On March 20, 2003, Mark Pirhala was a 21-year-old Marine lance corporal serving as third crewman on an amphibious assault vehicle attached to the 1st Marine Division as it rolled into Iraq. It was the start of a long, bloody war and a wild several weeks for Pirhala as his unit, India Co., 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, fought its way through countless towns on the way to Baghdad.
Eighteen years later, as U.S. troops seem to be leaving Iraq (again), Pirhala is an industry analyst working towards a doctorate in business administration. After meeting a Task & Purpose reporter while playing airsoft, Pirhala sat down to tell some stories from that invasion, and all the green plastic army men, burning poop trenches and wayward donkeys he met along the way.
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 18, 2020.)
Why did you decide to join the Marines?
I had an uncle who was in the Marines who was very admired in my family. He had gone to multiple wars and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. He was in World War Two, he was in the Korean War. He had a lot of really good stories and he was about 70 years old at the time but he would still wake up and run 3 miles every day. I really wanted to be like him.
Plus I wasn’t that good at school, so I didn’t have a lot of college options at the time. So the Marine Corps made sense.
It’s funny hearing you talk about not being good at school when now you are earning a PhD.
Yeah well it was funny because when I got back from Iraq I was a completely different person. Like I had an extreme attention to detail. I started double-checking, triple-checking everything because I never wanted to be without. I never wanted to be not ready.
I think PTSD affects people in different ways. And for me I don’t have a lot of the common symptoms you see with people that have been in combat. But it’s almost like my PTSD experience turned into OCD where I’m just super thorough about making sure I have everything I need all the time. But it translates over to work and being detail-oriented.
Story One: Worse than Spirit
What was it like when you first got the call to go to war?
I was sitting at a fraternity house in Norfolk and it was late, probably around 11:30 at night and I had definitely been drinking and I got a phone call saying ‘you’re going to war,’ and I was like ‘ok, right on.’ I was really excited.
It happened really quickly. The process from me getting the phone call to me leaving happened all within like a week. We shipped out on a regular commercial passenger plane, but it wasn’t one Marine per seat. It was one Marine per seat and then a bunch of Marines in the aisle.
It’s an international flight, and if you had to use the bathroom, you were just getting beat the whole way there. The Marines were just punching you in the leg and stuff. They didn’t want to get stepped on and we were holding our packs, so it was a mess.
That’s like, a little bit worse than coach.
Yeah, you hear stories about Spirit Airlines. I’m like ‘oh no, you should have seen Continental on the way to Iraq.’
Story Two: The Big Green Machine
And what was it like when you got there?
When we first got into Iraq, it was great, everybody was so happy. It was nighttime and we had the top of the vehicle open, so I remember looking up and it was like Star Wars, because you had so many missiles and airpower and artillery shooting over us, clearing the path for us basically. It was like the most amazing fireworks show you’ve ever seen in your entire life that just would not end.
It’s like a cloak. When you’re in the Marines they always say ‘We have the Big Green Machine’ and as long as you’re in the Big Green Machine, you’re going to be safe as long as you do what you’re supposed to do and what you’re trained to do. So I wasn’t really scared, I just wanted to perform.
Did some fear set in right before you started fighting in Nasiriyah?
Right before the ramp dropped, because we didn’t know what we were going to see when that ramp dropped. There was still some confusion about where exactly we were going and what direction the fire was coming from.
But it got settled, we dropped the ramp, and I remember when the ramp dropped one of the grunts got his sling caught on the ramp when they were trying to run out. So as a third crewman part of my goal was to make sure everybody gets the f–k off the vehicle so I’m like ‘Wow, we’re one second into this and we got a sling issue.”
Story Three: The Donkey of Baghdad
What are some of the memories that stand out when you look back on Iraq?
The thing that stands out the most to me was when we were in Baghdad. This was shortly after we had crossed the Tigris. We were in a skirmish with … I really don’t know who they were because at that point everybody changed into street clothes so they could shoot at us.
But I remember we were firing back and forth and there was a donkey walking by, and the donkey got hit. But it didn’t die, it just stood there. And at that point in time, you realize that it was kids fighting kids, because they stopped shooting and we stopped shooting, and everybody just paid attention to this donkey.
Everybody in my unit, this is always the story they tell. We just watched this donkey to see what he would do. And then all of a sudden they fired at it and nicked it, and then we shot at it to try to put it out of its misery. But it went back and forth, this donkey just would not die.
And finally when it did fall over, this will sound weird, but you could hear laughter on both sides. It was like there was no reason to fight, because at that point it’s almost like you’re hanging out with your friends. Like you had an experience together that was kind of messed up, because the donkey died, but at the same time both sides were actually working together to achieve something. But we didn’t know each other.
Yeah, you were trying to kill each other.
Yeah, a second ago, and now we’re trying to just shoot this donkey, put it out of its misery. Everybody stopped firing, and then all of a sudden we got this thing on the radio: “Fire fire fire!” They were mad that we didn’t keep engaging.
Story Four: The ‘Poople’ Heart
What other memories stand out to you?
I was a lance corporal and I got all the crappy jobs, the shit jobs, and that includes burning the shit. So every time we were in a new position we dug poop trenches. My last name is Pirhala, but I got so good at digging poop trenches, they called me Poo-hala.
What’s involved in being good at burning poop? What are the skill sets?
That’s an excellent question. It’s all about having enough kindling and tinder, not just like putting diesel fuel on it and lighting a fire. We got to a point where we would go find sticks or strategically pick out some of the trash that we would produce to put in certain places within the trench.
