When I was an Associated Press newsman, my best friend at work was a chubby, balding former Army paratrooper named Dennis Anderson. I was in my early 20s, fresh out of college and I thought I knew everything. He was two decades older, on his second marriage and he did know everything.
Dennis was my supervisor on the weekend night shifts. While the rest of L.A. relaxed or partied, we muddled through often mundane evenings, comforted by old war movies and his lyrical stories of newsmen and soldiers of years’ past. He did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. He had a thundering voice that had been deepened by years of smoking. “Death sticks, Jeff,” Dennis once told me. “Too bad they’re so fuckin’ bad for you.” Seconds passed before the punch line: “The smoke looks so damn melodramatic.” Picture a white version of James Earl Jones (the actor who gave Darth Vader his voice, young’uns). That was Dennis.
I don’t know many kids who would want to hang with their old man at work on the weekends, but Garrett did. The reason was simple – his dad was his hero. The first time I met Garrett, he was young enough to still be playing with toys while watching TV in the bureau library. One night as I rushed to the kitchen to freshen my coffee cup, I saw this gangly kid lounging on the couch with a couple of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in his lap. I asked what the turtles’ names were. They were named after Renaissance artists (this is beyond my comprehension).
We struck up an easy conversation. As we spoke, Garrett made eye contact, didn’t fidget and spoke with confidence. He did not divide his attention between me, the TV and his toys. In other words, Garrett was raised right.
Over the years and through those long weekends, he became my little brother. I went to his kung fu tournaments, he came to my house parties. That didn’t change when I left the AP and moved farther away to be closer to the beach. Garrett even bought my ailing 1990 Honda Civic LX when I eventually left the Left Coast to join the Marine Corps a few weeks after 9/11.
The Marine thing had gnawed at me for a while, ever since I visited a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter to do a story – a local reaction piece on three American soldiers who had gotten captured during the Kosovo conflict in the late ‘90s. The guys at the VFW were gracious and answered my questions politely. But just underneath their beer-soaked smiles and kind eyes was an elephant in the room that sat in the corner of the bar, puffing on a death stick: You weren’t there. You’ll never do what I did. You’ll never understand. They never said it, but I felt it.
I suspect the same feeling gnawed at Garrett because he grew up in sheepdog culture. His dad’s friends were vets and first responders. Weekends might feature cookouts at the VFW or a visit to Edwards Air Force Base. His sensei was a two-tour recon Marine in Vietnam.
And of course, there was me. In spring 2002 Dennis and Garrett came to Quantico to visit me – a half-baked second lieutenant midway through The Basic School. Afghanistan was considered a done deal, but Iraq loomed over the horizon. Over beers and burgers, Garrett told me he was skipping college and enlisting in the Marines on a guaranteed infantry contract. College could wait. The war couldn’t.
Garrett, who is twisted, found boot camp fun. He was a glutton for punishment, practically giggling under his breath at the screaming drill instructors as they thrashed him and other recruits on the quarterdeck. He wasn’t the fastest or strongest, but he could think on his feet and hump a heavy pack – perfect to become his rifle platoon’s radioman when he checked into Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3) in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii in 2004.
When 1/3 deployed later that year, it was among the last battalions to see combat in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The battalion was part of the massive offensive to clear insurgents from the city of Fallujah, which became infamous after the mutilated bodies of four Blackwater contractors were hung from a bridge across the Euphrates River months before. In this Second Battle of Fallujah (the first ended in stalemate because U.S. and Iraqi politicians got squeamish over the bloodshed), the fighting was block-by-block and house-by-house. The butcher’s bill for Garrett’s Third Platoon was stark – one dead and six others wounded.
Weeks after the battle, in January 2005, a helicopter carrying 1/3 Marines crashed in Anbar Province, killing all 27 Marines aboard. Dennis’ life stood still for days after the crash was made public, until he found out the Marines were not from Garrett’s company.
You weren’t there. You’ll never do what I did. You’ll never understand.
By the time the deployment was over in June 2005, 45 of the battalion’s Marines had been killed. One of those, Sgt Rafael Peralta, was nominated for the Medal of Honor after falling on an exploding grenade to save his squad during the Fallujah battle; he got the Navy Cross. As Dennis said to me, “Thanks be to God. My sorrow for all the rest of ’em who didn’t make the trip home.”
In January 2006, a five-month deployment to Afghanistan’s restive Korengal Valley followed. Korengal was the place where a small Army firebase got overrun by insurgents about a year later.
Garrett was discharged from active duty in 2007, but he was never the same. After burying friends, you never are. I didn’t see him in person for a while, not until a year after he got out, at a pub in Pasadena. His feet were restless under the table. Every half-hour, he went outside to puff on a death stick. We both drank – beers and war stories go well together – but I didn’t find out until later that he had suffered a mental breakdown after binge drinking one night. There were many sleepless nights where he would just watch war footage on YouTube. And there was a suicide attempt.
Garrett has taken some time navigating home, but he’s getting there. Home is a feeling, not a place. It is a job (parking enforcement), a loyal dog and a great girl (his fiancée, Kat).
It’s also a calling – “filmmaker” has a nice ring to it. Garrett is making a documentary called “And Then They Came Home,” which depicts his comrades’ struggles as they returned to civilian life. The film will use footage taken by him and a handful of his comrades during the Second Battle of Fallujah, providing a unique first-person account of war and its aftermath.
They had not intended to make a movie about the battle; they simply wanted to capture the action. “I had not put in too much thought about a film after we left Iraq and it was a concept that drifted back to me,” Garrett wrote in an email.
I’m immensely proud of him, not just for pulling himself away from his personal abyss, but also for what he is doing for others who are finding the journey home a long one.
You weren’t there… but we can show you what happened.
You’ll never do what we did… but hopefully you’ll never have to.
You’ll never understand… but you may not need to, in order to honor and remember.