Winner of Honorable Mention from Columbia Scholastic Press Association
In the middle of Ar Ramadi, Al Anbar, Iraq, a Marine patrol has four Humvees pointed all compass directions from an intersection. A marketplace roughly 600 yards south, bustling with donkeys, cows, cars and people a few minutes ago, has cleared out.
This is a sign of al-Qaida being afoot.
Gunfire began raining down on the group shortly after this giveaway and the platoon commander ordered everyone back into the vehicles. And he’s just yelled the acronym meaning rocket-propelled grenade.
This thing flies at 900 feet per second, and it’s headed right for the southern-most Humvee. There’s no way to dodge it, not like in the movies. If it hits the vehicle, everyone in it is dead. There’s nothing blocking it. No power lines, no obstructions.
Then it nosedives into the ground, 60 feet away, and rolls to a slow stop — harmless.
This isn’t Modern Warfare 2. This was Andrew Maddox’s life.
“I firmly believe that God protected me at that moment,” he said, after telling his tale.
Maddox, a 23-year-old sophomore who is planning to switch his major from political science to mechanical engineering, has enough of these stories to fill hours, maybe days. A scout sniper and sergeant by his discharge, he saw three tours overseas: two in Iraq and one in South Korea.
He was in the infantry, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, based at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. This battalion saw deployment in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and has been deployed five times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During his first tour, when the RPG incident happened, the Marines encountered 880 enemy contacts. The first Marine died after a week, on base outside the chow hall. And Maddox had seven months left to go.
But that was another season in his life, much like the Ecclesiastes verse, he said. Now is the time to study and get a degree. Or, like the verse says, “A time for war, and a time for peace.”
But war was his life for four years, from boot camp on Sept. 13, 2004, to his honorable discharge from the Marines in July 2008. Yet, once a Marine always a Marine. Maddox still reminisces about his time in “the sandbox.”
Especially in times like this, with the earthquake in Haiti and disaster relief efforts under way by the Marines. There are an estimated 16,000 military personnel in Haiti or offshore, the Pentagon told The Associated Press last week.
“You’re really just like, ‘Man, I really want to be over there,’ ” Maddox said.
Though he was taught to be “the eyes, ears and trigger finger” of his battalion commander, not everything he remembers is a near death experience.
During his second deployment to Ar Ramadi, his was a humanitarian mandate.
Most patrols consisted of driving around and checking out damage in the area – blasted mosque walls, broken sewer lines – and asking the local property owners what they would need to fix things, he said. Sometimes the Marines would dig in personally, and other times they’d provide the funds and education to teach the locals to do it themselves.
But it wasn’t all checking cracks and fissures.
“A lot of the times when we went on patrol, we went into houses,” he said. “We would take off our flak, our Kevlar, and we’d set our weapon down.”
It took some time to switch gears from the more kinetic environment on his first tour. But it was important, he said.
“It was just basically taking down the veil and saying, “Yes, I’m a human, I miss my home,’ ” he said. “ ‘I’m not here for whatever reason other than to help you.’ ”
Still, his second deployment wasn’t without close calls.
One Marine “kind of went crazy” over there, Maddox said. The soldier ran out into the middle of the city – an extremely dangerous thing to do in the same city where an RPG almost killed Maddox and his Humvee-mates just a year before.
“Had this been on the first tour,” he said, “we would have never found him again.”
After searching for him, they discovered that an area resident, Fahad Theidan, grabbed the man and took him into his own house. He knew the danger and possibly saved the soldier’s life, Maddox said.
Theidan needed a job, and the Marines, knowing now that he was trustworthy, helped him out, Maddox said. The two grew close, and the last patrol Maddox was on was at Theidan’s house – for dinner.
“It was just us and a bunch of sheiks, me and all the marines and a bunch of sheiks,” he said. “And we were sitting around eating kabobs and talking about all our experiences together, because we had been worked together for seven months.”
As Maddox told this story of his Iraqi friend, his voice choked up — especially, when he came to the evening’s conclusion.
“He said, ‘Andy, I’d like to thank you. From the lowest private all the way up to President Bush,’ ” Maddox recalls. “ ‘Thank you so much for all that you guys have done for us. And we’re really going to miss you. And God bless you guys.”
Maddox hugged him, then picked up Theidan’s children and hugged them goodbye.
“I always think of that family,” Maddox said.
Experiences like this, and his scout sniper training in Hawaii, made him a good student, he said. He enlisted 10 days after his 18th birthday, and it was the right decision at the time.
“I could have not had sat through college if I just went straight in,” he said.
Maddox joins many other veterans at the university. There are 617 students receiving veteran benefits, said Anita Perez, UTA’s veterans benefits coordinator. Some students are waiting on the process to be certified through Veterans Affairs, so she expects more to be certified soon.
The Marine experience sharpened Maddox’s discipline to sit there and finish his studies, he said.
“I wouldn’t have done it any other way,” he said. “I probably would have dropped out of college or just scraped on by.”
Instead of college, he went into one of the hardest programs the armed forces have to offer – scout sniper training.
During the last two weeks alone, including the infamous “Hell Week,” one is allowed two MREs (meals ready to eat) per week, must plan and execute 24-hour missions, all while under the watchful eye of the instructors, who look for the smallest mistakes.
Then there’s the jungle terrain, full of ravines and cliffs, so difficult to navigate that it can take 12 hours to move five kilometers. Plus, the book used and intensely studied, is about eight inches thick.
But there’s a payoff.
“You can shoot a man-sized target at 1,000 yards,” he said. “You can shoot a vehicle-sized target at 2,000 yards. You are the cream of the crop as far as a marksman is concerned.”
This intense learning environment translates well into school. He learned Arabic overseas, becoming a translator and earning the Bronze Star for his efforts.
“In the current counter-insurgency fight in Ramadi,” according to the summary of award submission, “Sgt. Maddox determined that to win, the people must be the focus of effort. Through his unique leadership, language skills and cultural understanding, Sgt. Maddox directly influenced the public to support and favor coalition forces. His actions led the battle for the people’s hearts and minds.”
The Marines even bunked him with an Iraqi man to foster his grasp of the language. It started small, and one sentence helped especially.
“Are there any gunmen near here?”
From this he deconstructed it, replacing “gunmen” with “watermelons” or “bus stop,” slowly adding to his vocabulary.
Maddox now looks for challenges, which is one of the reasons he wants to go into mechanical engineering and why he decided to take up Russian as well, he said.
Modern languages lecturer Tatiana Baeva had Maddox in her intensive Russian class, which met three times a week for two hours per class. Baeva said she didn’t even know he was a veteran at first. He was very modest about it, brightening the class in other ways.
“His sense of humor is marvelous,” she said. “He’s not afraid to experiment or look silly.”
His sense of humor came out when he did presentations and group role-playing scenarios, making the scene vibrant and interesting, Baeva said. This was coupled with his near perfect pronunciation.
“He has some gifts — talents — in language,” she said.
She described him as a model student, one whom organized study groups and reached out to those struggling the most.
“It was important he never left someone behind,” she said.
Foreign language is a passion for Maddox, but a tight course load means he isn’t taking it this semester, he said. He’s always loved languages, Russian in particular.
“I just love the way it sounds,” he said. “It’s a beautiful language to me.”
He wanted to learn languages as a child, and the only language he told himself he wouldn’t learn was Arabic, he said. That changed when he was deployed.
For Mary Ellen Maddox, Andrew’s mom, it wasn’t easy to send either of her sons to war. Andrew’s older brother, Kris, also went to Iraq – his unit was one of the first units over the Iraqi border, when the invasion started she said.
“It was difficult to send them,” she said. “You know, I am a Christian, and I definitely believe in prayer. I prayed for my sons and put them in God’s hands, realizing that one of them might not come home.”
And if they hadn’t, God would have given her the strength to bear that sorrow, she said. Still, their decisions didn’t come as a shock.
“It didn’t surprise me,” she said. “As little boys they loved anything to do with the military. They were fascinated by airplanes and guns.”
It started with movies and stories.
They loved the movie The Right Stuff, which is about astronauts but military-themed in a sense, she said. And the boys loved old war movies, like The Bridge over the River Kwai.
She said her and her husband always gave them the freedom to choose what they wanted to do. Still, she’s happy he’s home and in the collegiate world.
“What he’s doing is great,” she said. “I’m so glad that he’s doing well in school and that he’s decided on engineering, which is great.”
But Andrew wants to go back. His plan is to get his degree and then become a commissioned officer in one of the four branches, flying jets.
His mom sees Andrew as a professor one day, she said. He likes to talk, philosophize and so forth, and he’d be good at it.
“Maybe someday he will,” she said. “But he still has this dream of flying for the military.”
Four years was good enough for her, she said.
And maybe his path is to become a professor. His plan is to become a jet pilot in the military, but he said he knows plans change.
Still, he’ll carry his time in service with him for the rest of his life – whether his seasons change back to his old life or find another, calmer setting.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a former Marine.”
Scout Sniper, Marine Infantry, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines Regiment, 1st Marine Division
First deployment – September 2005-March 2006
Ar Ramadi, Al Anbar, Iraq
Sniper school – January 2007-March 2007
Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii
Second deployment – April 2007-November 2007
Ar Ramadi, Al Anbar, Iraq
Third deployment – February 2008-March 2008
South Korea, near the North Korean border