Soldier Stories: ‘For people that cannot fight for themselves’

1st Lt. Victor Garcia at Camp Pendleton.

This column presents soldier stories to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney


Since the Revolutionary War, the United States Marine Corps has served in every American armed conflict, attaining an extraordinary reputation in amphibious and expeditionary ground warfare. Marine Infantry forces or “grunts,” as they affectionately call themselves, are the core of combat.

Waiting for my escort at Camp Pendleton to lead me to 1st Lt. Victor Garcia, executive officer of Kilo Co 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, an Infantry unit with 1st Marine Division, I heard the “boom, boom” of artillery. It was a comforting sound. I was on our “warriors and heroes” home turf, about to meet a man with 17 years of honorable service to his country.

A native of Salinas, Calif., Garcia didn’t have a lot of options out of high school. Despite opposition from his parents, Garcia sought the “challenge of belonging to an organization as elite as the Marine Corps.” Taught basic infantry skills as a private and private first class in 1995, he quickly moved to the high rank of Gunnery Sergeant, who organizes logistics and coordinates training and combat supplies — for embarking and disembarking off ships. A Gunnery Sgt. is a “Senior Tactical Advisor” to the commander and a leader in combat. Garcia loved it, but another call made him stretch.

Garcia reached higher, graduating from San Diego State University in 2009. Inspired early on by Platoon Commanders Lt. Matthew Lynch (killed in action), and Lt. Col. Bohm, he signed up for officer training the following year. Garcia still admires Bohm: “He talked the talk and walked the walk and didn’t accept anything less from his Marines.” As an officer, Garcia feels he serves the Marines better.

Awarded two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medals with the combat “V” for valor, Garcia will tell you he’s “just doing his job as a Marine,” politely declining that he’s a hero, calling me “ma’am.” Respect is the Marine way. Add to that a steely commitment to free the people, save lives, and watch out for their brothers — even if they die doing it. Marine mind-set is a powerful force behind rifles and big guns aimed at our fiercest enemies.

It begins as a private. Garcia served as a drill instructor in San Diego and “Officer Candidate Instructor” at (OCS), Quantico, Va. “In five years of instructing, it’s always about mission accomplishment. If you’re given a mission, that mission is going to get accomplished. After that, it’s troop welfare and it isn’t until the mission is done, you worry about yourself.”

Garcia states, “As an American deployed four times in combat operations against enemies of our nation and world, I fight for people that cannot fight for themselves. During the war on terror, I fight far from home so my daughter, Araceli, can grow up without terror.”

Helping foreign countries become liberated from tyranny and dictatorship is not always popular. In Iraq in 2003, Marines helped dismantle Saddam and his regime. Deployed in ‘04 to Fallujah, “Some of the people didn’t want America in that nation in any way.” Despite vicious fighting against non-conformist rebels and foreign fighters, a new government was established – mission accomplished.

It was similar in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004 , where Garcia and 2/5 were fighting Sunnis not on board with America, until the ‘Great Awakening’ in 2007/ 08, when the “Sunnis realized it’s better to help out and build a stronger Iraq.”

“People are always happy when you can provide them with a better ridding the areas of the evil insurgents.”

Whether it’s Iraq, Ramadi, or recently in Sangin, Afghanistan, Garcia is sure, “The enemies we fight out there tyrannize the local populace and want to kill our Marines. They have their own agenda and they are not there to free the people.” When Dark Horse 3/5 took over for 3/7, who replaced British forces in Sangin, it was a ferocious fight with heavy Taliban resistance. Single-handedly, 3/5 continued 3/7’s push to open areas that were closed — “taking the fight to the enemy in a more rural setting, where it was easier to isolate [terrorists] from the populace and engage and destroy them.”

“With the Taliban or any insurgency, it’s hard to discern enemy fighters from civilians unless you see weapons or they reveal themselves via our assets,” Garcia said. “During Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN), we clear the enemy, get a foothold on the people, and build trust and help re-build infrastructure. These three phases are not set in stone because of the ever-changing situation on the ground.”

Unchanging is the Marine warrior ethos — Marines refusing to be evacuated, for wounds during firefights — so as not to let their unit down. Twenty-five Marines gave their lives in Sangin. Garcia says, “People that joined after Sept 11 know we’re a nation at war. If you pick infantry, you know there’s a possibility you’re going to die fighting.” The same men who risk their lives for each other, risk their lives for innocent civilians and children, including 18-year-old privates who define valor. Losing young Marines is hard for Garcia.

Camp Pendleton is building up, training new Marines, for another deployment. Garcia’s parents are proud, but worry each time he is deployed. Garcia gives us his take on bringing troops home early,

“Whatever missions that we’re given from Congress, the President, our commanders —we’re going to accomplish. If they say ‘Stay for 20 years in a certain country, fighting a certain war, against this certain enemy,’ we’re going to do it and do it whole-heartedly. There’s no time Marines are saying let’s go home early… Marines are going to be pushing until you pull them back, say stop, or change direction. We’re not an organization looking to do anything but accomplish the mission.”

I left a sacred training ground that day and look forward to returning for my next story. Whether I talk to a “grunt” or “pogue” (personnel other than grunt ), it will be another mission accomplished.