csaThe 2-disc special edition DVD of Jarhead
isn’t stuffed with the usual fluff that we’ve come to expect on quickly
made, poorly thought out DVDs in recent years. The second disc has some
truly excellent documentaries, including Semper Fi,
a documentary made by Jarhead author Anthony Swofford that examines the
lives of Marines who have returned home from Iraq – both Operations
Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.

I had a chance to talk on the
phone with two of the Marines featured in the doc, Angel Serrano and
Michael Vlasaty, two guys who became good friends in Iraq and have
brought that friendship home to New York. It turns out that Vlasaty is
the talkative one – Serrano told me that he’s getting into sports
medicine, and that was about it. Vlasaty, though, had a lot to say.

of what he had to say was very troubling. It seems that the emotional
problems he’s had during his transition back to civilian life isn’t
very uncommon. We talk about the dead and the wounded as the toll of
the war in Iraq, but we don’t talk about the fact that every soldier
who is sent there comes home changed. Physical carnage may not be the
only grounds to object this war.

Also troubling, to me, was
Vlasaty’s seemingly poor grasp of the general mission in Iraq. I’ll
leave you to interpret his statements for yourself, but I wonder how
many of the men and women over there right now think that they’re
avenging 9/11, among other misconceptions.

The Jarhead DVD hits shelves tomorrow.

Q: When did you come back from Iraq?

Vlasaty: I
landed back in the United States on April 13th. We went out on
September 11, 2004 and landed back April 13th, give or take a couple of

Q: You were at Fallujah?

Vlasaty: Correct.

Some of the guys in the documentary seemed to have a harder time coming
home than others. At the time the documentary was shot, you seemed to
be adjusting pretty well. How have you been since the documentary?

Vlasaty: You want honesty?

Q: I want complete honesty.

Vlasaty: Let
me think how I want to make this sound right. I’m having a little more
complicated time. I realized coming home from combat I’ve had to deal
with my own demons in a way. All of the experiences I’ve come across
and everything that’s happened, I feel like I’m trying to remove the
painful memories that I have by self-medicating. Not even like drugs,
it’s alcohol. It came to the point that I was drinking so much I became
a danger to myself and other people. That was something I realized
quick. After having a minor accident and breaking my ankle by being at
the wrong place at the wrong time, I realized I have to take the
necessary steps to move forward and stop messing myself up because
alcohol is not helping me. I’ve started becoming more aggressive to my
family and slowly but surely they’re turning their backs on me as well,
which leaves me by myself. Which is fine, because no matter what I’m
not going to be scared – I spent seven months in the worst place in the
world where people were trying to kill me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

story short, there’s nothing I can’t handle but at the same time I’m
using all the things I’ve learned and trying to prioritize them in my
head and move forward.

What really struck me about the documentary and the film is the idea
that as a Marine you don’t handle a problem or situation alone – you
have a group of guys who have your back at all times. Who has your back
now? Who is helping you now that you’re home? Do you have fellow
Marines, or is the VA helping?

http://chud.com/nextraimages/marine2.jpgVlasaty: To
be honest with you there, my buddy Angel and me will always have each
other no matter what. We do have the VA and currently I have a case
worker that is in the VA who is helping me. People need to understand
that therapy is a great tool in educating oneself. I don’t go to him
because I need him to fix me, what I’m doing is using his brains to
help me think and help me fix my own problems. I look at it this way
too – look at the CEOs of all the big businesses. They sit in a board
room with ten other guys who are frickin’ geniuses and of course, when
you put ten minds together and you harness that energy and move
forward, you can do anything you want.

Q: I guess that’s the biggest lesson you learn in the Marines.

Vlasaty: Yes. You can do it yourself, but I think that’s a lot harder. I’m just trying to make it easier on myself.

What did you think of the film Jarhead? Obviously your experience,
where you went into combat, is different from what’s in the movie.

Vlasaty: But
you know what – war, no matter where it is, whatever time frame, it’s
horrible. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with,
especially over a long period of time. Don’t forget, I only did one
tour – you’re talking about guys that we were with in Fallujah who were
on their second tour and now they’ve gone back for their third. One
tour really affected my life in a tremendous way.

Q: What’s your take on the anti-war protesters, the people who want to bring the troops home?

