Interview of Joel Poudrier, USMC, by Philip Metres (2005)
1. What has been your experience of war?
My experience of “war” has been as both one involved in the “fighting” and as one who, being a Marine, even if I’m not involved in the combat, it is something that tends to dominate my thinking. I don’t “like” war and I am very aware of the suffering and devastation that war brings. It is painful to leave my family behind when I deploy. But being a Marine is really like being part of a fraternity and our loyalty to each other (and our mission within society) overwhelms any fears, homesickness, or apprehension that we feel (for the most part). If I’m not there in the mix, I feel like I should be. As a Marine, it’s my job to be involved in the fighting, regardless of any personal opinion or personal circumstance. I’ve always felt that if I wasn’t “here” someone else would have to take my place and maybe they would die in my place. So in essence, I’ve always experienced war as a place where “I’m supposed to be.”
2. Did you ever struggle with ethical questions–whether the war was just, whether decisions you made were right or wrong, etc.–during the war?
No, I haven’t. Luckily, I haven’t had to live through the “Vietnam Experience” where the “American voice” of anti-war protests seemed to be more “anti-military, anti-soldier” than a protest against the process that leads to war. So I have always felt supported in my role as a Marine. Also, I have always looked upon my role as a rather noble cause and have considered myself to be a Patriot. Understanding that terrible, moral violations offer occur in war (rape, torture, theft, murder), I “know” that in the small sphere of influence that I control, these things would not happen. I and my men would follow the Laws of War. Have you ever seen the movie “Casualty of War” with Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn? I like to think that had I been in the same situation as Fox’s character, I would have done the same thing (although I’d like to think I’d have stood up to Penn’s character a little more, but who knows). In the wars that I’ve “experienced” (Bosnia, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan), for me, there has always been an identifiable “bad guys” or “group” or “enemy” (Serb soldiers, Mldadic, Noriega’s forces, Baathist Forces/Republican Guard, Taliban or AQ personnel); there has been a target that I did not have a problem “taking down” if given the opportunity.
3. If you went overseas, what do you remember about that other place and other people? I seem to recall a great poem about a scene in Egypt–was it Egypt–that articulates the dizzying encounter with another culture and place. Can you share that?
Some of the places that I’ve been to overseas include: Guam, Philippines, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Italy, and Afghanistan. I particularly recall Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan because these countries are so poor and seeing Americans there, especially American Marines, was quite a sight for the locals. I always think about what it must be like for them: to see these big Americans, all healthy and smiles, usually handing stuff out to them. I have always thought (and often said to my friends) that no matter where you go in this world, two things remain the same: kids are always kids and dogs are always dogs; the kids are always friendly and curious, and dogs are mostly friendly as well. I’ve always made it a point to smile at children and give them something if I could, thinking this might be the only memory, or first memory, they have of meeting an American “soldier.” I want it to be a good one. I’ve loved the experience of being overseas and have always tried to look at things a little deeper than the average tourist. In Afghanistan, I kept a postcard of the wide-eyed (National Geographic) Afghan girl (I think she was actually Pakistani) behind my desk in the rear. Some of my buds remarked that I was a “romantic.” They’re right. Most of the women in Afghanistan were veiled (once they reach age 13) and I always thought there must have been a lot of beautiful faces behind the veils. The little girls were always very cute and the children always smiled. In Afghanistan I traveled around quite a bit in civilian clothes (wearing a bulletproof vest underneath) doing HUMINT (Human Intelligence Work). Still, I (we) was (were) instantly recognizable as an American soldier, and kids flocked to me (us). In Egypt I remember squatting down to say hello to a group of kids and shake all of their hands and seeing gigantic smiles. I remember a lot of hard humps up mountains and cold nights in the field as well. But I always very much respected the culture of wherever I was and tried to relate to the people. In Turkey I remember my platoon tromping, in full, muddy battle gear, through a village of thatched roofs and donkeys, thinking that the locals probably didn’t know if we were an invading army or just a group of jarheads on a training mission. In Afghanistan I remember “capturing” a terrorist and then having to deal with his family. The wife was hysterical and the children were shaking with fear. I came back the next day and gave the kids a couple of U.S. dollars (after re-searching their house). The kids smiled a little, and I wonder if they’ll remember the dollar as much as the fear? I’ll attach some of the poems I’ve written over the years, such a “Only One Wrist” the poem you mention above.
