In January 2006, a journalist named Jill Carroll was ambushed and kidnapped while attempting an interview in Baghdad. Her translator was shot dead on the spot and she was not seen again until the first hostage video came out a month later.
Even in a place as routinely treacherous as Iraq, her abduction garnered widespread attention. Jill was a young, pretty reporter from the heartland of America who had reported for the Christian Science Monitor. Her rescue became the priority of elite American special operations forces in the country.
Throughout the spring, they executed raids seeking to uncover intelligence on her whereabouts. It was suspected that she was held by Sunni elements connected to Al Qaeda in Iraq. When Al Jazeera aired the second hostage video they muted the sound, saying it was too wrenching for viewers. But you could see Jill weeping as she sat in traditional Muslim dress, the kind of footage that has become tragically familiar again these last few months.
It was not that I had a mythological conception of war. I had read the memoirs, from Rumor of War to Dispatches. But even the most depressing, the most prosaic stories still hinted that by going through combat, men joined some kind of special club, having transcended everyday life. I was impatient to have the same transformation.
In the first month of the deployment, I attempted to join the action, extending my stays out on patrol and begging to participate in missions. My commander, a veteran of two deployments to Iraq, including some of the bloodiest fighting in Fallujah, sat me down on base late one night. “You know Jake, it’s not out there, what you’re looking for. You’ll never walk away from a firefight and think, now I’m sated, now I can go home. You’ll never prove yourself a man in war.”
I did not believe him. I thought the speech was a clever way to convince me to follow orders, and a kind of self-deprecating luxury he could wield after having already been in combat many times.
As January, February, and March passed, none of the U.S. military raids seeking Jill were successful, but she survived. Through a series of complicated events, she was transferred from the original kidnappers and released at the headquarters of a moderate Iraqi Sunni political organization on March 30 in Baghdad. She had been in captivity 82 days. She was severely traumatized and her captors remained unidentified and at large. So the hunt continued, the aim now justice rather than rescue.
Around this time, a bit of intelligence was circulated to all American military units: One of Jill’s kidnappers was named "Sadoon.” A common name, so when our senior intelligence analyst ran a search and pointed out that there was a Sadoon associated with a mosque just outside our area of operations to the northwest, I forwarded it on but took little note.
One night in May, about six weeks after Jill was released, another source came forward with detailed information about where she had been held. Our Battalion's area of operations had been recently redrawn, so the neighborhood was now on our ground.
In the two days following this revelation, the "human targeting" process inched forward. It seemed likely that the special operations units, rather than our infantry battalion, would act on this intelligence. This would normally mean a nighttime raid on the suspected compound. I disagreed with this plan, both selfishly because I wanted to stay involved, but also because I thought such a raid risked hitting the wrong place, “burning” the area, and scaring everyone off before we could confirm the intelligence.
Eventually, I was allowed to go to the nearest combat outpost—Lima Black—to help lead the reconnaissance of the possible hostage site. We planned to be innocuous, visiting the neighborhood under the guise of a casual visit to see what the village might need and whether we could assist.
When we arrived, we immediately realized that the suspected building was actually a girl’s school. The hard hit would likely have been a disaster. Moreover, quick conversations near the village center revealed that a Sadoon lived in a house close by. He was currently gone, but he would be returning tomorrow to preach at the mosque. I posed with children as one of the Marines surreptitiously took pictures of the new target house over my shoulder. The raid would take place the next morning.
That night, I lay on a creaky green cot in a small room shared with three other Marine lieutenants, at the top of a steep crumbling cement staircase in an Iraqi house that had been been occupied by American infantry. The only decoration on the wall was a chaste Lindsay Lohan calendar, the prized possession of another lieutenant.
The next day was brightly sunny, temperatures around 100 degrees. In full cammies, ensconced in flak jacket and loaded with gear, it felt like being baked in an oven. We left the base, driving northwest into the area we called the Shark's Fin—a shape cut by the Euphrates River as it veers north then southeast again towards Fallujah. From the slightly elevated road we could see the whole sweep of terrain, easing from lush cultivated green near the river into the first hints of rocky desert on our left.
