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Why We Serve: Marine from Big City Transformed by Iraqi Desert

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2007 – When the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks stoked his sense of patriotism, a 15-year-old from Queens, N.Y., decided to enlist in the U.S. military following high school graduation.

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Marine Cpl. Sean M. Henry is telling the military’s story to the American public at community and business events, veterans organizations and other gatherings as part of the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” public outreach program. Defense Department photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“I felt like the country needed me to help fill a void in military service,” said Marine Cpl. Sean M. Henry, who grew up just miles from downtown Manhattan, where hijackers barreled planes into the World Trade Center towers. “So I made the choice that I was going to join the Marine Corps in 2004 straight after high school.”

Henry is one of 10 servicemembers selected to tell the military’s story to the American public at community and business events, veterans organizations and other gatherings as part of the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” public outreach program.

Before Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., Henry had no experience living outside the bustling New York City borough he calls home. And though anecdotes shared with him by Marines returning from Iraq helped him prepare for an impending deployment to Qaim, it did little to blunt the perennial city boy’s culture shock upon landing in the desert town near the Iraq-Syria border.

“I’m from the city; you know what I’m saying? And everything in the Marines, especially in Iraq, was about map reading, finding the North Star and all that stuff,” Henry said. “And me, being the kid from Queens, I’m like, man, where’s the subway?”

As if being away from the cosmopolitan perks of the Big Apple weren’t difficult enough, Henry found himself ensconced in the sandy, pastoral desert life of Qaim -- a western Anbar town with a dubious electrical grid -- attempting to bridge the enormous American and Arab cultural divides while battling an elusive enemy.

“I call them ‘ghosts,’ because the insurgents would fire at us, and we’d never see them,” the corporal recalled, “then we’d fire back.”

On average, Henry and his comrades waged war with proverbial ghosts a few times a week. Once, while Henry’s unit was at a re-transmission post -- a tiny military structure located between main bases and fortified only by sandbags -- a torrential sandstorm engulfed the Marines.

“I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is the perfect time for the enemy to attack us,’” Henry said. “And as soon as I finish my sentence, a piece of wood clips me and my ear starts bleeding.”

When Henry looked into the distance, he saw muzzle flashes coming from a bridge about 600 feet away. “And I’m only 19 years old you know, and this is real hectic,” he recalled. “So I get on my mortar pitch, and I’m firing 100-round relay mortars onto the bridge.

“After that, we stopped hearing them firing on us,” he said.

The insurgents who tried to overtake the re-transmission post that day likely would have succeeded if Henry and his team had succumbed to the pressure of the firefight surrounding them, he said. “But I was just thinking to myself that I’ve gotta get those mortars on target or else we’re history, because they’re moving pretty quick -- they had vehicles too,” he recalled. “Fear doesn’t really come into play.”

Henry said that because the Marines had trained him to perform amid the tension of a mortar fight, he maintained calm professionalism. Similarly, because Henry had expanded his cultural horizons while deployed in Qaim, he thrived in a second deployment that required him to work among local Iraqis in Habbaniyah.

“When we first got (to Habbiniyah), there weren’t kids playing soccer in the street; there weren’t military-age males going to and from work or to the market; that was something that we brought to them,” he said. “They weren’t allowed to walk outside, but all that stopped once we got there.”

At the beginning of the deployment, Henry and his unit were fired upon regularly, he said. But during the middle and nearing the end of his deployment, the situation had improved dramatically, he said.

By that point, the mission took on a new humanitarian angle, he said, and shifted from regularly engaging in indirect-fire fights with insurgents, to stabilizing neighborhoods at the grassroots level. Near the end of the deployment, for instance, Henry spent time ensuring that Iraqi children were attending school and that they were equipped with pencils, paper, books and other school supplies.

Asked if the efforts of he and his fellow Marines were noticeable, the corporal replied, “Oh my goodness, yes.”

Henry was hungry for action as a 19-year-old enlistee in Qaim, he recalled. But halfway through that first deployment, and during his second deployment in Habbiniyah, Henry said, he was eager to help train younger guys, adopting a kind of mentor role.

“Sometimes tears would come to (the young Marines’) eyes when they would help the Iraqi people and the kids,” he recalled.

Henry, who will marry his fiancée, Miranda, in June, seems imbued with a sense of youthful wisdom after his experience in Iraq.

“The most important thing Iraq taught me is that no matter what happens, it can always be worse,” he said. “I’ve been in some of the world’s most messed up situations, and then I get to the (United) States and I say, ‘People think they have it bad, but they don’t.’”

Henry said he’s unsure how his life would have turned out had he not joined the Marines. “I probably would have gone to some community college, been struggling for money, … I don’t know,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been better than the circumstance I’m in now.

“I’m definitely happy with my choice,” he said. “I look back on some of my buddies back home, and they’re pretty much in the same situation as when I left them, and when I tell them about all the wonderful things I’ve done -- and the things that I’m doing -- their experiences can’t compare.”

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