Same war. Same platoon. Two paths since leaving Iraq.
Travis Pinn and Vincent Emanuele served side by side in Anbar Province. Now civilians again, one just wants the quiet life; the other aspires to help end the war.
Andy Nelson – staff
Silver Spring, Md.
Vincent Emanuele thinks of his teenage self growing up in Indiana and recalls being interested in three things: "girls, beer, and sports." About that same time, out in California, Travis Pinn was looking for adventure: scuba diving, shooting guns, and jumping out of planes.
Both joined the Marine Corps in 2002 as the US prepared to invade Iraq. Assigned to the same platoon, they fought and lived side by side in Iraq's stark western plains. Now, six years later, both have left the Marines, profoundly changed by their time at war.
But their shared experiences have set the two veterans on different paths. Mr. Emanuele, the former teenage jock, is an intellectually curious antiwar activist who aspires to make big changes in the world. Mr. Pinn, the daredevil, is introspective, starting a career as a set painter for Hollywood and trying to live life at a slower, simpler pace. Of the two, Emanuele's is the more unusual evolution, and veterans who speak out against the wars in which they fought have a storied and somewhat controversial history in American history.
But Pinn is not critical of his buddy's opposition to the war in Iraq – or his decision to go public about it. "I support him," says Pinn. "He's working to make people aware."
Two lives converge in the Marines
"Vinny" Emanuele was in the high school gym in Chesterton, Ind., lifting weights to stay in shape for baseball season, when someone turned on a TV in time to see the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. His response was to spit a racial slur into the face of an Arab-American classmate, telling her that her people were responsible for the attack.
About the same time, Pinn had finished high school in Los Angeles and, directionless, revived his childhood dream of finding adventure through the military.
By March 2003, the two were together on Kuwait's border with Iraq, poised with the rest of the 3rd platoon of Alpha Company First Battalion, Seventh Marines, for the invasion. Pinn turned 20 years old one day, and on the next he stormed into southern Iraq with a hung-ho platoon of "rebels" who would become especially close. He was a "team leader" of a handful of men, including Cpl. Kevin Clarke, a close friend of Emanuele's. But Emanuele wasn't with them. Just days before the invasion, Emanuele was called back to the US because his mother was suddenly hospitalized.
For several weeks Pinn and the 3rd platoon fought their way north from town to town toward Baghdad. One of their own was killed in battle, he says in a phone interview. When the platoon finally paused in the southern holy city of Najaf, he had time to reflect.
"I read more books and was thinking about what was going on around me," Pinn says of that time in Najaf. "I think the first [deployment] changed me the most and desensitized me for the second."
'Ready to be done with it'
Emanuele was with the platoon when it deployed to Iraq again in August 2004, this time to violent Anbar Province in western Iraq. Before they left, some Marine buddies had dragged him to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," and Emanuele says the movie's unflattering critique of Bush administration motives for invading Iraq planted a seed of a question in his thought.
Emanuele, Pinn, Corporal Clarke, and a few others became a tight group while in Anbar, discussing religion, the afterlife, politics, and where the world was heading. Emanuele increasingly spoke of his growing discomfort about the mission, which he felt was unclear, and with practices such as shooting indiscriminately in civilian areas and mistreating prisoners, both of which he'd seen other marines do and had done himself.
"A lot of guys said we signed up for this, we have to do it," Emanuele recalls in an interview. "But some of us started to have a lot of questions about what we were doing."
On the first day of their second deployment, the platoon would soon learn, the man who had previously been their company commander was killed in a nearby part of Anbar.
For Pinn, something snapped then, and any remaining zeal for the mission disappeared like a drop of water on blazing griddle.
"From that point on I was, like, 'I don't care if we have to stay in this tent the whole time,' " recalls Pinn. "I was ready to be done with it."
