William Quinn (SFS ’10), left, who served as a staff sergeant for 12 months in Iraq beginning in 2005, and Ryan Groves (COL ’09), who lost his left leg from an explosion while serving in Iraq in 2004, arrived at the Hilltop this fall.

A Witness to History On Conflict’s Front lines

William Quinn (SFS ’10) had all but gotten used to the sound of rockets blasting in the distance as he poured his morning coffee.

During a 12-month stint as a staff sergeant in Iraq, such unnatural noises were part of Quinn’s daily routine. The noises disturbed him at first, but eventually he got used to them.

While many Georgetown students and professors have closely followed the events in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Quinn was right in the middle of the action. As an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Cropper in Baghdad, Quinn sat so close to alleged terrorists and former Baath party members that their knees often intertwined.

Each interrogation, which often spanned weeks or even months, allowed Quinn to look into the thoughts of some of the prisoners. any prisoners told him their entire histories, from their earliest childhood memories to the steps that led them into war.

Quinn, who arrived at Abu Ghraib nearly a year after the torture scandal there subsided, said that when dealing with suspected terrorists, he found that the simplest methods were the most effective.

“It’s morally wrong, and it can’t even be justified by saying it does any kind of good,” he said about torture. “In my own experience, going to the total opposite route, showing actual consideration for another person and their humanity, with a sincere interest in what they had to say, is incredibly effective,” he said.

Quinn spent most of his time sitting, talking and even eating with his enemies. This continued contact changed his perspective of the prisoners. He no longer saw them as just members of the insurgency, but as individuals who, like him, were mired in a conflict of unfathomable complexity.

“While I maintain that it is wrong to join a group like al Qaeda and take part in attacks against soldiers or civilians, I find it difficult not to feel a bit of empathy for a man who does. There are, after all, virtually no people who turn to war because they believe it is fun,” he wrote in a 2005 Christmas letter to his family.

“In Iraq we see the truly sad face of war: the daughter born only weeks after her father died on a battlefield in Iran, the doctor who lacked the medicine to save countless children’s lives during the sanctions, the husband whose wife was killed by an aerial attack, the son whose mother was arrested for giving shelter to insurgents, the mother whose husband and sons have all died, bravely facing the suicide bombers in Baghdad,” he wrote in the letter.

Quinn quickly learned the ins and outs of getting through the day while entrenched in bitter conflict, but nothing quite prepared him for the largest insurgent attack on the Abu Ghraib prison, when the prison was attacked by 40-60 insurgents.

The day was April 2, 2005, only two months into his tour of duty. It was nearing dusk, and the air, which Quinn said was so hot during the day that he felt like his face was a foot away from an open oven door, was beginning to cool slightly. Suddenly, he heard the shrill scream of rockets a mere 15 yards away and the deafening blast of mortar fire. After spending 10 seconds paralyzed with fear, Quinn kicked into training mode: He put on his body armor, loaded his rifle and climbed into his position in the guard tower to defend the prison.

The fighting raged for close to an hour. When it began to subside, perimeter guards opened fire on a group of trucks headed up road. Several Marines grabbed the men from their trucks, thinking they were enemies. But when Quinn interrogated some of the drivers, he discovered that they were not threatening insurgents but fish delivery men, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Quinn witnessed the effects of their unlucky circumstances: 50-caliber bullets fired by American troops tore into one man’s back and another man’s arm. Nearby, in a field next to the prison, the body of a farmer lay motionless in his tractor.

At around four o’clock the following morning, when the prison had settled down, Quinn spoke to the Marine who had killed the farmer. The Marine told Quinn that he had seen the farmer every morning in his field and, he shot him in the heat of battle although he was unsure whether or not he was a suicide bomber.

When the Iraqi forces collected the bodies later that morning, they attempted to remove the farmer’s corpse from his tractor. Their movement detonated explosives hidden inside the tractor, killing three Iraqi troops.

In such a climate of uncertainty, where even farmers plowing fields had bombs attached to them, giving anyone the benefit of the doubt – even fish delivery men – was an unaffordable luxury, Quinn said.

“A civilian in the U.S. who works a 9 to 5 or goes to college doesn’t have someone shooting at them,” Quinn said. “To soldiers, what matters is what’s happening now. We have to do what we can to make the best of an incredibly awful situation.”

Quinn said that he disagreed with the decision to invade Iraq, but he hopes that the United States does not decide to withdraw prematurely.

“We have a responsibility to the Iraqi people to remain in Iraq until they have a system of government and a market and some kind of stabilizing presence, so that we can leave and not see Iraq descend into chaos,” he said. “It would be incredibly irresponsible to go with one strategy to get us into the war and one strategy to leave it, and manage to screw it up both times.”

While stationed in Iraq, Quinn, who will turn 25 in April, applied to Georgetown knowing he was due for discharge in July 2006. He spent last summer traveling around Europe with his sister eg before returning to his family’s vacation home in Canada.

Now on the Hilltop studying international political economy in the School of Foreign Service, Quinn said that returning from war has been a unique adjustment.

Quinn said that although time has an uncanny ability to soften the harsh memories evoked by the terror of war, he hopes that future generations will not forget the extraordinary horrors that ordinary people -the dead farmer, the fish delivery men and he himself – incurred during combat.

