If not for the Marines paraphernalia plastering the walls, the Leatherneck Club off Arville Street in Chinatown would look like any other hole-in-the-wall dive. Small bud vases filled with peanuts dot the glass surface of the bar between video-poker machines. Above a pool table with camouflage-pattern felt and a U.S. Marine Corps crest where you rack ’em up hang shadow boxes filled with uniforms, badges, photos—mementos of Las Vegans sent into combat.
There’s nothing on the walls from Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment—better known as the Saints and Sinners because of their part-Las Vegas, part-Salt Lake City provenance. If there were, it would help explain why Bruno Moya, George Rosado and Drew Williams—three guys you wouldn’t put together outside a military unit—are sharing a table and a drink, along with some of the other reservists of Fox Company who served in the Iraq War. Every so often, they gather to swap stories about April 8, 2003, when, attached to the 1st Marine Division, they were among the first U.S. troops to enter Baghdad and take down Saddam Hussein’s regime. The events of that day—as well as the preparation for the invasion and its aftermath—bind them fast, despite their different ages, races and accents.
Rosado always goes first. The lanky, slightly hyper 44-year-old loves to tell the dog story. The night of April 7, the battalion was camped on the banks of the Tigris River, waiting to cross the Army’s floating pontoon bridges and descend on Hussein’s lair. The air bombardment of the city had left it in flames, but the camp was quieting down. Rosado, a Navy Corpsman (the medical specialists attached to Marine Corps units), was on watch near the truck he’d been given to transport wounded soldiers.
From the darkness, a mangy-looking brown mutt appeared. More curious than aggressive, it was heading toward the camp. Concerned it would wake sleeping men or get into their food, Rosado and another serviceman debated what to do. Should they shoot it? No. They’d scare it off instead. Waving his arms and hissing at the animal, Rosado felt ridiculous.
“Baghdad is burning on my left, and on my right, I’m trying to shoo off a dog,” he laughs. “It was crazy.”
His brothers-in-combat around the table at the Leatherneck Club smile and nod. They’ve heard this story a hundred times, but it’s still a welcome moment of lightness in their collective memory.
At 33, Rosado was older than most of the Marines in the company when it went into Iraq a decade ago. He also had more experience, having been in the service a dozen years by then, so he was a sort of father figure in the company. Over the years, some of the men have confided their secrets in him, turned to him in their desperation—as when one Marine called Rosado to say he was considering taking a gun to Fremont Street and shooting everyone he saw.
Rosado takes on their pain, as if he didn’t have enough of his own. His wife of 13 years, Linda, is battling advanced-stage breast cancer, and Rosado himself recently completed psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, which the Henderson Veterans Court mandated after his second brush with the law in April 2012.
PTSD runs rampant in Fox Company. Its most publicized case was Walter Smith, who drowned his wife in the bathtub of their Tooele, Utah, home in 2006. But under the radar of reporters are countless other stories of suffering and loss.
In part, Rosado blames a government unprepared to deal with so many reservists used as wartime combatants. When the 200-member company arrived at Southern California’s Camp Pendleton in February 2002—activated after 9/11 to serve as a quick-reaction force in the event of another terrorist attack—they were put in condemned barracks with rows of beds in an open bay. Despite its discomfort, the arrangement helps explain why the men are still so close more than a decade later.
George Rosado recalls helping a wounded 14-year-old Iraqi boy while stationed at a soccer field near Baghdad on April 8, 2003.
After 10 months of training at Camp Pendleton, punctuated by on-again-off-again alerts and rumors of being called up for war, the company was sent home for a three-week break, told they could start contacting their old bosses, enrolling in college, making plans to get back to their lives. But they didn’t stay home. Instead, in February 2003, they were on planes heading overseas as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The turnabout was so sudden that some guys didn’t believe they were really going into combat until they arrived at the staging area in Kuwait. And then, when their role in the invasion was done and they returned to the U.S. in May 2003, the company was unceremoniously cut loose without the transition period or post-combat counseling that are now standard operating procedure.
Everything was so disorganized, so confusing, Rosado says, ordering a whiskey and soda.
“You give these guys a weapon,” he says.” You train them to be a Marine. You put them in this situation where they do what they have to do, and then you just let them go? You gotta understand; these guys were so young …”
Moya was 19 and had just finished boot camp and combat training when he was called to Camp Pendleton. Looking at the brick of a 30-year-old with a chinstrap beard today, it’s hard to imagine him as a fresh-faced recent Clark High School graduate who couldn’t wait to join up. Moya wanted to be infantry; his parents preferred the Air Force. They compromised on the Marine Corps Reserves.
