Don't get Sean Huze started on the subject of yellow ribbons.
"I really have a resentment against these freaking yellow ribbon magnets, I really do," says the former Marine, a veteran of the Iraqi Freedom campaign and a Louisiana native. "It's not the ribbons themselves. But I think people stop there, and that's not real support. A yellow ribbon magnet on the back of your car is not supporting the troops."
So what is supporting the troops? Not sending them to die in battle unnecessarily, Huze says. Providing support for families left behind. Properly arming and equipping those soldiers in the war zone, and making sure they're not stretched too thin. And taking care of returning veterans who bear the physical or psychic wounds of war.
Huze believes the Bush administration has failed on all counts. He also thinks the American public hasn't insisted that its government do better.
Huze left the armed forces in the fall of 2004. When he returned to the United States, he wrote a well-received play about the war titled The Sand Storm: Stories From the Iraqi Front. He also serves as a spokesman for Operation Truth, a non-partisan veterans organization that has frequently criticized the Bush administration for its management of the war and its treatment of soldiers and veterans.
"The voice of the troops on the ground is something that's not reaching America," says Huze, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "People will listen to a general who can't even tell you what gunpowder smells like, but they won't listen to a private who has had to take a life and see his comrades fall in battle. It blows me away."
In The Sand Storm, Huze amplifies the voices of the soldiers. The play strings together 10 monologues by enlisted men and officers who are by turns angry, defiant, bitter, proud and heartsick. The 10 speaking characters are observed -- haunted, even -- by a voiceless and frustrated Marine who tries and fails to tell his story. He represents those soldiers who never made it home.
Huze's own story begins early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as he sped back through the Hollywood Hills toward his apartment. The 26-year-old Huze was in fine spirits, coming from an all-night poker game, listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the car stereo. He was looking forward to crashing in his bed.
Years later, a young girl on the side of a road in Iraq would raise her fingers in a peace sign, and Huze would feel an ache at the innocence of her gesture. As he slid his car through the streets that September morning, he basked in the last moments of his own innocence.
Inside his apartment, the news waited for him on his answering machine. "Turn on your television, turn on your television," friends said in hurried messages. The last message on the machine was from Huze's mother in Baton Rouge, who told him the details of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Huze remembers freezing in place in front of the blank TV. "I thought that if I didn't turn on the television it wouldn't be true," he says. "But I did and saw what everybody else saw that day."
About 24 hours later, he walked into a strip mall storefront where a military recruiter sat alone, surrounded by inspirational posters and slogans. Huze wanted to join the Marines, and he wanted to be in the infantry. A "bullet sponge," as the position is sometimes called.
Huze was giving up a life he'd worked hard to build. Since he was a kid growing up in the leafy suburb of Shenandoah near Baton Rouge, he had dreamed of becoming an actor. At the age of 7 he took an acting class at Baton Rouge Little Theater. He spent his college years first at the North Carolina School of the Arts and then at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, with a few years of partying in between. In 1999 he decided to devote himself to acting, leaving Louisiana for Los Angeles.
Huze started out in a divey apartment where prostitutes roamed the sidewalks within sight of the famous Hollywood sign, but he beat the odds: within a year he had both a Screen Actors Guild card and an agent, and was getting work on sitcoms and commercials. Now, by removing himself from the acting world for a four-year stint, he knew he was giving up the momentum of his fledgling career. He didn't expect it to be waiting for him on his return.
Huze says he joined the military for the same reasons men did in generations past: the feeling that when history calls, you answer.
Mixed with that sense of duty was a jolt of anger. "Something was taken away from all of us on September 11th," Huze says, "Our sense of security was taken away." Only direct action would do: Huze chose the infantry to be sure he would be able to fight. "I loved being an actor, I loved my life," he says. "If I was going to put all that on hold and sacrifice something I'd been doing since I was 7 years old, it wouldn't be so I could sit back and type in a uniform. I wanted to get my hands dirty."
Huze landed in Kuwait in February 2003, after nine bruising months of boot camp, infantry training and officer training, and seven months of waiting for action. He was just in time for the invasion of Iraq. As part of the Second Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Huze and his unit led the way for the First Marine Division on the road to Baghdad.
Military intelligence hadn't told them to expect any resistance in the town of Nasiriyah. It was, says Huze, "the first big surprise of the war." He vividly remembers their trucks rumbling over the bridge that led to the town. Halfway across the bridge, they passed a sign that proclaimed, "Welcome to Nasiriyah" in both Arabic and English; that's when the bullets started flying. Fourteen Marines died that day, including a man Huze knew from boot camp.
