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September 16, 2014

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WAR:

How three Iraq tours changed one marine

As country began questioning war, so did a man who was fighting it

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Steve Marcus

Christopher Gallagher joined the Marine Corps in May 2001 when he was a senior in high school. He says his mom, Catherine Jackson, was worried, even though it was a time of peace. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he and those he was training with sensed war was coming.

Now home, a veteran questions the war

Gallagher is shown during one of this three tours in Iraq. Gallagher has the letters he sent home, and he has those he wrote that were never sent -- those that would have been sent had he died. Launch slideshow »

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  • Christopher Gallagher talks about serving in Iraq and writing home.
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  • Catherine Jackson, Gallagher’s mother, talks about receiving her son’s letters while he was away at war.
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The new year will bring a presidential administration that has vowed to wind down the war in Iraq. Christopher Gallagher of Las Vegas fought in the invasion and did two additional combat tours. He shared his experience in letters home during the war, and in recent interviews.

This is what he would remember when he got back: the cramped foxhole, the stench of his unwashed body, MRE menu item No. 2, Jamaican pork chop.

He would remember the way the sand of the Kuwaiti desert would drift into his eyes, his ears, everything, giving him reason to clean his weapon twice a day as he waited to cross the border.

He would remember calling his mom, nervous but proud, after finding out in January 2003, at the end of holiday leave, that he would be going to Iraq.

Iraq.

What would he remember about Iraq?

Friends he lost. Survivor’s guilt. He would remember how Iraqis lined the streets to cheer his arrival in Baghdad, and how, later, the people of Fallujah just wanted him to leave. He would remember how different he was when it all began. At the start of this journey, he was in favor of the war.

This is Christopher Gallagher’s story.

Christopher Gallagher, U.S. Marine Corps corporal, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. Service in Iraq: 2003, the invasion; 2004, Haditha Dam; 2005, Fallujah.

• • •

Apr. 2, 2003 — “I am writing this letter from a fighting hole, behind my machine gun. I am fine for now. How is everyone back home?

“The first couple of days the Iraqi soldiers were surrendering by the hundreds. I have heard reports of American POWs being murdered. What have you heard? The first hundred hours of this war I was awake. It is hard finding time to sleep out here.”

This letter is from Gallagher’s first deployment. It was the first time he had ever traveled overseas. He wrote his family (“Dear Family, Mom, Dad, Matt, Joel, etc.”) in Farmingdale, N.Y., where he grew up before moving to Las Vegas in 2006.

The note was on military stationery — a single sheet of paper carrying the Marine Corps emblem: eagle, globe and anchor.

• • •

In the invasion of Iraq, Gallagher’s battalion fought from the town of Safwan on the Kuwaiti border through Basra and onto Baghdad. He didn’t shower for two months.

Fellow Marines secured oil fields and airports. Gallagher’s job was to establish radio communications and conduct security operations, “a machine gun post set up on top of a hill, or something like that, guarding a small area around yourself,” he recalls.

Gallagher’s battalion was the first Marine unit to enter Baghdad, and he remembers it well: “The people invaded the streets and were lining the streets of Baghdad, saying, ‘Saddam bad, Bush good.’ At the time we were considered liberators.”

He saw people everywhere, watching, cheering. But Gallagher couldn’t talk to them. That was off limits.

The day after his battalion took Baghdad, he sat down for breakfast at the Palestine Hotel with reporters, including an Iraqi woman about his age, a graduate of Baghdad University.

He remembers the meal — pita bread with tea and honey. But he can’t quite recall the specifics of what they discussed.

Gallagher was 20.

That was back when the Palestine housed journalists who came to cover the war, 2 1/2 years before a truck bomb shook the building.

Who knows what happened to those people Gallagher met at the hotel? That Iraqi journalist, where is she now? Maybe she is still covering the war. Maybe she fled her country. Maybe she’s dead.

• • •

Part of what Gallagher remembers about Iraq comes from photographs. Snapshots like the one taken in 2003 of Gallagher and eight members of his platoon, posing on the concrete roof of a building in Baghdad.

Behind them rise thick columns of smoke, black and tilted, drifting across the smoldering city.

Five years later, sitting in his Las Vegas living room, Gallagher points out that he is the only one in the picture wearing a helmet.

In Iraq, he was always careful, always on the lookout. He became, in his words, “less trusting of humanity.” In that way, the war stayed with him even after he returned home.

