullets. Nobody was shooting back because the gunners were all down inside the fucking thing because they said button up.  The sergeant sitting next to me and another sergeant in the vehicle up in front are going “Get the fuck out of here. Get the fuck out of here.” Trying to get the point across on the radio to the platoon commander.
Some lance corporal is driving. but he’s not doing shit until he gets the word from the lieutenant up front who doesn’t know what he’s doing, it’s his first ambush. Finally he’s like “Okay, let’s go, let’s go” and we boned out.

We get back to the rear and I’m like “I am not going to die  like that. If I get killed, so be it. But I didn’t come out here to do some stupid shit and get killed.'” So I got together with the other corporals and sergeants and I said, “We’ve got to talk to the lieutenant, because if that shit happens tomorrow, some of us aren’t coming back.” So we got him and sat him down and said “look sir, I’ve made up a little playbook. We should maybe come up with some basic maneuvers for the different kinds of engagements me might be in. So we can close with and destroy the enemy. That’s how you win.”  He said, “You gents are getting ahead of yourselves. We have to take baby steps here.”

Baby steps?  Well, he’s the ‘sir,’ we do what he says, even if his decisions are going to get people hurt.  To the dude’s credit, he got his shit together later. But when he first got there, that first day, what a clusterfuck. Looking back, I realize what a fucked-up job [the lieutenant had]. I wouldn’t want that job. Because you can’t predict what’s going to happen, but you have to make decisions anyways. And if you’re making decisions in a åcombat zone, with combat troops, undoubtedly some of your decisions are going to lead to people dying.  I think the dude was planning to pursue a Marine Corps career, but I heard that he got out two years later.

Northcutt’s unit lost 12 men and sent more than 150 home wounded. He was wounded but stuck it out to the end of his tour.

PN: I was on the 50-cal until I hurt my back. They mount these things on a Humvee. Normally they have a traversing mechanism for spinning the turret. But the turret is just a steel ring on top there with a post for the 50 cal. Because of these IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and snipers, they started bolting armor on the top, on the sides, but it’s not designed for that. The thing gets turned into a Frankenstein. It’s nothing like what it was designed to be. They look ridiculous driving down the road. With all that weight added, my 50 cal didn’t have a traversing mechanism on it.  I had put one on there and was ordered to take it off because I had stripped it off a damaged vehicle that had been blown up and I wasn’t authorized to do it.  So  I was ordered to remove the part and put it back on the vehicle I had got it from. And I’m like “that’s bullshit, we’re going out on patrols.” And the staff sergeant is like “just take it off.” A couple of weeks later I blew my back out and got Medi-vacced to Baghdad.  They’re like, “You’re going to Germany for an MRI because we don’t have that equipment here.” I said, “I’m not going to Germany, I’ve got a squad in Ramadi

I knew that I could live with a physical injury and physical pain, but I couldn’t live with the guilt of thinking “Maybe I should have gone back.” What if your friends die and you’re not there and you think, “Well maybe I could have done something?: I couldn’t live with that doubt. Of course I did nothing but complicate my injuries. My guys helped me hide my injuries. They would carry the heavy equipment to the Humvee.

Are you in pain now?

I’m okay. Some days it hurts. It depends on how I sleep.  Sleeping on the floor is better than sleeping in a bed. Cannabis helps. And it helps even more with anxiety.

Unfortunately, Northcutt can’t use cannabis because he’s on probation after spending 11 months in L.A. County Jail for growing it.

Monday in CounterPunch: How Sgt. Northcutt discovered medical marijuana, got busted, and did 11 months behind bars; his current situation; and a surprise twist on the legal front.

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice. Email Fred@plebesite.com

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Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

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