I was in the third Humvee of a five-vehicle chain. Cresting an overpass, a large explosion came from the left, narrowly missing the first vehicle. I could hear gunfire, ticks of bullets bouncing off steel plated armor. The Marines in the vehicle ahead were firing to their left at a target I could not see from my seat. I jumped out and saw a blue pick-up driving away, now about 400 meters gone, with men nestled in the back. Too far for a good shot. Our convoy had been hit by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device)—the fourth time this had happened to me, but the first where I had seen any associated insurgents. IEDs had blasted the romance out of war, dozens of our friends maimed or killed by assailants we could never fight.
Back in our vehicles, we drove forward again—and immediately another IED hit, this one damaging the first vehicle where the company commander sat. No serious injuries, but concussions. The kind of injury laughed off at the time but eventually rued. (The commander would go home early two months later, after being driven nearly insane by insomnia likely caused by the repeated blasts.)
We were now stalled, waiting for another unit to come evacuate the wounded driver and for bomb technicians to ensure that no more IEDs awaited. For a moment, I could feel the day hang and I feared that we would turn back. The commander was concussed and the mission behind schedule.
Finally, the call came over the radio and we drove forward.
Arriving at the house, we continued our charade from the previous day. When Sadoon answered the door we pretended we were visiting the neighborhood and had heard he was a local leader. Two Marines sat with him for tea in the anterior room, conveniently partitioned off from the rest of the house, while I searched the rest with a couple of other Marines. A stairway led to the roof, where I could hear the faint hum of an overhead drone, the only indicator that many others cared about the outcome of this afternoon tea.
On the main floor, we found a scrap of paper with Jill’s name scrawled on it. A source had told us there should be a hidden compartment in the shower room. I walked in, found a faint line in the ceiling, and punched upward. A section of the roof gave way, swinging upwards into a small door. There was a pleasure in that moment of confirmation you could chase your whole life and never find again.
I went back into the sitting room where an awkwardly calm conversation continued. We acted as if we were leaving, but as Sadoon and his two friends walked with us outside we quickly cuffed them, put them in the back of the Humvee and drove away.
Sadoon’s son—no more than twelve years old—stood in the living room holding on to his tiny sister as we departed. He had big eyes and trembling lips. He would be the oldest man in the house now. (This was not the first time the enemy and their families did not look as I’d hoped. On another raid we captured “the Butcher”—a man responsible for the deaths of dozens of Iraqis. He was chubby, middle aged. He had a beautiful fragile pregnant wife.)
By the time I got back to the main base with the detainees, it was past midnight. I walked into the intelligence office. “Got him,” I said. A smiling analyst handed me a police sketch—“Is this him?” It looked almost exactly like Sadoon. I laughed. Typical bureaucracy to provide us a sketch only after the raid was already complete.
At 4 a.m., I made the summary presentation—laid out the pictures, lined up the sources, inserted frames from the helmet cams and handheld video of the afternoon. I didn't want any confusion, I wanted people to know that we—average Marine infantry, shorn of the accouterments of special operations—we did this.
That was how we captured Jill Carroll’s kidnappers. No soundtrack in the background, no shots fired, just a visit to a house on a warm afternoon.
A senior officer later said that Sadoon was the most lucrative source we captured in Al Anbar province that year. He confessed within days, and then painted detailed notes on the structure of Al Qaeda in Iraq and associated organizations. The intelligence led to more raids that captured insurgents and freed other hostages.
The emotion of these events was subdued, however, as it was with so many of the other successes and losses I had experienced. When the first friend from my class of Infantry Officer’s Course died four months after graduation, it was a shock, a seismic event that shook the 80 of us who graduated with him. When the second friend from the class died eight months later, I only found out weeks afterwards, glancing at a wadded up copy of Stars and Stripes in a porta-potty on a dusty base outside Tikrit. Another day, a friend went out on patrol and did not return, shredded by an IED. I had talked to him the night before about his family, how he yearned to be done. When I heard he was dead, I squeezed my eyes shut and breathed deep, and went on to the next thing.
