This is the first installment of a two-part review of ”No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor”, a memoir of three tours of duty in Iraq written by 1992 Greenon High School graduate and retired U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christian Bussler.
In December of 2002, Christian Bussler was delivering holiday mail along Springfield’s Arlington Avenue and imagining his family living some day in one of the spacious homes there when his postal supervisor, Greg Storts, drove up in a Grand Prix and said Bussler’s Marines reserve unit had called for him.
Three tours of duty and a dozen years of PTSD later, the 1992 Greenon High School graduate has written a memoir of his experiences in a Marine Mortuary Affairs (MA) unit during the Iraq War. Those who read “No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor” will think its title too mild for the story of a man who ends up with while processing a friend’s remains and leads a team that extracts fragments of American soldiers from the melted wreckage of exploded Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
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They also will own a book that stands not only as a lasting tribute to the service personnel he seeks to honor but an unblinkingly look at the Iraq war by a man who experienced it from the heady days of “Shock and Awe” to the infamous killing grounds of Al Anbar Province. Readers, furthermore, will learn from Bussler’s story why the PTSD that pursues many warriors is as natural and predictable as the echo that follows a blast.
Before describing his first tour of duty, Bussler reminds readers that his Dayton-based Mortuary Affairs unit was on a far different mission than its World War II predecessors who laid American service personnel in the now manicured European cemeteries of World War II.
“The technological advances in refrigeration and transportation had made it possible to move battlefield deceased from the region of conflict to the (continental United States) expeditiously. Our role was to be combat coroners, and we had to be lighter, faster, more aggressive and more agile with the ability to process remains on the fly and keep moving on a fluid battlefield.”
While the unit would be heavily involved in those duties during his third tour, the first and second were spent essentially as regular troops in the field.
First Deployment, 2003
Upon their arrival in Kuwait before the “Shock and Awe” invasion, his unit of “cross-training junkies,” as he describes them, did what all soldiers do: stand by to stand by. He captures that atmosphere with a description of the strategic deployment of Frank’s Hot Sauce in the chow hall; “back alley crack deals” in which buckets of chicken are traded for the pledge to perform disagreeable duties; and drills for quick changes into gas masks repeated time and again in the event that Saddam Hussein might use gas and chemical weapons on invading troops just as he had on his own citizens.
A helicopter crash in Kuwait provides the green MA unit with a chance to learn about recovery scenes from experts of the National Transportation Safety Board. “When sections of the helo burn and melt,” Bussler writes, “they can resemble bone or burned flesh.” Distinguishing the two is obviously important. The Marines also learn that a glasslike substance on the sand is actually blood “that had been exposed to heat and crystallized.” How it reacts to the tap of a screwdriver reveals whether it was blood or something else.
When his third of the MA unit moves from Kuwait to prepare for the invasion of Baghdad, Bussler finds Iraq “eerily barren and lifeless” in comparison. Then when news arrives that President George W. Bush has given Saddam a 48-hour ultimatum, the pace quickens and certain details of their environment quickly come into greater focus. The crates of chickens and ducks on the roofs of trucks are like canaries in a mine, there to diagnose the presence of poison gas. The point is not lost on the author, who, the night before the invasion, “could even hear myself blink” runs an electric razor across his face “to improve the seal of my gas mask.”
After surviving a first fire fight, his unit encounters little resistance, and in the rush north, members call themselves “The Lost Boys” because they are constantly being attached to whatever other unit is moving forward the quickest.
Although the advancing troops soon grow accustomed to the sight of the charred bodies of Iraq soldiers, which they regard as they would road kill, Bussler pauses while surveying a group of enemy bombed to oblivion: “These Iraqi conscripts didn’t seem to look like evil monsters but normal human beings who got caught up in a (expletive deleted) situation.”
On the open Iraqi countryside, Bussler writes, “All one saw was the world’s finest fighting force moving north toward Baghdad, removing Saddam’s Ba’athist henchmen and waving at all the friendly people rejoicing in the street.” Among them is a 2-year-old girl about his daughter’s age he calls “desert flower.”
Like the other “Lost Boys,” Bussler feels almost betrayed when the unit is withdrawn just before the final advance on Baghdad. Directed to the wrong plane when their intended destination is Kuwait, they end up strolling an airport in Oman and are given reason to see themselves in a different light. People “watched us as if we were strange alien creatures visiting from another planet …. Our weird suntans from wearing our helmets, our dirty raccoon faces, our sweat-infused cammies and four weeks without fresh haircuts made us really stand out.”
They were Marines.
Before returning home that June, the “Lost Boys” learn from an officer that military planners had expected them to be lost in a haze of chemical weapons in the war’s opening day — and that the two thirds of their unit held behind in Kuwait had been expected to clean up the mess.
Second Deployment, 2004
When he packed his gear for a return to Iraq in 2004, Bussler took along “an eerie, nagging feeling,” the first of the premonitions of impending doom that would accumulate around his neck like weighted dog tags for the remainder of his service.
