When the War Comes Home

Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2006; 11:00 AM

A brutal tour in Iraq changed the Marines of Lima Company more than they could have imagined. Post writer Peter Slevin describes the months following their return to Ohio in his Oct. 30 story, "When the War Comes Home."

On Wednesday, Nov. 1 at 11 a.m. ET, Slevin was online to discuss the story.

The transcript follows:


Peter Slevin: Thanks for tuning in, and for reading about the Marines of Lima Company, 3/25. The Marines volunteered and put their lives on the line in Iraq, in western Anbar province, for seven months in 2005. They secured some rough turf and took large casualties, losing 23 men killed in action.

After they returned home in October 2005, to a huge welcome in Columbus, Ohio, a number of them shared with me and photographer Andrea Bruce, episodes from their transition to life back home. The story and a slideshow, along with audio, are posted on

The response to the story has been remarkable, particularly from veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, who said the experiences of the Lima men -- their pride, their encounters, their recollections of war, their difficult adjustment back home -- greatly mirrored their own. Many readers, too, have said how honored and grateful they are for Lima Company's service, and have asked how they can convey their gratitude.

Let's get to your questions and comments.


Arlington, VA: I read your article "When the war comes home" and I wanted to share with you something that rang true with me. You quoted Staff Sgt. Zierk as saying he was "trying to find out the importance of things here," he said. "You think about car payments and bills and arguments in the family and who's going where for the holidays. And you try to compare that with the importance of who's shooting a rifle at you."

As a firefighter who responded to the Pentagon on 9/11 I, along with thousands of other people were subjected to the fear of being under attack. Especially during the initial phases of the incident when we were evacuated numerous times because of reports that more aircraft were heading towards us. This situation has caused many of us to feel the same way as Staff Sgt. Zierk in the above quote and although we were far from harms way we still felt very vulnerable. Many of my friends and co-workers have gone through alot of what the Marines from Lima company are going through but we are all getting past this and it may comfort the Marines to know that we are all there for them and we appreciate their hard work and sacrifices. Thank you for bringing their story to the public and thank you to everyone who has served or is serving our country either home or abroad.

Peter Slevin: I appreciate your comment. The Ohio Marines are making it through, as Staff Sgt. Zierk's experience, and that of others, shows. Thanks for writing.


Baltimore, Md.: Congratulations on a moving and sensitive portrayal of these courageous Marine reservists. I wish there were more media reports that reflected such nuance and intimacy.

I was captivated by the story and--even more so--the photo/audio presentation that accompanied it.

Do you feel that coverage of men and women at war too often veers into one stereotype or another: whether it be victimhood or valor? Why don't we get more stories that capture both the horrors of war AND the startling bravery and dedication?

That the same guy who fears IEDs along Ohio highways would want to return to action shows so much about the strength and character of even these "part-time" Marines.

Peter Slevin: Thank you. When we embarked on the story, not knowing what we would find, or how willing the Marines would be to let us in, Andrea and I hoped to tell the story through the eyes and in the voices of the Marines themselves, keeping ourselves out of it as much as possible.

Writing about war and the warriors who fight it is always difficult, and I know what you mean about some media coverage not always doing justice to the people and the events. We were lucky to have the advantage of time, of getting to know the Marines a bit more deeply over time, and of space -- the ability in the Post and to tell at least a part of the story.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I read Michael Weisskopf's "Blood Brothers" yesterday. One thing I noted was how he mentioned that some of the wounded soldiers return with less fanfare than the unwounded. It seems we wish to hail our heroes but hide the fact that war means death and injury. The returnees get warm organized welcomes while the wounded return individually and often without much notice. What receptions did the wounded you interviewed find upon their return?

Peter Slevin: That's an interesting point. More than a dozen Lima Marines were wounded seriously enough to be sent home early, many of them unwillingly. In organizing the company's return to Columbus on Oct. 7, 2005, Lima leaders arranged for as many of the wounded as possible to be there when the Marines touched ground.

It was a powerful sight, returning Marines said, to see their friends waiting for them. A number of the wounded Marines said the same. Many of Lima's men have said that the solidarity of the company and the support of the city has meant more than they can convey.


Morningside, Md.: Why did this particular company lose so many Marines?

