Friday, May 25, 2007

Local soldier remembers Iraq

Lance Cpl. Jason Willingham reflects on two tours of duty

Express Staff Writer

Lance Cpl. Jason Willingham is glad to be back home in Ketchum after two tours in Iraq. Photo by Willy Cook

As Memorial Day approaches, America finds itself in the grip of war. The focus is often on the big picture—who's winning and how many have died—while a million stories of individual bravery and horror, of brotherhood and of loss have slipped through the country's collective conscience.

Here is just one of those stories.

Shortly after graduating from Wood River High School and before the invasion of Iraq, also known as the second Iraq War, Jason Willingham joined the Marine Corps.

"My family was skeptical," Willingham said. "But they supported me, even though when I went in we had a pretty good idea I was headed to Iraq."

Two weeks after enlisting, Willingham was bald and in boot camp at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Located about 40 miles north of San Diego, Pendleton is the nation's busiest military base with more than 60,000 military and civilian personal working onsite every day.

"I was young and working construction," the now 24-year-old Willingham said. "A couple of friends told me they were joining the Marines and I thought, 'Why not?' After that, everything happened really fast."

Within days of entering boot camp, "an officer told us that 80 percent of us are going to war," he said. Willingham, a lifetime Nordic skier, said boot camp "really wasn't that tough. I was consistently one of the faster guys in my group."

Following boot camp, the now Pvt. 1st class Willingham was assigned to one of the Marines' longest standing and most decorated units: the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Established in 1917, the 3/5th as it often referred to, has fought in nearly every conflict the U.S. has entered.

Pivotal moments in life can be subtle and often overlooked until hindsight provides the perspective necessary to see the significance. This, however, was not the case for then Pvt. 1st Class Willingham. In the Marines all it takes is one meeting for life's trade winds to change direction.

"We were all brought in for this big meeting and this commander general came and gave us a pep-rally speech," Willingham said. "Basically, he told us we're going to Kuwait, and that was that. We were headed to the Middle East."

The expectations of their impending move varied from soldier to soldier. The overlying theme among the privates was the pure lack of understanding of what to expect.

"We had no idea whatsoever. We thought the Middle East was going to be hot. But when we got there it was winter and it was freezing," Willingham said of his first few days on the Kuwaiti border.

When the call came, the 3/5th took to the sand dunes, along with the 1st Marine Battalion, in a convoy bound for Baghdad.

"On the way our main objective was to clear the towns we came across," Willingham said. "We'd come to a town and pretty much annihilate it—do whatever we had to do. Until we got to Baghdad all the towns we came across were pretty small, but violent."

Upon entering Baghdad, Willingham said, the city was relatively docile.

"I remember seeing an old concrete truck with windows cut out of the back. There were probably 20 people stuffed in the back."

It was an apparent exodus.

For the first few weeks the 3/5th slept on the side of the road—right next to the artillery regiment.

"All night they were just lofting mortars into the city," he said.

For the remainder of Willingham's first tour in Iraq, a majority of his time was spent on security missions—moving through separate parts of Baghdad and securing neighborhoods, then moving on. At night his time was spent digging trenches and playing cards.

During his first tour, Willingham was promoted to lance corporal. On his flight home he re-entered the Wood River Valley with mixed emotions.

"I wasn't sure what people would think about me," he said. "Especially my friends—how could they understand what we had done?"

Willingham's concerns were unfounded.

"When I got off the plane at the Hailey airport there were about 40 people there," he said. "I remember my Dad. He was so glad to see me. It drew a tear."

A group of Wood River Valley residents comprised of friends, family and people who didn't even know him got together and bought Willingham a new Toyota Tacoma truck.

"I was really touched by what the community had done for me," he said.

Through the well-deserved accolades and heart-felt hugs, he remained a soldier—one who in many ways was still shell shocked.

"I told the crowd how thankful I was. Then I leaned over to my Dad and told him I was really uncomfortable and needed to go," Willingham said. "If you were in a crowd in Iraq, you were in danger."

Willingham's time in Iraq was far from over, however. Within a year he would find himself in the midst of some of the bloodiest fighting of the current Middle East conflict. He was destined for Fallujah, which senior U.S. military officials have described as the most violent urban combat since Vietnam, and Willingham was squarely in the middle of it.

Next Wednesday: Lance Cpl. Willingham describes his second tour of duty and life after war.

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