“People talk about World War II as a war of heroes who did great things for their people. And they did,” Quinn said. “But we don’t talk about what soldiers did to civilians. We don’t talk about how we burned to death hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. No one wants to talk about that. Who wants to? It corrupts our view of a perfect war.”

Near-Fatal Incident Puts Life in Perspective

Many people are never the same after they return from war. Ryan Groves (COL ’09) returned home from Iraq over two years ago without his left leg.

“It hurts like hell to sit in class in those little desks. It hurts like hell to walk through campus. It hurts like hell to go to the library and study for as long as I want to study,” said Groves, who arrived at Georgetown as a transfer student this fall.

While serving in Fallujah on Oct. 17, 2004, Groves was walking back to his Humvee when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded 5 ft. away from him, severing his left leg and lodging shards of shrapnel in his right leg.

“Initially, there is a very loud jet-like noise, and then for a split second, all of the pressure around you is sucked out of the air,” he said, describing the experience. “You don’t really hear the explosion because it’s so quick, and when it’s that close to you, you don’t hear it.”

In the aftermath of this terrifying experience, the sound of his comrades’ screams brought Groves back to reality. He had survived the explosion but could not yell in pain because his lungs had collapsed. When he tried to sit up, he found that he could not move – a shard of shrapnel was buried deep into his back.

Groves knew that without immediate help he would die, surrounded by the debris and his wounded comrades.

“I felt myself slipping,” he said. “When you lose that much blood that quick, you get really, really tired. I guess that’s what it feels like to die.”

He managed to make as much noise as his injured lungs would allow, trying to relay his whereabouts to the rest of his unit. Fortunately, his friend and fellow Marine Jessie Lopez spotted him.

Groves will never forget the look of utter horror on Lopez’s face as he stared down at his mangled body.

Groves’ unit rushed him to a nearby medical center, where a volunteer trauma surgeon and Navy reservist told him that his left leg was gone, and there was a chance he would lose his right leg as well.

“It’s worthless as a leg,” he said of his right leg. “But it’s mine. So we fought it out.”

At the center, the surgeon placed Groves on a table and attempted to realign his right leg.

“I can’t explain how bad it hurt, but it hurt,” he said. “People wonder if it hurts or not, but yeah, it hurts like hell.”

He endured the surgery without any anesthesia; his heart rate was so low that even the smallest dose would have killed him. After the surgery, Groves awoke at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with his anxious parents at his bedside. Heavily medicated, he wavered in and out of consciousness for over a week, said his mother, Terri Groves, who quit her job and moved from Ohio to stay with her son.

Ryan Groves’ left leg was unsalvageable, but 42 surgeries saved his right, although he will never be able to use it again. The surgeons informed him of the amputation in Baghdad, but in Bethesda, phantom pains often caused him to believe his left leg was still there.

“He asked me to put a pillow under his foot,” his mother said. “And I said, `Which foot?’ and he said, `My left foot.’ And I said, `I can’t do that, Ryan, because your foot is not there.'”

Groves’ path to Iraq began six years ago as a sophomore at ount Union College, where he was the president of the pre-law society and played wide receiver on the football team. When a broken ankle placed Groves on the sidelines, he decided to pave a new road for himself: He quit school and enlisted in the Marines. Nobody, not even his mother or advisor, could change his mind.

Once he enlisted, Groves spent the next three years in boot camp in South Carolina, Southeast Asia and Hawaii, where he was stationed when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. With the nation in the midst of war, Groves and his friends did not want to sit idly as fellow Marines – “our boys,” as he proudly called them – fought overseas. So he and four friends walked into their colonel’s office and told him they wanted to be sent to Iraq.

Only one spot was available, however, and the Marine Corps separated Groves from his friends and sent him to California, where he joined a more experienced unit headed to Iraq. Two months later, Groves was in Fallujah, where he served as the squad leader in an infantry battalion.

After spending four months in Iraq, Groves received word that his old unit was due to arrive in Fallujah. He wanted to greet his comrades and counsel the fledgling unit on what to expect on the battlefront; Fallujah was certainly no Hawaii. When they arrived, Groves was on vehicle patrol, so he met up with them just outside of Fallujah. It was then that his luck finally ran out.

Groves said that he still struggles to deal with the loss of his left leg, but he has taken solace in his new life at Georgetown. He currently lives in a Rosslyn apartment, and his roommate is a arine who also lost a leg in battle.

“It’s a mental struggle to deal with the effects. It’s really hard. A lot of guys don’t do very well at it,” he explains. “So my defense mechanism is to throw myself into whatever I’m doing, to keep my mind off it and not bring it up as much as possible. . I’ve subconsciously wanted to forget it.”

He said that his experience helped him prepare for the challenges that come with transferring to Georgetown.

“I can’t think of a better segue into what I’m studying, where I’m studying, at the time I’m studying,” he added. “It’s all set up absolutely perfectly.”

Despite the tragic end to his military career, Groves still feels that going to Iraq was a path worth taking, and so does his mother, who believes that everything has happened for a reason.

“It might have been God’s way of getting him where he needed to be,” she said.

Ryan Groves said that he hopes all college students understand the sacrifices that soldiers make for their country during war.

“Whether you agree with the war, whether you don’t – whether you agree with one policy or another – know that these people that you knock every day, whether they’re politicians or military leaders, that’s their life. Their life is to make our luxuries possible,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a lot of dirty stuff, but that’s the nature of the beast. And I’m just one small, tiny, example of that.”

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