Staff Voices: “Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company”

Staff Voices: “Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company”

Since moving to Ohio as the Center for Deployment psychologist at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, I have heard much about the Marines of Lima Company and their experiences in Iraq in 2005.   I had learned bits and pieces of information about their story through Ohioans and military members I have met, but I had not seen Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company,the movie featuring them until recently.  Let me say right off the bat, I recommend the movie for all adults because it is a true account of the experiences of these Marines, told by some of the company members themselves, so watching the movie is educational.

I now know the goals of some of their missions, where they were located, whom they were fighting with and against, and some of their battle strategies.  However, I think that the most educational aspect of the movie happens quite by accident, through the telling of the story by the Marines themselves.  Without being aware, many individuals in the documentary speak about personal experiences of their own that we now know to be quite universal (or at least very common) among deployed service members.   For this reason, I think that the movie is an especially important movie for friends and family members of service members, as well as neighbors, acquaintances, and those who may potentially stand next to a service member or a veteran in line at the grocery store or the post office.  In other words, I think all adults in America should watch this movie.

The film begins at the end, with moving footage from a ceremony in Columbus, Ohio honoring the Marines from the company who did not come home.  Family and friends of the fallen Marines are there, of course, and their fellow Marines do the honors of placing their weapons and helmets in front of the community ceremoniously.   At this point the viewer learns that 59 Purple Hearts were awarded to members of Lima Company as a result of their heroic deeds in Iraq, and 23 of these were awarded posthumously.   Viewers learn right away in this documentary that the individuals they will be learning about made great sacrifices.  I think all Americans need to be reminded of this—that those who go to war pay a price, both those who come home and those who do not.

The movie then goes on to tell the story of Lima Company in Iraq between March 28 and September 30, 2005 through the camera lenses and voices of some of the Marines themselves.  “Everyone there had a camera” according to one of the platoon leaders, and seeing the footage that they collected themselves—without knowing it would later be the backbone of a movie featuring their experiences—made the movie very personal (and chilling in a way, especially in the beginning of their deployment when they were all under the impression that their time in Iraq might be uneventful, boring even). This is probably one of the first references to a common deployment experience—boredom.  Many people who aren’t familiar with the impact of deployment assume that deployments are continuously fast-paced and busy.  Not so, one of the more common complaints of returning service members is the “feast or famine” with regard to workload.   The pace of deployments varies within and between deployments—some are characterized by steady hard work throughout, and some are slow and “understimulating.”  However, most are up and down, with some days being packed with too much to do followed by hours that drag on.

Another common theme among deployers that the viewer learns about early in the movie is the adrenaline rush associated with being in the deployed setting, especially near the action.  One member of Lima Company said “no game or drug is as fun as a firefight.  But when the bad stuff starts happening you’ll have some of the worst days of your life.”  How many times in the process of therapy I have heard about this phenomenon of getting hooked on the adrenaline of combat.  It has been described to me as a “love-hate relationship with war” in the sense that many service members love the fact that they are “at the pointy tip of the spear” and doing what they have trained to do, but they hate the killing, the dying, and the suffering.

Lima Company quickly moved from a ramp-up time in country to a mission near the Euphrates River which resulted in a massive assault on the group and their first fatality.  This Marine was in the process of clearing a house and was hit by unexpected fire from a low location.  His buddy was with him, a few feet away.  It is at this point that we hear another familiar combat deployment theme.   The fellow Marine being interviewed tells the camera that he “still regret[s] to this day that I didn’t do more to help him.  But I got as close as I could.”   He seems to take on some responsibility for the death of his comrade even though the circumstances of that situation did not allow that.  Again, I have heard many service members lament that they could not have done more to help.  As mental health professionals, we know that this heightened sense of responsibility for events even out of their control can undergird PTSD and other mental health struggles upon return.