Back in Vegas, he says he is still “hypervigilant, always more cautious. Kind of like — in a way, almost like a minor paranoia. I’m less trusting of people, because the people over there, they smile at you one minute, and the next day they’ll be shooting at you.”

Even so, despite the nerves and fear, in 2003 Gallagher was optimistic about the war.

Writing home in on April 2, he told his family the weather had been comfortable. He wished his mom a happy birthday, said he was thinking that the two of them and his grandma could visit Atlantic City when he got back.

He finished his letter: “Tell everyone I will see them soon after the Marines have killed Saddam and the war is over.”

• • •

At home, Americans watched the siege of Baghdad on CNN, marveling at the fireworks display — the buildings exploding, the red and yellow tracer rounds flying across the sky like shooting stars.

Magazines and newspapers carried pictures of the carnage, bodies floating in water, refugees fleeing.

Gallagher’s mother, Catherine Jackson, worried, unable to watch the news while he was abroad.

“I became very depressed,” she remembers. “I checked the mailbox every day, religiously. I cried every day, religiously. I was just worried about him and his health. Would I get him home? Would he come home? And when he did come home, would he come home in one piece? I didn’t know what to expect.”

To her, Gallagher’s letters meant a lot. They meant that somewhere thousands of miles away, her son was still alive.

• • •

Meals, Ready-to-Eat.

Gallagher describes Thai chicken: “A bowl of snot with some water chestnuts, little pieces of chicken.”

Of MREs in general: “I remember them all, all very unfondly ... It comes in a sealed package. And imagine a piece of chicken in there. It looks like a piece of chicken, I don’t know if it is. They had a variety of food, but none of it was good for you. It had so many preservatives in it.”

He concluded that the only good thing that came in those rations was the candy — Skittles, Charms or M&Ms. Marines would trade with one another, Skittles for M&Ms and vice versa. Charms, considered bad luck, ended up in the garbage.

• • •

MREs aside, living conditions at Haditha Dam were good in 2004.

Gallagher slept in a bunk bed, lifted weights, showered twice a week, sometimes even with hot water. His family sent Snickers, cigarettes and powdered Country Time pink lemonade.

In March, he wrote to his mother, saying he’d received her package. The postscript reminded her that he smoked Parliament Lights.

The message was scrawled in black ink on the back of a postcard bearing the image of the front page of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes from April 11, 2003. The headline, “Baghdad falls to U.S. forces,” ran large down the right-hand side, set against the iconic photograph of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down.

“Do you remember this day almost a year ago when Marines from task force 3/4 took the statue down,” Gallagher wrote.

At Haditha Dam, he was a radio operator, part of a skeleton crew of Marines guarding the dam. Most of the men in his battalion had been called to fight in the siege of Fallujah. Some never made it back. He lost a couple of friends.

“One minute they’re there. One minute they’re gone.”

• • •

Some of the letters Gallagher wrote were never mailed. But he held on to them. These were his “final letters” — the ones his family would have received had he died.

“To Shannon,” one such note to his older sister begins. “Hi I am sorry for this tragic event you are going through, you helped raise me when mom and dad were not around ... All you have to do is close your eyes and pray, I will be there. I wanted to be a good uncle for James and Alyssa. I would have liked to see them grow up and live a good life.”

And to Gallagher’s younger brother: “I wish I could be there for you Matt. I love you so much and you will never know how much the time that we have spent together hanging out since I enlisted meant to me. If you have noticed all the extra gifts I have gotten for you, it was to try to make up for my absence.”

In what would have been his final letter to his mother and father, Gallagher wrote that he loved them, that he’d watch over them in heaven alongside Grandpa Rich, Grandma, Grandpa Jackson and Uncle Joe.

“Let everyone know I died with honor, keeping all Americans free from foreign dictatorships,” he wrote.

“I was not always the best kid to have, I joined the Corps to straighten my life out and find direction. Mom you were my best friend and were a great emotional support. Dad you were always there, from the time you taught me to bowl until I got on the bus for Parris Island.

“As I write this letter and look back on my life I only remember how much i enjoyed living it. They say ‘Everyone dies but not everyone lives.’ I just hope I turned out to be a respectable and upstanding person like you raised me to be.”

Gallagher showed the letter to his mother. She read it once and couldn’t read it again.

