Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions From Iraq The Princeton alum addresses mockery about his Ivy League schooling and how he "justifies" his mission. He also offers tips on how to delay deployment so as not to miss the birth of one's child.
NPR logo Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions From Iraq

Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions From Iraq

Three months ago Capt. Nate Rawlings, 26, returned to Iraq for his second tour of duty. Throughout the next few months, he will be answering questions about his experience as well as sending us updates on his life. (Send your inquiries through this form).

Question One: My wife is giving birth around my deployment date. What do I do?

Question Two: How do you justify your job, when innocent civilians are killed?

Question Three: How does an Ivy League reputation fare in Iraq?

Question One: My wife is giving birth around my deployment date. What do I do?

Dear Capt. Rawlings,

I am starting a family. When I found out that doing so cost more than I made, I decided to go back into the military after 11 years away. My wife is going to have a baby in November/December. My deployment date is in November, but there's a lot I don't know because it is only my 13th week in the Army. I came from the Navy. I want to be around for my kid's birth. Who do I talk to?

Roger Vogan, Oberlin, Ohio

Dear Roger,

First, congratulations on your upcoming baby. Many of my soldiers and friends have had children while on active duty, and my sisters and I were all born in Army hospitals. As your wife's due date is very close to your deployment date, you will need to speak to your chain of command and see if you can deploy late to be there for the birth of your child. In my battalion, we had about a dozen soldiers whose wives were due near our deployment date. My brigade commander's policy was that anyone whose wife had a due date within 60 days of the deployment date was allowed to remain behind and deploy late; however, each decision was handled on a case-by-case basis. When soldiers' wives have a baby after we deploy, we try to send them home on midtour leave at the projected due date.

For your situation, you'll need to talk to your 1st sergeant, and the decision will need the approval of your company and battalion commander first. Good luck and stay safe.

Question Two: How do you justify your job?

Capt. Rawlings,

When you and your fellow Marines kill children, women and other innocent civilians, how do you justify your "job"? As a follow-up, do you ever think about the fact that we went to Iraq based upon false information, exaggerations and outright lies by this administration? I question how anyone serving in Iraq doesn't ask themselves these questions every day. I think that you and they are either not aware of how we manufactured a rationale for starting this war or just don't give a damn as you pursue your careers.

Michael Kelly, Westerly, R.I.

Dear Mr. Kelly,

To begin, I am an officer in the Army, not a Marine, although I have many friends and family who are Marines and they are all wonderful, honorable people. I take extreme exception to your unjust characterization of the service of those who fight daily for your right to say such things; however, that is your right, and it is among the many things I fight for too.

I entered the Army knowing that I would only serve four to five years and then leave the service, so I have tried to do nothing in the pursuit of a "career." My only goal in entering the service was to lead a platoon in combat and bring all my soldiers home. I had that honor in 2006. I have been given another wonderful honor — to lead the Adviser Team I am with now. That said, most of the committed career officers and noncommissioned officers I have met serve with honor and weigh the ethical sides of an issue when making decisions in combat.

Your question does raise an important issue that needs to be considered carefully by everyone who advocates military action: Do innocent civilians die? The answer is yes. In every action we take, we do everything we can to avoid hurting or killing innocent bystanders who are caught up in this conflict. I have seen young soldiers, who were completely justified to take lethal action against a threat, avoid action because it put an innocent civilian in danger. Hundreds of soldiers and Marines make similar decisions every day. Yet, in every war there have been innocent civilians killed, and this one is unfortunately no exception. This is extremely important to remember when we consider military action in the future.

Question Three: How does an Ivy League reputation fare in Iraq?

Dear Capt. Rawlings,

What was it like making the transition from the military program at Princeton to leading a group of men in Iraq? Did your reputation as an Ivy Leaguer precede you? Did that mean anything to them?

I hope things are well. All the best.

Zachary Gall, Kansas City, Mo.

Dear Zachary,

Thanks so much for the question. I did get a bit of friendly ribbing when I first came to my unit and my troops found out where I went to school, but I try to keep this Irish proverb in mind: Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused. I probably made fun of myself as much as they did and learned that it's all part of becoming a large family of soldiers.