Arriving in Iraq 19 days short of a year since he first set foot there, he finds the country dramatically changed. “The very same roads that last year were chocked full of smiling and waving civilians were now filed with IED blast craters and splintered shrapnel …. Its populace was now caught in the crosshairs of appalling suffering, borne from the ill wills of hatred among tribal, religious and geopolitical lines.”
His unit heads to what they called the “wild west” and a place that would become infamous for its violence, “the sunbaked nightmare called Al Anbar Province.”
Although a novice writer, Bussler is a natural story teller who effectively sets the scene for what is to come. His ability to evoke the National Geographic style of beauty from the violence-plagued landscape is striking, no more so than when his unit arrives at Haditha Dam.
“Our convoy had crept along a long, winding dirt road into the monstrous shadow, and spray from the gushing water made this final part of our journey seem … as if we have found a strange secret garden oasis out of some James Bond movie.”
On a structure where rainbows appeared in spraying water, “We could literally see for miles (and) the desert terrain held a strange and exotic beauty. The sun was warm, a cool breeze blew off the blue-green water of the lake behind us, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sand seemed to glow brightly in a soft yellow-white hue, reflecting the sun’s brilliance …. War floated far from my mind for a brief moment as I took in the surround landscape, enjoyed the cool, light, wind, and looked at the two towns of Dam Village and Haditha in the distance. That was where the enemy was hiding, and that was where he felt comfortable. Like the warrior haikus of ancient Japan’s bushido samurai culture, I found a bizarre, hypnotic spell of the calm before the storm.”
Although his descriptions are at times burdened by the use of too many words, Bussler’s esthetic sense almost invariably carries the day. As effectively, his narrative voice – the voice of a fighting man – embeds readers in the spirit of his Marines. When the enemy shells the Marine position on its first night at the dam, Bussler translates the attack’s message: “Red Rover, Red Rover, send the Marines on over.”
Their first patrol brings a new rhythm to his soldiering. “The slow, methodical movement across the desert terrain had now been exchanged for the fast-paced, vociferous power walk of the urban patrol,” one that “moved expertly through like a millipede moves through the jungle floor.”
On a March 13 patrol, “my Spidey sense peaked my anxiety level,” he writes, bringing a tingle to his spine and an inkling that the pile of trash at the end of a street the troops is traveling “looked as if had been purposely placed along the base of a telephone pole.”
Just after a car passes by, a hidden IED explodes and “a sudden rush of overpressure made my eyes want to pop inside the sockets. The air in my lungs (was) sucked out, and a torrent of dirt rushed past my head and then blackness.
“I found myself face down in a ditch dozens of yards away from the road, and my heavy pack, which contained the radio and extra gear, had slid up my back and now rested on the base of my head, driving my skull into the mud.”
“I then felt something hot pouring down the inside of my left calf. I reached down to touch it, and my hand brought back a large amount of blood …. My whole body was numb from the blast, but it just kept pouring out.”
Later, he writes, “The Major was right; I was lucky as hell. I should have been decapitated because my antenna and handset were gone, and they rested just mere fractions of an inch away from my head on both sides of my neck.”
His fall from being a “badass” to a mortal is swift, and after debris is yanked out of his calf by a seasoned nurse, he wheels his way to a location with a clear satellite signal to call home.
“Without missing a beat,” his wife, Wendy, picks up the phone to continue a weeks-long conversation where it left off, pushing the pace like Marines on patrol to pack as much in as possible in the time available.
“I just let her speak. It was good to hear her submit the woes of a life a million miles away.”
When he tells her what happened, “life seemed to stop and the phone hit the ground,” he writes. “My words caught the midnight breeze, evaporated into the night sky and, a world away, they manifested and struck like daggers in her heart.”
The Last Few Seconds
Just he does at the Haditha Dam, Bussler captures the feel of another, more personal scene dated July 5, 2005, in a two-page chapter, “The Last Few Seconds.”
In the bedroom he and his wife share back home, the smell of lilacs enters on a midnight breeze and with it an added measure of sweetness to the sorrow of another parting.
“Your kisses could never be so meaningful, your embrace could never be as tight, and your love can never be as defined as during those last tender moments together. Time moves too fast as you rush to make every moment count. Every hour, every minute and every second is spent trying to create a loving memory that will endure long after you walk out the door.”
Bussler is again a changed man. “I knew without a doubt that I was no longer untouchable; my aching wounds reminded me of that every day.”
In an outside world that was making less sense to him, he explained during an interview, combat made sense as the place he was most needed. “I was planning my missions. I was a very valuable person in my time there. I was making life-and-death decisions.”
But that was not the biggest draw.
“My brothers were heading into harm’s way once more, and I volunteered again to be there with them because I trusted their lives to no other …. We weren’t here to prove anything to anyone; we all volunteered to come back into this nightmare for each other.”
“Once again premonition whispered in my ear, telling me that I needed to make these final good-byes memorable for them, not for me, because I wasn’t coming back home. Deep within the recesses my brain, I was alright with that. It was just my time.”
Bussler, of course survived his third tour of duty. But that tour, described in the second half of his book, would put him on the fast track to PTSD.
Next week’s conclusion: In the Service of Angels.
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