Molly Linn Journal
I met Warren at a Starbucks at 4 p.m. on a Thursday, Feb. 7. He said he was pretty flexible and, although I try to seem like I am to the people I have to meet with, I know that I’m not. So I was glad that he was pretty relaxed about when and where we met. I walked in a few minutes early and looked around, hoping he wasn’t there yet so I could set up my things and get a chai before he got there. I saw one man sitting by himself by the window and I looked at his cup to see if I could read the name written on it. I couldn’t, but I didn’t see a “W” so I didn’t think it was him; I was wrong. I sat down behind him and took out my notebook to the page I had written my questions on when he turned and asked, “Are you Molly?” I said yes and invited him to sit down. I handed him the second War: Through Their Eyes volume and he flipped through it while I explained what the class was doing.
I thought it would take him a while to open up and give full answers to questions. I think it would be a tough topic to talk about and because that’s what I’ve experienced in the past when asking people about their life or career. But he jumped right in: When I asked when he enlisted, he not only told me the exact date, but also about the first time he tried to enlist (he was 16 and too young). For every question, he elaborated on his answers and welcomed follow-up questions. After an hour, I was starting to feel tired, but he seemed all right and I still had some unanswered questions, so I kept going. I’m glad I did because with my last question (Is there anything else you think people should know?) he expressed his sentiments about seeking help when help is needed – too many veterans take their own lives because of bottled up thoughts and feelings. He felt really strongly about this.
I’d say it was a good first meeting. We didn’t decide on a second one, but he reminded me of his flexible schedule, so I’m sure we’ll figure it out soon.
The second time I met with him, I decided to meet during class so it would be easier to access the recording equipment. I asked him to meet at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday and, again, he showed up early. I had gone through most of the first interview and picked out a few things that I either wanted him to re-tell me because I liked what he said, or that I wanted to ask more about. We got started right away and I was reminded of how much he can talk! I asked him much less questions than last time, but we recorded for an hour and fifteen minutes. As he was responding to my first question, he reached out and straightened out my pencil that I had laid diagonally on my notebook. I’m not sure if it was because he was thinking of how to continue his answer or because it was bothering him. During our first interview, he had worn long sleeves, so I didn’t see the tattoos on his arms but that day he was wearing a t-shirt. He has the quote “For he today who sheds his blood with me is my brother.” Next to it is the battlefield cross: the rifle in the ground and the helmet hung on top. I am always curious about the tattoos people get and the stories behind them. This is clearly military-related, so I asked him about that too. It turns out, one of his captains would recite the Band of Brothers speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and at this line, the company would join in unison. He also had the symbol for his company on his forearm. He calls it his inspiration arm. I thought that was interesting and I like that he carries that sense of brotherhood with him.
Warren and I went to the photo studio today to take pictures. The first time I told him about taking pictures, I didn’thave to ask him to bring his own photos: he offered.
I met him in the basement of Polk to meet with Shawn McAfee, the art director for this project. Shawn said some of the veterans have a hard time being serious during photo shoots, but Warren was pretty good about it. I made sure that Shawn took a few pictures.
After taking pictures, Carly and her soldier were next in line. Warren and Carly’s soldier began talking and poking fun at each other’s choice of military branch (she was in the Navy, I think). After a few minutes, though, Warren stopped, looked at me, and asked if we should go to look through his pictures. The reminded me of the first time I met him, when he didn’t waste any time asking if I was the girl he was meeting. We went into the next room and he began with the photos on his flash drive. He explained that some of the pictures were taken by reporters that were implanted within their unit. He explained each one: there were group shots, pictures of the city center he told me about, even picture of him getting sea sick during their third deployment. One picture stood out to me the most: it was he and his friend, Justin Toren. He said it was after they got done clearing the Old City (which I took to mean Najaf); they were both still in full uniform. It was taken from behind. They were walking away from the photographer, each with his arm around the other. When I told him I liked that one, he agreed. Justin has it framed at his house still today.
One of the things Warren explained to me in both of our interviews was getting al-Sadr’s militia out of Najaf. Before talking to Warren, I had never heard of Najaf or al-Sadr. But the way Warren talked about it, it seemed like the battle that took place is something I should have heard of. So, I decided to do some research.
