Marine Sgt. Ryan Smith '07 shared his reflections on the Iraq War for an ABC "Nightline" segment scheduled to air tonight. (Photo by Kris Brewer)
'It's Like Going Back in Time Four Years'
One year after the Iraq War, a Marine adjusts to life as a BC freshman
By Mark Sullivan
Ryan Smith's crowded hour came south of Baghdad last April 4.
"It was the craziest day of the war for our unit," said Smith, now a Boston College freshman, then a sergeant in the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment that was the first American force into the oilfields of southern Iraq and that fought its way up-country in a rush to Baghdad that covered 300 miles in just three weeks.
"It was one of the final pushes to Baghdad, and there were intense firefights the whole way," he said. "That night, we set up checkpoints. We were taking sniper fire. They were launching rockets. These vehicles tried to run our checkpoint. We had to stop them."
The Marines, on alert for suicide bombers, opened fire on a car and a military truck that tried to barrel through the roadblock. Among the slain were seven women and children, reportedly traveling in vehicles behind, who may have found themselves in a suicide convoy. AK-47s were found in two cars, Smith said.
His unit that day took 15 wounded and three killed, among them, his first sergeant. "It was an emotional blow for all of us," Smith said.
"It was an emotional rollercoaster."
Smith, who later entered Baghdad to civilian cheers and sampled the gold-plated plumbing in Saddam's presidential palace, will recall his time in Iraq on an edition of ABC News' "Nightline" marking the March 20 anniversary of the beginning of the war.
The program is scheduled to air tonight, March 18. "Nightline" is carried in Boston on Channel 5 at 11:30 p.m.
ABC News reporter Mike Cerre was embedded with Smith's unit, and was there when the sergeant and squad leader from Corona Del Mar, Calif., received the Boston College acceptance letter that had been forwarded to Iraq.
Smith, today a college freshman at 23 after having finished his four-year Marine hitch last May, was invited to appear on "Nightline" with several other veterans from his unit for a look back at Iraq a year later.
He spoke with the Boston College Chronicle recently in Gasson Rotunda, decorated with marble statues of military patrons St. Ignatius of Loyola and Michael the Archangel, the latter treading on the head of a vanquished Lucifer. ("He looks kind of like Saddam," Smith observed.)
As an Iraq War combat veteran, Smith is a rare freshman. When the Class of 1951 entered the Heights in the fall of 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War, 40 percent were veterans. Today, Smith and Army Airborne veteran Erik Robishaw, in the College of Advancing Studies, are the only two known Iraq combat vets among current undergraduates.
"It's like going back in time four years," Smith said, with a smile. "It's like when I got out of high school. All my peers are 18. It's like the past four years didn't happen."
He's had a few conversations about his military experiences. People in general, no matter their opinion on Iraq, have tended to welcome back this generation of returning servicemen warmly, he said.
"One thing I've found about this war compared to Vietnam is that even if people didn't support the war, they supported the troops," said Smith.
He plans to major in history, which he expects to view through the prism of his own wartime experience. "It's going to be something that shapes the rest of my life," he said. "Being over there gives a new perspective on history.
"I saw a lifetime of suffering and stress combined into a short time," he said. "It made me mature really quickly. Before, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. Now, I feel more focused. I want to get the most out of college.
"Now that it's been a year [since Iraq], I'm interested in being a college student."
Smith's advisor, Adj. Asst. Prof. Paul McNellis, SJ (Philosophy), empathizes. Before entering the Jesuits, Fr. McNellis returned to Cornell to complete his undergraduate degree after serving as an Army lieutenant in Vietnam and then as a journalist and a relief worker in Indochina.
"One advantage of going to school after the Army is you know why you're going," said Fr. McNellis, who has Smith as a student in Perspectives on Western Culture. "Somebody's who's been in the military, particularly in combat, has had some very deep friendships, and perhaps the experience of losing some of them. Going back to school, you're studying to better understand the experience you've had."
When he graduated from Capistrano Valley High School in 1999, he wanted to "do something different," Smith said. "I wanted to get myself together before college. I wanted to get some discipline."
Smith decided to join the Marines. "I got some discipline real fast," he said.
He spent his first year in the Corps guarding the fence at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. On Sept. 11, he was stationed in Okinawa: "They put us right on ship, and we went over by Afghanistan, then over to Indonesia," he said. "We spent three months at sea."
Smith was a month shy of his discharge date in April when the war in Iraq started last March. His tour of duty was extended a month, into May.
His Fox 2/5 Unit (2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment) was deployed to Kuwait on Feb. 1, 2003, and was among the first American troops into Iraq, where they secured the southern oil fields on March 20.
"We fought all the way up," Smith said. "It was crazy. The resistance in southern Iraq was sporadic, unorganized. Forty miles from Baghdad we started hitting Republican Guard units. A couple of days we had five-hour long firefights.
"We'd get ambushed; we'd clear out the ambush, and another group would hit us. For a while, we'd try to ignore the sporadic fire. After a while you'd have to stop and get out when it got really intense."
His unit rode to Baghdad in amphibious assault vehicles built to carry 15 but which, by the end, were lugging two-dozen Marines apiece. Their rush to Baghdad covered 300 miles in 21 days.
"Our regiment was the first into the eastern side of Baghdad," he said. "People were cheering in the streets. There were pictures of Saddam painted on walls and people were smashing them with hammers.
"We figured Baghdad would be the battle of all battles. People welcomed us with open arms. We liberated one of Saddam's presidential palaces. It was really opulent, with gold fixtures in the bathrooms."
He expressed sympathy for the US forces currently policing Iraq. "It's got to be frustrating for those guys," he said. "We were hitting military units. These guys are getting blown up by roadside bombs."
But he said he felt "uplifted" by the capture of Saddam and the recent signing of the new Iraqi constitution. "I want to see them as a stable country better off than it was under Saddam."
If he had it to do over?
"I'd definitely go in the Marines again," he said. "The best friends I've made were in the Marines. We served four years together and then went to Iraq, which cemented our relationship. They're my best friends."