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Corps Values

In His New Book About Serving in the Marine Reserves During Desert Storm, Bel Air Teacher Buzz Williams Says Not all the Conflicts Took Place on the Battlefield

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Scott Carlson | Posted 3/24/2004

Looking at Buzz Williams now, you wouldn't be able to tell that he spent several years of his life waging a battle inside as he went about his life as a college student, schoolteacher, and suburban dad. You might notice his tanklike Marine build or his memorabilia from the Gulf War, displayed in a cabinet in his office. But you likely didn't see him flinching at Fourth of July celebrations, or hear him wake up sweaty from nightmares, or sit next to him as he watched war movies and bawled. He hid all that. Vulnerability is very un-Marine.

These days, through a book called Spare Parts: A Marine Reservist's Journey From Campus to Combat in 38 Days (Gotham Books), Williams not only lets his story out--he's even promoting it. At his house in Bel Air on a recent evening, he says he may be on Fox News soon. Hannity and Limbaugh would be a logical next step--and what the heck, maybe National Public Radio. He'll be speaking to a veterans' group later in the week, one of a string of appearances in the area. Gov. Robert Ehrlich will soon be getting a signed copy, he says. The bookstores around Bel Air and White Marsh are already sold out.

Spare Parts is unlike other books about war and soldiering, being the story not of a military careerist, but of a college kid who joined the Marines as a one-weekend-a-month reservist and suddenly found himself in the deserts of Iraq. The title comes from the derisive nickname the active-duty Marines used for the reservists. "The Green Machine must be broken," taunts one Marine as he sees Williams' company march into camp, just before the war. "Here come the spare parts!"

Williams says that his goal was simply to tell the story of reservists--the folks who are caught between the worlds of war and peace, aggression and civility--and to get some things off of his chest. The agent who bought into Williams' book saw that there was a marketable story there, what with the publicity surrounding the current war in Iraq.

"There was a part of me that felt guilty," Williams says, sitting in his home office, which is decorated with Marine memorabilia. "Someone had once said, 'How do you feel about writing a book that might sell on the blood, sweat, and tears of our nation's military?'"

But he decided to write Spare Parts anyway. "There is going to be a war with or without this book, and if I think it can help, I am going to do it."

Williams originally started the book as a form of therapy. He was a light-armored-vehicle driver in the first Gulf War, assigned to protect Kuwait. There, he was shot at by snipers, saw Iraqis ripped apart by American shells, and walked through bloodstained torture chambers in Kuwaiti apartments.

After he came back from Iraq in the early 1990s, he suffered from nightmares and nervous attacks from the combat he had seen. He once punched his wife in the middle of the night, battling off phantom Iraqis in the trenches. His symptoms eventually went away--that is, until early last year, when war was on prime time again. Tanks, loaded with embedded journalists, rolled toward Baghdad. Watching a breaking news update, Williams was brought right back to Iraq and the vivid memories of dust, diesel fuel, and death.

"It's easy to say, 'Don't watch it', but we would be in the middle of a family show, and suddenly it would be interrupted by combat flashing across the screen," he says. "It would just take a 10-second snippet, and I couldn't break away from the TV."

This time, instead of denying his emotions, he decided to confront them through writing, a technique he had learned while he was training to become a schoolteacher. First he started with a passage here and there, something he thought that he might file away and give to his two children when they were old enough to read it. He showed the work to his colleagues at Northwest Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger High School, where he was teaching. They told him to try to get it published.

Soon, Williams was spending his weekends on the manuscript. While his wife took care of the kids, he would head out early Saturday morning to the library at Harford Community College, plug in his laptop, and take all day to peck out a chapter. He'd repeat the drill on Sunday.

"It's embarrassing for someone with a Marine ego to talk about, but I would sit in the library alone, especially during the combat chapters, and cry a lot," he says. "When I wasn't able to get a cubicle, I was in a public area. I would look up occasionally, and people would be looking at me, like, 'What is that guy doing over there?'"