One of the most heart-wrenching aspects of this movie is watching interviews with the family members of the fallen Marines.  The viewer learns more details about the deceased through these interviews, and this makes it harder to know that they have died.  However, the viewer is also reminded about the sacrifices of family members of those who choose to serve in the military.   Being in the military is very much a family affair.  Even though the parent, sister, wife, husband, etc. does not deploy, his or her mind is in the deployed setting while the military member is gone.  I am reminded of this when I see one of those blue stars on the back of someone’s vehicle.  I always wonder if their service member is currently deployed, and I hope that all is well.  Again, I think this documentary does a fine job of reminding the viewer of this important point that I believe all Americans need to understand.

Throughout their time in Iraq, Lima Company was engaged in fighting insurgents and training locals in security forces techniques.  The members who came home told about these experiences and how they left some of them feeling fearful and avoidant—natural responses to the horrendous fighting they had experienced.   This theme came up again and again in the documentary, and I found myself wondering if some of these Marines had been through treatment for PTSD and subsequently learned how to put words to their feelings or if this just came naturally.  Either way, they spoke eloquently about themes which we as mental health professionals address every day when treating this special group of people.   After one fight in which they were clearing a town of insurgents and terrorists, one of the Marines said “You can clear all the houses but one, and in that one there could be someone left to fire.”  He was referring to his ever-present feeling of vulnerability and the need to stay on guard 24-7.  Again, this kind of thing is what we hear about in therapy when service members are not able to find the “off button” for this mindset upon returning home to the States.

Another common theme represented in the movie is the idea that coming home is not easy.   Some of the Marines of Lima Company spoke about their efforts to reintegrate seamlessly and return to college or a full time job only to find that they were not ready.  Some spoke about trying to cope with heavy drinking and withdrawing and a few of them talked about their decision to spend some time away from society living in nature with other combat veterans.  It was there that they felt best—probably through being with people who had been through something similar and could understand them more fully.  They also spoke about the desire to return for another deployment—this, too, is a theme I hear about regularly among service members who are having a difficult time coping after a deployment.  They feel that their work there was meaningful, their purpose was clear.  During an interview at Marine Reserve Base in Columbus, Ohio during the Christmas after their return in 2005,one of the company members said that it’s hard to deal with the everyday challenges of life back home.  He gave the example of making requests at work that take forever to come through, and trying to wait patiently while his girlfriend takes two hours to put on her make-up.   These types of seemingly minor everyday hurdles are particularly hard for some service members who have returned from deployment.   They struggle with irritability, lack of patience, and a desire to return to an environment where everything around them was potentially “life or death” and very meaningful.   A greater sense of understanding of this phenomenon could go a long way toward helping those who interact with returning deployers be supportive.

Lima Company from Columbus, Ohio has become a well-known unit from the Iraq war, even outside of Ohio.  News of their experiences and losses has been in the media for years.   Members of the unit recognize the magnitude of their losses relative to other units and understand that this makes them stand out, but they clearly state in the documentary that they want to be remembered for more than the losses of their fellow Marines.  They know that the deaths of their fellow Marines are of extreme importance, and they want them to be remembered and honored.  However, Lima Company also wants to be remembered for what they accomplished in Iraq in less than a full year.  They removed terrorists and insurgents; they patrolled and increased the safety at crucial borders; they recruited and trained Iraqi security forces; and they set up an environment in an Iraqi city that allowed voter turn-out to increase from 10% to 70% so that locals could influence their leadership.   These accomplishments, among others that were achieved by Lima Company in Iraq in 2005, give meaning to the members of the unit and provide them a sense of purpose to the hardships that they and their comrades endured.  Certainly, I have observed that finding positive meaning in a deployment experience is often associated with better coping afterward.

In summary, I highly recommend Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company.  The documentary does a good job of educating the viewer about general factual information surrounding their missions in Iraq and the experiences of the unit members.   While difficult to watch in parts due to the tragedy surrounding the loss of life and grief about this among the unit and family members, the movie imparts the necessary message that war comes at a high price to service members, those close to them, and subsequently to us all.   Themes that challenge returning deployers are discussed by the Marines themselves in such a way that would be enlightening to all.  Importantly, the viewer also learns of the critical role that these men played in helping to stabilize regions in Iraq during a crucial time in the Iraq war.

Produced by Viewfinder Productions, Inc. and Directed by Michael Epstein

Watch a clip of the movie here: