The Great Divide

They've been friends since St. Joe's Prep. One became a gung-ho Marine, the other a skeptical journalist. Eventually they met up in Iraq's Wild West, where the journalist finally understood why the Marine still believes in this war

IT WAS THE moment I thought I’d been waiting for. After spending a week on Al Asad, the largest U.S. military installation in western Iraq, I’d been offered the chance to go "outside the wire" on a mission. Standing before me in the 110-degree heat, Sergeant Brian Wheelock explained that his detachment of Marines was going to a town called Hit. As far as Wheelock knew, I would be the first American journalist to visit the town, and he said this mission was one I ought to see: His men would be meeting with the most powerful imams and sheikhs of Al Anbar province, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, ground zero of the insurgency. The detachment’s captain was going to try to persuade them to encourage their mosques and tribes to vote in the upcoming election. In other words, the Iraqis who trusted the United States the least would be asked to trust us entirely and embrace democracy.

Looking like a locked-and-loaded Richie Cunningham, Wheelock practically begged me to go.

I had only about 40 minutes to grab my gear and rendezvous with Wheelock’s convoy bound for Hit. I ran to my quarters, a tiny room in one of the hundreds of trailers on Al Asad, and began to pack. Alone, jamming clothes into my backpack and pulling together my body armor, the realities of the mission hit me: The road to Hit (pronounced "Heat") is one of the deadliest in Iraq. Coalition troops were getting wounded or zipped into body bags on this stretch virtually every day. Death came most often from the ubiquitous improvised explosive devices. One minute you’re riding across the desert; the next, there’s a boom from below, and you’re in pieces on the sand, bleeding to death while you stare at what’s left of your legs a few feet away. And Hit — that place was still a shitstorm. I picked up my satellite phone and called my wife. To say hello? To say goodbye? It was the middle of the night in the States; she didn’t pick up. Probably fast asleep. I thought of never again sleeping next to her, of never seeing her, of leaving my two boys fatherless. I collapsed onto the tile floor and cried. Does this happen to a Marine before a mission? Does this happen to Tim McMenamin — my friend from St. Joe’s Prep, the Marine who lured me here? "There are those who do, and those who write about it," Tim had said. I found Wheelock and told him I wouldn’t be going to Hit. It simply wasn’t worth it.

A little over a year later, on a recent winter morning, Tim and I are still alive, and back in Philly. Tim is Chief Warrant Officer of the 5th CAG — a Marine Civil Affairs Group. At St. Joe’s Prep, Timmy and I carried the same Northeast Philly chips on our shoulders. Now we’re in our mid-30s. I am, as he puts it, a "liberal journalist" against the war, and he is a gung-ho Marine who invited me to Iraq to show me the progress his CAG, and thereby the U.S. military, was making there. The 5th CAG, some 200 U.S. troops, primarily Marine reservists, was charged with establishing parochial democracies in Anbar — local governments that would be essential buttresses if there ever was to be a truly democratic Iraq.

It’s Christmastime, and over breakfast in Center City, we’re talking about our time in Iraq. Again. Though Timmy’s service there dwarfs anything I did, we know we’re both veterans now. What we shared there has made us tighter in inexplicable ways. When we’re together and hear someone complaining about weather, or a boss, or an undercooked steak, we look at each other, knowing what a bad day really looks like. When we’re apart, instead of catching up on the phone two or three times a year, like we used to, we talk once or twice a week, if only to tell a joke. Iraq has become our story.