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Apr-10-2008 08:04printcomments

How America Really Treats Combat Vets: A Marine's Story Part 1

A Marine who served in Iraq uses medical marijuana to deal with combat PTSD, and a California jail subjects him to far worse treatment than insurgent prisoners ever received on his watch.

Sergeant Phil Northcutt in Iraq marine_corps
Marine Corps Sergeant Phil Northcutt in Iraq

(SALEM, Ore.) - The notion of becoming a U.S. Marine is a huge one for any young person standing at the recruiter's door. You have to be very committed and driven to succeed and even make it through basic training, let alone the life of a Marine at war.

A Marine recruit guide is shown
at the far left carrying the platoon
guidon. Photo: U.S. Marines

In any group there is always a top performer, one who can do it better, faster and more accurately than the others. Each Marine basic training platoon has a recruit who is the "Platoon Honorman" or "Guide" and they are the platoon's best; a leader in the ranks of recruits who the drill instructors count on.

This is a story about a Marine guide and a country that needs to back up its rhetoric when it comes to supporting veterans. Words after all, are almost as cheap as bumper stickers.

This is also a story of repeated tragedy for the American combat vet, particularly Marines, who often feel as supported in our society as a member of the Manson Family.

What we seem to be learning is that in spite of all the flag waving, people in this country are often against Marines. Southern California is the tip of the spear and we aren't talking about war protesters or hippies or "liberal" people.

No way, the first group to turn on that honorable military service is frequently the police. But society in general rejects the nation's most elite warriors also. The movies show the hardcore sacrifice that accompanies a Marine life: (WWII - Flags of our Fathers) (Vietnam - Full Metal Jacket) (Iraq - The Four Horsemen) but only a Marine really knows.

Phil Northcutt, Sergeant of Marines

Phil Northcutt of Long Beach, California was a sergeant of Marines in Iraq, one of the few and the proud who fought in Ramadi and lost many friends.

His sacrifice is not important in his home town apparently, where a judge says he would rather lock Northcutt up in a third world facility called LA County Jail than let him use the only medicine that allows him to battle the demons of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, delivered in full strength from the experiences of fighting a bloody war overseas for his country. No human being should be locked up in LA County Jail, based on the stories I have heard in my life. Humanity is supposed to be a hallmark of Americans, but LA County is where the worst side of corruption continues.

His story begins in 1998, when Phil Northcutt was trying to make a go of it as a music promoter in the LA area.

The real deal: Phil Northcutt in Iraq

"In 1998, after finding little satisfaction as a music promoter, I joined the Marine Corps looking for a job that would take me to 3rd world countries and see first-hand the conditions that other humans lived in and maybe to help them in some way. I often thought of Ronald Reagan's statement about Marines not having to wonder if they made a difference in the world."

After joining the Marines and graduating from the recruit depot in San Diego, Phil served with Marine Corps Security Forces where he learned Military Operations Urban Terrain, hostage rescue, Special Asset Recovery (nukes), etc.

He said, "We learned about combatting 'Terrorism' before it was a daily catch-phrase on CNN."

Northcutt served with full honor all over the world, and after 4 years got out, moved to Lake Tahoe, and then to Santa Rosa, California, where he enrolled in school to take advantage of the GI Bill. That is when his past came knocking at the door, again.

"Once enrolled, I got a call from the Marines Corps. It was a Presidential Emergency. They needed Marines to participate in the Combat Casualty Replacement Program. They needed volunteers. This was before they recalled the IRR. I volunteered."

He told the Marines that if they needed gate guards at Camp Pendleton, he wasn't interested.

"If a Marine could come home because I took his place, then I would do it. It was a one-year non-extendable tour." Or so he thought it would be.

Courtesy: 2ndbn5thmarines.com/

He went to Camp Pendleton and was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. The Marine Corps' most decorated unit.

"We ended up in Ramadi, Iraq. The Sunni Triangle, in the legendary Al Anbar Province. We saw action nearly every day. Some days we would have several firefights, lasting for hours. After our Dismount Squad Leader was injured in an IED attack, I stood in... for the rest of my tour."

I can not attest to Iraq but I can tell you that in Afghanistan Marines like Northcutt live a hard life; they are the backbone of our fighting force along with the U.S. Army Security Forces. These are the "Trigger Pullers" as my son Nate would say. He served two combat infantry tours in Iraq around the same time as Northcutt. These are situations that many average Americans could never imagine, Northcutt says. "I can't describe the all horrible things I saw, because some of them are literally indescribable. Body parts that looked half ear, half penis. Injured and dead humans. Not just insurgents and Marines. People: men, women, children, animals."

The stories that a Marine like Northcutt has under his belt are not a matter of choice; they are a matter of assignment. The PTSD that affects so many veterans of war is born from unimaginable things witnessed in war while a person is trying to stay alive and keep their friends alive. He says in some cases it is like a stain you can never wash away.

