Editor's Note: The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq influenced most Marines before they could even comprehend it. Many of them are the progeny of conflict and survival, inflicted with the physical and psychological wounds of war. The realities of combat controlled and directed their growth, combining aptitude, instinct, and courage equally. As the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, Marine leaders reflect on their service over the last decade and how combat has shaped them as leaders and as men. This is part one of a three part series.
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- The violence in Iraq was reaching its pinnacle in 2004 when Chris Taylor received his deployment orders to Al-Anbar province. Marines had just bloodied their way through the first Battle of Fallujah and insurgency within the country was beginning to expand as sectarian clashes divided the nation.
At the time, Taylor was newly married and just learning how to balance his life with his wife Angela. He had recently graduated the Defense Language Institute as an Arabic linguist and was just getting settled into their new home in Jacksonville, N.C., when he found out his unit, 2nd Radio Battalion, was to deploy.
Angela was speechless. Taylor comforted his wife the best he could, but anticipation, fear, and excitement gripped his own thoughts. As a corporal, Taylor had never deployed before and didn't know what to expect. But as a young noncommissioned officer, he knew he needed to be in Iraq.
Since 2001, Taylor felt an overwhelming need to help people, so he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Now, he recognized Iraq would help him discover purpose in his life and provide him the opportunity to ultimately serve others.
The Marine Corps had been at war in Iraq for 13 months when Taylor and his unit landed in Al-Qa'im in August 2004. It didn't take long for the reality of war to sink in.
Taylor unloaded his bags off the plane and into a 7-ton truck bound for Husaybah, a small, violent town on the border of Syria. As he sat in the passenger seat of the truck, he gazed through a fractured windshield damaged by a single bullet.
"The driver looked over at me and said that [bullet] was for the last Marine who sat there," said Taylor. "In that moment, it all kind of clicked for me. I realized war was real and I knew we were going to be truly involved in it. "
The war was real and Husaybah was an epicenter for insurgency; the local government had imploded, thieves had uprooted the city streets, and Islamist insurgents flowed across the Syrian border smuggling weapons and personnel. Marines controlled only a few blocks in the war-torn city and worked desperately to curtail the insurgency and the violence.
"Husaybah was the ‘Wild West'," said Taylor. "There was a fight for complete control of the city. It was a bloody time for Marines, as they were engaging in direct firefights or being constantly fired upon with indirect fire."
Taylor said during the first few weeks in Iraq, his emotional strength was tested. He was fighting two battles—one as a Marine, the other as a soon-to-be father. After landing in Iraq, Taylor called his wife and found out she was one month pregnant.
"The pregnancy added a lot of stress to me and my wife," said Taylor. "I was scheduled to be deployed for 13 months, so I knew she would have to go through the pregnancy by herself. I really had to balance the emotions of the family I left behind while dealing with my own problems that came with being deployed."
Taylor said as time went by, the fear and anxiety waned. He psychologically separated himself from the uncertainties of combat and much like other Marines he simply focused on what he could control.
For the remainder of the deployment, Taylor concentrated solely on his job of supporting infantry battalions with signals intelligence. As a new signals intelligence operator, Taylor had a massive learning curve but he worked hard to understand his role. Taylor admitted combat matured him quickly, which he attributes to the decisions he and fellow Marines faced daily.
"War forces many Marines to come face-to-face with their own morality," said Taylor. "In combat, you have to make decisions immediately, and right or wrong you have to live with those consequences."
Taylor said his time in Iraq changed him. After returning home, he prioritized his life. The ideas of what he thought were important faded and he focused more on spending time with his family.
"A Marine's time in combat makes them reflect on what is important in their life," said Taylor. "For me, it was family. I wanted to show them how much I appreciated them for the support they had given me."
Taylor also said he learned a lot about himself. He admitted he numbed himself to the realities of war, which helped him cope with the truth, proving to himself he was mentally capable of handling more than he thought.
Because of his experiences and unit leadership in Iraq, Taylor vowed as long as he served in the Marine Corps he would be a supportive leader and enable his Marines so they could do their job effectively. It has been nearly ten years since Taylor served in Iraq. Now as a gunnery sergeant and serving in Afghanistan with 2nd Radio Battalion, he continues to rely on and apply the lessons he learned as a young Marine.
Taylor said he teaches his junior Marines everything he knows because he believes, in terms of leadership, the Marine Corps is cyclical—a recurring phase of learning and teaching. Taylor knows eventually his time in the Marine Corps will come to an end, but he is confident in the future leaders of the Corps.
"In my opinion, the Marine Corps has the strongest leaders it has had in decades," said Taylor. "Marines of this generation have been engaged for the longest time in the history of our nation. We have fought these long engagements and have succeeded. I believe the Marine Corps is in very good hands moving forward."