“They were devastated when they found out I was going to Iraq,” Moya says. “My mom especially. I’m her only son.”
Moya became a machine-gunner, a valuable skill on April 8. After the battalion crossed the pontoon bridge over the Tigris and entered Baghdad, three Fox Company platoons of about 40 men each, including Moya and Williams, split up and took separate paths into the city, leaving Rosado and other corpsmen and officers behind on a soccer field. The platoons were supposed to take the Iraqi Ministry of Intelligence, a large building near an intersection where five streets came together in an off-kilter sunburst.
That intersection would become the X that marks the spot of many bad memories. There, the Americans found themselves surrounded by snipers and targeted by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) as they took cover in ramshackle stucco structures fronting the street.
Moya spotted some sandbags piled underneath the cantilevered second story of a building and ran to them. From behind the low cover, he watched in horror as vehicles apparently driven by civilians barreled toward him. One car had already plowed over some sandbags and been shot to a stop. Between bullets zinging, grenades exploding and people yelling, Moya thought he heard someone say enemy combatants were commandeering civilian vehicles and forcing drivers at gunpoint to pass through the gauntlet of American troops. With the weaponized cars coming full-speed at them, the Marines had no choice but to shoot.
It pains Moya now to think about how he shot his gun that day, with the certainty—almost pleasure—that his training had drilled into him. He doesn’t know how many times he fired, and he says it doesn’t matter. Whether they were his bullets or someone else’s that did the killing, the result was the same: Innocent people were among the dead.
“It’s hard to pinpoint where stuff was coming from,” Moya remembers. “We were taking fire from all sides. It’s hard to say who was doing it, but I didn’t see any uniformed personnel. … I wish I had a clearer memory of what happened.”
Moya has tried many things to sweep away the cobwebs. After returning home—he was still in the reserves—he took a job as a Treasure Island valet. Overwhelmed by the tedium of the job, he re-enlisted as a combat instructor in 2005. Although he was based at Camp Pendleton, he returned to Las Vegas frequently, and, by the end of 2007, had a wife and baby daughter here. Two years later, he came home again, trading the reassuring structure of the military for the panic-inducing unpredictability of family life. The challenge of it eventually drove him to seek therapy at the VA hospital, where a five-minute questionnaire from a robotic counselor resulted in an unwanted diagnosis: PTSD.
Enrolling in school at the College of Southern Nevada a few years ago helped Moya relax and feel productive again. Things took another turn for the better in January when he went on a retreat with the Warrior Meditation Project.
Today, Moya is studying psychology at UNLV and plans to use his degree to help other veterans find solace on some of those sleepless nights that he, too, still experiences when he thinks about April 8 and what happened at that intersection.
Williams was there that day, too, in the third platoon headed for the Intelligence Ministry. But he watched the events at the intersection unfold from a different perspective. An assault man who fired a shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon, the then-26-year-old Williams led a team up through an abandoned building to find a good vantage point from which to lay down cover fire for the Marines on the ground. When he and the rest of the team got to the roof, however, they found a ledge too small to hide behind. After an RPG slammed into the top of the building not far from where they were hunkered, the band wound its way back down through the dusty, lightless labyrinth and into the street.
The episode typifies the chaotic firefight, which went on for several hours. Williams would take up a position, only to start receiving fire from an exposed direction, and move again. Today, the running, the shooting, the yelling, the waiting—it all blurs together in the memory of one long, hectic day.
There is something Williams distinctly recalls. Cutting through the cacophony of battle—and punctuating the relatively quieter evening and days that followed, after the battalion finally took the Intelligence Ministry and was joined there by other troops—was a male Arabic voice emitting periodically from unseen loudspeakers. Some platoon members speculated that the indecipherable calls to prayer were actually propaganda, or codes giving away their positions.
“Whatever it was,” Williams says, shaking his head, “it was so annoying!”
This moment of mild amusement is one that his buddies at the Leatherneck Club are happy to witness. Less than six months ago, they didn’t expect him to be alive.
Williams had never been a drinker, but as soon as he got back from Iraq, he started hitting the bottle heavily. Apart from the first few months following each of two stints in treatment, he couldn’t quit until last November. That’s when he noticed his belly had become hard and swollen. After getting his wife Amy’s opinion, Williams called Rosado, who told him to go to the VA. Soon after Williams got to the hospital, his doctors, expecting he might die, advised Amy to gather close friends and family. By the time Rosado, Moya and others arrived, their formerly slim, blond-haired, blue-eyed friend was bloated and yellow with bloodshot eyes, almost unrecognizable from severe cirrhosis of the liver.
