Marine Staff Sgt. Larry Long kneels beside a young Iraqi boy, Ali Abass, who enjoyed watching his Marine platoon doing vehicle check points. Courtesy photo.
By Darrell Todd Maurina
For Clovis native Larry Long, the order to deploy for Operation Iraqi Freedom was a first in his career as a Marine. After spending 11 years training for war, Iraq would be the staff sergeant’s first experience in a combat situation.
“I can play the big macho Marine — ‘I was not scared and ready to fight’ — but I would be lying to myself,” Long said. “Anyone who says they were not nervous or had some kind of fear running through their blood is not human. You train, you go over all the ‘what if,’ and bottom line, you tell yourself if it’s my time it’s my time (and) there is nothing I can do about it.”
However, rather than finding himself targeted for attacks, Long found himself in a part of Iraq where crowds of Iraqis would run up to his vehicles chanting rhymes in broken English such as “Saddam donkey, Bush good.”
That part of Iraq is near Najaf, a holy city of Shiite Islam whose people were severely persecuted by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Department of Defense officials say experiences such as Long’s are fairly typical, and claim that most of Iraq is relatively safe, other than the capital city of Baghdad and the central Iraqi provinces surrounding Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. Shiites dominate southern Iraq and make up about 60 percent of the total Iraqi population, and Kurds dominate northern Iraq where their self-governing enclave had been protected for a decade by American airpower from attacks by Hussein’s military.
Long is now temporarily in California with his unit, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines, and expects to return after training those who will soon be deployed to Iraq. While he’s not dismissing the risks — American and allied troops continue to be killed by guerrillas staging small-scale hit-and-run operations — Long said the attitude of most Iraqis toward Americans is a major factor leading him to want to return to the country.
“Something I found amazing was little children of all ages would run for hundreds of yards to the road (in) bare feet just to wave at us as we drove by,” Long said. “The Shiites really enjoyed us being there; before we got there they had no running water, no electric, nothing.”
That experience of poverty contrasted radically with what Long saw while briefly staying in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.
“I actually stayed in Saddam’s bedroom. This place was unbelievable, marble bathrooms from floor to ceiling, gold chandeliers, and marble floors — the place just made you walk around in awe,” Long said. “Sadly I felt guilty every morning I awoke. Looking out of Saddam’s bedroom window across the river, (there) was a family of about 15 living in a mud house with nothing but each other. I thought, ‘How can a man get up, look out his window and see that and not care?’”
While many of Long’s duties involved running checkpoints to identify and stop potential anti-American military activities, Long said the Marines worked hard to improve quality of life for the Iraqi people around them.
“Some of the projects consisted of rebuilding schools, a lot of painting and rebuilding hospitals, helping to reinforce the jails, and assisting the police in day-to-day duties,” Long said. “I am proud to have served in Iraq because it was an opportunity again to make a difference to some day be able to look back and say I was there. To know the Iraqis personally, to be able to take a picture of a young boy in Iraq and show to my son one day. Mostly to know that I am protecting our rights to know that I am defending my country and helping my country defend people who cannot defend themselves.”
Although he’s enjoying American stateside amenities such as daily hot showers, Long said he’s looking forward to going back to Iraq. One reason is that most Iraqi people he saw were quite upset to see American troops leaving their area.
“They protested when we were getting ready to leave,” Long said. “The Iraqis in Najaf wanted us to stay because with us there they felt safe.”