Ten years ago when the U.S. declared war on Iraq, Chris Martin was sent to the principal’s office.
Martin, then a State College Area High School sophomore, remembers getting into trouble for wearing a headband with a message proclaiming support for the massive bombardment of Baghdad that began on March 19, 2003, and launched the invasion.
“I was a very big proponent of the war,” Martin said.
School officials, he said, were worried about upsetting Middle Eastern students. But Martin donned the headband because he was bothered himself.
“I felt bad about the protesting of the war, because I didn’t feel it was patriotic,” he said.
Martin, 26, whose family still lives in Park Forest, went on to serve in Iraq with the Marine Corps — his part in the 8-year occupation that claimed the lives of 4,486 Americans, about 200 other coalition troops and, according to several estimates, more than 110,000 Iraqis.
The war, which quickly toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime but led to a bloody insurgency, has left Iraq with a shaky peace marked by political strife.
Robbie Fulton, 30, of State College, served near Ramadi in deadly Anbar province from September 2004 to March 2005.
A Milesburg native, he joined the Marines in 2002 right out of high school. When the war started, he was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., having just missed a deployment.
“I was ready to go over,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to do at that point.”
He got his chance as a lance corporal and a field artillery meteorologist assigned to the 11th Marine Regiment.
On a forward operating base near the Euphrates River, his team used weather balloons to collect data — wind speed and direction, air pressure — for 155mm howitzer batteries. The first day in-country, he turned 21, celebrating with a field ration pound cake and “really bad non-alcoholic beer.”
His new life included daily mortar attacks.
“It wasn’t terrible,” he said. “We would get them usually after evening prayer. We knew it was coming. It was usually very scattered. It was almost like (insurgents) were pointing and shooting. They weren’t really aiming.”
Still, the base took casualties.
“It was completely random,” Fulton said. “If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you got hit.”
Martin came to the Ramadi area later in the war.
After high school, he went to Penn State for a year, then worked for a local catering company.
“I wasn’t doing anything,” he said. “I was really floating through life.”
But all the while, he was reading about Iraq, about Marines his age fighting in Fallujah’s streets, raiding houses and capturing insurgents. The reports made an impression. He could do that, he thought. He could serve.
And so, he enlisted.
In boot camp, the reality of his decision hit hard — and not just from the training. Church services provided a sobering reminder of what awaited.
“I was pretty scared,” Martin said. “They would read off all the (Marines) killed that week.”
By September 2008, it was his turn to go.
With the 9th Marine Regiment he became an intelligence analyst for a weapons company after spending his first weeks in Ramadi on sentry duty.
From meetings with police chiefs, sheiks and other leaders, and by studying field reports and local records, he mapped out patterns of enemy activity, pinpointing insurgents for infantry commanders. One bit of detective work led to a Baghdad prison and busting up an IED-making cell that was supplying bombs nationwide.
Martin’s report reached top coalition brass, earning him a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.
“I think it just changed a lot of assumptions of how IEDs were being moved throughout the country,” Martin said.
In April 2009, he returned to the states. Both he and Fulton continued their service after Iraq. Martin pulled a tour in Afghanistan as a squad leader, essentially governing remote villages in Helmand province.
Fulton spent part of a 2007 assignment on a Navy ship chasing pirates off Somalia’s coast. Today, he’s in the Marine Reserves and works for a contractor.
Looking back, he said he “feels like we did some good” in Iraq by rebuilding schools and other infrastructure. His tour also changed him “to a degree,” he said.
“You grow up quick,” he said. “It opens your eyes to a whole different world. It forces people to really grow up.”
For better or worse, Iraq and Afghanistan have shaped a generation of veterans, said Corey Lonberger, 28, a State College native who fought with the Marines in Afghanistan and now serves as president of the Penn State Veterans Organization.
Many struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder or crippling injuries, but others like him are building their futures in colleges, taking advantage of improved G.I. Bill benefits.
“I think we have a lot more resources than other generations of veterans did,” Lonberger said.
Martin enrolled at Denison University, and now is a sophomore studying economics. He’s proud of his Iraq service, and he believes the country, despite its problems, is better off as a fragile democracy than a totalitarian state.
But he’s far from the gung-ho kid with the headband.
“I think a lot of people died on both sides for not a whole lot.”