These days, Iraq War veteran Sean O’Neill speaks out against the war.
The 25-year-old Fremont native wasn’t one of those who dreamed of joining the U.S. Marines. At 17, O’Neill didn’t know what he wanted to do after high school.
“Growing up in a suburban environment, I just wanted to break out of it, have a little bit of an adventure. I read a lot of Hemingway—think that had something to do with it,” O’Neill told the Planet in an interview in a peaceful courtyard at UC Berkeley, where he is a senior studying political science.
O’Neill thought the Marine Corps “would provide the experience I couldn’t find anywhere else—the weapons and the kind of operations they do—you can’t find anywhere else, not in law enforcement, the peace corps or anywhere.”
And O’Neill thought he could provide service. “At the time I was hoping to participate in one of these humanitarian actions—obviously they were done for less than humanitarian purposes—but I was intrigued by a lot of missions that were going on in the ’90s and some places we didn’t go in, like Rwanda. I was hoping I would get to participate in missions like that.”
He wasn’t influenced by recruiters—O’Neill and two friends talked it over and signed up together.
In the fall of 2000, the 18-year-old shipped out for a three-month stint in boot camp in San Diego. The goal there was to get recruits to develop a greater degree of psychological toughness so they could master greater physical challenges, O’Neil said.
“They focus more on building mental toughness and obedience to commands,” he said, adding that recruits also learned problem-solving and leadership skills.
Next stop was the infantry school, also in San Diego, which O’Neill described as “kind of fun”—running through the mud, throwing grenades. He criticized the quality of instruction, however, calling some of his instructors “less than stellar.”
“They are getting out of the Marine Corps,” he said. “They don’t care any more.”
He went on to train as a crewmember of a light-armored vehicle, and in April 2001, he was ready to join his unit, Light Armored Reconnaissance. The unit shipped out and traveled around the Middle East and Australia, a “readiness” force able to intervene if a tsunami hit or an embassy needed protection.
They trained with Jordanians and Kuwaitis. “We would exchange tactics,” he said.
They came back to Camp Pendleton in December 2002 and everything changed.
The war and the unanswered questions
O’Neill flew to Kuwait the next month “to offload all the equipment from the ships and get ready for the invasion that was coming.”
When they entered Iraq, O’Neill’s job was driving. “I didn’t really know why we were going in. The colonel said it was about weapons of mass destruction. So I decided, ‘all right.’ I had my doubts. When you’re in an environment where you don’t have access to any information sources, independent or otherwise, all you can do is conjecture. We didn’t have any access to newspapers or the Internet.
“I tried to make the best of the situation and said, ‘this is what we have to do.’ It was pretty exhilarating the first couple of days.”
While O’Neill was at the wheel, others were shooting. “It was throwing all societal norms out the window. Shooting at anything … some armored vehicles, mostly guys in bunkers, or vehicles with a heavy machine gun mounted on the back … Whoever is shooting at you, you shoot back.”
At that point it wasn’t hard to identify the enemy, mostly in uniform. “As time went on that was more difficult,” he said.
Then there was the first casualty: “A guy named Suarez [Lance Cpl. Jesus Suarez del Solar], who actually stepped on one of our own rounds.
“They’re supposed to explode when they hit the ground but not all of them do. He stepped on one of these things and severed an artery and he bled out. It took him hours. That’s when you realize it isn’t much of a game any more.
“It was pretty traumatic for me because I had to be a guard outside the vehicle where the medics were working on him.”
O’Neill said he didn’t know what would have happened to his psyche if it was he who had been working to save Suarez’ life. “Just hearing it was bad enough,” he said.
The incident caused a lot of anger in the unit. “People were pretty pissed off. Neither our own captain nor any other higher authorities told us that area was a no-go, because every time they use these munitions they’re supposed to let everyone know over the radio, ‘don’t go into that area.’”
When people get frustrated, all they can do is grumble, O’Neill said. “There’s not much more you can do.”
When the unit got to Baghdad, they posted a blockade around the city to prevent people from entering. Baghdad residents had fled to the country before the war, and, after the statue of Saddam fell—April 9, 2003—and they were ready to come home, O’Neill said.
The marine’s job was to keep them out and away from danger.
“They couldn’t come back in for their own protection,” he said.
After the fall of Baghdad, the Marines launched a raid on Tekrit, which they secured a day or two later. “Then the actual invasion was pretty much over. Most the country was secured or something close to it,” O’Neill said.
The unit was then stationed in a town in southern Iraq, where Saddam had been hated, in contrast to the north where people were Sunni loyalists.
“We were out there with minimal body armor,” O’Neill said. Groups of Marines went to restaurants; they went shopping. “Things that would be unthinkable today,” he said. “We felt we could eat the food without there being broken glass or poison. It was a real positive feeling.”