Apparently, there was a man named Muqtadā al-Ṣadr who famously disagreed with American involvement in Iraq. During a 60 Minutes interview, he compared Saddam Hussein to a “little serpent” and America to a “great serpent.” This was in October of 2003. The battle Warren was involved in took place in April of 2004. Warren told me al-Sadr took over the Imam Ali Mosque as a military base. The mosque is a very religious site, so Warren and the other marines in the area were told to not damage it, despite the fact that al-Sadr’s men were targeting them from inside the mosque. The American government didn’t want to offend anyone by damaging such a holy site (according to legend, Moses and Noah are both in it, along with many other religious figures). Al-Sadr’s militia could shoot at the US marines from a politically protected space. According to Warren, in the end, they had to let al-Sadr and his men go. But, he said this was a learning experience for the US Military in that they learned that protecting the mosque and trying to be careful wasn’t the best strategy. He said the next time al-Sadr was involved with American troops, they were more assertive, which worked better. I found out that al-Sadr was branded an outlaw that April.
I have begun working on making my first podcast. I don’t have any experience in GarageBand, but I’ve worked with iMovie before. Since they are both Apple programs, I didn’t think it would be too hard to figure out. But, I’m nervous about it because there is a lot of noise in the clips I have from him because we were at Starbucks. But when I asked him to tell me the story again in the studio, he brushed right over it! He told me a similar and equally great story, but I still would like to have him come into the studio and retell me some of the stories from the first interview again.
The topic I focused on in this podcast was the first time the war felt real to him. I thought it was a really interesting story: he was on night watch in Kuwait before they invaded Iraq. His platoon sergeant handed him his night goggles and told him to “enjoy the fireworks”; he put them on, looked up and saw a stream of tomahawk missiles flying across the sky toward Baghdad.
Tomahawks are generally about 18 feet long, 2,900 pounds. It soars through the air followed closely by a tail of fire, then smoke. To see these flying across the air like giant shooting stars would leave me speechless and scared. It left a big impression on Warren as well. The thought that went through his head: “I guess this is real."
Grace emailed us links to two blog posts to write about. One was called Still Bleeding, 10 Years Later, by Jason Davis and the other one was The End of War Stories by Brandon Friedman. Obviously, there were ties to the War Volume 3 to be found in both of these blogs; they were written by men who were, at one point, in the same situation as many of the people my classmates and I have been talking to all semester.
In Still Bleeding, it seems like Davis was in the same battle that Warren was in. But instead of coming by land, like Warren did, Davis was in one of the Black Hawk helicopters. It was interesting to read about a different perspective of the battle.
Although Still Bleeding seems more directly related to Warren’s experiences, The End of War Stories made me reflect a lot on the War: Through Their Eyes project. Friedman talks about how, slowly, the memories of war began to fade. Gradually, he stopped telling people his stories. He says in his post that he has forgotten things that he told himself he would never forget. The day they invaded, their first man killed in action, names of people he once knew. These are slowly fading into the recesses of his mind.
Before they began to fade, he took the time and initiative to pour all of his thoughts and memories into writing. On a shelf in his home sits a closed book filled with memories, collecting dust. “The memories are trapped on the pages, like wasps in a jar. They have been stripped of their intensity, of the associated sounds, smells and feel.”
Friedman said it was cathartic to write about the war -- to get all of it out onto paper. He says he will never open the book. But I think he probably will, when he’s ready. I wonder if this will serve a similar purpose for the men and women who will have or have had their stories told through the War series. I think most of the people involved with the War series have been out of any war for some time now. Many of them probably have had time to cope with it in their own way. But maybe what we write will preserve their feelings and memories, and maybe (I hope) it’s something they will look at to remember their feelings and motives.
The hardest part of writing is beginning. Well, that’s the first challenge to overcome and it’s a pretty big one. It’s usually difficult to determine where to begin; which anecdote is grabbing enough? what is the truly defining moment of the story? I always worry that whatever I choose, while it might be exciting to me, might be boring to someone else. I finally decided on starting with the story Warren told me about seeing Safwan Hill burning at night. It was one of his first nights in Iraq and in that moment, everything kind of came together for him. He was in Iraq. Fighting a war. “This is an immense production here,” he thought. I like that story because of the imagery he gave me (one raised hill in the middle of the desert; a fire in the darkness of night; a line of military vehicles extending to the horizon whilst invading another country). I hope other people will too.
