Chris Van Wagoner has the face of a teenager and the experiences of a war-weary soldier.
During an eight-month tour in Iraq, the 24-year-old Salt Lake City native was one of 54 men in a Marine military police unit assigned the dangerous task of protecting convoys traveling in and out of a central Iraq military camp.
Some days he traveled from the camp near Ar Ramadi to Baghdad, Tikrit and most of the other Iraqi towns commonly recognized now from news headlines. Some treks were short, such as the 25 miles between Ar Ramadi and Fallujah. His longest was a seven-day sleepless tour to the Syrian border.
It is one of the military's most treacherous jobs, because convoys are big, slow-moving targets for insurgents.
Imagine protecting a parade. Van Wagoner says that's what it was like securing the lumbering military convoys day after day. The shortest convoys were 10 to 15 vehicles slow, heavy trucks carrying food, supplies and troops over rough, dirty roads. The longest stretched for a mile and a half and was nearly 30 vehicles long.
"We never had enough manpower to go around," Van Wagoner said. This left the platoon feeling naked and exposed and using next-best strategies for protection, Van Wagoner explained at his Glendale home. Military police were on the first and last trucks, and a mounted gun was in every fifth vehicle, he explained.
And 100-meter intervals between trucks is safest, he added. "So if one gets hit by an IAD, then it takes out that one truck and no one else."
Van Wagoner is soft-spoken, and he talks easily of bombs and bullets that fell and flew around him every day, of frequent ambushes, of the ways he and others went about "assaulting the attack" against insurgents who fired upon the convoys.
After eight months in the far-away country, war-front jargon still slips easily into his speech. The "impact area." The "kill zone."
Incidents from early in his tour are indelibly cut in his memory. "Like the mortar that hits right next to you when you are sleeping, and the roof starts caving in around you," he says. "You never forget those things."
So no way will he go back. Despite lucrative offers, he will not return to Iraq.
A private security firm offered him $12,000 a month to work in Iraq, and the Marine dangled a $20,000 offer to sign on for another four years.
But in March, Van Wagoner walked away from it all.
He says he was never so happy as the day he was discharged from the Marines. It's just a "crappy situation" in Iraq right now, he says, and he has spent enough time in the U.S. Marine Corps.
"It was a good experience, but it's just not for me any more," Van Wagoner said.
This holiday season, Van Wagoner was a world away from the Iraqi desert, working security at the Gateway Mall in downtown Salt Lake City. He wrangled teenagers and kept vagrants out of shoppers' hair. It seems a humbling step down from protecting troops, food supplies and caravans in Iraq. He is in the police academy now, going to school at night and waiting to get on with local law enforcement.
The tough young man who saw so much during those months says the transition home has been tougher.
"It was much harder coming home from Iraq than it was going there," he said.
Going, he says, he was prepared, at least. He got training at California's March Air Force Base first, then more in Kuwait. But he got no preparation for what he would find at home all the questions, the complexities, the overwhelming gratitude.
"It was a simple life in Iraq. We had a couple of major stresses," he says. Some days, that stress was fighting for his life. But he has encountered another kind of intensity at home.
"You come home and everybody you run into wants to talk about it. Everybody you run into is saying, 'Thank you. Thank you.' Everybody is asking about your political views. . . . It's an uncomfortable feeling."
Work, bills, school, girls, decisions all mount at home. "The simple things do become overwhelming."
Some people seemed surprised Van Wagoner wasn't passionate about the war. In fact, he did not vote in the last presidential election. He didn't agree with either candidate, so he didn't vote.
"People don't realize you just want support when you get home, not 'Bush sucks,' and 'This war is all about oil.' " Support and some time. That's all Van Wagoner seems to want from people. "It's a big emotional dump when you realize that most people don't want to take the day off work to come and hang out with you."Comment on this story
He has struggled with the value of this war, although he does believe he made a difference. In one Iraqi community, there was no running water when a group he was guarding came in. "When we left, 60 percent of the town had running water. We did good there."But then you think about all the bad things you saw, all the things happening to people, all the friends you lost," Van Wagoner ponders, "and you wonder if it is all in vain."
Name: Chris Van Wagoner
Unit: 1st Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion, MP Company
Tour: Iraq, February-September 2004Residence: Glendale