On May 15, 2003, Sean Metroka, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps, was surveying a barren tract of desert located near al-Mahawil in the central region of Iraq.
The swath of dust-coated land showed signs of being excavated, as dirt was piled up desultorily in places across the site, dotted with hundreds, even thousands, of translucent trash bags filled with human remains.
“There was this one woman who was just wailing,” Metroka said Friday from his office at the Nevada County Courthouse, where he works as the court’s executive officer. “She had seven or eight sons. And all but one of them were buried there.”
Metroka is talking about a mass gravesite near the Iraqi city of Hilla, situated between the Tigres and Euphrates rivers. Hilla is adjacent to the ancient city of Babylon, an area reputed to be the cradle of human civilization, where writing was first developed, where the Jewish prophet Ezekiel is believed to have been buried and where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, an ancient wonder of the world, once were.
For Metroka, Hilla will never evoke the wondrous dreams of human history.
Instead, it reminds him of the nightmarish reality of humans acting less than human — to be monstrous.
As Metroka and other Marines helped members of an Iraqi Shiite community perform an exhaustive exhumation at the desolate site, where about 15,000 individuals, mostly young and middle-aged men, lay buried, Metroka said he grappled with the despicable wages of tyranny, with the awful things men do to one another.
Most of the individuals interred in the massive grave were killed in 1999, in retaliation for their suspected cooperation with American soldiers during the first invasion of Iraq (Aug. 2, 1990, to Feb. 28, 1991), Metroka said.
The men were systematically rounded up from surrounding villages, taken out to the desert site, lined up in rows of 15 and unceremoniously shot and hastily covered by desert dust.
“There were thousands of plastic bags,” Metroka said. “There were all these people there searching for their relatives, for people who had suddenly disappeared.
“It was one of the most troubling aspects of my service,” he said.
On April 11, 1880, 16 years after the American Civil War had concluded, famed Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman told a crowd of 10,000 during a speech in Columbus, Ohio, that “there is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”
What Metroka knows, that many may not, is that war is not a hell experienced and then sloughed off and forgotten, but a hell that grows inside, that persists, that will not leave you alone.
In November 2002, Metroka, an artillery officer in the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, one of the three major forces to precipitate the eventual invasion of Iraq, was stationed at Camp Commando in north central Kuwait.
Metroka and his fellow Marines, most of whom were based in California’s Camp Pendleton, were engaged in high-level training exercises with an eye toward the eventual invasion of Iraq as rhetoric out of Washington, D.C., became more bellicose with each passing day.
Metroka was living in a bedouin tent, dealing with sub-freezing temperatures endemic to the region around wintertime, although the desert, in the summer, can host temperatures as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I expected the invasion was going to happen,” Metroka said. “Our plans were developed, we were building up forces in Kuwait and we knew it was imminent. It was a foregone conclusion.”
At 5:34 a.m. Baghdad time on March 20, 2003, (it was 6:34 p.m. on March 19 in California), “Operation Iraqi Liberation,” later renamed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” began.
While Metroka and his team organized many long-range strikes on military targets, ground forces crossed into Iraqi territory and made their way north, encountering sustained resistance. He remembers his encampment in the desert taking on a constant barrage of artillery throughout much of the initial day and night of the invasion.
“That day and night, we were constantly going back and forth into the bomb shelters,” Metroka said.
“I remember the first day of that bombardment, I saw directly overhead a Scud missile impacted by a Patriot Missile. You could see the explosion in the sky and we just watched as the shrapnel rained down around us.”
Metroka first stepped foot onto Iraqi soil March 22, nearly 26 hours after Iraqi coalition forces crossed the border and started a war.
While ground forces continued to encounter resistance during their northward march toward the capital of Baghdad, the effects of the embargo had weakened the Iraqi to an unanticipated degree, making progress much more rapid than anticipated, Metroka said.
“The ill effects of living under a tyrannical regime were evident, as there was not food or clean water in large swathes of the country,” Metroka said.
Metroka said the involuntary conscription of many of the soldiers, who were forced into the army under threat of bodily harm or harm to their families, meant many had little to no qualms over surrender.
The invasion proceeded more swiftly than planned, Metroka said, as Baghdad fell on April 9, only three weeks after the invasion began.
Six days later, coalition forces took Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, encountering slender resistance, which effectively marked the end of the invasion phase of the Iraq War.
On May 1, President George Bush dramatically visited the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was navigating waters just outside of San Diego, and delivered the well-known and heavily derided “Mission Accomplished” speech.
While all of this was occurring, Metroka was traveling with fellow Marines, around April 12 or 13, heading north through the center of the country.
He remembers the throng of Iraqi citizens streaming out of Baghdad, he remembers the gratitude of the people who had just been freed from a brutal rule, and he remembers seven brand-new bright red industrial tractors, fresh off the assembly line, being driven in a procession amid the exodus of refugees marching through the dust.
“What struck me most when I got to Iraq, was the amount of looting by the people,” Metroka said. “They were taking furniture, appliances, building materials, mostly from the government buildings. This went on for months and there was no way to stop it.”
