Bob Smalanskas

Bob Smalanskas ’82 submitted this story of a U.S. Marine’s experiences during the initial Iraq invasion. 

Only One Marine’s Story

By R.T. Smalanskas

There’s something about Julian Kollias that caused me to stir inside. He quickly caught my undivided attention. It may have been the thousand-yard stare he possesses. I had heard about it, but never actually witnessed the phenomenon personally. I wondered what deep thoughts whirled behind his intense brown eyes.

Julian is far more mature than his twenty-three-year young, handsome face reveals. When I first met him on a business appointment, it was obvious this kid was for real. Kollias has the aura and confidence of a man twice his age. He is also very polite and respectful. How is all this possible, I thought? After we talked further, Julian disclosed he participated in the initial invasion of Iraq as a United States Marine. I was quite impressed and became sort of humbled.

This is only one Marine’s story.

iraq-map1

Private Kollias described the palpable fear he faced, as Golf Company—attached to 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines—idled in Kuwait just days before the invasion. He filled me in about the Fog of War: a gut feeling troops heading into battle know extremely well. It expresses the mental uneasiness and distress which arises from serious future uncertainty.

“You try not to do it, but you find yourself looking to your right, then left, and wondering who is going to get screwed up,” Julian said, telling me with conviction that it is an incredible emotion to face your own potential demise. “I began to philosophize about who lives, who dies—and why? After enough of this mental torture, I just decided if a round has my name on it; well, there’s my fate.”

The night before Golf Company crossed into enemy territory, Kollias and one of his buddies gazed high into a starry Middle Eastern sky. The two Marines speculated aloud if any folks stateside actually spent a moment of their weekend thinking of them. They came to an ambiguous conclusion. “As we stared across a pitch-black perimeter to Iraq and tried to picture what was ahead, more anxiety circled through my head,” said Kollias. “But soon thereafter, calm came over me, and I finally accepted the outcome—even if it included death.”

This courageous young man’s company secured the north and south side of Dog Bridge One, at Nasiriyah’s infamous ambush alley. “This is where a U.S. tank plunged off the bridge into the Euphrates River. All the crew drowned,” he said solemnly. Julian also depicted the account of how fedayeen fighters were on their way out of Nasiriyah and had no intention of messing with U.S. forces—until they received a lucky break. “The 507th, Jessica Lynch’s maintenance unit, became hopelessly lost and were sitting ducks,” he said. “This successful fedayeen attack gave these guys some confidence. They all came back in the city to fight us after the 507th got hit. I walked by that burned-out, trashed amtrac several times.”

Backing the people 

Every day, Marines were required to patrol a decrepit, poverty-stricken city which suffered from years of oppression under so-damn Hussein (as Marines appropriately nicknamed him). A thirteen-man patrol geared up, locked, loaded, and jumped in Humvees to ride thru hostile streets. Julian described the apprehension they felt day in and long day out. “I started to view it as going to work—only on this job, every day was a close call. I would contemplate en route if this would be the day I get hit.”

On patrols, Marines found Iraqi people desperate for hope and change. “They are a product of their distressed environment,” said Kollias. “Sometimes it felt like we liberated them, only so they could in turn oppress themselves. Iraqis will progress only if the majority takes full responsibility for a better way of life.” Kollias stated he liked Iraqi culture and found the lifestyle intriguing. He also enjoyed the abstract sounds of Muslim prayers which resonated from mosques every evening. “We all wanted to give Iraqis a shot at a good life. Our Marines backed the people 100 percent. I truly hope the situation improves.”

A soldier’s daily life can move through a strange cycle from extreme action to monotonous boredom. Golf Company was no exception to this wartime norm. Sergeant Smith was educated in Shakespearean Theatre. He encouraged troops to partake in a comedy show to relieve stress and dullness. It was a great success. Julian became excited as he described the event to me: “We got a ton of laughs, and our officers raved for weeks. The show was completely hilarious, and it really helped morale.”

Kollias is a jokester in his own right. This kid from Elkins Park, Pa., was known throughout Golf Company as a tremendous imitator. In fact, R. Lee Ermey, who played Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s classic war film Full Metal Jacket, personally congratulated Kollias on his talent to mimic officers. “Ermey told me he heard I was a funny SOB,” he said. “Some of the guys called me Private Joker. No disrespect to officers, but sometimes they are haughty and political—so impersonations of them can get some good laughs. With that said, I would like to say our company commander, Major Anthony Lanza, treated all of us with utmost respect and is an outstanding officer.”

Julian kept a keen eye on action surrounding him and drew sketches of intense combat scenes. “I did a lot of drawing to kill boredom.” When I asked him to clarify, he responded, “I drew a picture of some 3rd I.D. [Army’s 3rd Infantry Division] guys clearing a building. Another one of my better sketches shows Marines in a tough firefight.”

Primal disorder 

It was now two hours into my interview with Kollias, and it had become mesmerizing—like the first time I read a Robinson Crusoe novel. But I was far from finished.

