Special to washingtonpost.com
Sunday, March 19, 2006 12:00 AM
Brian Onieal was deployed to Iraq on Jan. 4, 2004, and was posted to Al-Taqaddam, 6 miles west of Fallujah, in the Sunni Triangle that became a major staging point for insurgents in 2004. Onieal said his unit was attacked just about every day.
"There were always mortars and rockets coming in," he said, "I'd fly up to Al Asad, west of Baghdad, go for supplies, we'd make stops in Fallujah or Baghdad, a bunch of times we'd get shot at with small arms fire or rockets in the helicopter."
Onieal said Iraq helped him learn more about himself and his job. "You're working those long hours, you're on 24-hour alert, you have near-death experiences just about every day. You don't know if you're going to go home in a body bag, it changes your view of life in general."
Onieal mostly dealt with Iraqi civilians while he was deployed and said he found them to be "just like us."
"There were a lot on base to help out with wiring buildings and various jobs. We'd bring a bunch on base, 15 to 20, and they'd fill sandbags or do something so we could give them money. We wanted to pump money into the economy, give them a chance to make some money so they could feed their kids. An Iraqi male makes $5 a day on average. They have families they have to provide for. They're nice people. They joke around, they kid around. At lunch they'd bring in their food, we had our MREs. We would trade. It changed from not knowing to 'they're just like us.'"
Aside from the near-constant insurgent attacks, Onieal had a difficult time pinpointing a negative aspect of the experience. "It sucked over there. There were times I was up for 3 or 4 days straight. But it's my job, it's my duty to be over there. As much as things suck, seeing the dead bodies and smelling them, I can't really find a real negative experience. That comes with the territory, it's part of my job."
Morale was very high, he said, though Onieal and his fellow soldiers went through stints where they got on each other's nerves. "We know we have a purpose over there. We have a job to finish. If we don't do our jobs to the best of our abilities, we won't go home as quickly as we want to. There was a pilot, very nice gentleman, Lt. Col. Green, I saw just before he flew. He got shot and killed over Ramadi. I had just seen him; he got killed an hour later. They dedicated an episode of '24' [the TV show] to him. It gave me chills."
Onieal's scariest moment came at 5 a.m. one day at the end of July 2004 when he was awakened suddenly. "We'd get attacked early in the morning sometimes, they'd hit the flight line, the runway. All you hear is boom boom boom. You'd be semi-conscious, [but] you'd know we were getting attacked." On that morning, he said, "About 5 rockets hit within 100 yards of me. One actually hit a tent that was set up for a bunch of Marines that were coming over that night. They were within 12 hours of getting killed. If they were in that tent. After, you're sitting there and doing a body check: 'I still have my feet, I still have my legs." You're moving things around and checking."
To ease the tension Onieal and his unit would play cards, excercise or watch DVDs. "Alcohol would be good to settle the nerves, but when you're in a combat situation, somebody can get killed. Marines are very professional, we have a mission to accomplish. We won't let anything hinder our ability to do our jobs. You can get alcohol, there's a black market, but if I got caught drinking, all hell would break loose for you. It wasn't worth it."
Since his return Onieal has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sought the help of a counselor.
"I have a lot of sleepless nights, I get flashbacks. I get paranoid sometimes in crowds. But if I dwell on the negative aspects, I'm going to beat myself up. It's going to destroy me. I live a comfortable life. I'm on the fire department, they pay me well, I have my own place, my own car. My life is too good right now to hang onto all the negatives. I have bad times but i have to stay positive or it's going to destroy me emotionally."
-- As told to Washington Post editor Mary Hadar