Commitment to Iraqi People Drives Trio of Marines

Sgt. Alex Lemons i i

Sgt. Alex Lemons sits atop a Humvee in Diwaniyah in southern Iraq. He is part of a three-person team of Marines sent to make the joint forces in the area more effective and improve relations with local Iraqis. Courtesy Team Phoenix hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Team Phoenix
Sgt. Alex Lemons

Sgt. Alex Lemons sits atop a Humvee in Diwaniyah in southern Iraq. He is part of a three-person team of Marines sent to make the joint forces in the area more effective and improve relations with local Iraqis.

Courtesy Team Phoenix

A detachment of three U.S. Marines is working in the Iraqi city of Diwaniyah in an effort to regain control of the southern city and the surrounding province of Qadisiyah.

These young Marines all have been to Iraq multiple times and none of them had to go back. But they all volunteered when Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, asked them to return. They all felt they had unfinished business in Iraq.

Capt. Seth Moulton, 28, joined the Marines after graduating from Harvard. He served four years and planned to attend Harvard for graduate school. But the war continued to haunt him.

The appointment of Petraeus and the change in military strategy greatly influenced his decision to return.

"Working for Gen. Petraeus ... gives me the opportunity to have a wide influence," Moulton says.

Sgt. Alex Lemons is also 28 and a college graduate. He eventually plans to study for a doctorate in English. He could have been an officer like Moulton, but chose instead to join the enlisted ranks. After he left the Marines, he, too, couldn't shake the war.

"We have made promises to these people that we would do everything to help them and I take that very seriously," Lemons says.

Capt. Ann Gildroy also couldn't shake a feeling of unfulfilled promises. After two tours in Iraq, she left the Marines for Harvard Business School because she concluded that over the long term, the Marines did not provide women with the same opportunities as men.

Petraeus had previously given Gildroy challenging assignments working with the new Iraqi forces. And it was the general who asked her to take on her current work in Diwaniyah.

Each of these Marines had previously worked in the Shiite area south of Baghdad. Their current mission is to make the forces in the area more effective — whether it's the Iraqis whom they know well, the Polish forces based here or the local tribal sheiks. They are Petraeus' eyes and ears, and their job is to be a broker and to solve whatever problems arise.

Moulton says these are tasks that are usually assigned to people well above them in rank.

"Gen. Petraeus ... is interested in getting the mission accomplished, even if it means doing things in an untraditional way," he says.

On their return in August, all three were shocked at how the situation in the south had unraveled. Shiite militias and criminal gangs had taken over the provincial capital of Diwaniyah, as well as much of the surrounding area.

Lemons says that with so much poverty and unemployment here, the violence — an outgrowth of long-standing problems — should have been predicted.

"Instead of planning for these things, which we could have planned for, we didn't. We let them happen and reacted," Lemons says.

Now, these Marines think that, with their experience, they might just have a chance to make a difference in the south and help embolden people to take on the militias. But they all worry it could be too little, too late.

"We are so far behind in the game right now that the amount of labor that it's going to require to catch up is pretty daunting," Lemons says.

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