Christian Bussler kneels in front of his Marines in a photo taken after a mission in Iraq. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Stafford: Author and his Marines were in the service of angels

This is the second of a two-part column about No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor, 1992 Enon High School graduate Christian Bussler’s memoir of three tours of duty in Iraq with a Marine Mortuary Affairs unit. Bussler will discuss his book at a 6 p.m. Nov. 7 program in the main Clark County Library.

At the beginning of his third tour of duty in Iraq, then Marine Staff Sgt. Christian Bussler had to define his relationship with angels, the name Marines used for the soldiers whose remains they processed, refrigerated in black vinyl bags and placed in silver transfer cases for return to their families in the United States.

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“Do we keep the angel disassociated as much as possible to minimize the after-effects of such work?” he writes in his memoir, No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor, “Or do we embrace the angles’ stories, honoring their sacrifice and revealing our own true feelings of empathy to those unit members present?”

His answer was announced in one of his first orders as platoon commander of the Mortuary Affairs Collection Point at Al Taqaddum Air Base in late September of 2005: That every transfer case for every angel would make the trip home wrapped in an American flag that had been freshly ironed and starched.

“Marines who had lost their lives in the first battle of Fallujah came through this very building and were sent home in transfer cases with flags that were wrinkled, creased and with a white cord just tied on haphazardly over the flag,” he writes, “and that pissed me off.”

Just as he returned for his second tour of duty to fight not so much for God and county as the safety of his brothers and sisters in arms, Bussler’s third and most taxing tour was dedicated to a specific cadre of people.

In a recent interview, he said that whether he was reclaiming shattered remains while on the processing floor at the base or in the cramped quarters of a damaged fighting vehicle in the field, his thoughts were the same: “I’m not working for the Marine Corps. I’m working for that person’s family. I wanted them to know we were willing to die to make sure their son made it home, ever single flake of bone that we could give to them. We tried to get them back to their families so they could have an open-casket funeral.”

In recounting the nightmare carrying out that mission involved, Bussler is as tactful as possible. And, as is the case throughout the book, he juxtaposes lyrical natural beauty with the ugliness leftovers of violence, here after arriving by helicopter on a mission to Camp Ramadi.

“Tiny tufts of grass in the corners of the maintenance lot bobbed up and down upon the cool gusts of wind as if their spines were made of clockwork springs. In the middle of all this picturesque beauty lay a sickening black smudge of charred butchery of a burned-out M2-A2 Bradley fighting vehicle. There were still three soldiers unaccounted for, buried among that twisted, burned mess of steel and wire. It stole my breath, it broke my heart.”

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Heartbreak switches to rage as Bussler notices a lone figure on top of the vehicle, throwing broken parts and, in Bussler’s view, violating the “hallowed ground” his angels occupy. Cursing and charging the vehicle while thinking of “a bare throat and a pumping carotid artery,” Bussler recognizes the markings of a colonel, a character who seems the balancing opposite to Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now.” While the fictional Kilgore turns nearly mystical at the scent of napalm in the morning, the real life colonel is ignited with grief.

“Why? Why? I am tired of this,” he yells. “As hard as I try, they keep dying! My boys, we have to get my boys out. Help me get my boys out.”

Bussler and his team do that the only way they can, he writes, “One section, one bucket and one shovelful of debris at a time.”

“The difficult thing,” he continues, “was that there was nothing recognizable left to document. The Bradley had been literally blown apart from the floor up, and then the lightweight aluminum composite armor melted on top of itself …. As if a river of wreckage were frozen in time.”

In spite of the use of masks, the nose hairs of his Marines filter the cornstarch-like dust of gypsum mixed with human remains sent through sieves and work in a world in which blood is caramelized, “flesh resembles burned rubber or wood, and bone can flake and splinter into tiny pieces.”

In that world, they are sustained by the gratitude of those who served with the angels; celebrate each time they discover dog tags that can be returned to the shocked family; and draw energy from the willingness with which everyone seems to try to help them carry out their onerous work.