4. Did you ever experience combat? Did you have non-combat encounters with “the enemy”?
In all my years of being a Marine, the only place I really experienced “combat” was in Afghanistan, and it certainly wasn’t combat in the force-on-force-firefight variety. It was mostly track down, search and snatch bad guys (Taliban and AQ supporters, men who with years of murdering their own on their record and financial or weapons support to TB/AQ operatives who were attacking US/Coalition forces in AF) and no one was dumb enough to shoot at us during a “cordon and search” mission. The most dangerous aspects of my time there was driving around AF in unmarked SUV’s (that were easily recognizable as “coalition”) and going out in town talking to “sources”. We used to drive 100+ mph over dirt roads and winding mountain passes, avoiding attack by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and snipers. On several occasions I passed through areas where within hours, someone was attacked and killed. My attitude was simply to move fast and not worry about it, stay focused on my mission and time schedule. I was lucky. I did meet with known “enemy” several times in non-combat environments, mostly as part of the work-up to capture them. I had no problem taking these guys down and would have killed any of them, if necessary, with no remorse. They were as close to pure “evil” as humanly possible, at least that is what I thought. They were much more like mafia than “international” terrorists and seeing them tied up, blindfolded and being escorted onto a helicopter always gave me a good feeling. As we went into villages, either by helicopter or armored vehicles (mostly at night) I was never worried about getting into a “fight” because I knew we had so much firepower it was ridiculous. I did think about running over a landmine (which is how most of us were killed or wounded), but like I said, you just stay focused and move quickly. I believe these two rules have saved countless lives throughout the history of warfare.
5. Were you wounded in any way (physically, emotionally, psychically, spiritually) as a result of your experience in war? Has there been a process of healing?
No, I don’t feel like I’ve been wounded in any way. Luckily I have not had to kill anyone close up or hold a dying or seriously wounded comrade in my arms. I do miss being in Afghanistan and miss the mission and sense of purpose that I had there. Some of my friends were killed or badly wounded in either Iraq or Afghanistan. One of my best friends was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq. I feel guilt about not being over there with him, since I feel my place in life is supposed to be wherever the fighting is and where the American military is involved. I recently had a visit with his wife and two children. Their healing process will be eternal. Again, I feel like I’ve been very lucky. I feel like you deal with situations and move on, best you can.
6. What was it like returning to “normal life”? Did you have a period of adjustment?
Coming home is always a great feeling, especially when you’ve been gone on a long deployment and being “home” is like Christmas morning for a couple of straight weeks. When I returned from Afghanistan I immediately packed up our house and drove to CA, starting school here in Monterey directly. I definitely missed being in AF, since I liked the mission over there, I liked my role and I felt like I was in my element. I would have liked to have stayed there for a year and put off school, but the USMC wouldn’t go for it. If I could go back tomorrow, or to Iraq, I’d be packed and ready to go within an hour. I’ve always been ready to go at any time while at the same time appreciated being home, especially now that I have young children.
7. Did your experience resemble portrayals of war on TV, in film, or in literature? Some clichés in Vietnam War movies, for example, are that soldiers were often stoned or mentally disturbed, and the stereotype of the mentally ill veteran persists.
As far as war movies go, I have not experienced anything that resembles say the combat scenes in “Platoon” or “Apocalypse Now” or “Full Metal Jacket”. What’s funny is, the non-combat scenes in those movies where the platoon experiences inner-turmoil, fighting, and competition, that is all very real, especially during my experience as a young enlisted grunt (infantryman) in the Marines. As an officer, things have become much more political, but you still see those who perform well under stress and those who can’t handle it. In “Full Metal Jacket” there is one scene in which a Marine squad is assaulting Hue City and they’re pinned down by a sniper. They are squabbling, lost, and somewhat terrified, and the leader has to struggle to get control of his men, one guy steps up to take charge and they keep moving. I’ve always remembered this scene as very realistic and close to what I’ve experienced more in training than in Afghanistan. In AF, the Marines were very professional, very aggressive. We take pride in this. I was always very proud of being part of this “team.”
8. Do you think about the war often? What sorts of different memories come back to you?
I think about what I would have done, or could have done, had I been more involved; say on the ground in Sarajevo rather than just flying over it in a helicopter or training along the coast (which I did in 1996-97). In Afghanistan I remember driving fast, all the dust, the filth and corruption of the men I helped capture, and the children in the villages. I remember sitting along a streambed, in darkness, listening to a radio and waiting for the call to move into a village. I remember feeling very determined and focused. And I remember smoking cigars at night, looking at the mountains and laughing and joking with my buddies.
9. When you get together with people that you had your experience with, what sorts of stories do you share? What things do you not talk about? Why?
We often talk about mutual people that we know or particular events that we remember, say the night raid in Surobi and the shaken family that I remember. We mostly talk about the humorous things that we remember or the one or two near-death experiences that we might have experienced (nothing in Afghanistan for me, but I had a couple flying around in helicopters as a young lieutenant). We talk about how we’d like to go back, or how we would have done something different, say spent more time searching a particular village or set up company outposts along a notorious stretch of Afghan highway. We share experiences because it’s all part of the camaraderie, what makes us unique, especially as Marines, which, we all feel, are the best of the best. It adds to our sense of purpose.