Huze's battalion soon came to be called "The Destroyers" by the Iraqi troops who encountered it. They fought battles in Al Kut and Tikrit, and fended off surprise attacks in non-descript towns and on nameless roads. Huze earned his share of commendations for his role, including a Certificate of Commendation citing his "courage and self sacrifice throughout sustained combat operations"; the Combat Action Ribbon; Meritorious Promotion for Corporal; the Presidential Unit Citation; and the National Defense Service Medal.
"We were certainly effective, and we all made it home," says Huze, speaking in measured tones. "So there's something to be said for that. We were also responsible for a lot of carnage. Unfortunately, as in any war, the civilian population pays a pretty heavy toll, especially when we were engaged throughout the war in urban areas. It's not like you're in an open battlefield and it's two armies going at it. All of it was in densely populated areas. You see a lot of things you'd rather not see.
"I've met so many people out here in the past months who'd like to portray the military as a collection of trigger-happy fools who love killing women and children," Huze continues. "It's a disgusting lie to perpetuate. You're in an urban environment, you are taking fire, and you've got tenths of seconds, not even seconds, to make the decision. Mission accomplishment is always No. 1 priority, so you do what you have to do to push on with your mission."
He gives the play-by-play of a typical situation. A convoy of trucks is passing through a market on the outskirts of a town when it starts taking fire. The Marines duck for cover and look around, but can't pinpoint exactly where the shots are coming from. The Marines get the order to consider it an area target, which means they saturate the air with bullets, firing into crowds if necessary. When it gets quiet, more often than not there are dead civilians on the ground.
"Would it be nice if war was tidy, and the only people that got killed were the combatants?" asks Huze. "That would be beautiful."
In late March, several days after the battle in Nasiriyah, Huze's battalion was traveling by night. All day, high winds had torn across the desert, and as night fell they kicked up into a proper sandstorm. The Marines stayed in their trucks and kept driving as hissing waves of sand buffeted the windshield and the roof. Much later, Huze would come to see the sandstorm as a metaphor for the war: advancing blindly into chaos, under orders to stay the course.
The front of Huze's armored vehicle dropped forward abruptly, the Marines were thrown forward, and Huze struck his head, hard. The vehicle had fallen into a ditch dug by the retreating Iraqi army to stop tanks and trucks, slowing the American advance. Huze began getting pounding headaches after that night, but didn't think much of them at first. "I was in the desert, I wasn't getting sleep, I was dehydrated, I was wearing a helmet all the time," he says. "I thought it was normal."
After three months of combat duty, the battalion was sent to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina at the end of May. Huze was relieved to be exiting a world of firefights and ambushes and was eager to see his wife and 1-year-old son. But when the headaches persisted, he mentioned them to his commanding officer and quickly ended up in a neurology ward, getting checked for nerve damage. The headaches were diagnosed as a post-concussive condition that has shown no sign of abating to this day.
Before long, Huze would discover other ways in which his war experiences had changed him.
"At the time I went to Iraq, I was a sucker like about 90 percent of us," says Huze. "I believed the justifications, I believed what the president said."
Throughout his time in Iraq, Huze says, he continued to take comfort in the rationale for war that he believed the Bush administration had presented: that Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda and that Iraq's stockpiled weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the United States.
But back at Camp Lejeune, after the glow of his hero's welcome had worn off, Huze began to question those assumptions. On July 2, 2003, a presidential press conference changed his uncertainty to anger. Answering a question about the burgeoning Iraqi insurgency, Bush replied with a challenge: "Bring 'em on." To Huze, it seemed that the president was more concerned about his "Texas tough guy" image than the lives of the troops. "He was surrounded by body guards, while the guys I knew were the ones who were really putting it on the line, who would have to bear the repercussions of his statements," Huze says.
As Huze began to doubt the war, he became more troubled by his memories. If the war wasn't fought for the cause of thwarting terrorism, how could he justify the dead Iraqi civilians the Destroyers had left in their wake? And how could dead American soldiers rest easy in their graves?
Although Huze had never considered himself a writer, he started a journal to explore these questions. Soon, he was sketching out characters, like Lance Corporal Casey Dodd, a Marine tortured by the memory of a dead child. In his monologue, Dodd says the civilian casualties he saw in Iraq didn't disturb him at first: "What the hell were they doing in a war zone anyways?" he asks. Even the sight of a 5-year-old's corpse elicits only anger at first: "Dumb f--kin' kid," he thinks. But back in the United States, the image of the little body lying in the rubble returns to him. "It's got to be wrong for that child, that f--king baby to die! Someone has to be to blame and we pulled the goddamn trigger."