Peter Slevin: That's a difficult question to answer; in fact, I'm not sure it's answerable, though many ask. It's hard to believe that early in their tour they were known as "Lucky Lima."

One factor was simply that Lima Company's Marines were posted to some of the most violent, treacherous turf in all of Iraq. One part of the unit or another saw combat almost every day of their tour. They were involved in a host of significant joint operations, and the insurgents were tough adversaries.

Lima also lost men in two horrific roadside bombs, one in May 2005 and one in August 2005.


Arlington, Va.: What happens now? Is there no follow up counseling available for these men? And was this just a sampling of the men or is the whole company suffering?

Peter Slevin: Counseling is available, both informally through the company headquarters in Columbus, and through the Veterans Administration center there. Before the unit returned home, Doc Wentworth met with families and friends of the Marines to help them prepare, and he has arranged sessions with Marines and families since. The unit has also required Marines to complete physical and mental health assessments that are intended to guide the leadership in identifying problems before they happen.

This was just a sampling of Marines. We met some who are suffering more deeply and some who are adjusting well, as are some of the Marines in the story. The portraits of the men we featured were intended to offer slices of the larger picture; we knew we could not be comprehensive in a single story.


Washington, D.C.: Can you speak a bit about what you think the public can do to help. Throughout the entire war there has been no call for shared sacrifice at the highest levels. Why do you think that is and do you feel you were supported?

Peter Slevin: I didn't focus the story on the politics of the war or the right or wrong of the deployment to Iraq. Nor do the Marines tend to view things in those terms, at least with an outsider. I think Sgt. Andrew Taylor and Gunnery Sgt. Larry Bowman reflected that in the story.

The Marines, I believe, would say they felt impressively welcomed and supported when they arrived home. The sight of the roads lined with thousands upon thousands of people that October day is something they will never forget.

Once back in more normal surroundings, a number of the Marines said they found that their experience didn't often translate in conversations with friends, relatives, outsiders. Some people clearly did not support the mission -- Staff Sgt. Brian Taylor's fiancee told me she would sometimes ask people to back off, that he had just gotten home, that the questions or challenges were too personal, or too off-key.

One Marine, a friend of Staff Sgt. Zierk, remembers returning to Columbus: "After a day or two, it was, 'What do we do now?'"


Charlottesville, Va.: Re: "Why did they lose so many Marines?" I was over there at the same time (also a Marine). Those guys were given about three times as much territory to cover than they should have been. So instead of facing the enemy with a platoon (40-odd Marines), they did so with a squad of 13, etc. etc.

Great article. If you remain in contact with any of those Marines, please pass on an 'attaboy' for me.

Peter Slevin: Thanks for this. You are not alone in your assessment. Marine officers point out, for example, that Lima was replaced with a far larger contingent.


Washington, D.C.: The new recruits - were they at all frightened by the experience of the Iraq vets from Lima Company?

Peter Slevin: I don't have first-hand knowledge of this, but it is a good question. I spoke with a couple of squad leaders later who said some of the new guys were duly impressed and wondering if they would ever experience anything like it.


Charlotte, N.C.: Did you meet any Lima Co. soldier who became anti-war after the Iraq experience?

Peter Slevin: I did not. The Marines who opened up some space in their lives for Andrea and me remain very proud of their service, of having done their duty on behalf of the rest of us. We heard this theme over and over. They felt they made a difference in one corner of a brutal world.

One Marine said while I was talking with him recently that no one should judge the U.S. mission "unless you've been there and looked Iraqis in the eye and heard them say, 'We're safer tonight because the Americans are here."

You may be interested in a story I wrote a few months ago on two sets of parents of fallen Lima Marines who took very different tacks after their sons died, even as they continued to respect each other for the pain they have suffered. I'll see if we can post a link.


Rockville, Md.: My experience in Vietnam was in the brush one day and at home as a civilian a few days later. The dreams I had were unexpected, to say the least. Why not some support net to let people know what to expect?

Peter Slevin: There have been improvements since Vietnam, but experts and veterans alike agree there is more to do. I saw there was a conference in Chicago -- where I'm based -- a couple of weeks ago on just this issue.

_______________________ Bonded by Loss, Divided by War (Post, June 5, 2006)


Arlington, Va.: The nephew of a friend of mine is one of those in Lima Company who didn't make it home (he was one of the snipers killed in the rooftop ambush). Needless to say, these losses have had a devastating impact on the families. I just wanted to thank you for the article; you presented their stories with great sensitivity and respect. It's so important that we not forget these brave young men -- both those who survived and those who didn't.

How much time did you spend with these troops and their families? Have you been researching it for the past year? What do you see as the greatest risk for these young men as they move forward?

Peter Slevin: Thank you for that. The ambush of the six snipers was one of the roughest moments in a tough tour. The snipers worked very closely with Lima Company and many had close friends in the unit.

You may know that the parents of one of the snipers, who live in Cleveland, went ahead with his birthday party earlier this year, and invited all of his friends.

It's hard to say how much time we spent in all. I first wrote about Lima Company in May 2005 after they took their first casualties. I returned from time to time during the year after the Marines made it back from Iraq, while also reporting other stories from other states.


Washington, D.C.; : I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a very poor African country. Before we finished our service, they discussed "Re-entry Shock" with us, i.e., the readjustment of returning home. Reading the article reminded me of the readjustment shock that my fellow volunteers and I faced, e.g., the obscene wealth of the U.S.; children that aren't malnourished; people don't die and suffer from medical conditions that are easily treated; Americans lack of interest in foreign countries.

I can empathize with the people in the article, and I didn't have to address the challenges that they mention, like the IEDs, etc.

How much do the armed forces do to prepare them for their return?

Peter Slevin: I visited a Pentagon office last year where the Department of Defense continues to refine its protocols, mindful that the Iraq war poses a particular set of challenges -- notably the lack of front lines, the use of roadside bombs and mortars -- that makes life for many combat personnel especially tense.

V.A. counselors I interviewed for the story emphasized the importance of seeking out friends in the military, who understand, but also of getting out and about in social situations where the war is not the central issue.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Good morning, and thank you for your story. Just a comment:

I write to a Marine in Iraq ... it was just something arranged by the mother of a Marine reservist who works with me. She reported, from her son, that many, many Marines deployed (and I imagine this is true for all branches stationed over there) get no letters, no packages, etc. from home, for various reasons.

I write exactly about the little, meaningless stuff that goes on in my day: wrote a letter last afternoon & finished this morning about trick-or-treaters, what my cats are doing, basketball, etc. In a letter I'd gotten back in July, my Marine said, "It's so wonderful to hear just day-to-day normal life -- it's so different and it allows me, for ten minutes, to imagine being somewhere else."

But from your article, which I read avidly, the "somewhere else" when rotated back is likely to be something of a mirage, isn't it?

This is a "duh," I guess, but ... it's never going to be the same. And I wake up in the night thinking that there's no amount of thanks I can extend to these brave folks to make up for that ...

Peter Slevin: A mirage, perhaps in a way, but you have in the Marine's own words how much it means to him that you're there, and that you're writing.

I met one of the Lima Marines one day in central Ohio and we talked about that issue, the idea that home isn't quite what he had expected. He was munching a pork sandwich and drinking root beer.

He cast his arm in an arc and said, "We used to call this the real world. This isn't the real world. This is Disney World."


Brother of a wounded vet: Thanks for the article highlighting the struggles these young men face. My brother was seriously wounded in the Iraq fiasco but has faced it all with remarkable resiliency. As I've observed it, the military and supporting volunteer groups provide a plethora of services for vets to cope with the trauma. The marine at the center of your piece, Brill, needs serious counseling. I hope he takes advantage of the available programs. His command has some responsibility in this.

Peter Slevin: Thanks for your note.


Arlington, Va.: In response to the person who asked what the public can do to help, one thing that you can do is to provide active support to the troops who are now over there. There are many excellent troop support organizations available; I'll suggest (many BFSers supported troops from Lima Co. when they were deployed) and . Letting them know that people back home (no matter what their political beliefs) are thinking about them and care about them can make a big difference in their morale and their ability to get through each day.

Peter Slevin: These are great suggestions.

_______________________ The News From Iraq Hits Hard at Home (Post, May 14, 2005)


Peter Slevin: The hour has come and gone, but many thanks again for thinking of Lima Company's Marines and their comrades overseas and back at home. Here is a link to Andrea Bruce's slide show from Ohio, which is accompanied by audio of some of the Marines in the piece.


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