There is a deep loneliness when the death of your friends stops registering. Years later a civilian acquaintance died unexpectedly while we were at grad school together, and I sobbed more in a single day than I had done for all of the fellow fallen Marines.
One morning in August 2006, just back from Iraq after completing the deployment, my dad called. I was sleeping, mildly hungover, on my mattress on the floor of a house in California. Young, single Marine Corps infantry officers at that time tended to live an absurd existence on leave—spending thousands of dollars on gambling and alcohol in Vegas while skimping on normal comforts like furniture. After all, we might be dead soon, and you couldn’t take a futon with you.
“You’re on CNN,” my dad said.
The military had made the captures public. It was kind of stuff I had secretly fantasized about since I was a kid. Fox News went to my home and interviewed my little brother: “How does it feel to know your brother is a hero?” A front-page profile written about me by the hometown newspaper began, “For a man some might call a hero, Jake Cusack is remarkably frank…” In every article on the capture, I was usually the only Marine mentioned by name, though I didn’t deserve such credit.
But the story became a different kind of gift, an easy out in conversations I had become incapable of handling. The war we imagined required just causes and noble actions that produced heroic results. When people at home looked to me for validation that the war was going okay, I did not feel like telling the truth: that violence had been increasing every month I had been in Iraq, that I wasn’t sure what we had accomplished, that one night before a mission one of my snipers asked me, “If I die here tomorrow, could you really tell my mom that I died for my country?”
The hostage story was simple, straightforward, and contained just enough detail to feed people who wanted to show they cared about the war but did not want to hear the reality.
My commander was right, of course. The validation I craved was not out there: Not then, nor when I went back to Iraq again six months later still seeking it.
I eventually decided to leave the military for an easier life, even though our country remained at war. The officer who took the last assignment I was offered was killed by an IED in Afghanistan a couple months after I departed, and I developed an intimate relationship with guilt. But gradually, as that lucky sort of American veteran who sacrifices nothing, it receded into the past.
But over this summer, as ISIS took control of oil fields and pressed into Iraq, the geography that I knew intimately, far better than my home state of Michigan, came back to me. When the news said that ISIS had reached Samarra, I could picture the highway as it arced around the town, remembered the blood spattering my uniform as I torniqueted an Iraqi soldier’s arm, the frenetic drive into the city to reach the nearest evacuation point.
As those of us who served—you could meet a Marine in a bar and share stories about the flour factory in Fallujah or the overgrown golf course in Habbinyah—saw the places we fought for topple, a more visceral feeling of failure arose. The whispered question among comrades became loud and public: was it for nothing? Even asking it, alive and safely home, seems a disgusting indulgence. There are friends who died and friends who have remained behind.
Yet, perhaps irrationally, I still take pride in what we did those spring days almost a decade ago. Our motives felt so pure they seem quaint and naïve now. We wanted an enemy worthy of our lives, worthy of our deaths—so desperately that we were exhilarated when intelligence indicated a possible “torture house,” a Libyan suicide bomber, a Chechen sniper—anything dramatic enough to deserve us. Even now, I feel that urge for heroism. Capturing the kidnappers of a young American woman could at least be worthy of our blood. Our youth. Men yearn to do something great, and they will sacrifice all in that pursuit. I know this because I saw war, not in spite of it.
I try to avoid the rabbit hole that easily negates it: Jill was only in Iraq because we were in Iraq, and capturing her tormentors did not undo her 82 days in captivity. A friend of mine, a fellow Marine who lost both his legs to an IED, gave me the best advice: Don’t think too hard at night or it all unwinds.
There are better nights, too—nights that remind me of driving the prisoners to the main base at midnight. When the air is cool, the sky moonless, and you are left only with the soundtrack in your head, a melancholy one but with a hint of hope because today you might have done one good thing.
A recent poll by The Washington Post found that veterans, on the whole, do not think the Iraq war was worth fighting. It also found that 90 percent of them would do it all again.