‘Handier than a Ka-Bar’ — Why a Marine grunt turned congressman swears by his multitool
"It was a long war and I blew up a lot of things."
Welcome to The Things I Carry, a semi-regular series from Task & Purpose that examines the everyday carry of notable veterans. This installment features Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Marine veteran who currently serves as the congressman for Arizona’s 7th Congressional District.
Below, Gallego details his essential everyday carry both downrange and at home.
Task & Purpose: What gear did you rely on most during your time in the U.S. military?
Ruben Gallego: My wristwatch, my Ka-Bar, and my Leatherman.
It was the pocket-sized Leatherman Wave, just big enough to be able to open up locks, get things open, very convenient for anything you need in Iraq. The pliers on the Leatherman were extremely useful: If we needed to open ammo cans, it was perfect to take off the wire tagging.
The Ka-Bar was my go-to blade to poke around shit. It was great when I was doing house searches, too. The watch was super useful in order to mark time to understand what’s happening on a day-to-day basis because time sort of runs together. It’s currently broken and more than 15 years old, but I still have it.
I also used a lot of 550 cord; I carried a bundle on me at all times. You can use it for almost anything: tying up prisoners, putting up your poncho to get some shade, tying your gear together. Zip ties and ropes were always handy, to be honest.
I’m a trained mortarman and I used to have extra flip wheels for direction and elevation. I didn’t do mortar work in Iraq but by nature, I kept it to keep track of where incoming mortars were coming from. I also carried a plastic curved ruler that you use in trigonometry all the time. We used it for measurements and angles because we’d have mortars landing on us at any point, so we could figure out where they were shooting from.
I used to carry some notebooks from back in the day that I used to keep notes, which included a map of the [area of operations] I operated in when I was in Iraq. I brought it home with my rules of engagement card, which was also in my flack jacket at all times, and recently framed it and put it up in my office.
For personal items, I carried dirt from this place Chimayo in New Mexico. It’s a Catholic sanctuary that’s supposed to have these miraculous qualities to them. Prior to going to Iraq, my mother and sister and I traveled to the sanctuary there and prayed for my safety. There’s this legendary hole in the temple there that gets refilled with sand, and that sand is supposed to have curative and protective powers. Instead of prayer, I took the sand, threw it in a pouch, and then put it in my flak jacket, left section, in between the sappy plate and the jacket, and carried it with me throughout the war. Eventually, I grabbed dirt from Iraq and mixed it with the sand, and carried that.
What does your everyday carry look like today?
I’m an infantryman through and through, which means I try to travel as light as possible. I have a Shinola wristwatch that I wear all the time, and I take my Leatherman with me whenever I travel when I’m in Arizona. If I’m in my car driving, I always have my Leatherman — it’s very convenient. I remember one time I was driving back from Mexico and in the middle of the New Mexican desert and I was able to use it on its own to get the wheel off and put on the spare.
My keepsakes include a plunger and shell. The shell is from the first guy who shot at me during my first firefight. The plunger comes from a house I blew up in Iraq. My first assistant fire time leader and I came upon a house with elevation on us and found a stash of IEDs and RPGs and a lot of evidence of them holding prisoners and drugs there. It was so much that we couldn’t remove it safely, so combat engineers had to come in to blow [the explosives] up in place. They gave me the honor of pressing the plunger. I don’t remember exactly when that was — it was a long war and I blew up a lot of things.
What’s your advice to Marines who are following in your footsteps overseas?
My advice to anyone deploying is this: if you’re infantry, always travel light. That’s gonna be the most important thing. The second thing: definitely carry Leatherman. I actually think it’s handier than a Ka-Bar. Oh, and always have a can of extra meat, like tuna, so you’re not just relying on an MRE.
And the Leatherman. Don’t forget the Leatherman.
Related: The acclaimed author of The Things They Carried tells us what he carried in Vietnam and carries with him still