The young men of 1st Battalion witnessed their share of death, destruction, and despair. These kids deserve honor and respect, because in reality a nineteen- or twenty-two-year-old in combat is still a kid—one who is forced to grow up fast, in an antagonistic environment thousands of miles from home. They conducted stressful house-to-house raids searching for fedayeen insurgents and contraband. First Battalion Marines caught perpetrators from the 507th mutilation. Kollias was numb as he recounted a “total surfer dude from California” carrying a broken, maimed Iraqi boy. The boy had picked up a terrorist roadside bomb, was rescued by this Marine, and died in a pool of his own blood. Our young warriors participated in mind-blowing firefights and viewed results 99 percent of us couldn’t tolerate.

“I saw a revenge killing,” said Julian. “An Iraqi in a pickup stopped in the street and fired on another Iraqi man in an open market. He was shot four times—his brains were splattered on a back, dingy wall. After that, complete chaos ensued. All the townspeople came to gawk at the spectacle. I had to raise my weapon to an Iraqi teenager to get him to back off.” Kollias was troubled as he portrayed this incident. He told me of serious frustration in trying to clear mobs from a dilapidated, dusty street and the anxiety of being surrounded by all of this primal disorder.

Golf Company did not suffer any casualties in-country. Unfortunately, two Marines that Julian knew committed suicide back in the States. I asked him why he thought they took their own lives.

“They couldn’t handle returning to civilian life,” he said. “It’s rough. In the Marines, we’re all brothers—especially in a combat zone. We work as a team to keep each other alive. Back here, most everyone is oblivious about where we’ve been, what we experienced.”

He went on to explain that he hadn’t slept right since arriving back in Pennsylvania in September, 2003. I sat in disbelief as this twenty-three-year old discussed his permanent insomnia. “What do you do?” I asked.

Kollias described his long, lonely runs down moonlit SEPTA tracks, at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. most every night. “It’s the only time I feel normal anymore. Just recently, I was blasting hard down the tracks, headphones on, and my mind elsewhere. I just happened to glance up and a bright, white train light was only twenty feet away. One second later and I would have been crushed.” He gave me a shy smile as he finished detailing this near-death experience with a SEPTA train.

Time warp 

The next and final scene Julian described first upset me, then pissed me off enough to write this article. “When I hit the train station here (after the long flight back to the USA from Iraq), I was dressed in desert combat fatigues carrying my gear,” he said. “I looked around and noticed no one looked me in the eye or said hello. I felt some awe probably, but most of what I really felt was an animosity. It reminded me of the disgust we felt coming from Serbians while stationed in Kosovo. You can feel it burning a hole through the back of your head.” Kollias became slightly distressed as he continued. I sensed his emotion—but he didn’t show much. “I was so excited to come home,” he said. “I get here…and… Anyway, I said to myself—this is what I come back to? Right then, I wished I was still back in Iraq with my buddies.”

I reviewed a vivid scene in my mind: An exhausted, emotionally spent U.S. Marine is sitting next to his duffel bag at the local train station. He stressfully runs his fingers through dark, wavy hair, which is no longer in a high and tight cut. Julian’s intent, deep brown eyes stare far beyond a thick, gray wall planted ten feet in front of his face. His mind begins to spin. He’s counted numerous hours and mused for months if his feet would ever stroll on American dirt again.

Right then, ultimate reality gives a sharp kid a classic wake-up even he cannot interpret nor perceive. Many have arrived at this bizarre place before Kollias. He has finally reached the infamous “welcome home soldier time warp.” Where is Rod Serling from Twilight Zone? A 1966 GTO cruises down Main Street, USA, and the radio is blasting out “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” by Nancy Sinatra. Inside a modest rancher, a Ward Cleaver lookalike is adjusting rabbit ears on a shabby black and white. Lyndon Johnson appears in a snowy picture. His voice emits a static message which miraculously becomes crystal clear. Out on the screened-in porch, Grandma and Grandpa are sipping iced lemonade on cheesy lawn furniture. They distinguish the slow Texas drawl—“I will not send American boys…6,000 miles…to do a job that Asian boys…should be doing for themselves.”

Over at the L.A. train station, a U.S. Marine’s sharp blue eyes burn straight thru a massive, concrete wall. He runs his nicked-up fingers through light blonde locks, no longer in a high and tight cut. A ticket agent with a beehive hairdo is stationed at a small circular opening in the glass. To her left is a large hardware store calendar with big red and black numbers. The date reads March 22, 1971. At the very same moment, 6,000 miles faraway in a Vietnam jungle, two black American grunts are zipping their best buddy into a dark green body bag. Their blood-splattered faces are contorted with grief and sadness. Blank eyes lock, straining for a reason or some kind of answer. They already know the answer—there isn’t one. One of the Brothers says aloud, “Don’t mean nothin’… Don’t mean nothin’… Nothin’ at all.” His friend nods in agreement, and they both trudge back to their unit, heads high.

Today, when you run across a United States Armed Forces veteran, regardless of the era—take a minute and sincerely thank him or her for their outstanding service. Awaken from your self-absorbed existence, America. These quality people have been keeping our homeland clear of battle smoke since 1865. If you’re not a history buff—that was the year General Lee surrendered to General Grant. There have been, however, two very horrendous exceptions. I say, no matter what, that number stays locked at two.