Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Former Marine Corps Sergeant, David Curry, has been to the remotest and deadliest regions of Anbar Province in Iraq. He has experienced firsthand the rigors of war, the anguish of loss, and the nightmares associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These experiences have conditioned Curry to handle adversity when, long after his service, he is able to adapt to future struggles with relative ease.
Now, as a student at the University of California at Irvine, Curry faces a new challenge wholly different than what he experienced in the Marine Corps. The current fight is not against an armed combatant, but against a fragmented university administration and an apathetic student population who are often vigorously opposed to veteran’s issues. Faced with insufficient auxiliary services for veterans on campus, Curry became the veterans’ leading voice for change—a role he is accustomed to—whether on the battlefield or at the university.
As President of the Los Angeles and Orange County Veterans Student Union—a chapter of Student Veterans of America, Curry has continually fought to raise campus awareness for veteran’s issues. The twenty-eight year old Sociology and Economics double major believes there is a disconnection between the campus administration and its veteran population—a group that is expected to grow beyond the seven-fold increase seen in the last six years.
“There seems to be a cultural and political contrast between the veterans and the campus community,” Curry says, “and it is my goal to gradually close that gap.”
Before transferring to UCI, Curry proposed to Saddleback Community College the idea of building a Veteran’s Memorial to honor the local veteran community. Seeking to take advantage of the Veterans Administration’s new Post-9/11 GI Bill, especially with Saddleback’s close proximity to Camp Pendleton, it was his hope that veteran students would see the monument as Saddleback’s commitment to welcoming a new generation of veterans.
Curry’s goals for UCI were more ambitious, however, and many of the items on his agenda have been met with varying degrees of success. A Veteran’s Memorial has been discussed, as have plans for separate veteran’s housing on campus. He recently spearheaded a lengthy and hard-won campaign for veteran’s priority registration—the only UC without it. Previously, veterans had difficulty enrolling in classes due to cancellations resulting from the UC budget crisis, and since the VA’s Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits are only payable to classes within the student’s program of study, many veterans had to take time off, change majors, or pay for available classes out of pocket.
But not all of Curry’s agenda has been met with success. On April 13, 2010, the Legislative Council of ASUCI voted 14-0-1 to encourage the Academic Senate to approve the proposal for a Military Science program under the School of Social Ecology. Having an officially sanctioned Military Science program would allow UCI ROTC to have its own battalion and enable its eligibility for scholarship funding by the military.
The proposal was denied.
“They have no problem accepting grants from the Department of Defense for research, but when I approached them with support from various faculty for a Military Science program that would support ROTC, they unilaterally denied the request because of the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” says Curry, fuming with frustration over the university’s hypocrisy.
The given excuse is particularly unnerving for the two-dozen ROTC cadets on campus who have to travel weekly to USC and Cal State Long Beach for Military Science classes. Without an officially sanctioned Military Science program at UCI, the club is ineligible for scholarship funds from the military and it cannot grow as a result. But with Curry’s help, cadets like Christian Peralta are continuing their research for loopholes and are planning on how best to proceed with a new proposal.
With President Obama backing recent steps to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the wait may not be long. Curry and the rest of the cadets are hopeful the administration will soon retract its own decision concerning the Military Science program.
“David Curry guides us toward recognition,” says Peralta. “He’s very diligent—a strong leader who gets results.”
Although he has been out of the Marine Corps since early 2008, Curry still looks the part of combat-hardened soldier. His naturally bleached-blond hair is cropped short and neat above the collar. His square jaw is always clean-shaven and he is an imposing figure—the former personal trainer is a mini-Hulk with a neck like a tree trunk and forearms like Popeye. He walks like a man with a purpose, and when he reasons with the administration for veteran’s issues on campus, his sharp business attire and intellectual prowess assert that he is no mere dumb grunt.
The Interlachen, Florida native joined the Marines out of High School when he was just seventeen years old. He was ambitious and felt that becoming an infantryman with the Marines was the challenge he needed before getting serious about school.
“It was like a right of passage for me, something I felt I needed to do to become a man.”
With the Marines, Curry traveled around the world. Ambition, excitement, and challenge for the young soldier led him to South Carolina and North Carolina before being stationed in Japan, where he visited Okinawa, Sasebo, and Mt. Fuji. He even spent time in Guam and South Korea before making his last international journey—to Kuwait and Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It was in Iraq where Curry met his greatest challenge. He and his men were a month from coming home when an event took place that changed his life and set in place the character by which he leads today.
The summer of 2004 was especially difficult for Curry and the 1st Battalion 7th Marines. His company was detached from the battalion and placed in charge of an Area of Operations (AO) that spanned several hundred square miles in Anbar Province, near the Syrian border. They had patrolled regularly that summer and many of their vehicles had become inoperable from a brutal succession of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s).
“Because we had lost so many vehicles, our Company was essentially combat ineffective.”
In those days, recalls Curry, there weren’t many armored Humvees. To make do, the men of Weapons Company resorted to welding pieces of sheet metal to the sides of their trucks. It wasn’t perfect, but until more Humvees came in, it was all they could do.
By winter, the temperatures had cooled and the Marines patrolled less frequently. After a stretch of inactivity in December, Curry’s section had received an attachment of Army Pathfinders. The attachments came with two Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Buffalo’s—a six-wheeled Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) that can withstand a blast from an IED. For one of Curry’s soldiers, however, these reinforcements would not be enough.
On a cool, late morning in early January, Curry and his section had set out on a mounted patrol to “probe and sweep” an area that had not been patrolled for several weeks. Because it wasn’t a raid, the section had been given less than a basic supply of ammunition, which typically included each leader getting a few hand grenades and an assortment of varying colors of smoke grenades.
