That Smell: A Wounded Marine Reflects on Veterans Day

If you asked me what I remember most about my time as a U.S. Marine in Iraq, my answer would probably be a surprise.

I remember the smells more than anything. To this day, I can still smell the Iraqi towns and local foods, which trigger fond memories of exploring a new culture with my fellow Marines. Less pleasant smells include hydraulic fluid leaking from my Light Armored Vehicle and a platoon full of Marines after not showering for 45 days.

Those smells are harmless. The pungent odors of dead and decaying bodies, blended with the strangely sweet smell of explosive residue, are not. Years later, these smells still trigger guilt, bad dreams and regret.

Some people don't ask me to explain why these odors elicit such a visceral emotion. Perhaps they are unsure or even afraid of what I might say next. But for those who want to hear what I experienced in combat, I will always continue. It's a story I want to tell.

That smell of high-explosive composition-B residue overwhelmed my senses as soon as I woke up from the blast that destroyed my vehicle. Seconds later, I realized I was trapped.

As I panicked and tried to free myself, knowing that I was already wounded and another improvised explosive device (IED) could soon detonate, one of my Marines pried open the turret hatch and freed me from the shattered vehicle.

After quickly grabbing a radio and directing the 30 Marines and four remaining vehicles in my platoon, I made my way to the driver's compartment. I shielded my Marines from what I knew I was going to find.

As that composition-B smell once again filled my nostrils, my eyes rested upon my vehicle's driver, Lance Cpl. Shane Harris. The 23-year-old Marine from Las Vegas, N.M., was killed instantly in the IED attack. The image of this friend, fellow Marine and fallen hero is forever ingrained in both my memory and my soul.

I could still smell the explosive residue when I called Shane's family and sorted through his personal effects. I could smell it when I called my wife and was being treated for my injuries. And I was inundated with it whenever I walked off to be alone and cry.

There is much talk about the challenges service members face when transitioning back to civilian life. It's true -- it is indeed challenging -- but not for the generally accepted reasons.

The U.S. civilian population has demonstrated a continuous outpouring of support for veterans like me. Corporations are actively recruiting service members for work. There are more than 40,000 nonprofit organizations focused on veteran assistance.

While people care, it's also hard for people to understand what some veterans have been through. In fact, as I helped carry Shane's flag-draped casket to a CH-53E helicopter while fellow Marines stood at attention, one of the first questions I asked myself was "will people back home understand?"

The last eleven years of war have been fought by a tiny percentage of our population; less than one percent, including service members and contractors. Never before have so many Americans watched a war unfold without actually knowing someone who is fighting it.

By contrast, the Greatest Generation of World War II is the embodiment of American exceptionalism because virtually the entire country was involved in a winner-take-all battle with our enemies. Men went to fight, women worked in ammunition factories and kids helped their parents. Every single American was vested in the outcome of the war.

At the conclusion of World War II, veterans were seen as civic assets, leaders and valuable members of communities. Almost everyone understood what was sacrificed because they had sacrificed as well.

It's hard to understand how something as simple as a smell could affect someone so deeply. I certainly had no idea what the after-effects of combat would be like until I experienced them. But time after time, as kindhearted people have thanked me for my service, I've wished they would also ask about what my Marines and I saw, heard and smelled in Iraq. I want to help them understand.

If you want to thank a veteran, listen to them and their stories. View their service, leadership, determination and pride as a civic asset that should be emulated throughout society.

Imagine if selfless service, gleaned from our courageous troops and veterans, was once again sewn into America's fabric. Imagine if we lived our lives placing the needs of others ahead of our own, as we demonstrated in the aftermath of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Like World War II, we banded together as one country -- everyone American.

Selfless service every day, not just when something tragic happens, is just one lesson we can learn from our country's veterans. If we recommit ourselves to this basic principle, the unmistakable smell of patriotism and pride would once again fill the air of our exceptional, noble nation.

James Brobyn is Executive Director of the Travis Manion Foundation, which assists veterans and families of fallen service members.