Messages from Iraq to home reflect pride, pain, patriotism
Commander's e-mails touch hearts of Marines' families, friends
By MEG JONES
Posted: Jan. 22, 2005
Mark Smith has lost 10 men.
He was their commander, they were his Marines; when they died, it was his task to tell their families how they died and how much they're missed by their comrades.
Each loss has left a hole in the Marine Reserve battalion commander who pours his heart into weekly e-mails to the family members of his Marines.
The e-mails are a mix of bravura, eloquence, pain, humor and gung-ho patriotism.
Smith sends the e-mails every Thursday from the Mahmudiyah, Iraq, headquarters of Chicago-based Marine Reserve 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment. He spends an hour or two writing the messages he then sends to the family coordinator in each of the battalion's companies, including Golf Company based in Madison and Fox Company based in Milwaukee. They, in turn, send them to family members.
But they're reaching a much wider audience through the Internet as family members forward them to friends who pass them on to others. Smith said he averages 300 messages each week from strangers who have been touched by his e-mails.
Though Marines are tough guys who cultivate the image of stone-faced warriors, Smith often writes unashamedly of weeping for his troops.
"The tears are literally falling on to my desk. I love every one of these guys," he said in a recent satellite phone interview from Iraq.
"The way I struggle through this is - their families deserve nothing less. No matter how emotionally painful it is for me, it's not one-tenth of what their families are going through."
On Oct. 15, Smith wrote about the death of Lance Cpl. Daniel Wyatt, 22, of Caledonia, a member of Fox Company. Wyatt was killed in the central Iraq city of Yusufiyah - a community in the insurgent heartland called "The Triangle of Death" - by an improvised explosive device, the weapon of choice for insurgents who remotely detonate mortar shells and other bombs as American troops travel past.
"My command security element and myself personally recovered Daniel's body and escorted him back to the forward operating base, and then onto the helicopter for the beginning of his final ride home. I cannot even begin to express to you the soul touching sight of combat hardened Marines, encrusted with weeks of sweat and dust, who have daily been engaged in combat, coming to complete and utter solemnity and respect in the handling of the body of one of their own. It puts on display a level of brotherly love you just cannot see anywhere else."
Coping with the deaths of 10 of his men would be difficult anywhere, but in a war zone, there's the added burden of staying focused on the tasks of his battalion.
"I'll never be on the Oprah Winfrey show because the whole concept of closure is a bunch of crap. Those 10 Marines I've lost will be in my thoughts every single day for the rest of my life," Smith said.
A few days before Christmas, Fox Company suffered two more losses when Lance Cpl. Richard Warner, 22, of Waukesha, and Pfc. Brent T. Vroman, 21, of Oshkosh, were killed on a foot patrol when an explosive device planted inside a parked vehicle was detonated in an outdoor market.
"The very market where local people once conducted business under the constant threat of kidnapping and beheading was once again a bustling town market, thanks to the security provided by the Warriors of Fox Company. For an instant, that security was shattered by the concussion of an explosion, and two of our wonderful Marines lost their lives, but not their spirit. For in true Fox Company fashion, they patrol that market today, and at the end of this week conducted a massive helicopter assault into a previously unpatroled area."
Later in the e-mail, he talked about becoming overwhelmed with grief as he listened to Fox Company members talk about Vroman and Warner at a memorial service.
"I saw some of the toughest Marines I have ever known shedding tears and talking of the importance of holding the hands and stroking the heads of their fallen friends and of their UNDYING love for them. Well, we know it all too well, that brotherhood shortened by the loss of blood, is best repaid by completion of the mission for which the blood was let. AND WE WILL DO NO LESS."
Smith, 40, is an Indiana State Patrol trooper from Indianapolis. He spends what little free time he has lifting dumbbells and watching DVDs.
It's not difficult for him to think of things to write each week. If his men haven't suffered any casualties that week, he'll write about missions his Marines are undertaking and other developments since his last e-mail.
He doesn't sugarcoat. He's brutally honest about what's happening.
On Nov. 14, after writing about the death of Fox Company member Cpl. Brian Prening, 24, of Plymouth, as well as a member of a Waukegan, Ill.-based Weapons Company, he talked about the enemy.
"We seek justice, not vengeance, but we will continue to unleash righteous fury on the EVIL and COWARDLY enemy that we face. To demonstrate the cowardice of the enemy we face, let me relay one event from the battle that occurred on Friday, 12 November. During the enemy attack of one of our units, engaged elements of the unit observed several of the enemy run into a building in an attempt to take cover from the deadly Marine fire. An adjust fire mission of artillery was called and cleared and after the first round fell, adjustments were called in. Immediately prior to the subsequent mission, which would have ensured the destruction of the enemy personnel, an immediate CHECK FIRE was called by the Unit Cmdr, which ensures the mission is not fired. I immediately asked for the reason of the check fire, and was advised that a woman and child ran into the building. Now, we have seen enough of this enemy to know that THEY SUMMONED THE WOMAN AND CHILD INTO THE BUILDING UNDER THREAT OF DEATH, KNOWING THAT WE WOULD NO LONGER FIRE.
"That may seem frustrating, and it is. But, it is right and proper, and demonstrates the level of professionalism and compassion of these amazing Marines! And, it shows the cowardly and evil nature of the enemy. They run to Mosques, hospitals and houses every time the engagement begins to get away from them, as it always does when they challenge the ferocity of the Mad Ghosts."
Mad Ghosts. It's the nickname the battalion has gotten from the terrorists, Smith said. The unit's interpreters told him of television news reports that mentioned the U.S. Marines that were like a bunch of mad ghosts because it seems like they don't sleep and are everywhere.
