Monday, May 31, 2010

Back from Iraq, DVC student chronicles the war experience

After nearly two hours of relating his experiences as a Recon Marine in Iraq, Chris Clark throws out one more quick anecdote a less grounded person might have turned into an epic tale.

"I completely forgot "... I took shrapnel from a suicide bomber on my first tour and got a Purple Heart," he says. "Funny — if that's the right word — how something like that would slip my mind.

"Like I said, things get rather blurry and it's hard to recall sometimes exactly how it happened."

Writing about "it" sorts things out for Clark. The 24-year-old student, headed for Stanford this fall, has written for New American Media and the Diablo Valley College Inquirer about surviving two tours in Iraq and making the transition back home.

Sitting in the quad at DVC in Pleasant Hill, the 2004 graduate of California High in San Ramon, where he currently lives, doesn't fit the stereotype of gung-ho soldier. Looking like a million other college students, he's laid-back, engaging and open to talking about things most people can only imagine.

He describes his column of Humvees tripping a roadside bomb, which ripped through the vehicle behind him and blew his sergeant's legs off. "He did make it and was there to greet us when we came home, with his prosthetic legs," says Clark, whose unit was chronicled — before he arrived in September 2005 — in HBO's "Generation Kill."

He details marching in combat gear in 130-degree heat and wondering whether he'd live another day. He describes how cruelty and horror almost become normal.

In his writing, Clark, president of the 150-member veteran's group at DVC, also ruminates on transitioning to more peaceful times. In last week's edition of The Inquirer, he described visiting Thailand for two months in 2009 after leaving the Marines, mingling with Buddhist monks and working at a school for orphans.

"How could such anger and compassion share the same world?" he wrote. "What do they tell us of the same fate — or promise — of humanity? It was a question I could have asked myself. Why would someone volunteer for war and find peace among the less fortunate?"

"I cherish peace because I have experienced war."

'Human toll'

The Inquirer's faculty adviser Jean Dickinson says Clark effectively gives readers an appreciation of "the human toll" of war.

"The most moving piece was about him being in Thailand, healing from his experiences from Iraq and working with orphans," she says. "I found him to be very soft-spoken, but very much wanting to get his story out — and those of other campus vets. He's a very good writer."

There's been some awkward moments in classes when the war has come up and various opinions fly about.

"When I was first here, I felt like I was the only vet in the world," he says. "The war would get brought up and I'd get defensive. It's very personal to me, or any vet. I had to readjust. I'd say it's easy to have a certain opinion when you haven't seen the traumatic results."

Kurt Sorensen was one of Clark's best friends in his unit. When Clark gets married in July — to a woman he was friends with in high school and whom he started dating just before his first tour of duty — Sorensen will come from Oregon to be a groomsman.

Trusted friend

In case he was killed, Sorensen said, he wrote a letter to his parents and entrusted Clark to carry it because "that's the kind of guy he is. You know it would get there."

"It would be 137 degrees and we'd be hungry and tired and out for a few days, and Chris would just be laughing at the whole thing," Sorensen says. "Which, in turn, would make everyone else laugh."

Friendship gives soldiers a tangible reason to fight for each other, Clark says. They don't necessarily want to be there — especially guys on their second or third tours — but are too busy watching each other's backs to worry about reasons.

"You're fighting for the guys around you — I can't recall one time when there was a conversation about politics," says Clark, who has mixed feelings about the Iraqi people. He calls them "hospitable" and describes how one family shared a big meal with his unit to celebrate American Thanksgiving.

"But there were instances where a village would welcome you, then you'd leave and there be an IED (improvised explosive device) planted in the road. The problem over there is that there's no uniforms and every home owns an AK-47. A guy could be standing there (with a gun) and mean you no harm."

Outside of a bit of shrapnel in his hand ("It wasn't bad at all. I don't even have a gnarly battle scar from it"), he made it through two tours physically sound. The difficulties as a soldier helped shape the new civilian. His grades — and the G.I. Bill — got him into Stanford, where he and his new wife will live in student housing while he studies international affairs. It's somewhere he never saw himself before.

"I always wanted to be a Marine," he says. "I didn't have great grades (in high school). I wanted the stability, the experience. I always wanted to be in Special Ops. I always wanted to be in the most elite unit."

If Stanford qualifies, then mission accomplished.



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