My neighbor in Ocean Beach just returned from a war. I noticed something different about him right away—an edge that I hadn't sensed before. It wasn't a drastic change. Nor was it concrete. It wasn't something you could see clearly or grab onto, only feel, like a bullet whizzing by your ear. And what of this edge? What tragedies lay behind it? What sorts of experiences are so profound that they can alter a human being's personality, even slightly?
“My name is Corporal Seth Reil of the United States Marine Corps,” he said, lighting the first of a dozen Camel Lights he would smoke during our interview. “I work with the military working dogs. My dog was trained for attacking and also finding explosives. My unit worked in eastern Ramadi in the al-Anbar province.”
Reil and his unit were stationed in a small combat outpost known as an FOB (Forward Observing Base). The dogs and the dog handlers all lived together in a hardened building called The Hooch.
“A hardened building is made out of cement and is constructed to withstand small-arms fire and mortar rounds,” Reil said. “The FOB is a big complex with different command posts, army platoons, mechanic's bay and medic's bay. It has about 15 to 20 buildings. It actually used to be an agricultural college that shut down at the beginning of the war, and we just turned it into a base.
“When we first got to our hooch, we had to build it up some. We built some rooms, and a couch and a patio. The reason they let us have the patio is because we said it was for the dogs. We knew we wanted a patio, but we needed to [justify] it, so we said it was for the acclimatization of the dogs, because they can't work if it gets too hot, which was kind of a bullshit reason—but we wanted the patio, so that's what we told them.”
Regardless of whether the dogs actually need a patio for their well-being, one thing is certain: They don't like war any more than humans do. Some of them are even developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“It's not surprising because dogs live in the now,” Reil explained, extinguishing another cigarette into a small candle-holder-turned ashtray. “They can't say, ‘Hey, I'm getting shot at today, but tomorrow will be better.' If they get shot at one day they're going to think they're going to get shot at the next day, and the day after that. So the dogs start shutting down. They think that every time they go out, they're gonna get blown up or get heat exhaustion. But the benefits of having dogs far outweigh [the risks]. If the dog dies or it gets PTSD, chances are he found stuff that made him that way, which means it was good that we had him there.”
Missions typically happen at night, Reil said. The troops convoy to the target zone and proceed to clear the area—usually houses, streets and courtyards.
“They break things down to pushes,” Reil explained. “They will clear one section of the city and secure all the insurgents. Then they'll push the next section, until that section is cleared.”
Another role of the K9 units is to clear buildings for “meet-and-greets”—gatherings of civil-affairs officers and local sheiks. They meet in a building—say, a power plant, and discuss different ways the Marines can facilitate the rebuilding process and how they can better serve the local people. It was Reil's unit's job to enter the power plant and make sure no shenanigans were planned by rival sheiks or insurgents.
Whether clearing a meet-and-greet building or clearing a house suspected of harboring weapons or insurgents, the way it works is just like in the movies. First, the guys with the M-16s rush through the building one room at a time, yelling, “Clear!” after each room is checked. When the building was secure, Reil and his dog, a Belgian Malanois named Tino, would go in and sniff out explosives.
“We look for what's called a ‘change in behavior,' Reil said. “His ears go up and his tail stiffens, and then the dog will pull me in the direction of the odor.”
During push in al-Iskan, a neighborhood in western Baghdad, Reil and Tino found four pressure plates, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are designed to detonate when vehicles pass over them or people step on them. When IEDs are found, the guys from EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) are called in to do a controlled detonation.
It was during the al-Iskan push that Reil and his unit ran into trouble. After finding the pressure plates, they commandeered a house for the night. When a house is commandeered, all the occupants are put into one room, and guards are posted.
The people living there “usually don't mind too much because we pay them for their troubles, and because unemployment is so high over there, it's often the only income they see. The ones that do mind, it's usually because they're hiding something.”
The next morning, the unit left the house and almost instantly drew incoming fire.
“I don't know if it got leaked that we were staying there,” Reil said. “We took cover behind a wall and returned fire. Then we called for a gun truck, which is an up-armored Humvee with a .50-caliber mounted. We followed behind the Humvee until the insurgents scattered.”
Reil didn't seem to mind talking about that firefight, probably because nobody was hurt. But when asked about other, similar situations, he fidgeted in his seat, lit another cigarette and politely declined to elaborate.
“People get hurt,” he said, his eyes becoming red and glassy. “It's really hard to talk about.”
And there it is—that thing. The thing you hear so often when soldiers come back from war, the thing they can't or won't talk about, the thing that gives them that “edge” they bring home with them. The things like the time the suicide bomber detonated himself in front of an Iraqi police checkpoint.
“After the explosion, my dog and I had to search the area for secondary devices,” Reil said. “When we got out of the Humvee, before I could stop him, my dog started licking and eating the remains. That was hard. It was a long time before I let my dog drink out of the same water bottle as me.”
Reil said that while in Iraq, he didn't follow politics all that much. He was too focused on the job. He did say, however, that he didn't believe the anti-war movement was undermining what they were doing over there; it didn't affect morale to such a degree that it weakened the troops and emboldened the enemy—a mantra repeated by members of the Bush administration and other supporters of continuing the occupation without a timetable for withdrawal.
“People saying they didn't support the war—that's fine. Being American, they have that option. I'm trying to defend that option, just so long as when the troops come home, the [people] show support.”
And that's what he's received. Most everyone he's encountered has been respectful and supportive of his service. And though he lost neither life nor limb, his sacrifice has been enormous. It's not just the loss of friends he mourns, or the new bride he was torn from, but also his own personality, his former self, now as gone as his 12th and last cigarette of the interview.
“I have been avoiding big groups of people,” he said. “It freaks me out. I smoke way more than I ever did…. My wife says that I'm more serious, and I space out. It's kind of a defense mechanism. If something bad happens in Iraq, you shut it down; otherwise, it will eat you alive…. You get thrown into this hostile environment and your mindset just completely changes. Things you wouldn't think of as dangerous before all of a sudden become extremely dangerous. Like, if you see a pile of garbage on the road, here in the States you would think, ‘Oh, that needs to be cleaned up.' But if you see a pile of garbage in Iraq, you say, ‘Oh no, we're gonna get blown up!' In Iraq, you are in that mindset all the time. You can't let your guard down at all.
“We have a saying that says, ‘Complacency kills,' and it does.”