• • •

By the end of his third deployment, Gallagher says, “I was wondering what we were doing there. Because we were essentially driving around just waiting to be blown up. Nobody wanted to be there anymore, everybody just wanted to come home.”

The Iraqis, Gallagher says, didn’t want the troops there either. He remembers the disgust, the anger in their eyes.

“There was no point to any of the patrols,” he says. “We were told that al-Qaida was causing all the trouble, but yet it was mostly the people living in these towns. It was Iraqis.”

In Fallujah, Gallagher was a radio operator for an 81 mm mortar platoon. He worked at a checkpoint outside the city, a job he likened to herding cattle.

Everyone coming through had to have his retinas scanned. Everyone had to get an ID card. Everyone had to be searched.

Gallagher spent eight hours on duty, eight hours off. When he wasn’t manning the checkpoint, he patrolled in vehicles and on foot, sweating under a scorching Iraqi sun.

He searched homes, feeling no guilt, no remorse. He grew angry when he gave information on a firefight to his higher ups only to find out later that “the report that they filed was not what I said.”

He wondered why he didn’t have proper armor. During his first deployment, he remembers, he didn’t have plates in his vest to protect him from bullets and shrapnel. Through his last deployment, he said, his Humvees had what the troops called “hillbilly armor,” a piece of metal in the shape of a door hanging off the side of the vehicle.

“I was pissed off. I was in Iraq,” Gallagher remembers. “I supported the war and supported the troops. I thought they were one and the same.” But, he said, “I didn’t want to be there anymore.”

He slept on a cot in a wooden hut housing 20. Fellow soldiers on patrol found propane tanks and 30- or 40-gallon drums and used them to fashion a makeshift shower.

Once a week, he got hot food — maybe prime rib, maybe beef stew. It didn’t make him sick like the other meals or the dirty water he said the military gave him.

• • •

Gallagher is 26 now, no longer on active duty. He has been home, on U.S. soil, for three years.

He has no regrets. In May 2001, as a senior in high school in Farmingdale, N.Y., he signed up to join the Marines to see the world, to “become someone.”

His mother worried, afraid of what might happen even though it was a time of peace. On Sept. 11, Gallagher was at boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. He and his fellow recruits, training together in the humid southern summer, knew war was coming.

Looking back, Gallagher says the Marine Corps made him a better person.

He is more focused, more disciplined. One of the worst students in his high school class, he pulled a 3.5 grade-point average while studying at the College of Southern Nevada on the G.I. Bill. He left school to learn to be an electrician. He makes good money, helps support his mom.

He can take direction but also has leadership skills. Along the way, in Iraq, he made lifelong friends, some people he normally wouldn’t hang out or talk to. What brought them together?

“We were willing to die for each other.”

• • •

Gallagher was once in favor of the war. He remembers that well.

How much things have changed.

After returning to America, he read about the war, watched movies about the war, talked to friends about the war that left him with so many memories.

No weapons of mass destruction were found. Gallagher felt the country’s leaders had lied to him.

He learned as many U.S.-paid civilian contractors were stationed in Iraq as troops. He read about how war brings profit, raining fortune upon security companies, food companies ... the list goes on.

He believes the government was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, a view many people consider radical. But Gallagher believes it’s the truth. People like to believe in what’s easiest to believe, he says. He has read more about the terrorist attacks than many fellow Americans.

And the soldiers, the Marines, the airmen, the young people like Gallagher who fought abroad?

Gallagher felt the country and the Veterans Affairs Department abandoned them when they came back.

A friend of his who was shot in the leg saw disability benefits reduced. Other servicemen and servicewomen struggled to get care for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“These are people, that their friends blew up in front of them,” Gallagher says. “They still have a lot of death and destruction (on their minds), and they’re just messed up.”

He is disgusted.

“The Defense Department recently came out with a memo saying all troops must remain apolitical ... saying that you’re a soldier, you have no opinions, you don’t count. I think soldiers should have more of a voice, be able to speak out.”

So in September, Gallagher co-founded a Las Vegas chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

• • •

Some of Gallagher’s memories of Iraq are hazy, as if obscured by bleached sheets of hot desert sand. Others are clear. Some of what he remembers he won’t talk about.

For him, the war is over, now. He won’t be going back.

But Iraq will stay with him, always — in his photographs, in his letters, in this story, his story.

Charlotte Hsu can be reached at 259-8813 or at [email protected]

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