O’Neill thought it would be like invasions he’d read about: Topple the dictator and get out, but violence against the U.S. military was growing.
It had become clear to O’Neill that there were no weapons of mass destruction “It was a farce,” he said.
Still, having got rid of Saddam, O’Neill said he believed people would have “something close to democracy and it would all be worth it—so I thought at the time.”
The unit returned to the U.S. in May, but learned in November they would be going back to Iraq. “I was furious and thought: ‘This is like an occupation.’”
He shipped back out in Feburary 2004, with just seven months left on his contract. He was angry. “I did my part—what the hell? That was a big feeling for a lot of people,” he said.
“I started thinking, “What the hell is the mission? Are we going to police the society? We didn’t think it was our job to baby-sit the Iraqis or police them. We didn’t think that was our job.”
In March the unit was stationed in a town called Al Qaim, where they were supposed to police the Iraq-Syria border.
At this point, O’Neill no longer believed in the mission. The choice, however, was to quit and do six to eight months in the brig, or just go with it. He chose the latter.
The situation felt increasingly like an occupation. “If there’s anything approximating an expression of popular will, the rapid increase in violence and bombings has to indicate that the Iraqis didn’t want us there,” he said.
Within the unit, the men would talk about that among themselves. O’Neill said his speech wasn’t stifled.
He did, however, choose his words carefully when talking to superior officers. Speaking to his staff sergeant, “in the most delicate of terms” O’Neill said while he didn’t agree with the mission, he would do his job and keep his men safe.
April 1 the unit got hit hard with explosives and mines in Al Qaim; they learned they couldn’t trust anyone. “We were going to do a patrol with some Iraqi cops and the local insurgents—I don’t know, they had some deal, they were one and the same. The Iraqi cops told the insurgents when and where we’d be and gave them light machine guns and we got ambushed. It killed a Marine. Myself and a couple of guys got wounded.”
If O’Neill felt any traces of ambivalence before, this incident pushed him to the other side with the realization: “We must withdraw.”
He had also come to believe patrolling the extensive Iraq-Syria border was an impossible task. “We didn’t have the manpower and the locals knew the area better than us,” he said.
Insergents used light trucks, more suitable to the terrain. The heavy U.S. vehicles got bogged down in the salt marshes. “And we didn’t have enough air support.”
They couldn’t count on help from the Iraqis: “The locals didn’t trust us and we couldn’t provide them any protection if they worked with us.” Those who worked for the U.S. military became targets, as did their families.
After Al Qaim, there were three or four weeks of raids in Falluja.
Coming home, speaking out
In July, toward the end of his contract, O’Neill was sent back to the U.S. He was home in Fremont in late August.
Ties with family and friends helped smooth the transition back to civilian life. “I kept a good circle of friends around me. I ended up living with a guy from my platoon when I got out until I married my wife. I kept in contact with a lot of people from the platoons and started meeting other veterans.”
Talking to other veterans was important: “We were able to strip away that ‘Oh god, it’s so terrible,’ to cut through all that sentiment that I think non-veterans have around the war, and just talk about it honestly, without looking at it through any kind of lens that says the experience has to conform to any sort of ideology.”
Although he had been very critical, O’Neill hadn’t planned to speak out against the war. But through connections with the mother of a friend in the Marines who was a peace activist, and with Fernando Suarez del Solar, the father of the man in O’Neill’s unit killed by an unexploded cluster bomb—he has become a well-known anti-war activist—he met people in Iraq Veterans Against the War and he began speaking publicly about his experiences.
“Wife, school, and speaking out were the best things for my sanity,” he said. “When you hear it out loud, it’s different than when you have a thought that’s just kicking around in your head.”
O’Neill has spent a lot of time reflecting on strategies to end the war. He’s moved away from the more radical groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War and will not be participating in this weekend’s Winter Soldier Gathering in Maryland, where Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will share their stories.
He fears that because the event is sponsored by more radical groups and broadcast on KPFA—a left-leaning radio station—the event will be dismissed by the mainstream.
Activists sometimes just look at the war through one lens alone, whether the view is radical or conservative, O’Neill said. That results in “teasing out a political meaning of events which negates them as a human experience,” he said.
“The tragedy is that the [radical] tactics undermine the good things they want to do,” he said, referring to street demonstations.
O’Neill favors groups that engage with the electoral system. The system is messy; you don’t always get what you want, but it is through the electoral system that the war will be stopped, he said.
“We have to play the political game and interject ourselves in the system,” he said.
The Winter Soldier gathering, March 14-16, in which Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tell their stories, will be broadcast in its entirely on KPFA, 94.1 and streamed at KPFA.org.