I was truly blessed because the Princeton Army ROTC cadre taught me that when you are a leader, you are essentially a servant of those you lead. I learned from amazing, patriotic and professional noncommissioned officers that accomplishing the mission is our most important duty, followed closely by taking care of those in our charge. I tried to use my status as an officer to help with the nagging problems soldiers face, from pushing paperwork through the red tape to finding the person who could help make something happen. I hope that any feelings they might have had that I was a snot-nosed kid from an Ivy League school went away pretty quickly.

Update From Iraq: Appreciating 'The Darkness'

Capt. Rawlings Takes Your Questions

Do you have a question about life in Iraq? Send your inquiries through this form.

Gunner Marcus Brown (far right) lost his commander in April, when a projectile slammed through his Humvee. Courtesy Nate Rawlings hide caption

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Courtesy Nate Rawlings

Gunner Marcus Brown (far right) lost his commander in April, when a projectile slammed through his Humvee.

Courtesy Nate Rawlings

Capt. Nate Rawlings recently returned to Iraq for the second time. In this essay, and in others throughout the coming months, he talks about his experiences and answers your questions.

My company commander was killed in April: An explosively formed projectile, or EFP, slammed through his vehicle, killing him instantly.

Serving as his Humvee gunner that day, like every other day, was Marcus Brown, a 24-year-old private first class from Brooklyn. When the EFP hit the cab, Marcus was thrown from the gunner's hatch to the vehicle's floor. Despite a serious concussion and flash burns to his face, Marcus flawlessly executed his combat drills. He opened the emergency hatch, vented the smoke, lowered the access ramp and helped extract the driver (who would later die of his wounds). Marcus Brown was a perfect soldier on that day.

Less than a month later, Marcus and another member of his platoon were attached to my team. Our mission was to accompany over 300 Iraqi soldiers as they swept through one of the neighborhoods in the West Rashid district of Baghdad. Marcus was my Humvee gunner for the offensive.

As we prepared for that day's operation, I noticed the name tape on his right sleeve didn't say "Brown." Instead, it read "Darkness."

"What's that all about?" I asked him.

"I have two nicknames: Downtown Marcus Brown and the Darkness. I've been wearing this one for a while," he told me. As Brown smiled, his impeccably white teeth flashed against the dark skin of his face, which had healed from the bomb blast.

As the crew of the lead Humvee in our section, we required a GPS tracking screen, and the only Humvee with a working GPS screen also had a broken air conditioner. The vents proceeded to spit out hot air right into my face, a feeling akin to holding a hair dryer inches from my nose. With all the bullet-proof windows rolled up, it must have registered somewhere around 120 degrees in the car. In May, short showers keep the humidity high, so that in addition to feeling that the sun will broil the skin from your hands, sweat won't evaporate.

All day, I kept looking up at Marcus to make sure he was OK. He never complained, and he performed his duties impeccably.

"Captain. Garbage pile, 1 o'clock, 50 meters," he called out.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"Slow up, let me take a look."

After scanning with his rifle scope, he called down, "No wires, looks clear."

And so we rolled on, into the slums of West Rashid.

Late in the day, deep in the urban Baghdad district of al-Bayaa, I was walking back to the Humvee when I saw Marcus staring at a spot up the road.

"Hey, Captain, that's it," he said to me.

"That's what?"

"That's the spot, where the EFP was buried."

I glanced at the GPS screen and realized this was the exact spot where, less than one month ago, the EFP had sliced through his truck, killing my company commander and his driver.

"Can I take a look?" he asked.

I told him sure, and walked with him to the side of the road.

The hole was smaller than I expected — about the size of a basketball backboard. Filled with sewage water and old food wrappers, it still bore the charred signs of explosives. Marcus knelt down and looked into the hole.

"Yup, this is it all right," he said as he glanced into the street. He pointed to the intersection and described the hours it took to put the flames out. Then he was silent for a few seconds before signaling, "OK, time to go now."

I walked with him back to the stifling Humvee and watched him crawl back into the gun turret. He slipped his headset over his ears and adjusted the microphone in front of his mouth.

"Radio check, this is Darkness, how you read?" he asked.

"Savage three, roger," I answered when I had my headset in place.

"Ready when you are, Captain," Marcus said.

We pulled into the intersection and headed north along one of the roads, leaving the dirty hole behind us. I turned around and looked into the turret and saw the Darkness diligently scanning his sector, humming a tune to himself that no one else seemed to hear.