Marine Sgt. Kevin Stendal. Photo by Olivier Morel

Discussions with Kevin Stendal inspired the Super Hornet story featured in Baghdad | Los Angeles, a collaborative project by USC Annenberg and CIR. We met Stendal in a coffee house in Anaheim and spent two hours discussing not only his experiences, but the “big picture” in Iraq: counter-insurgency tactics, the military industrial complex, and media coverage that reported on isolated incidents but didn’t draw connections. Chris and I thought the Super Hornet story would be a good way to look at the Iraq War as a system, and to look at the inner-connectedness of its parts.

Nothing prepared Marine Sgt. Kevin Stendal for his first day in Iraq. He had been going on afternoon runs in 85-degree California heat before his deployment in order to acclimate to Middle East weather, but the 125- to 135-degree days he faced in Iraq were still a shock to his system.

“I felt drunk, a little light-headed,” he said. “I didn’t want to move. I was short-tempered.”

It was June, 2004, as Stendal rode in the back of a 7-ton truck to Al Qa’im, where the light armored reconnaissance unit he was joining was stationed (1st LAR). Although Stendal was supposed to be scanning for threats, he felt like he was going to pass out. A sergeant was peeing off the side of the truck, and it was flying back and hitting some of the soldiers.

A third sergeant passed out, so they had to stop the convoy. After a tense break in the middle of a crowded city, the unit continued.

Finally, the truck arrived on the base, and Stendal thought the stress would subside for at least a little while. The Marines pulled up to refuel, and someone yelled, “Fire!” Flames were shooting out of the vehicle, and people began diving off the 8-foot-high truck bed, completely disregarding the military’s requirement to keep their weapons clean.

“That was just the first day,” Stendal said, unable to suppress an ironic smile.

Stendal, a native of Redondo Beach, Calif., joined the marines after high school in 1988. He did his four-year commitment and thought he was finished with the military, but he re-enlisted after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He saw soldiers on the news using MK153 SMAW anti-tank assault launchers — the same weapons system he had been trained on at age 18.

“I’m watching these guys [on TV], thinking I wasn’t pulling my weight,” he said. He thinks the mass punishment of boot camp and the solidarity of his first unit made him feel responsible for the soldiers in Iraq.

Stendal, a resident of Costa Mesa, Calif., is now a 39-year-old divorcee with two kids. A veterinary technician studying nursing at Fullerton College, he sketches diagrams to explain events and concepts as he talks. One map he drew demonstrated the layout of his unit’s first casualty.

In April, 2004, a couple months before Stendal arrived, a group of 1st LAR soldiers realized the Iraqi police weren’t at their checkpoints as they drove toward a bridge that was code-named Golden Gate. They crossed the bridge, and insurgents cut power to the town on the other side. An IED went off, and insurgents launched rocket-propelled grenades at the vehicle. One soldier was cut in half.

“There was no way for him to do anything differently,” Stendal said. “No training, athletics, anything. Whoever was sitting in that seat was going to die. Stuff like that happened all the time.”

“It was hard not to be fatalistic,” he continued. “We’re crossing that bridge and everybody’s showing me bullet holes. Obviously it made an impression on people every time we drove through.”

Stendal said that for him, the constant stress was coupled with an overwhelming sense of futility.

“I never got a strong sense we were accomplishing any goals,” he explained.

One frustrating task was patrolling the Syrian border for smugglers. The area Stendal’s unit covered was about 30 to 40 miles long, so smugglers could cross when patrols were miles away. The Marines could see tracks in the sand where people entered Iraq while they were at the other end of the border.

Stendal was also present when an informant told his commanding officer that the Iraqi border patrol that was supposed to be working with the American soldiers was signaling smugglers across once the marines were out of sight. They had to dress the informant in marine utilities so the border patrol wouldn’t recognize him from a distance.

“Iraqi contractors working on American bases died for less,” Stendal said.

The only “smuggler interdicted” award on record was actually for stopping a man who was trying to sneak into Syria to get a better price for his sheep, Stendal said. With that type of pervasive poverty, it was hard not to feel like a thug.

“The poverty was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” he said. “There were mud huts with holes for windows, dirt floors, and sheet metal on hinges. Their possessions were like the stuff you’d see in a homeless person’s cart. We’d drag them out of their houses at gunpoint. It was hard not to feel sorry.”

Cultural differences only exacerbated an already tense situation. In a culture where it’s an insult to show someone the bottom of your foot, Marines would throw a man on the ground and put a foot on him in front of his whole family. Some would gawk at the women and make jokes.

“This is a culture where you don’t even look at a woman,” Stendal said. “Even if they couldn’t understand everything, they understood the gestures and that you’re insulting them.”

Stendal believes this martial law and cultural unawareness undermined the Americans’ mission objectives.

“Rocket assisted mortars were launched at our base from inside the town. People would claim they had seen nothing, and this is in high traffic areas,” he said. “It was the same with IEDs being planted. Nobody ever tried to warn us. The hearts and minds were on the side of the insurgency. We were the bad guys who came in and brutalized the population.”

Stendal said the Americans treated the Iraqis as though they were inferior. He thought they needed to show more respect and put themselves in a subordinate position because every dead civilian recruited for the insurgency.

“A friend saw an intelligence report where two insurgents joined because their brother was killed by a stray bullet,” he said. “They were honor-bound to join even though they weren’t philosophically opposed to the Americans. It’s mathematically impossible to win that way.”

Worse, Stendal said, was that American soldiers internalized the belief that stated mission objectives were not as important as getting out alive.

“The Iraqis were expendable,” he explained. “I was guilty of that too. Success was measured in Americans not dying. That’s tactical. But the strategic goal was to implement democracy. There’s no connection.”

Stendal said this means Americans can control all the terrain in the country, but still be losing the war.

“I remember being in Iraq and Marines were saying, ‘If only Iraqis knew how to fight, we would be kicking their butts.’ They’re expecting their fighting to conform to our training instead of vice versa.”

When Stendal came home, he tried to tell people about his experiences but was met with disinterest or “unempowered concern.” He looked for an organization that was trying to do something about it, and joined Iraq Veterans Against the War in June, 2007.

Stendal has faced criticism for opposing the war from both civilians and veterans. They tell him he has no business questioning the government, or that IVAW is a disgrace. He said most Iraq veterans he talks to experienced the same things he did, but they can’t bring themselves to go against the military.

“Everybody’s got their stories about the bullshit, but people don’t make connections,” he said. “They don’t realize these things are proof we shouldn’t be there.”

Despite the opposition, Stendal said it’s becoming easier for veterans to speak out against the war. After two or three tours of duty, soldiers are getting frustrated because they feel like bullies instead of liberators. But most civilians still aren’t paying enough attention.

“Most of the people I talk to haven’t given it a lot of thought,” he said.

He believes this is due to a myriad of factors, including a cultural climate that does not support anti-war movements, the all-volunteer army, and media coverage that only skims the surface of what’s happening in Iraq.

“They talk about the most superficial things—car bombs and, ‘Doesn’t it suck to be there?’ Not tactics,” Stendal said. “Sophistication and restraint, language and culture are what we need, not expensive weapons.”

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