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How America Really Treats Combat Vets: A Marine's Story Part 1Tim King Salem-News.com
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.
(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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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