“Tell the Thanksgiving story!”
Whenever family and friends gather and the conversation turns to Eugene Harlow’s days in the military, someone invariably asks that he recount what happened November 25, 2004.
A sergeant in the Marines, Harlow was stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, during the battle of Fallujah, when a convoy from Kuwait arrived with supplies. But when one of the trucks appeared to have been opened and re-sealed, an officer ordered that it be towed to the desert, out of harm’s way, and blown to smithereens.
Examined afterwards, the trailer was found to contain specially prepared Thanksgiving dinners with all the trimmings for the men.
“We had to eat turkey MRE’s,” said Harlow.
But blowing up Thanksgiving dinner is the kind of gallows humor he does not mind sharing when people ask about war in the Mideast.
Same for the story about when TV news anchor Tom Brokaw came to Afghanistan.
Harlow and several other Marines stood in front of the U.S. Embassy as Brokaw was arriving. When the men stepped up to welcome him, Brokaw stared at them, at their outstretched hands, and walked away.
“He didn’t know we were Marines because we wore local garb, the scarves, and pork pie hats, and full beards,” said Harlow. “I assume he thought we were Blackwater or some other non-military war contractors.”
Harlow didn’t hold it against Brokaw. He laughs about it, the same way he laughs about the rats that lived along the Euphrates River that were as big as cats.
And about the snot rockets he and his men used to launch from their noses: “The air quality in Kabul was horrible, but you couldn’t pick your nose because of how dirty your hands stayed.”
He even makes light of how today he must wear a stocking cap in Chicago as early as Fall because his left ear was frostbitten while he was in the mountains of Uzberkian, Afghanistan.
A sense of humor for dealing with hardship was important, Harlow found. Think of Hawkeye Pierce, the character played by Alan Alda in the TV series M.A.S.H., who joked about Army absurdities as a coping mechanism in the Korean War.
But instead of TV comedy, Harlow wrote an underground newsletter called “Straight from the Burning Bush,” circulated to other Marines as a “morale booster.” In addition to poking fun at the every-day travails, the newsletter skewered the dumb but dangerous decisions made by higher ups.
Like the Washington genius, for example, who replaced the Iraqi flag with one designed by his staff, which, with its white background, crescent in the middle, and twin blue and yellow stripes, bore a too-close-for-comfort resemblance to the Israeli banner. “Immediately the mullahs and imams took to the mosques and told the faithful we were trying to turn them into Jews,” said Harlow. Not helpful.
Or officers wasting time making sure the Marines had spit shined boots, sharp uniform creases and regulation haircuts, while neglecting to train them in skills needed as “occupiers” after combat.
And, of course, the men’s conflicted feelings as it became clear there were no weapons of mass destruction, putting to question the administration’s justification for the Iraq War.
When Gene Harlow finally came home in 2005, what lingered were the painful memories.
As when his captain was killed in a mortar attack, bled out before receiving help, because the base’s latrines were out in the open and unprotected.
Or the afternoon when he and his men traveled off base in a convoy to gather intelligence: “One technique of the enemy was to put children in the way of the vehicles, so that when the convoy slowed, an ambush could be launched. Standing orders throughout the region were to stop for nothing in the roadway. So the lead vehicle ran over a child.”
Or when several other children were killed by stray rounds fired by frightened, inexperienced men shooting wildly at a vehicle that came too close.
Or the well-intentioned unwitting victims who went to help an Iraqi with a “broke down” vehicle that was booby trapped.
And Harlow’s learning later of the death of his close friend Jay T. Collado, who was killed in Sadr City near Baghdad during the 2006 surge.
These were not the episodes he could share at the dinner table.
“When I got home,” Harlow said, “my grandfather Gene opened up about his own wartime experiences [WWII Coast Guard]. I had never heard his stories. Some were salacious, some frightening: convoys in the North Atlantic fearing submarine attack, watching the Marines getting on board landing craft in the island hopping campaign, and knowing those guys weren’t going to make it. He spoke about losing his religion on board ship during the war, something he never got back afterwards.
“I think now that my grandfather recognized, in the Native American tradition, of a returning warrior needing help,” said Harlow. “I was in need of intervention that can usually only come from an old veteran to a new veteran.”
When men like Harlow share their stories on Veterans Day, we’re made freshly aware of their otherwise invisible scars sustained from war, and of the tremendous debt we owe them all.
For the courage they had to summon to confront death on the battlefield, and the courage they had to summon all over again, to confront life back home.
Eugene Harlow was honorably discharged in 2005 and began his career as an officer with the Glenview Police Department. In 2014, he married college English professor Jacqueline McGrath, who is the author’s daughter. David McGrath is Emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and author of THE TERRITORY. firstname.lastname@example.org