And there was a point where actually it was enjoyable. This is a menial task, it’s probably the worst job anybody could ever have at war, but it was a nice distraction from being at war when you’re just getting shot at all the time.
Yeah, and it sounds like it’s a craft too, like you take pride in your work.
Yeah it is, you do take pride in it. We would experiment a lot with it too. Because they don’t really teach you how to burn it well, and you want to burn it quickly and get it over with. If not, you’re just sitting there waiting for it, and the war can’t go on unless all the poop’s burned.
There was one instance where we were using a new method to burn poop where we were taking pieces of wood and making vents with them so that air could circulate, almost like using a tipi method where the air comes underneath to create a fire.
Then this gunnery sergeant is like “that’s not how you do it, this is the way we did it in Desert Storm.” And he grabbed a big stick and goes to shove it in there and we’re like “no, don’t do that,” and he’s like “Shut up, I know what I’m doing. You gotta jam the stick in there to create vents and craters and everything.”
We already had a piece of wood in there, and so when he shoved in the stick, it created a see-saw, and a piece of poop just went flying and stuck to his face.
So we always joked on him and said that he won the Poople Heart.
Story Five: Green plastic army men
There was a lot of weird funny stuff like that that we would do. One of the kids back home sent us a care package full of plastic army men, and that was the most fun ever. We would invent these games where we’d strategically place them over this big battlefield and then we’d have all these tactical maneuvers and stuff like that.
So we would set up the little army men and everyone had a rock and you would throw it to try to knock out their units. Each side took turns and then after everyone threw their rock then you could redo your battle formations. But you could only advance a certain amount with whatever you had that wasn’t killed.
We were kids that were playing war, while we’re at war. It was like the most ironic thing.
So would this be like in between shooting?
Yes, it’d be at assembly areas, or when we went to Baghdad, we played it and it was a game we took with us, or we tried to, when we got back to Kuwait. But we ended up just losing a lot of the army men. They’d just get destroyed due to the rock throwing and us having to get up and move really quickly.
What do you make of that, playing war while being at war?
It goes back to: one, it’s good to have a healthy distraction. And two, they’re still normal kids. I mean I was probably one of the older ones. I was 21, almost 22. I had my 22nd birthday there in Iraq actually. But there were a lot of 18, 19, 20-year-olds who never had a real job before. They were in the reserves, they were just in college and all of the sudden they’re in war, out of nowhere. It doesn’t change their taste or preferences.
Yeah like if they had an Xbox they would have played Call of Duty.
Yeah, it was Halo non-stop when we got back to Kuwait. There was a lot of Halo going on.
Story Six: The best and lowest thing you did is the same
What was it like getting back from the war?
It was hard getting back into reality. After you’ve been to war, everything you do in life just doesn’t really compare. It’s not as much hype. I see a lot of my friends become thrill seekers where they’ll do anything to get an adrenaline rush. You want that, but you don’t get it from a lot of stuff. Not like that.
I did risk in business, I was a business owner for eight years. I wasn’t sky-diving or doing parkour off a building or anything like that. Maybe driving fast. Sometimes it’s soothing to engage in things that give you that same adrenaline rush that you had.
Playing airsoft was soothing for me. Like okay, I know exactly what this feels like, it’s like muscle memory. My body’s down, crouching in a certain way. I know how to move around corners, and it’s like ‘Oh yeah, this feels nice to me.’ Actually, I would like to see what happened if I took friends of mine from the war airsofting.
You almost kind of feel like you peaked. Unless I cure cancer or something, there’s nothing I can do that’s as profound as that. Most people live their life building to something, and for us, being a young Marine going to war, that’s what you did. That’s what you’re probably gonna be known for and talk about for the rest of your life.
A lot of people get married, a lot of people have a kid, a lot of people drive cars, a lot of people are an analyst at their job. But there’s not too many people that could say they were in combat and invaded a country.
Is it painful knowing that?
It’s painful knowing that … like for me I’m always trying to achieve things, I always want to do better. Iraq was the baseline because I never want to have to be in that position ever again. I don’t want anybody to be in that position ever again. Because it’s just fucked up and weird.
But at the same time, that was my greatest accomplishment. And I didn’t realize it until much later. Like right after I got back, I got married to someone I had known for three months. I just wanted my life to be as normal as possible. I was like ‘Ok I’ve had my fill,’ and I never thought about war much after that.
Luckily, I’m still married. It’ll be 16 years at the end of this month. But yeah, it’s weird that the very lowest thing and the very best thing you did is all the same.
It almost sounds like a teenage Olympic gold medalist, where you do something huge and how do you level up to it.
Yeah exactly. You spend the rest of your life talking about it. And it’s cool to kind of relive it through airsoft. It’s a lot like war except when you die you come back. Let’s just do that instead of regular war. Just challenge Iraq to an airsoft tournament.
Or throw army men at each other
Yeah, throw army men at each other.
Given what’s happening in Iraq now, what do you think when you look back on your role and getting in there?
Yeah. I would like to see us leave. As long as we’ve been over there, the perception of Marines and the military and just America as a whole, I feel it’s changed with those people. And we may have worn out our welcome.
I don’t think that what we did over there during the invasion was in vain. Like no matter what, Saddam tortured those people. And the people that I talked to over there were extremely happy for what we did. Everyone wanted to be Americanized. They asked me all the time what America is like.
So I feel like it’s time to go. It was probably time to leave a while ago. When I was there, there was no ISIS or anything like that. We were just fighting Iraq. We beat Iraq within a month, and maybe staying there caused more harm than good.
Feature image: Mark Pirhala provides cover for units on the ground somewhere between Nasiriyah and Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (Courtesy photo.)