All of this was minor compared to the problem of hundreds of weapon arsenals that essentially went unsecured for months after the invasion, Metroka said.
Any government that invades another country creates a four-phase plan, Metroka said, including preparation and build-up; military execution; disarmament and regime change; and stabilization and restoration of the country.
Metroka said the military architects of the Iraq War did not have a well-rounded and complete plan for stabilization and restoration of Iraq post-invasion, and this lack of preparation was exacerbated by the fact that the hostile military takeover of the country happened exponentially quicker than anyone anticipated.
“We moved so fast through Iraq,” Metroka said. “We toppled the regime in one month and a half. What we were left with is a country without law and order, with borders we could not patrol and with many military stockpiles we could not secure.”
Metroka said the coalition forces needed about 600,000 bodies to fully secure the destabilized country but had only 260,000 in the months following the takeover of Baghdad.
“What we discovered, is that you can’t do a war on the cheap,” Metroka said.
What unfolded in the aftermath of the invasion and in the lead up to the insurgency was an attempt to secure cities sector by sector, rather than follow an overarching comprehensive plan, Metroka said.
Compounding the problem, generals from the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army engaged in a continual battle over who was in charge in Baghdad, each growing more concerned about public image rather than specific goals to help secure the city.
The failure to even develop, let alone implement, a stabilization plan has had lasting impacts on Iraq, leading to criticism regarding the ultimate effectiveness of the U.S. mission.
According to the Associated Press, insurgents carried out a wave of bombings across the country Tuesday that killed 65 people.
The nearly 20 attacks, most of which were in proximity to Baghdad, constitute the deadliest day in Iraq this year and demonstrate how dangerously divided Iraq remains more than a year after American troops completed a withdrawal that began in June 2009 and that was complete by December 2011.
Violence has ebbed sharply since the peak of Sunni-Shiite fighting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007, the AP reported.
But insurgents are still able to stage high-profile attacks, while sectarian and ethnic rivalries continue to tear at the fabric of national unity.
From the moment Metroka set foot on Kuwaiti soil on Nov. 17, 2002, he remained on high alert for the remainder of his deployment. He engaged in gun battles with the enemy, heard the hiss of missiles as they landed near his encampment and witnessed the remains of a female suicide bomber scattered about a public square.
“I’ve seen a lot of bad things,” he said.
For Metroka, the most salient picture of the hell that is war centers around that one day in May, when he witnessed a degree of grief and terror he never thought possible as he helped Iraqi citizens sift through a field of their dead friends and relatives at the mass grave near Hilla.
“I was an optimist when it came to human nature,” he said. “I thought people needed to learn how to be evil, but I don’t think that now. I think our nature is to be selfish and by extension evil. It is only through our parents and our society that we learn how to be good.”
Metroka said this dramatic reversal in the orientation of his fundamental moral compass was the most difficult part of the transition back to civilian life. When he returned from Iraq and assumed his duties as the Court Executive Officer for Nevada County, he spent as much free time volunteering as he possibly could.
“I just wanted to focus on what I can do to be good to other people,” he said. “I got carried away with it.”
His voracious volunteerism created a rift between Metroka and his wife, harming their relationship.
“I was gone all the time,” Metroka said. “It was just an unconscious attempt to keep busy — to distract myself. Also, I needed to prove to myself that I was not naturally evil.”
Metroka, the father of three children (two sons and a daughter), said he would sometimes get so choked up with indiscriminate anger that he would literally find himself yelling at his teenage son, as though he just came to.
Metroka said he recognized he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and began seeking treatment and continues to go to counseling every week.
“I know this is the kind of stuff that happens when at war,” Metroka said. “I just find that slowly it is easier to think about. I don’t avoid the things I’ve experienced, but I have learned not to dwell on them. To keep it all bottled in, though, like I used to — it’s an impossible task.”
‘The right thing to do’
Metroka said he cannot believe 10 years have passed since the invasion of Iraq.
Many pundits will scramble to define the legacy of that military operation over the course of the next week, but for Metroka, the experience of meeting hundreds of grateful Iraqi people, happy to be released from the clenches of despotism stands testament to the value of the Iraq War.
“I have mixed feelings about the reasons we entered the war and some of the long-term problems it may have caused for both countries,” he said.
“But if you think from a humanistic perspective, it was the right thing to do.
“Some say we went to war because of oil,” he continued. “I don’t know. Maybe we did. Maybe we went to war for other reasons. But in that country, so many people lived in fear; they were abused by their government. It was tyranny at its worst, and there are thousands, maybe millions of people who are far better off now than any day living under Saddam Hussein.”
Even personally, as Metroka still deals with the psychological toll of his involvement in the war, he perseveres that it was a positive experience.
“I don’t regret it,” he said.
“I am thankful that I was in a position to be called, to do what I signed up to do when I was 17. I am thankful to my country that they allowed me to serve.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.
“Some say we went to war because of oil. I don’t know. Maybe we did. Maybe we went to war for other reasons. But in that country, so many people lived in fear; they were abused by their government. It was tyranny at its worst, and there are thousands, maybe millions of people who are far better off now than any day living under Saddam Hussein.”
— SEAN METROKA