War too close for comfort
December 14, 2007
He has been away from war for a month but the Pinebrook man says he has nightmares about watching his buddy breathe his last breath in Iraq.
Today U.S. Army Spc. Justin Murrell wears an inscribed metal wristband so he won’t forget the day Sgt. Mario Kawika Deleon died in his arms.
"He was the first casualty that I ever lost," the 21-year-old medic said in an interview Thursday. "He got shot in the head by a sniper."
Three soldiers in his mechanized infantry platoon were killed as Murrell patrolled the dangerous streets of Baghdad, Iraq for more than a year.
"I’ve done it all. Anything the infantry guys have done, I’ve done. You start kicking down doors with everyone else and it’s dangerous, but it’s exciting as hell," Murrell said proudly. "One minute you’ve got to be this hard-ass soldier and you turn around five minutes later and you’ve got little kids asking you for candy or food, and all of the sudden you’ve got to be this humanitarian."
Still, even though his tour in the Middle East got extended, Murrell said he doesn’t regret enlisting in 2005.
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"When we first deployed they said it was going to be nine months. At about the eight-month mark, they told us it was going to be 12 months. And at about the 11th-month mark, they told us it is going to be 15 months," Murrell explained. "Every day you are just counting down, three months is no joke, it’s a long time."
He isn’t optimistic that bloodshed in Iraq will soon end.
"We try to help [the Iraqis], but they don’t want to work for themselves. I would love for Iraq to be a peaceful, happy place, but I don’t think it’s ever going to happen," Murrell said. "They just sit there and ask for more and it’s very frustrating. The government, from the president all the way down to the police, it’s all corrupt."
Murrell recalled being a go-between to help rival Shia and Sunni factions struggling to build schools and collect textbooks for children.
"The people who are going out setting up bombs and killing people, the majority are Shias," he explained, adding that as a Sunni, Saddam Hussein was in the minority. "This is [the Shias’] chance to take over. They’ll go out and kill a couple Sunnis and they drag them to a different neighborhood and lay their bodies out in the middle of the road to try to scare the people out of the neighborhood."
Murrell praised American soldiers who helped calm tensions in the violent Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, but "[the violence] just all squeezed into Baghdad," he said.
"[Baghdad] is so big and so diverse that it’s hard to control," he said.
His platoon worked for 12 hours patrolling the city in the day and at night raided neighborhoods searching for insurgents. Murrell lived with about 200 American soldiers on a makeshift base in Baghdad that was once an Iraqi police station.
"We had hot food about three times a week," he said, adding that instant military rations were common. "We’d eat Spam sandwiches like they were no one’s business."
Murrell, who wasn’t hurt in Iraq, said a close call came when a homemade explosive device destroyed the front end of an armored Humvee he was riding in.
To welcome Murrell home his neighbors planted 40 flags in his yard.
"When they came and put the flags up I almost started to cry. The neighbors are awesome," Murrell’s mother Rachelle Murrell said. "It’s a big thing for somebody to go over there. We were scared, but we knew it would be good for him. It was awful that he had to go to Iraq."
Justin Murrell lamented that too many civilians speak against the war with little understanding of what occurs in Iraq.
"If we had our way, there would be no war. We don’t want to get shot at and we don’t want to shoot people. But if I had to go back, I’d go back in a heartbeat," he said. "When you get back from Iraq, you just hate everybody who wasn’t there. Especially people who think they know what’s going on and try to talk to you like they know what’s going on and argue with you about it. It’s ridiculous."