On the other hand, his high stress job is made nearly unbearable by the “toxic leadership” of the anonymous major under whom he served. Already in hell, he has a boss from the same place.

First, the major’s order that the unit refuse to handle the body of a dead Iraqi causes a major incident on base when someone walks by the vehicle holding it. Second, the major orders the team to identify the remains of Iraqi ally dead by impossible-to-read faxed photos, leading to predictable consequences when families discover they have the wrong remains. Finally, after Bussler endures a hellish ride back to safety beneath eight bodies collected from a destroyed vehicle in dangerous territory, the major upbraids him for doing the job because another unit was supposed to have provided security on scene.

Personal chaos increases his burden. Having become more superstitious through the course of his service, Bussler is convinced he will die on the mission he is about to embark on and comes apart.

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“I was shaking from cold, shaking from the declining adrenaline, shaking from the overconsumption of coffee and shaking from the terrible fear of my impending death.”

When he calls home to tell his wife, she is predictably shaken and angered as well with the result that Bussler is inundated by a cascade of regret as he departs.

Eventually, Bussler also confronts the limits of his ability to comfort others when the grieving friends of his angels showed their gratitude for his work by inviting him to a memorial service.

“My spine stiffened instantly, and a bursting bubble of emotion welled up inside my chest. … I didn’t even say good-bye; I just turned around and left. I just didn’t want to humanize the carnage, to put a beautiful smiling face up on the horrible burning death that we had spent three days chipping out of solid metal.”

The final blow comes with the arrival of an angel who has a familiar face, Marine M.Sgt. Brett Angus.

“Time slowed, yet seemed to speed up. My world had been turned inside out or, to better describe it, transformed into a curious kaleidoscope, with the center moving at a slow pace and the peripherals moving faster than what I could comprehend. My worst nightmare had come true. I was about to process a friend.”

In the same moment he feels the added burden of leadership.

“I didn’t want to seem impacted by this; I wanted to be a pillar of strength for the others to look upon and be encouraged for the situation ahead.”

But it was too much.

“Never had I seen anyone in such shape, so catastrophically shattered …. I instantly felt myself age. In a flash, I felt as if all my youth and vigor for life had been sapped from me …. In those 120 seconds, I knew that I never wanted to devote myself to such ugly work again; in those 120 seconds I knew that I would never, ever be the same.

Bussler wrote “No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor” to honor those he worked with and served. He also wrote it in an attempt to free himself from PTSD in which he seemed as solidly embedded as an angel in the molten remains of a composite vehicle.

He started writing at the suggestion of a Vietnam Veteran he was drinking with at a Kettering VFW Post, just as he’d been drinking in his garage at home and strumming the same chords he’d learned on the guitar he took up in hopes of distracting himself.

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While showing successive rewrites of his story to his wife, “I started getting my writing voice,” he said. “I tried it in different ways” often envisioning the scenes from different camera angles.

As he worked out the 13 essential stories in the book, Bussler became more cerebral than he thought possible, not because it was his goal but because it was required for him to carry out his mission to honor his Marines and the angels.

Along the way, Bussler struggled with the question of whether he should “lift the veil” on grisly side of war but eventually saw the situation from a different angle. “I needed to write this story because it’s the truth; it’s what happened. It’s the first time that anybody’s put this down for history’s sake.”

Because he had “really cared for my Marines” and “truly believed I was the right man for the job,” he felt he was the right person to tell their story.

“I was really nervous at first about releasing the book,” Bussler said – worried that in telling the story of “somebody’s father, son brother or husband” he might add to a family’s trauma.

“What made me feel great is that people contacted me” after publication, “and they thanked me for it.”

Bussler, who now lives in Harveysville but visits his mother here regularly, said those thanks coincided with his own sense of progress in his battle with PTSD – one that for eight years kept him from sharing a queen size bed with his wife because the space seemed as cramped as the inside of a destroyed Bradley vehicle.

As he continues his recovery, he is heartened to know that academics are using his book to teach about the dynamics of PTSD. It gives Bussler hope that more people who survived the war can be freed from the river of wreckage in which many continue to swim.

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