Oral history: Veteran still ‘amazed’ at the bravery of Marines in Iraq
Michael Schoenfeld spent the first days of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in the back of a seven-ton truck that offered little protection aside from a canvas cover and sandbags that quickly turned hard as concrete.
He joked to fellow servicemen that if rocket-propelled grenades were fired at them, the rounds would sail through the canvas and explode somewhere else. But the bullets they encountered on the way to, and in, Baghdad were no joke, Schoenfeld said, nor were the tactics of Saddam loyalists who hid behind civilians.
“When you go to war, you expect to fight soldiers, but you don’t expect them to use women and children as shields. It was cowardly,” said the Marine major, a company captain at the time of the invasion. His men agonized over the casualties suffered by civilians during their engagements with paramilitary units in eastern Baghdad.
He has shared his story with the American West Center’s oral history project at the University of Utah.
Schoenfeld, who now works for the Federal Reserve Bank, said certain aspects of his war experience have stuck with him. The way combat warped time (did that firefight last five minutes or five hours?). The bravery of the Marines he commanded.
“I continue to be amazed at their actions,” he said, “and can’t say enough about what a privilege and honor it was to have served with and led such a great group of warriors.”
Schoenfeld is among the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts interviewed thus far for the University of Utah’s “Saving the Legacy” project at the American West Center.
The son of a career Marine, Schoenfeld grew up in Roy, Utah, and joined the Marine reserves out of high school in 1986. He underwent a fast-track officer training program and was assigned to a scout sniper platoon.
Schoenfeld joined the initial deployment in the run up to the 2003 ground invasion of Iraq. His company was part of a long convoy associated with the 1st Marine Division that hurried to Baghdad through the eastern part of Iraq, going out of its way to avoid tangling with Saddam loyalists.
“That’s what they wanted us to do — bog us down, get us in fights in all these little towns along the way,” he told his University of Utah interviewer, John Worsencroft. “So the philosophy was, we’re just going to go like a bat out of hell to Baghdad.”
But the pace was interminably slow at times. Schoenfeld was intrigued by the incongruity of nomadic cultures juxtaposed with modern warfare, such as the herd of camels that trotted alongside the convoy as it moved north. Then there was the man, who turned out to be an English professor, who was herding sheep in Baghdad. At times, the scene was like stepping back to the time of Christ.
“You’d see Bedouins and these old mud huts,” Schoenfeld said. “I’m sure the people at the time were probably amazed to see this huge convoy of all these vehicles, just hour after hour after hour driving by and thinking what is going on? Because some of the Bedouins probably had no clue that there was even a war going on.”
The company’s first firefight came in the town of Al Gharraf, where the Marines rescued an artillery unit in a sandstorm, saving the life of its wounded commanding officer. The units leapfrogged forward until the troops encountered a Ba’ath Party stronghold in Al Figar.
In Baghdad, Schoenfeld’s company fought holdouts of Saddam loyalists. However, after the regime fell three weeks into the invasion, the Marines had time to tour the ancient city, enjoy cool showers and play baseball and Frisbee.
“To be honest, most of the time over there was boring. There were a few instances of excitement, but for the most part it was a pretty boring time,” Schoenfeld said. “Things started exploding soon after the Marines left Iraq. Maybe it would have been a better call to keep us there and secure the area. But that’s hindsight.”