"We carried a dead insurgent in the trunk of our Humvee for two days. You never forget those smells. I don't have any idea how many people I killed or maimed."

Northcutt's saga is the story of so many Marines and soldiers who have served in Iraq. They are raised in the best American homes, told they are doing the right thing, and then completely dumped on by that same nation and society when the game ends. The United States could work to be more accepting, it should be.

U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine
Regiment search for insurgents in Ramadi, Iraq.
during a mission February '04 courtesy: DoD.

There was not a doubt that these warriors were being viewed as damaged goods. He says that even before the fighting ended, they were a matter of concern "We lost a lot of guys. They sent a Navy Full-bird psych (Navy Captain is the same as a Marine Colonel) out to see us and a lot of us were diagnosed with Chronic PTSD, right there on the spot: Camp Hurricane Point, Ramadi, Iraq."

For Northcutt, things did not get better. After his platoon's .50 cal gunner was sent home from Iraq, he took his place.

The .50 caliber machine gun is terrifying if you are simply standing near it when it fires. The receiving end is always an aftermath of destruction. It is so loud it can permanently damage your hearing if you don't wear ear protection, and it is probably the single most ferocious machine gun used in modern time.

In each military "Humvee" there is a turret. A machine gunner is in that turret whenever the vehicle is on the move. I saw some gunners who had good turrets and some who fought them constantly in Afghanistan. Phil Northcutt's body would be permanently impacted by a bad turret and a very long firefight.

"I crushed my L4-L5 discs operating the turret which, due to up-armor, was extra massive. The crank was broke and while on a 16 hour patrol of heavy engagements I fell right asleep when I got to my rack." He says the next morning he had trouble just trying to walk.

At first the doctors wanted to send Sergeant Northcutt to Germany for treatment. His simple answer was "no." He remembers telling them that he could walk, and he was going back to his unit.

"I knew I could never live with myself if I left. I thumbed a ride back to my unit, hitching on helos. I stayed with my unit and finished my tour. Maybe not the smartest decision, medically, but its a decision that I can live with."

Part 2 will be published Thursday, April 10th 2008. You know from this that Phil Northcutt served the Marines honorably and he served his nation, agreeing to serve a one year tour in combat so another Marine didn't have to, as a casualty replacement. His Iraq experience may rank among the more horrible, but what he went through at the hands of the Police in Long Beach and the Los Angeles County Courts will make your skin crawl.

Here is Part 1 and here is Part 2.

Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with almost twenty years experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist and reporter. Today, in addition to his role as a war correspondent in Afghanistan where he spent the winter of 2006/07, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website, affiliated only with Google News. Watch for Tim's coverage from Iraq set to begin in April, 2008. You can send Tim an email at this address: newsroom@salem-news.com

Comments Leave a comment on this story.

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the real grandma April 14, 2008 1:59 pm (Pacific time)

obviously the people who read this paper only think of themselves and not the hurt you cause innocent children. Phil the best to you and sorry your daughter can not forgive the hurt you caused her. I shall no longer read nor write to this paper

VMMA April 14, 2008 12:19 pm (Pacific time)

Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access. http://www.veteransformedicalmarijuana.org/

LB April 14, 2008 10:43 am (Pacific time)

Chin up brother, you are a modern day hero and one of the best people I know. I am lucky to call you a friend. I have known Phil for 15 or so years and those who would judge him are people little or no character or quality of person. Oppose the war but support our troops, they deserve our respect.

grandma April 14, 2008 9:26 am (Pacific time)

I want to retract my first comment. I decided to take some medicine and realize that I am the confused and crazy individual. I was the one to force my grandchild to go to conseling for the hate I have in my heart.

grandma April 13, 2008 8:54 pm (Pacific time)

what about the heartache phil caused his daughter? He took her to the house where he grew the plants and told her to not tell anyone. She knew drugs were wrong but felt loyal to her dad. She has now been in counseling for over a year due to the traumatic experiences.

Anonymous April 13, 2008 6:23 pm (Pacific time)

My friend, you are a hero to us all. You have the purest spirit to get you through this situation. You have made not just me proud but all who are lucky to continue to be here on this Earth. I'm so happy you are my friend. You service in the marines is admired. Kari

Julie April 10, 2008 4:23 pm (Pacific time)

When will this kind of stuff stop? Why would any one treat a vet like this? I don't understand how people can say they support troops and all that and then turn around and pick on them, like this guy. It just proves that Marines are strong individuals, to hold up under such unpredictable consequences. Thanks for your service to our country, I hope things all work out for you.

LRA April 10, 2008 3:38 pm (Pacific time)

its crazy to me what some of these guys go through and how many of them have died fighting there. we should end the war but never forget guys like this.

Jack Barlow April 10, 2008 10:13 am (Pacific time)

Semper fi Phil Northcutt, your story so far is fascinating so far and we look forward to part two.

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