August 1, 2006  

Divided nation

Bridging the chasm between military and civilian worlds

Nathaniel Fick’s account of his time as a Marine Corps officer stands as a monument to this generation of warriors. Using vivid prose to describe remarkable, firsthand experiences, Fick tells of joining the Corps prior to Sept. 11, 2001, only to spearhead the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

As he tells his story, he reveals a common theme: There is a disconnect in the American psyche that is destructive to our nation; ordinary citizens live without the realization that they are merely one bullet away from death themselves, and they struggle to comprehend the men and women in the military who protect them from such a fate. Fick hopes that disconnect can be eliminated and all will understand and feel pride in the accomplishments of our soldiers. By sharing his life, he gives a voice to countless others in the military.

“One Bullet Away” captures U.S. military culture. Fick uses terms, acronyms and jokes employed and understood throughout the military. By thoroughly explaining their meanings, he makes his story comprehensible to the uniformed and nonuniformed reader alike. Fick avoids the vulgarity often found in military memoirs, greatly enhancing the message he attempts to get across. Fick does not judge the policies of going to war in Afghanistan or Iraq, nor does he make political statements criticizing our nation’s leaders. However, many of his stories have direct relevance to the issues facing our military today, and he presents them honestly, as something he lived through.

Fick first draws our attention to the cultural disconnect between those who choose to serve in the military and those who view the need for such an organization with skepticism as he experiences it at one of America’s greatest educational institutions. While studying the classics at Dartmouth, he feels out of place among his fellow students and his professors. The culture of tolerance that higher education extols as a virtue evinces a disdain for the military and the intolerance academics believe it breeds. Professors teach that the peace at the end of the Cold War, globalization and free market economies make the world turn, and there is no place for militant, nationalistic soldiers. Unable to perceive any understanding around him, he continually looks back to ancient cultures; he discovers reaffirming, like-minded men in the writings of Thucydides, Plutarch and Augustine. He shares an affinity with people such as the Spartans, not because of the many battles they fought, but because of the oneness of mind and purpose with which Sparta sent out and welcomed home its soldiers. The academic culture around him lacks that unity and understanding. He ultimately looks toward the Marine Corps because its challenges, ideals and high standards appeal to him.

Leaving Dartmouth, Fick visits the Marine Corps War Memorial (depicting the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima) near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on his way to Quantico. Transitioning from one period of life to the next, he is attracted by the blank faces of the Marines frozen in time, but Fick is unable to fully personalize all the memorial represents. The monument embodies a history to Fick, but it also incomprehensibly promises future conflicts, ones that will involve him.

Arriving at Quantico, he embarks on his education as a Marine officer. The experience differs completely from the academic environment at Dartmouth, and it transforms his life and how he approaches the world. For Fick, “being a Marine was not about money for graduate school or learning a skill; it was a rite of passage in a society becoming so soft and homogenized that the very concept was often sneered at.” In the Marines, Fick unites with like-minded men he thought existed only in his ancient texts, men who realize the necessity of the military to defend our nation and its values. As he completes various stages of military training, he grows further apart from the average citizen who lives unaware of the mental and physical challenges he faces in his new academic pursuit.

The chasm between him and his fellow citizens only increases once he reports to his unit and becomes a platoon commander. While on a six-month cruise with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Fick spends some time in port at Pearl Harbor. Despite walking around in a T-shirt with vacationers, he feels awkward and out of place among them as they take pictures of his ship, the Dubuque.

When terrorists attack our homeland Sept. 11 and he is diverted to Afghanistan, he marvels and almost feels shame that he might have become a consultant or a medical student instead of a Marine sailing to defend his country. His platoon sees little action when it does go ashore, as more elite units fight most of the main battles. Fick’s pride in his decision to become a Marine increases, but he feels more alienated from the people back home. Despite the warlike rhetoric on everyone’s tongues and the plethora of yellow ribbons on bumpers, when he returns home people interact awkwardly with him as they fail to relate to his time spent fighting for their country. Rather than question who the Marines have made him since he left college, he chooses to become a Recon Marine, the pinnacle of “hardness” in the Corps and “intolerance” at Dartmouth.

Upon completing some of the most demanding military courses in the world, Fick joins the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and begins preparation for war with Iraq. On the eve of his deployment, he sits in an Italian restaurant and is surrounded by people oblivious to his impending departure, people incapable of comprehending his future. Once he arrives in Kuwait and the final battle plans are made, he begins the push north toward Baghdad with his platoon. The difficulty and rigor of his recon training pays off, as his platoon often leads the rest of his battalion as it drives through city after city. He fights in many of the major battles of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He calls in artillery and airstrikes on enemy positions. He seeks safety from AK47s, rocket-propelled grenade and mortar rounds and, occasionally, from other Marines. He deals with looting and revenge killings in Baghdad. He searches an amusement park turned into a Fedayeen military base. The illusion of a safe world disappears forever, as bullets wound some of his men, yet narrowly miss him. Fick’s unit returns to the States not long after the end of open hostility in Iraq, and he comes home a changed man with a perception of reality far different than when he left.

After completing numerous military schools and two combat deployments, Fick senses himself firmly on the far, isolated side of a societal divide. He desires to return home to friends who understand him, who internalize and share in his life. He wants people to know that, as a junior officer, he often wrestled with decisions that forced him to choose between the lesser of two evils. He struggled to find balance between accomplishing his mission while still protecting his men. He worked under good and bad leaders, and modeled his own character after some, while he feared for his life because of the incompetent decisions of others. He saw death and destruction and will forever agonize over it, yet he got joy out of lobbing grenades at an enemy soldier who was shooting at him. He longs to express these experiences to bring sense and healing to his life, but the people he left behind at Dartmouth, Pearl Harbor and the Italian restaurant are unable to listen.

Fick makes clear that, for those in uniform, comfortably interacting with others outside of the military can be difficult. That interaction can become so intolerable that some in the military give up trying to find understanding outside of groups of other soldiers and veterans. Most of the men in my battalion wear KIA bracelets with the names of men we lost in combat this last year. I have had many awkward conversations with people who ask what the bracelet is, only to feel embarrassed for intruding into this area of my life. They cannot understand why I wear it. I wear mine because I am proud of who these fallen brothers were and what they accomplished with their lives. The bracelets are a small, visible memorial of what all of us face; the very act of wearing one reminds others of the ultimate sacrifices some have made so that we can appreciate the peace and prosperity that our nation enjoys.

By sharing his story, Fick not only brings relief to his mind and conscience, but he also speaks with authority on behalf of those still serving, especially young, junior officers making difficult decisions between lesser and greater evils.

It is Fick’s hope that the silhouetted men on the cover of his book, just like the anonymous monuments of metal and stone in Washington, will become real people in “One Bullet Away,” people who our entire society will understand, appreciate and welcome home with rejoicing and open arms.

1ST LT. MICAH ANDREW NIEBAUER is the executive officer of C Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.