A Bible, a Koran, and an ambush
For Emanuele, still new to war, it would take six months in Anbar to reach that same mental state. It happened one February day in 2005. Emanuele and Clarke, along with some 25 other marines, met to plan how to destroy a nearby bridge that spanned the Euphrates River, a route that insurgents were suspected of using to transport weapons. Their sergeant read a passage from the Bible before the group set off.
They hadn't gone far when – ambush! Clarke dove into a bunker from which gunfire was erupting, killing two insurgents inside. But another fighter in the bunker took Clarke's life, only to be shot by one of the marines.
When the deadly fusillade stopped, Emanuele noticed a Koran lying open in the bunker. The insurgents, just like the marines, had been praying for blessing and protection before setting out on their mission that day.
"For us to say we are on this righteous path, and them to be on the other side doing the same thing – that threw a monkey wrench in my faith," says Emanuele, who wears on his wrist a black metal band engraved with the name "Cpl. Kevin M. Clarke."
Clarke's death deepened Emanuele's doubts about the mission in Iraq and shook to the core all that he'd been taught growing up Catholic in a devout Italian-American family. He became, he says, "completely a nonbeliever after that day."
But those thoughts would come later. Right then, Emanuele just knew his closest friend in the platoon was gone.
"When Kevin died, that was a little bit heavy for everybody, especially for Vince," says Pinn, understatedly. "He probably had a closer relationship with Kevin than anyone else."
"That incident changed the rest of the deployment," says Emanuele. "That changed the whole mood."
Two months later Emanuele and Pinn were back in the United States, and their experiences, though shared, started to move them in different directions.
The girlfriend Emanuele had left eight months earlier barely recognized the man he had become. No longer a high school jock and self-described "ignorant kid," he was reading books and writing poetry.
"I had educated myself to contextualize these events" witnessed in Iraq, says Emanuele. "When I think of the person I was, it's night and day." They soon broke up.
To decompress, he took a job in Chicago as an ironworker, the same work his father had done while a union organizer there in the 1980s.
A few months after being discharged from the Marine Corps in January 2006, Emanuele edged, shyly, into a seat at the back of an auditorium at Valparaiso University in Indiana to listen to a panel discussion on the Iraq war. None of the speakers had been to Iraq. At the end of the talk he raised his hand.
"I wanted people to know this one guy [on the panel] was right," he recalls.
He could see the heads whip around as he spoke. His firsthand knowledge of the war seemed to grab their attention.
He suddenly had an audience, and it caught him by surprise, he says. But it also was the moment he realized that "I did have a voice and I could speak out."
After the discussion, a Vietnam veteran approached and encouraged him to join Iraq Veterans Against the War. The group had formed about two years earlier, and it now claims some 800 members nationwide. Emanuele has become Indiana's IVAW organizer.
Out of the military and without dependents, Emanuele says he doesn't feel constrained, as other veterans might, about criticizing the US government's prosecution of the Iraq war. He was tired of hearing generals and pundits discussing it – and wanted to contribute a critique informed by his on-the-ground view.
If service members "truly take their oath [of enlistment] to heart," he says, "then you understand this is a responsibility to speak out and tell the truth about what happened."
It's an atypical stance in the Marines, where the training reinforces loyalty to the service and the importance of protecting its image. Last weekend in Silver Spring, Md., IVAW held a conference called Winter Soldier, similar to the 1971 event for Vietnam veterans who had become disillusioned with America's role in the Southeast Asia conflict. Emanuele and dozens of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans spoke aloud of transgressions they had witnessed – and committed – during the wars, things they once could barely whisper to their closest friends.
"It takes a mental and emotional toll to speak out. No one is here for fun," Emanuele said at the Winter Soldier conference. "This is a very difficult process to open the scabs again and talk about the person I used to be."
Pinn was not there.
He is no less moved by his experiences in war, but the return to civilian life has turned him inward.
"I have a lot to say about [Iraq], but I don't want it to be my whole life," he says. "I just want to focus on getting a stable job … just enjoy my [everyday] experiences."