“When I went to the Ammo Supply Point, the Gunney in charge said, ‘You’re not getting any frags for this mission. The Battalion would rather save them for when we do more raids.’”
Curry was livid, but there was little he could do.
Worse yet, the patrol had left the wire without dismounted radios. The only radio’s they had were attached to the Humvees, and since they were only expected to “probe and sweep” their AO, they hadn’t planned on leaving their vehicles.
And that’s when the trouble began.
“When you neglect your AO,” Curry says, “the enemy will plant an ambush and it will be waiting for you.”
On that morning in January, two EOD Buffalo’s flanked Curry’s convoy for protection. As they drove into the sector, they came upon barriers in the road—a “kill zone” marked by rocks and large debris. Traps such as these often conceal IED’s, and as a result, Curry’s convoy was tasked to search the nearby homes for information about what they had found.
As Curry’s soldiers dismounted their Humvees, they began to take fire from the buildings opposite where they had entered.
“It was obvious the insurgents were waiting for us. And we weren’t just going to stand there and take fire, so we ran into the buildings.”
As the Marines scattered into different buildings, they were left without communication since each radio was attached to the Humvee. As the convoy commander, Curry sent one of his soldiers to find the platoon sergeant’s truck and the radio operator (RO) who could contact the company commander with a Situational Report (SITREP) and request for reinforcements.
That soldier—one of Curry’s Squad Leaders—never made it to the radio.
Curry’s breathing slows and the words between each breath grow quieter. His eyes become vacant and teary, before continuing his story.
“He was cut down by an RPK,” says Curry, referring to the popular Soviet assault rifle.
After the Marines cleared the buildings, they called in a MEDEVAC for the soldier. Curry was the lead driver in the convoy and it was his vehicle that took the soldier to the EVAC site.
“I had to deal with him. I was the one who carried him...”
Curry’s voice drifts off into silence. He relives this moment in his head everyday—he was the one who ordered the soldier—a man he had trained with for months before deploying and fought the previous months with—to find the truck and the radio. But he is also angry—with himself, and with his command, for what could have been done differently.
“I was pissed at myself for not questioning my command more. I was pissed at my command for sending us out there unprepared.”
The death was hard for Curry to deal with. Eventually, his unit redeployed back to the states, but the issues and problems they faced in the Iraqi desert still clouded their minds.
When he got home from Iraq, Curry sought help, but he was only given a number of prescriptions. He also had to deal with the Marine Corps stigma on counseling—officially available, but for which internal directives dissuade.
His soldiers sought help also, but in different ways. A lot them, says Curry, got into heavy drinking and drugs. Many soldiers failed the urinalysis—or, “popped a piss test”—the stigma was that strong—they would rather refuse medical help and figure out their own way to deal with things.
“There wasn’t much available in 2004, and to this day, getting help is a taboo. When I came back, I knew I was getting out. I didn’t care what they would think. I wasn’t going to let my issues affect their mission, so I sought out help and treatment. But, I still got labeled. I was the leader in combat, and they felt it looked bad toward the other guys.”
By this point, Curry’s dream of becoming an infantry officer had vanished; he soon met a girl and realized that he could never be both a good husband and father and a good officer, and he was not willing to half-heartedly pursue either. So, he went back to school.
On a clear, cool evening in late May, UCI’s Center for Service in Action hosted an appreciation dinner for its student veterans in advance of Memorial Day. Curry, the evenings host and primary architect, was dressed in a suit and had wandered from table to table as seamlessly as a politician and as hospitably as a personal friend to every veteran in the room.
After a touching slideshow of pictures submitted by UCI veterans, Curry introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Heidi Kraft, a former Navy psychologist and author of Rule Number 2—Lessons Learned in a Combat Hospital. Rule Number 2 is particularly relevant to combat veterans in the room, for it discusses Dr. Kraft’s experiences working in an emergency surgical unit in Iraq and the problems she had connecting with family upon her return. Her experiences were similar to many of the same issues the soldier’s she treated were facing—primarily shame at acknowledging she wasn’t well and that she needed help.
“It’s okay if you’re not okay,” says Dr. Kraft. “Combat has forever changed me, too. As a psychologist, it was easy to diagnose my own problems, but much more difficult to treat. I discovered that I couldn’t help anyone until I had really learned to help myself.”
Curry sits erect, next to his wife at the front of the room, and although he is listening, he isn’t there. The same lifeless, sullen glaze can be found in the eyes of nearly every soldier in the room where, perhaps each of them are remembering and reliving their own struggles.
Dr. Kraft’s words seem to speak directly to Curry and his eyes become blank and unblinking, like he’s been transported to another world.
“The first rule of war,” explains Dr. Kraft, borrowing a quote from M.A.S.H., her favorite TV show growing up, “is that young men are going die. The second,” she pauses, looking around the room, “is that doctors can’t change rule number one.”
But Dr. Kraft, and others like her, will try, and it was her book that Curry had read for a class at Saddleback College that encouraged him, years ago, to seek help.
The veteran’s appreciation dinner is the culminating event of a successful year for VSU; many of the club’s accomplishments are the direct result of the hard work and time that Curry alone put in—more so than any other member.
He understands that the best leaders are those who are not above accepting help, and if a leader is able to accept help, then he will better understand how to effectively give help. That is the motivation driving Curry and is why he fights at UCI for a better transition for veterans.
“As a leader, I want to help. I want to make it easier for the next wave of veterans than it was for me and also for them to step up and do what I do.
“I still live with that incident today [in Iraq]. It affects me in how I go about veteran transitions. But I do this because I feel I owe it to those that I served with who never made it back and did not get the opportunity to enjoy the life I was blessed with, at their expense.”