The second challenge to overcome is deciding what information to include and what to exclude. I thought everything Warren told me was valuable. I transcribed nearly 18,000 words, but the story has to be 2,000. That means 16,000 words won’t be included -- those 16,000 are full of important information, funny, sad, happy and unique stories that I wish I could share, but I can’t. So, I’ve been weeding through my transcriptions and the parts of the interview that I didn’t finish transcribing and picking out my favorites and the parts I think are the most pertinent.
While beginning and picking and choosing what I want to include are hard tasks, there’s one decision I made a long time ago that I’m grateful for. I knew as soon as I heard about his company reunions that I wanted to end with that. Every time they have a reunion, they go to a mountain near their base, pick up a white rock and carry it to the top. It represents carrying their burden and letting go of its weight. I think it’s amazing symbolism.
Warren mentioned to me in the first interview that his dad wrote to him once every week from the day he left for boot camp until he finally came home for good. That’s four years and over 200 letters. I think it’s fantastic that his dad was so supportive. Warren said that is his most treasured keepsake from his time in the Military. I wanted to find out more about those letters. So, I asked him to bring a few for me to see. On the day of our third interview, he brought along the box he keeps them in. It was a pretty plain box, but it was obvious how much it meant to him. He placed the box on the floor and carefully took the lid off as he happily told me he had just finished organizing the letters in chronological order even before I asked him about them. He had picked out five letters from varying times through his service. He wanted to choose them to be around significant events, which I appreciated. He gave me one right after his first deployment, right before he invaded Iraq, right before and right after the fighting in Najaf and one after his post-deployment leave when he was still at Camp Pendleton.
His dad was really impressed with him. At times, it seemed like he even looked up to Warren. But it was really nice to see that he wasn’t just writing about the war - his thoughts and fears, what he saw on the news, questions about Warren’s experience. These things are in the letters, but they aren’t the main theme. I think this is really good because letters should be an escape into the writer’s world, not something that highlights your position. (I image that it would be frustrating to get a letter about war while you are at war.) The letters talked about what was happening with the family and his father’s life. They kept him updated on everything that was happening at home, from when the family car, the UnderAcheiver broke down to how his grandma was doing to if his dad was going to go up north or not. Warren looked forward to these letters each week - they were one of the only things he could count on during that time.
I feel like I’m so close to finishing this project! It’s cool to look back at the whole semester and think about everything that we did to compile all these stories. But there is still a lot to do. I finished all three podcasts, which is good. The first one was challenging to figure out how to put it together because it was my first time using Garage Band. I thought that the other two would be just as hard, but I was able to put them together pretty quickly. Once I got the hang of Garage Band, it was pretty simple.
I think I’m basically done with my story. I just have to meet with Warren to go over it. We’re planning on meeting next week on Thursday. I’m a little bit nervous for that. I’m worried that he’s going to read it and tell me I misinterpreted the things that he told me. Or that I got his story wrong. Or that I told it poorly. But I like the anecdotes that I included in it and I hope he does too.
I met with Warren today to go over the story. I was really nervous. I was worried that he would be offended if I got a fact wrong or misinterpreted something he said. I met him in the Veteran’s Resource Center, which was cool because he was a big advocate of the VRC in our interviews. We went into a small room and I handed him the paper. The room got quiet as he took the paper clip off the story and began to read. I tried not to stare too hard as I attempted to read his expressions to see if he was pleased or upset. I had gotten a few details wrong, but they were easily fixed. He told me he liked it. I was so relieved. I worked hard on his story, but I was happy that Warren saw it in the paper.
This class was a lot of hard work, but I’m glad I took it. I’m walking away with valuable skills that I might not have gotten anywhere else. I learned to keep asking questions; I wouldn’t have learned some of the things that I put into the final story if I had just accepted Warren’s first answer and not followed up. That’s how I got the first anecdote that begins the story. I asked him to tell me about something he told me in our first interview, but he ended up telling me this really great story. The skills I learned in recording and creating podcasts really intrigued me and I hope I get the chance to use them in my future.