I think they’re entitled to their opinion, but at the same time what
people don’t realize is that, yeah we’re at war in Iraq, but we’re not
just fighting Iraqis. We’re fighting Chechnyans, Syrians, we had a guy
from Canada who was Muslim fighting in Iraq. For me it’s like, you have
a problem with it? Why don’t you stop being part of the problem and be
part of the solution and do something about it? You know what, I saw
something wrong and I signed and I’m trying to make a difference. If
you’re not willing to do the same thing – to pick up a weapon or vote
or be involved in politics, don’t waste my time. Don’t talk to me and
complain because I don’t want to hear you cry. I hear too many people
cry. I’m supposed to help you? Help yourself.

Q: Writing Jarhead seems to have helped Anthony Swofford out a lot. Have you considered doing the same, writing about your experiences?

I do every day. I sit down and do it every day. Me and Angel were
thinking about collaborating on a book together, but I do it more for
myself. These past few years I realized that I haven’t had a chance to
sit down and have some me-time to organize my thoughts. I’ve had so
much input, for lack of a better word, that now I have to organize – my
feelings are off whack, my emotions. I have to sit back and deprogram
everything I learned in the Marines and situate myself back to being a
civilian, because I don’t have to be hard anymore. I don’t have to
crazy. I don’t have to go into that gunfight where I might be killed. I
can tone that down. I have all this pent up aggression and anger and
knowledge – it’s so much experience wrapped up in one and it’s like an
overload. I faced too much too quick.

problem with combat is that you have instances to think about
everything you want, to prioritize your life, where do I want to go
from here, do I want to go to college, have a family, whatever the case
may be. But then you have that instance when you walk into a house and
you’re clearing a room and all of a sudden your whole squad is pinned
down and every next move you make could be your last if you make the
wrong decision. Or your buddy’s last moment.

The Marines prepare you to go clear that room, to be efficient in
combat. Do they prepare you to come home – is there as much emphasis on
that as there is on soldiering?

They try. I’m going to be very honest, they try to make that transition
for you. But you know what? It’s too extreme. Think about this –
picture the worst, most traumatic experience of your life, whatever
that was. Let’s say that you got into a car accident or whatever. Now,
us as Marines, when we plan a mission, we plan everything to go as
completely wrong as possible – if this happens, or is this bomb goes
off, or if we get attacked this way. You plan for the worst and the
shit that just happened to you is a hundred times worse than the shit
you planned for. That’s the shit that’s fucked up.

Q: And that’s the shit that haunts you.

Yes. Even though you plan for the worst you never expect… here’s the
other thing – not only do you have to anticipate a primary threat,
getting shot or getting shot at by a sniper, but now we’re patrolling
and we have to worry about an IED, which is a bomb in the road that we
really can’t see because it’s disguised. Not only that do we have to
worry about but now when we identify that bomb we have to back up so
far, and they know we have tohttp://chud.com/nextraimages/marine1.jpg
back up that far, so now we have to counter-insurgent the insurgent’s
thinking. We have to analyze everything, inverted, exverted, inside
out, black, yellow, every direction just to survive. It’s crazy.

Q: After your experience in Iraq do you think that country is getting better, or do you think it’s getting worse?

Vlasaty: That’s something I really, my opinion isn’t relevant to my experiences in combat or in the military.

It is relevant, because most of us here in America only know what we
see on TV or read in the papers. You were there and you have a better
sense of the situation, and that means when you’re seeing it on the
news now or reading the paper now you have a better understanding than
someone like me.

Vlasaty: So what is your question?

My question is what is your unique perspective on the current situation
in Iraq? Are things getting better or worse for the people there?

Vlasaty: I’m
not going to answer your question the way you want me to, but I will
tell you this. Something simple like voting – we set up a site giving
out humanitarian aid, food, clothing, that’s the shit they don’t show
you on the news. 60% of the Iraqi people voted for… for the… whatever…
it wasn’t like a government, it was a council to elect whatever the
next step is to elect people to lead some sort of structure. Do you see
what I’m saying? 60% of the Iraqi people risked persecution, being
martyrs, whatever the case may be, just to vote. Just a taste of
Western civilization that we have and take for granted. The American
public, in a presidential election or whatever, only 30% of the
American public votes because nobody gives a fuck. Everybody’s happy,
everybody’s eating. But that country where I saw with my own eyes
people living – it’s like going back a hundred years or to Mexico but
worse. You have insurgents torturing innocent people. So those people
just want a little taste of what we have, but not everybody sees that
big picture. People think we’re just going around the world being big
bullies, but we’re not. We’re just taking a stand to protect ourselves.