Another character tells of his dismay as he surveys the dead and feels no compassion, and wonders whether he has permanently lost part of his humanity. A third seeks to bring order to a street littered with body parts by trying to reunite a severed foot with the body from which it came.
Huze left the armed forces in the fall of 2004, after obtaining a military separation based on his injury. However, the military said his injury didn't qualify him for a medical discharge, so instead of receiving about $13,000 in severance pay, Huze got nothing. He felt angrier than ever.
"I think if the American people were aware of how badly the troops and veterans are being treated, they'd be outraged," he says.
Huze rejoined his wife and child in Los Angeles and dove into preparations for the play. That fall, The Sand Storm had its first performance, in a small theater in Hollywood. It was just before the presidential election, which gave the performance added clout. "We were turning people away at the door," Huze says. The excitement caught the ear of Paul Rieckhoff, a National Guardsman who had recently returned from Iraq and the executive director of the new veterans association Operation Truth.
Rieckhoff sees The Sand Storm as a powerful contribution to the national dialog about the war. "It hits you in the gut," Rieckhoff says. "Creating that visceral connection is really important. Once you get people to feel what it's like to be over there, then you can engage them in a better discussion."
Operation Truth decided to fund a larger production in Santa Monica, Calif., where it ran for two months this spring and received enthusiastic reviews from the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. Now, Huze is preparing for an Aug. 24 opening in Washington, D.C., and is considering staging productions in New York City and Chicago. Ideally, though, Huze says he'd like to reach out to new audiences by taking the show to the so-called red states, including Louisiana.
"The play is just about the experience of the war, from the troops' perspective," he says. "And whether you're to the left or right of the political spectrum, that's something you should hear about and care about."
When Huze needs to raise his spirits, he sometimes thinks of the three days his battalion spent in a small town just south of Baghdad, where they were stationed to prevent the kind of widespread looting that was taking place in the city. The incident meant a lot to Huze: in the Los Angeles production of The Sand Storm, Huze chose to play a character who describes the town and its people.
During those three days, Huze's tension evaporated. The town's citizens brought hot meals and cold wine to the Marines, the young boys invited them to play soccer and swarmed around their trucks, asking questions. For that brief time, Huze could afford to see Iraqis as friends, not as potential enemies or as collateral damage.
The Iraqis were full of questions about what would happen to their country and their government. When Huze remembers their relief in being rid of Saddam Hussein, he feels a flash of hope that he may have been on the right side of history after all. "Who knows, maybe we'll end up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons," he says. "That is my sincere hope."
But even if Iraq stabilizes, Huze says that doesn't mean the American people should excuse the Bush administration for its conduct. "Yes, we want something good to come out of Iraq. And yes, the administration still has to be held accountable for lying to the American public. I don't see why they have to be mutually exclusive."
After three days in that town south of Baghdad, Huze's battalion got orders to move on to Tikrit, where there were signs of trouble. Some townspeople wept as the trucks pulled away, fearful of what would become of them without American protection. When a girl held up the peace sign, he returned the gesture, but with the knowledge that he was marching back into battle.
Huze says he's still not a pacifist. He believes that war is the only option if a foreign government poses a significant threat and refuses to negotiate. However, the situation in Iraq did not meet those criteria, he says. "Am I still angry about the fact that I was part of war whose justification was a lie?" he asks. "Of course. Is it productive to have a debate that no one had the balls to have in 2002? No, it's not."
Rather than rehash old arguments, Huze says he tries to stay focused on what can be done now to help those who are dealing with the consequences of that decision. Now that American troops are committed to Iraq for the foreseeable future, he finds it more productive to work with Operation Truth, which is devoted to improving conditions for troops and returning veterans.
He also acknowledges he's caught flack from some fellow soldiers and threats from anonymous bloggers, but he says he has no intention of quieting down. "To say, 'Oh, I just can't go on,' that's cowardly. That's saying you don't have it in you to fight any more," says Huze. "And I've still got plenty of fight in me."
- Sean Huze
- "People will listen to a general who canÕt even tell you what gunpowder smells like, but they wonÕt listen to a private who has had to take a life and see his comrades fall in battle," says Sean Huze. "It blows me away."