Spare Parts follows Williams from his childhood, growing up near Dundalk and idolizing his Marine brother, to his discharge from the Marines several years after Desert Storm. Between passages of Marine "ooh-rahs" and braggadocio, Williams' story is frequently ambivalent and angry about aspects of the Corps. He says he was nervous about how the fraternity of Marines would react to the work, as he showed the manuscript to both ex-reservists who were old friends and Marines who were still in the service. His friends who were out lauded his courage to speak about the "emotional baggage" he'd carried back from Kuwait. Some of the active Marines were less enthusiastic. An officer asked him to tone down the gory details of boot camp, Williams says, which he thought would be bad publicity. Williams didn't change anything. He says he has earned his right as a Marine to be critical, although, like any good Marine, he maintains that the Corps transformed him for the better.

That's a difficult sentiment to see in Spare Parts at times, especially in the opening chapter, which focuses on Williams' experience in boot camp. The scene has all of the horror and dark humor of classic boot-camp beat-downs. On his first day, between shifts of hoisting heavy objects over their heads, Williams and other privates in his platoon are forced to drink water until they puke. Then the drill sergeants make the privates mop up the vomit with the shirts on their backs, slithering around on the ground. Williams emerges from the experience a hardened man, with the Marine mantra firmly planted in his head: "Blood makes the green grass grow."

He effectively focuses the book on this disconnection between the warrior and the civilian in every reservist. While active-duty Marines are in hardened form all the time, reservists have the more difficult task of having to shift into the Marine mind-set on the Friday before their training weekends. Shifting out on Monday morning wasn't always so easy. He called it "military mode" or "Monday morning syndrome."

"Gina would say to me on the Mondays after drill, 'Don't talk to me like that. I'm not one of your Marines,'" he says of his wife. He says that on one Monday morning he almost lost his job when he lit into a fellow teacher, drill-sergeant style, after she had ruined a project he was working on for the students.

"In civil society there are no outlets to exercise the warrior mentality . . . and the constant stress this creates results in an anti-social personality," Williams writes in Spare Parts. "Emotions like embarrassment, grief, sadness, and vulnerability are all converted into anger--the omniemotion that helps recruits survive."

While the reservists don't fit in society, Williams shows that they don't fit in among the active-duty Marines, either. The "spare parts" aren't given respect or the training they need, even to survive their weekend outings. During one training weekend, Williams almost had his hands blown off operating a mortar--his Marine peers had simply turned him loose on it. On another weekend, he almost froze his feet off, because his lance corporal told him not to bring warm clothes. As the war started, the training continued to be uneven. Although he was a vehicle operator, he sometimes had no vehicle to work on. He felt like he was being sent into battle with minimal training.

Amid the bitterness and anxiety of the book, Williams injects doses of humor and slapstick. The reservists get their redemption in Williams' treatment, partly through the leadership of reservists like Sgt. Doug Moss, a gentle bear of a man and occasionally a fuck-up of a Marine. Unlike the careerists portrayed in Williams' account, Moss thinks about the safety of his men and the sensibility of his orders. While the influence of the Marines complicates civilian life, civilian sensibilities can make for a better Marine, as evidenced in Moss. With some begging and a little luck, Williams ends up under Moss during the war.

"He couldn't march a platoon very well and he couldn't spout out the memorized rhetoric," Williams says. "But when all was said and done, I would have much rather served under Sergeant Moss."

Williams based his book on real people, although he changed some of the names. The real Sgt. Moss, who now works in Virginia, turned up at Williams' house one recent afternoon for a reunion with other Marines. It was the first time these men had seen each other in 14 years.

Over white wine poured into plastic picnic cups, the former Corpsmen sat at the dining room table, telling old stories from Iraq: about a "rat fucker" medic who used to pilfer the best rations, about giving grateful Iraqi captives cigarettes and Playboy magazines, about the time their armored vehicle rolled into a ditch and almost crushed members of the crew.

As the evening wound down, the subject turned to the new Iraq war, and it was clear that Williams' story would resonate with the bunch. Moss said that the fumes from a city bus would sometimes remind him of the armored vehicle, and seeing a fighter jet streak across the sky on Sept. 11, 2001, brought him right back to Iraq. Like Williams, some of them said that they sat, transfixed, watching the news reports of the war.

"After a while," Moss said wearily, "I just had to unplug the TV."

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