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Operation Iraqi Freedom Up Close: A Marine Returns

By Casie Vinall
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 22, 2003 – Travel and adventure. For 17-year-old Mike Dougherty of Milwaukee, Wis., this was reason enough to enlist in the armed services.

Fifteen years later, the gunnery sergeant, Marine Forces South public affairs chief, has not only traveled the world and found adventure, but he's also served his country in two wars in the Persian Gulf.

The first conflict sent the then-lance corporal to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. As a motorcycle scout, Dougherty was responsible for running messages, troubleshooting communication, conducting reconnaissance and providing transport for interrogations, for which he was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon.

After tours in Okinawa, Korea, the Mediterranean and the Balkans, Dougherty served in anti-terrorist operations in Djibouti, Africa. From there, he returned to the Persian Gulf for training operations.

"Take up the Challenge," Marine Says

What began as "travel and adventure" has led Marine Gunnery Sgt. Mike Dougherty to serve in different parts of the world. He will continue to travel, with South America and the Caribbean next on the list.

Dougherty, Marine Forces South public affairs chief, said the service is an important job, and that he would encourage people to join, even his daughter.

"I would encourage people to pursue the military as a career for the intangible benefits," he said, "which are the travel and adventure, which are the courage, poise, self-confidence, which are the personal growth and fulfillment to broaden your horizons geographically."

Dougherty said he recommends the military for building leadership qualities that may not be found anywhere else. "Maybe you might you approach it with other ventures, like law enforcement," he said, "but we're the ones who pack up and go away for six, eight months at a time, or longer. So we just build a kind of cohesiveness."

Furthermore, he said those who want to go back to school and serve should do both. "The military, I think, needs people for four years as much as they need people for 20 years, if not more, or all points in between," he said, "and when they go back to their communities, or back to their colleges, or back to whatever they're going to do, they're going to bring so much to the table. They're going to add something to this world they will become leaders in their colleges and in their communities and the workplaces."

The military, he said, gives you the opportunity to "make something incredible out of you." For those who are seeking not only travel and adventure but also an opportunity to serve their country, Dougherty encourages them to "take up the challenge."

Three days prior to heading home, Dougherty learned his unit would be going into Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I remember the date, I remember the hour, the minute when they told us," he recalled. "I knew we were going to go into Iraq because my sister unit out of Camp Pendleton was taking some serious hits in An Nasiriyah. In fact, I lost a bunch of my friends there."

Heading into the fray, Dougherty noted that his sergeant major told him the upcoming conflict would "show some people's true colors." The Marines soon found themselves in the Middle East, sleeping in fighting holes in the ground.

"We didn't sleep in the vehicles because they're big targets," Dougherty said. "So we stayed as far underground as possible." Nothing was safe and secure, he said, with "civilians everywhere" and missile and chemical weapons alerts.

Serving in Qalat Sukkar, Dougherty said from the start he thought "it was a town that we felt we could help the people." Help for the troops came from a translator named Khuder Al Emeri, an Iraqi exile from Qalat Sukkar, and a leader in the 1991 Shiite uprising.

"He had a bounty on his head, so he went to the states and he had to leave his family behind," Dougherty said. "We were able to bring him back and reunite him with his wife and kids and everybody that he hadn't seen in 12 years, and that was pretty poignant."

Dougherty was in charge of a small detachment of public affairs and combat camera personnel in Iraq. As such, each day he faced difficult decisions regarding "which Marines do I send into this? Which guys do I send in with this convoy, which I know is going to be dangerous, which I know is going to get shot at? I'd have rather gone myself, but that's not the way it works."

The danger did not lie solely on the battlefield. Staying in the villages "with sometimes thousands of people around," he said, "you couldn't turn your back on anybody, I mean, kids, or anyone." The Marines had to stay on guard, he said, "constantly locked and loaded, a round in the chamber."

The Marines saw first-hand how Saddam Hussein's regime had damaged the country. Media reports of the regime's brutality "probably didn't even scratch the surface of what was actually going on there," he said.

"They had these hooks in the ceiling," he said, "and it was very common in that area to hang someone from the ceiling and beat them on the feet or beat them in the armpits while they're hanging. The locals confirmed that. It's just hard to imagine that kind of inhumanity," he said, speaking of the torture methods he heard of.

"We found these books that somebody had called the Ledgers of Doom," he said. "Well, they kept records on everybody, I mean, every travel habit, the names of their kids, little notes on how they disciplined their kids, what they did for a living, everything you could imagine."

Under the regime, he added, the Shiite people of Southern Iraq lived in "absolute poverty."

"People are thin, but they're not emaciated," he said. "They live in little clay huts. If you took away the power lines, it would look like a scene out of a Bible illustration. That's how primitive it is. Ox carts, no electricity, no running water nothing like that."

In the cities, he added, the Iraqi people "are remarkably clean cut considering how little they have to work with. They're very polite, and they're bright and they're funny."

With a population living in fear, and people disappearing, he said the people were looking for relief when the Marines came.

"When we went in there, they weren't really interested in money or food or anything like that," he said, "they just wanted water, because the regime had dammed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as sort of a punishment for their uprising back in '91."

Coalition forces have since restored the rivers' flow, he said, and more food is now reaching the people.

"Right now, we're starting to peel this regime away like layers of an onion to find out what kind of a rotten core is really inside," he added, "I don't think we're going to ever know to what extent those people were tortured in horrendous fashions -- I mean, not just physically, but emotionally, psychologically and socially."

Dougherty said he'll always remember the tragic circumstances he saw in Iraq, but he'll also remember the "euphoria" of the people when coalition troops helped the people.

"The thing I'm going to remember most, far and away, is going to be just the reaction of the people in Qalat Sukkar -- the Shiites that we'd liberated," he said.

"I didn't expect it," he said. "I mean, I was floored by it, and it was a bit scary, just to see that wall of emotion coming at me, these people were crying."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageGunnery Sgt. Mike Dougherty, public affairs chief for U.S. Marine Corps Forces South, in Miami, works to get acclimated to his new surroundings during a physical training session. A veteran of Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, his new job will take him throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.  
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