Green marine pays the price
Dubliner Graham Dale is still recovering from his snap decision to join the US marines, which landed him on the frontline in Iraq, writes Fionola Meredith
ON THE AFTERNOON of September 11th, 2001, as a shocked global audience watched endless re-runs of the Twin Towers' spectacular disintegration, 23-year-old Dubliner Graham Dale decided to take action. He volunteered to join the United States Marine Corps. Three years later, he would be fighting for his life in the desert wastes of Western Iraq - and the consequences of that snap decision, borne of shock, outrage and anger at such a blatant attack on his adopted home, remain with him today.
Reading Dale's book, The Green Marine: an Irishman's War in Iraq, it's clear that he's equipped with a larger than usual sense of moral duty. As Dale acknowledges himself, many people, particularly in Ireland, have asked him why he chose to fight for another country's military in such a controversial war. His answer is simple: "I couldn't sit by on the sidelines and watch these terrible events unfold like it was a daytime TV drama. We were under attack and I felt it was my duty to step up to the plate, roll up my sleeves and fight to defend a way of life that was now mine."
Having arrived in Austin, Texas in 2000, Dale had already built himself a comfortable life. With the dot-com boom in full swing, he quickly found well-paid work as a software consultant with IBM. But the exotic delights of his brand new Ford Mustang, the glorious Texan weather and a luxurious apartment complete with a hot tub were soon exchanged for the notoriously harsh regime at a San Diego boot camp. The closest Dale had previously come to war games was as a boy growing up in Raheny, where he used to sneak into the grounds of the local Capuchin monastery with his mates and enact fearsome mock-battles. It proved to be scant preparation for the trials of boot camp.
Dale describes how the recruits' sense of individuality was systematically stripped away through a combination of brutal aggression, harsh scrutiny and the arbitrary exercise of power by the drill instructors, or DIs - all part of the "long and painful road to forgetting that we had ever existed outside the marine corps". And Dale's noticeable Irish accent only made things harder, as the DIs singled him out for particular ridicule, on one occasion forcing him to take part in a humiliating fake St Patrick's Day parade.
Unpleasant though the experience was, it paled in comparison with the horrors Dale witnessed when he was eventually posted to Iraq as a marine reserve mortarman in August 2004. The burnt bodies, the dismembered bodies, the bodies blown to smithereens: Dale recorded each blistering incident in a 350-page journal, which became the basis for his book. He says that transcribing these harrowing events was strangely comforting, a small catharsis in the midst of abject terror: "it was a way of processing it all, a way of putting things in perspective".
While Dale's book, written with Irish journalist Neil Fetherstonhaugh, is fairly jocular and bluntly expressed, as well as liberally laced with colourful expletives, what's surprising is the sensitivity, self-deprecating humour and emotional articulacy of the young marine. His description of the psychological effects of his Iraqi posting are both bleakly funny - he writes that he was "locked into some strange male version of a menstrual cycle", wild mood swings and all - and simply poignant. After desperately trying to resuscitate a fatally wounded colleague, Dale returns to an empty room, wheezing from smoke inhalation and covered in another man's blood. "I wanted to be held," he writes. "I wanted to reach out and cry or scream but, instead, I just lay there quietly and stared at a blank wall until I fell asleep".
Dale is indignant that anyone should be surprised that he has a sensitive side. "Everyone assumes that boot camp brainwashes you, that you get turned into robots that want to kill people," he muses. "The most important thing for me was to show that real people were involved in these events, real individuals with families and friends."
Those experiences in Iraq took a tremendous personal toll. Looking at the snapshots of Dale perched on a machine-gun turret, complete with requisite dark aviator sunglasses - the very picture of macho military pride - it's hard to recognise the far more fragile man he became. "I'm currently still being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder," Dale admits, speaking from his home in Texas, where he returned to from Iraq in March 2005.
"There have been changes to my personality. I can't stand crowded places, or loud sudden noises. And I hate driving - I just can't relax, I'm always looking all around me. I expect that will be with me for the rest of my life." While counselling helped, it was the arrival of his new pet dog, Killer the Chihuahua, that really lifted Dale's spirits. Recalling another traumatised veteran who takes comfort from the constant presence of his pet cat, Dale says: "Killer did for me in one day what all the doctors and counsellors had been trying to do for a year. He made me laugh and gave me something to care about. With him beside me, I was able to sleep at night again."
These days, Graham Dale is no longer the eager young recruit who signed up for the marines in a rush of idealistic fervour and admits to moments of dark cynicism. "This war reeks too much of oil and freshly printed dollar bills . . . and it's all covered with the blood of my friends who had their lives cut short," he says.
The Green Marine: An Irishman's War in Iraq, Hachette Books, £12.99