National Catholic Register

News

A Marine’s Story

As Congress continues to debate the war in Iraq, one Catholic U.S. Marine tells about the mission there.

BY LAURA NELSON

REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

April 15-21, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/10/07 at 10:00 AM

 

As debate continued in Washington over whether to bring the troops home from Iraq, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the American security plan in the country is working.

McCain, a 2008 presidential hopeful, said on a recent visit to Baghdad that there is “very cautious” reason for optimism. He told reporters April 1 that he believed the American public was not receiving “the full picture about what’s happening.”

Lance Cpl. Kevin Gallmeier Jr. shares that view. Gallmeier, 21, a member of St. Mary of Celle Church in Berwyn, Ill., served eight months in al Anbar province in Iraq and is now stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. He is scheduled to return to Iraq in the fall.

Why did you become a Marine?

I wanted to serve my country. I believe in my country. The school benefits were attractive, but mainly to serve my country. I like to be part of making a difference in the world and to protect the innocent civilians in Iraq … especially the children.

What did your fellow Marines see as your mission in Iraq?

To maintain peace, to train the Iraqi military and police so that they can eventually take over their own country, and to overcome the insurgents who are creating chaos.

Was your idea of mission different from the “official” mission?

No. Our mission was to help the civilians, to show them they can do things on their own. They are used to being told what to do under a dictator.

How did the Iraqi people receive you?

A little more than half were kind of standoffish and scared. The insurgents would learn that they would be friendly to us and they would punish them. The rest would come to us for help. They were friendly but didn’t know how to approach us. We were carrying weapons in our hands.

How about the children?

They loved us, especially when we went on what I call “humanitarian patrols” and distributed candy, toys, T-shirts, notebooks and pencils, etc. The children speak English pretty well because of the American presence there for the past four years.

What was the most surprising thing you experienced in your first weeks in Iraq — something that you felt you really weren’t prepared for?

How smart the terrorists have gotten. How they study us. The long waits between attacks during which they study us. They fire, then they wait to keep us guessing. I was surprised about their capabilities, considering their limited resources.

Do you believe the Iraqis really want to form some kind of democracy?

I would say they really don’t understand what a democracy is — they’ve never seen one. All they have experienced is dictatorship and war. But they want a positive change.

How would you describe a typical day?

It’s extremely hot, especially during the summer. When you’re out on patrol, on a mission, you may not take a shower for weeks. You hope you stay alive today. You take one day at a time. I would thank God each day that I was alive. You had to stay focused, force yourself to not become nervous. Keep your mind on the mission.

I really prayed a lot. I can’t really explain in words how it is over there. … There is a lot of confusion. We often don’t know who is a civilian or who’s bad. There are long pauses without action and then lots of action.

Do you feel the American people really understand what our troops are doing in Iraq? Are they getting the whole picture?

No, I don’t think they are. The reporters aren’t embedding with the troops anymore, and we don’t want them to because it’s too dangerous now. Also, there seems to be a media bias. At any rate, the average American doesn’t see a lot of what’s happening.

My message to the American people is this: Please try to understand we are making a difference over there. We are doing our best to make a difference. We will win in the end. I strongly believe that we need to have patience. We’re going to be there for a very long time.

The insurgents are willing to die for their cause. This is the worst kind of enemy. I know many Americans don’t have patience. We need to have patience and the support of the American people in order to win. I believe in what we are doing. I think it’s an honor to serve my country. If you support me, you should support my mission.

What role did your faith play in your work in Iraq?

I feel my faith kept me alive. I got closer to my faith. I learned to respect life more, not to take it for granted. I also learned not to take America for granted and to be grateful and thankful for where I live and for the freedom I have. Over there, there’s nothing but chaos, desert and war. It’s a Third World country (you can’t drink the water, there’s trash in the street). There are rich people and poor, nothing much in between.

I never met an Iraqi Christian, but the Muslim Iraqi people working with us respected our faith. They consider Jesus a prophet.

There were only two military chaplains (one a Catholic priest) for 500 soldiers. We had Mass and Communion once a month. One of the highlights of my deployment was being a sponsor for a fellow Marine who became a Catholic in Iraq before he came home. He did all his preparation there. It was a real inspiration.

What can we as fellow American Catholics do to support our troops in Iraq?

We always look forward to packages of goodies and letters. We are disappointed when mail call comes and there is no package or letter for us. When we hear from Americans back home we have the courage to get through another day. We are allowed to wear a cross and carry small rosaries or holy medals, and many soldiers and Marines are Catholic, so people can send these to us.

We can always use baby wipes, foot powder, socks (white), reading material (religious, sports, newspaper articles), puzzles, lotion, lip balm, disposable cameras and phone cards. Prayer cards and personal notes are great, too.

Just knowing that fellow American Catholics remember us and keep us in their prayers makes a huge difference.

Laura Nelson is based in

Berwyn, Illinois.