"I said we'll take that and we'll wear that with pride," said Smith, who signs his e-mails "Mayhem from the Heartland" or, as the terrorists say, "The Mad Ghosts." The heartland phrase is a nod to the battalion's roots from Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.
Family members anxiously wait for the e-mails.
Sharon Semrow, of Mukwonago, is the Fox Company's volunteer coordinator. Her husband, Jeff, is a staff sergeant in the company. She said Smith's uplifting messages are a source of comfort for families, particularly since they often don't hear from their loved ones for several weeks.
"The ones where he speaks of openly crying for our fallen Marines always hits hard," Semrow said. "He's not afraid to say he wept and he cried. That just means a lot to us. We know he's a person, not just a commander. He's got feelings and he cares."
Barbara Wentworth, Golf Company's coordinator, said Smith's messages give families a different view of the war than what they see and hear from the media. Her son, Cpl. Andy Wentworth, 23, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student, is in the unit.
Wentworth said journalists dwell on deaths and bombings instead of writing about all the good American forces are doing in Iraq.
"There's been extremely high quality interaction between the Marines and the town people - that doesn't get reported often," said Wentworth, who lives in Wales.
In Smith's Christmas letter, he talked about how the Marines were celebrating the holiday far from home.
"I always try to shoot straight with the families of 2/24, and this update will be no different. I know some of the Marines are openly thinking about the Christmas season, while others keep 'the stiff upper lip' and pretend it is just going to be another day. Well, . . . I am bright enough to know, and sharp enough to see, this time of year is dealing a hefty blow to my beloved Marines. The weight of not being at home with their families, during this most family oriented of seasons has them a bit down. I know that many are adrift with thoughts of how Christmas WOULD be spent if they were not in Iraq. I know they long for the sights, hunger for the tastes and yearn for the touch of loved ones. They imagine the warmth that tingles from within when seeing the light of a child's face when opening a toy. They visualize about the look in a spouse's eyes, so intent that it says 'I love you' without a single spoken word! All these things race through their minds at dizzying speed, for they race through mine as well."
The military doesn't order commanders to write e-mails to family members, though it's not uncommon for them to do so.
Smith is often asked how he finds the time to write the e-mails, but he says he can accomplish a lot while working 20-hour days.
However, the technology can sometimes be a burden, he said.
"The double-edged sword is on expectations," he said. "Because people have become so connected to cell phones and e-mail, when their loved one doesn't have access or time to communicate, they get frustrated."
In his Nov. 4 e-mail, he talked about missing his children on Halloween and the pain he felt because he couldn't take them trick-or-treating. He said he cried when he saw digital photos sent by his wife of his daughters in their Halloween costumes.
"Quite frankly, I find myself doing that a lot over here, as raw and deep emotion is as constant a companion as our rifles and armor. So, I know this had to be an especially hard week for the families without your loved one. Again, all I can do is continue to tell you HOW MUCH your sacrifice is appreciated, and assure you that you are CONSTANTLY on the minds of your loved ones. The only joy that comes as close to witnessing the birth of a child or your wedding day, is mail call in a War zone. The Marines light up like kids on Christmas morning. We go above and beyond in mail delivery, and to see the look on the Marines' faces is worth its weight in gold."
Like many military members serving in Iraq, Smith is critical of the national media's handling of the Iraq war. That's another reason why he sends weekly e-mails - to give the families his take on the war.
"There's frustration in combat, but our single source of frustration is the story the national media tries to sell," he said.
"They could not be more wrong. They don't get it. That's frustrating and knowing our families are subjected to that on a 24-hour basis is frustrating. I try to counter what the families are being barraged with from the negative side of this conflict."
The Dec. 19 e-mail mentioned doubts that sneak into Smith's thoughts whenever one of his Marines dies. Like anyone else, he sometimes asks whether the price is worth it, but then his thoughts turn to God, America and the Marine Corps, he wrote:
"I was asked recently by a reporter from the NY Times, 'What is an unacceptable price? How many lives are we willing to shed to achieve 'victory.' You see, he was fishing, fishing for how this Battalion of Marines that he had spent much time with could be so enthusiastic about their mission. Fishing to find the mythical 'tipping point' where our will and spirit would be crushed, and we would whine about wanting to go home and get out of Iraq. Fishing for what it would take for us to break.
"I thought about my answer, and I thought that although I sensed he was fishing, I also knew there was profound sincerity in his question and that he pained as well at our loss of life. I thought about all these things and I answered: one. That's right, one. One is the number of Americans that is an 'unacceptable price.' One is the tipping point at which we are unwilling to pay. When one American life is lost, we have achieved the 'tipping point.
"However, it is the opposite tipping point of what so many think it should be. You see, these Marines are warriors, and all in the positive sense that that word means, and has meant since the dawn of man. They are the sheepdogs that keep the wolf at bay. And as long as one American has lost their life to any form of enemy, then we have reached the tipping point, and the sheepdog must be deployed and protect the sheep.
In an e-mail sent on New Year's Eve, Smith reflected on 2004, the year that his battalion of 1,200 men left their civilian lives behind and spent several months training in California before shipping out to Iraq.
It was the year Smith discovered what combat was like for a military commander.
"It will be the year I learned a soul searing pain that knows no equal. It will be the year I learned that it is possible to cry an uncountable number of tears and still not shrivel up and blow away in the wind. It will be the year that I said goodbye and I love you to 10 warriors who fell in battle. It will be the year that 10 of my sons went home to the gentle heart and healing hands of their Savior. It will be the year that 10 families had their remaining years forever altered by the violence of an insane, incomprehensible enemy! But, because I was honored to have shared time and space with these 10 HEROES, it will forever be my favorite year."
From the Jan. 23, 2005, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel