My mother sat across from me at her kitchen table. The kitchen table had always been the location where we talked and shared the things going on in both of our lives. When I was fourteen years old, she was sitting at the kitchen table when I shared with her that I had had my first girlfriend. “You treat her like you would want me or your sister to be treated,” she said. I broke up with that girl the next time I saw her. I blamed my mom for that break-up. As a teenager I didn’t want to think of my mom or my sister as a comparison or measurement for my relationship.
My mother was the first person whom I told I was going to enlist in the Marines. This time, I was sitting at the kitchen table and she was at the sink, washing the dinner dishes. “Mom, I want you to know that tomorrow I’m signing my enlistment contract.” I wanted her to hear the news from me. My mother worked as a housekeeper and managed to raise my brother and me on her modest salary. She had earned the right to be the first to know of the life-altering decision I was making. “I’m not asking you to like or approve of my decision, but it would be really great if you supported it, Mom.” She did, and situations such as these were the foundation on which we had built a trusting relationship. I could ask or tell her anything, and I knew she wouldn’t judge me. I relied on that trust when I asked for her help with a dilemma I had a week before I left to Iraq.
We were both sitting at her kitchen table, and I was going over my pre-enlistment paperwork with her. I had handed over to her my power of attorney. I had named her my sole beneficiary. And I told her that if I were to get killed, the funeral arrangements and all expenses would be covered by Veterans Affairs. And the military would give her $400,000.
As I sat at the table, I knew my mother was the only one who could point me in the direction where I could find the answer to my dilemma. With fear and humility I asked, “When I die do you think I’ll go to heaven, Mom?”
“Of course, you will. Why would you question that, David?”
“I’m going to war, I’m in the infantry, I’m going to have to kill. One of the ten commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” I wasn’t afraid of the actual combat; I was concerned that I would not be allowed into heaven for my actions during combat.
My mother suggested that I ask my question to the priest from our church. I was skeptical. Here I was someone who might end up killing people but who still hoped to get into heaven. Fortunately, the priest turned out to be a former military chaplain. He advised me that murdering someone was a sin, but I was going to war, and in war, we are entitled to defend ourselves. He reminded me that God had gone to war. St. Michael was the leader of God’s army during the war against the forces of evil. God had sent St. Michael and his angels to fight against Satan and his evil forces. “Your life is going to be in danger, and you have the right to defend yourself in war, David.”
The priest’s words enabled me feel better about the possible consequences of combat. I felt a peace within. I didn’t want to kill, but I was ready if I had to. I didn’t hate my future enemy; I did not even know him.
My squad’s first combat patrol in the city of Ramadi was going to be a foot patrol. We were relieving another squad from an observation outpost, an old hotel in the center of Ramadi that we had occupied to keep a constant presence.
As we were preparing to leave on the mission, Lance Corporal Neirmann approached me. Even though Lance Corporal Neirmann was the same rank as I, he had arrived to our unit the previous year, so technically he was my senior. But he had he never seen combat, so in the eyes of the other Marines, he didn’t have the experience to make him a senior Marine. I liked Neirmann, and I respected him.
He said to me, “You know you’re taking lead on this one, right?”
“Yeah,” I answered, “no problem. I’m not scared; I’ll do it.”
Clearly I hit a nerve, because he said, “I’m not scared either fuck face, but at least I’ve already been to Iraq.” As I mapped out a route to Out Post Hotel, he pointed to one spot on the map and said, “Don’t go too far south on these streets. That’s where a whole squad of Marines was wiped out two months ago.” As he was speaking, our platoon commander walked into the room and told us the plan had changed: instead of me, Neirmann was going to lead the patrol as point man, since he had been to Iraq before.
Three hours later, we stepped out to begin our foot patrol. Neirmann and I locked eyes. Then he smiled and said, “You’ll take the lead on the next one, alright?”
I responded, “Of course, bro, you know I got you.”
Neirmann never made it to OP Hotel. En route we were ambushed by the enemy. Neirmann was hit by a burst of enemy gunfire. He was transported by Humvee back to our base, where he was medevaced by helicopter to a base hospital and treated for his gunshot wounds. When we finally reached OP Hotel, and I learned that Neirmann was going to survive.
I felt bad for Neirmann. Thankfully, my mom had directed me to that priest. I was spiritually prepared for this situation. I knew it wasn’t my fault that he had been shot. It was the enemy’s. Thanks to the strong bond I had with my mother, I had avoided moral injury. As the point man for our squad, I was now going to continue to lead our patrols until we left Ramadi or until, like Neirmann, I got shot.
Seven months later our company came home. Neirmann was at the parade deck to welcome us back. When we saw each other, we both smiled and hugged. The words “I’m sorry bro” came out of my mouth.
“For what? It’s not your fault, idiot.”
We smiled at each other again and I told him, “Bro, after you left, we ransacked through all of your shit. We passed around your DVDs like it was Black Friday at Blockbuster.”
David Guerrero served in the United States Marine Corps as an Infantry rifleman from 2003 to 2007. He earned his AS in Criminology and Liberal Arts from Santa Barbara City College. David transferred to UCSB in the Fall of 2020 and is currently studying sociology and minoring in applied psychology and education studies. David plans to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and help veterans improve and maintain their mental wellness.