Patriot Profiles: ‘We put so much trust in one person’

This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney

Leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, Curney Russell, a teenager growing up in Manchester, N.H., had never heard of the terms “mujahideen,” “insurgents” or “Taliban.”

“I didn’t think so many people out there hated us,” he said. “I was young and not fully aware of what was going on in the world.

“I wanted Infantry; there was no talking me out of it,” Sergeant Russell remembers telling a Marine Corps recruiter a year after 911. He relays, “I wasn’t ready for college coming out of high school, but knew I was ready to do something bigger than myself.”

‘Bigger’ meant not only coming to know mujahideen, insurgents, and Taliban on foreign battlegrounds, but, at 19 years old, becoming a key page turner in the Iraq War.

Sent to Boot Camp on Paris Island in 2002, Russell recalls, “I grew up playing sports, but it seemed like Boot Camp was the eye-opener — it was the unknown.” While learning what Marines do in the field at the School of Infantry (SOI) East in Camp Lejeune, N.C., second thoughts crept in, “What am I doing out here sleeping in the dirt?”

From SOI East he went to 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) in Twentynine Palms. “There are about 10 of us checking in and he [acting 1st Sgt. Gunny Peterson] said to us, ‘You guys better learn your jobs real quickly because we’re going to war.’” A few weeks after checking in on Jan. 5, 2003, “We were getting on ships to deploy to the Middle East. We offloaded in Kuwait.”

Russell’s platoon was sent to screen the Iraq/Kuwait border. Safwan Hill was a main breeching point from Kuwait into Iraq and was softened up by artillery so troops could go through.

“We were looking for uniform fighters — Suddam Hussein’s army. They [command leaders] said, ‘These guys are stripping their uniforms.’” His platoon was engaged in firefights where they “saw uniforms on the side of the road.”

“We wanted to get north of Baghdad to show a force up there,” adds Russell. “Baghdad Bob, the propaganda guy for the Iraqi army, said, ‘They’re never going to make it here.’”

Russell’s platoon was formed into Task Force Tripoli and quickly pushed through Baghdad to Tikrit, Suddam’s hometown. “My company was tasked with going forward and taking a bridge for follow-on forces to come through.”

It was then when rumors started, “We’re going home. The Army’s coming to take over for us. We did our job. We got all the way up here.” But the rumors didn’t pan out.

Russell’s battalion commander announced, “There are seven Americans somewhere in this town [Samara]. We’ve got human Intel on it…Third Platoon is going to be the main element on this to go in and get these guys out of here safe.”

March 23, 2014, marks 11 years since the Army’s 507th Maintenance Battalion, carrying Private First Class Jessica Lynch, was attacked in “Ambush Alley,” Nasiriyah, Iraq. Russell explains that in addition to Lynch and another soldier taken, there were five from the 507th that were taken as POWs to a different location. “The five became seven when two Apache Longbow helicopter pilots were shot down.”

“All we had was a little strip map that was drawn out by an Iraqi with the number ‘13’ written in Arabic,” said Russell as if it happened yesterday. They [Iraqis] said, “They’re in this house. This is how you get here.” They loaded up and were briefed by his platoon commander. “You guys are weapons tight, because there’s seven Americans behind one of these walls that one of your rounds could possibly hit.”

“We were on foot moving through the city of Samara, trying to find where this house is. Meanwhile, this is the first time American forces have been this far north, so everyone has an interest in what we’re doing. Crowds are starting to gather, people are starting to gather on rooftops,” recounts Russell. “I was thinking — is this a set up?” They paused to reorganize and Russell’s buddy pointed to a guy peeking through a fence. “It was one of the Apache Longbow pilots. He yelled, ‘Hey, we’re Americans.’ The house found us.”

They moved in, kicked the door down and started clearing the apartment, meeting no resistance from Iraqi handlers, who’d moved their families out. Senses were heightened as Russell approached the first door on the right, finding the POWS, “They were all curled up in balls on the floor…The look of fear on their face [changed] to the excitement of ‘we’re going home’ — ‘we’re safe.’” Specialist Shoshana Johnson had wounds to each one of her ankles and needed medical attention. Russell was put in strict charge of escorting Johnson and the rest of the Army POWs to Kuwait.

Russell went to Iraq again during Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF) II, 2004-2005. “It was a big push for this new word…we were calling it ‘SASO’, which stands for support and stability operations. Our training leading up to that was, ‘We’re not there to beat our chest at anyone. We’re there to support them so one day they can sustain on their own. We want to make friends.’”

“I remember telling the guys that weren’t there on the first deployment how crazy it was to go from being ‘loved’ so much everywhere we went…we were freeing them [Iraqi people] from being oppressed,” says Russell. “But now, it’s some of them flipping us off.”

Regarding opponents, Russell explains, “In Iraq, during the second deployment, we weren’t calling them insurgents then — we were calling them mujahideen — they’re holy fighters.” Deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 added “Taliban” to his vocabulary, a word many Marines have taken to hospitals and the grave. Russell claims, “You appreciate life more once you’ve seen things or engaged with the enemy.”

What stands out in the Marine Corps for Russell? “We put so much trust in one person. This Marine can be 19 years old and leading a squad against a squad of Taliban.” Russell has seen training evolve from the beginning of his career where maybe one guy in his platoon had seen combat 10 years previous. “Now, if you say ‘Raise your hand if you’ve been to Afghanistan’ — you’ll have half the company throw their hands in the air. That’s new leadership.”

“Goodbye” is a familiar term for a Marine. “It will never get easy having to leave my family here.” For Sgt. Curney Russell, family is his wife and daughter. Having to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, “There’s no guarantee you’re going to come back.” Yet Russell believes the words, “Yes, I’ll serve” will “Keep this country the way it is.”