He didn’t die, though. And he hasn’t had a drink since. In his gentle native-Tennessean tones, Williams acknowledges he has much to live for: an 11-year-old son, two stepchildren, and—finally, after two marriages that ended badly—a good relationship with a woman he admires. He won’t say anything disparaging about his former wives. He won’t say anything about them at all, in fact. Williams doesn’t talk much. Apart from a counselor at his Baptist Church, he hadn’t looked to anyone for help until recently. Now he’s in regular psychiatric treatment at the VA, in addition to group therapy at his church.
Williams was grateful to his employer, a hotel linen service, for taking him back after he returned from the war. He was even more grateful for the job he landed as a corrections officer at the North Las Vegas Detention Center in 2008. He doesn’t resent his employer for laying him off the year before the jail closed in 2012, and doesn’t seem angry about being unemployed since then. He doesn’t blame anyone for his problems. He’s content to let Rosado do that.
A couple of hours and drinks into that night at the Leatherneck Club, Rosado’s tone takes an agitated turn. The war, the administrative injustice, the politics—all of it retains the power to confuse and enrage.
“Nobody was prepared for the reservists to go or to come back,” he says. “We had people in jail, people arrested, a lot of domestic abuse, suicides—some of us have been in mental institutions.”
It’s not just Rosado’s brash New York manner that separates him from the soft-spoken Williams and the philosophical Moya. It’s also the nature of his trauma, which might be traced back to a couple of weeks before April 8, when the battalion was still making its way north across the desert.
On March 29, the battalion had set up camp alongside a road on the outskirts of Iraqi city Al Fajr. The Bath Party stronghold was blocking the Americans’ push to Baghdad, and negotiations were going nowhere.
That night, a team of Marines went into the city on reconnaissance. Keeping watch was a second team, a quick-reaction force, in a Humvee parked near the encampment—lights out for stealth. Something spooked the quick-reaction team, and the Humvee driver took off. His night-vision goggles failed, and he plowed through the area where men were sleeping, hitting two soldiers.
Rosado was sleeping when the accident happened. Awakened by the panic and yelling, he made his way to the scene and helped tend to Sam Porter, the soldier who’d been sideswiped. The side of Porter’s head was nearly taken off, but he’d be OK. Rosado even joked about the irony of the situation: The other guys had often teased Porter for being so pretty. (And he would be again, following multiple surgeries.)
Moya and Williams at the Leatherneck Club | Photo by Anthony Mair
While Rosado helped Porter, a Marine beckoned him to the spot where the other victim had been run over. “Something is wrong with Staff Sgt. [James] Cawley,” the Marine said. “He’s in his sleeping bag, and he’s not moving.”
“Not moving?” Rosado thought. “With all the commotion going on?” It didn’t bode well. As he zipped open the bag in the dark, his fear was confirmed. Cawley was dead, crushed by the truck. All Rosado could do was find the staff sergeant’s dog tags, pull the zipper shut and try to console his buddy, who cried, “Why don’t you do something? You closed him off! He can’t breathe through the sleeping bag!”
Those who survived are bound by their wartime experience in the same way lifelong friends are bound by childhood: After years of separation, they have an uncanny ability to pick up right where they left off, the old relationships somehow intact. To a lesser degree, they’re similarly bound to Marines and corpsmen from other companies, and even to the city’s soldiers, past and present, from other branches of the military.
At the Leatherneck Club, among the World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm vets, the reservists feel at home. Sadly, that’s not always the case in civilian society, where their experience distinguishes them, for better or worse.
Despite what they’ve been through,many of the men of Fox Company believe they’re better for it. Williams says his time with the company built the character that later helped him fight alcoholism and get his life together. Moya, meanwhile, takes pride in the skills he developed in the service—skills that go beyond fighting. He wishes people would set aside preconceived notions and get to know former soldiers as individuals, like any other classmate, neighbor or job candidate.
Mostly, they just want to be acknowledged for their contributions.
“Vegas meant more to the war than people realize,” Rosado says. “Right now, at Nellis Air Force Base, they can call up two platoons of Marines. They have an armory. Not airmen; infantry. Heavy-hitters. Did you know that?”
It’s getting late at the Leatherneck Club, and the guys of Fox Company are just warming up. They haven’t even gotten to the one about famed neurosurgeon and CNN anchor Sanjay Gupta saving Corporal Jesus Vidana from a near-fatal shot to the head. They’ll stay a little longer, talk a little more. Sleep can wait.
Click ‘play’ on the slideshow at the top of the page to hear more of Moya’s story.