A few days ago, we put up a short post about former University of Wisconsin football player, Jake Wood, and his blog, which details his experiences as an enlisted Marine in Fallujah, Iraq. After contacting Wood about setting up an interview, he was kind enough to respond to a few questions we sent via email. In his candid testimony, entirely reminiscent of his writing style, Wood discussed the motivation behind his decision to join the Marines, coping with the loss of friends in combat and how Iraq might serve as a safer environment during war time than our old stomping grounds, Madison, Wisconsin. Enjoy readers and thanks again, Jake.
(1) I think the question most people would like you to entertain is what propelled you to join the military? And perhaps, more specifically, the Marine Corps rather than the Army, Navy, or Air Force?
Well, I got done playing college football and my dream of continuing on to the NFL didn't materialize (obviously). The military was something that I had always grown up thinking about doing. Ever since I was a kid I can remember wanting to do what I am doing today. As graduation started to draw closer and I was attending career fairs, I realized that I wasn't interested in wearing a suit and tie in the corporate world. I also realized that 40 years from now I would regret not having done it when my country needed me the most. We are at war, and the people fighting it need leaders, it was a role that I saw myself as capable of filling. That being said, once I decided I wanted to join, the decision of which branch was easy. I wanted to be the best, so I joined the Marines. It was the same logic behind my choice to go to Wisconsin, don't do anything half-assed.
(2) As a college graduate, you had the option to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) and become an officer in the Marines. Yet, you decided against that path. Why did you decide to enter the Corps as a enlistee, or as you put it a, "grunt?"
I looked into going to OCS, but the more I talked to people the more I was told that this war was being fought on the enlisted level. Corporals and Sergeants lead patrols over here, not Lieutenants and Captains. I wanted to lead, but I wanted to make sure that I was in a position to lead men where its needed most, in combat. I've been blessed/burdened with that responsibility.
(3)Did your experience as a college athlete prepare you physically, mentally and psychologically for the rigors of boot camp and your tour in Iraq? And what was the overall reaction of your buddies on the team/ coaching staff when you revealed that you were going to join the Marines?
I definitely had an advantage going into bootcamp having played for Wisconsin. In all honesty, playing for [former UW Offensive Line coach Jim] Hueber and [former UW Defensive Line coach John] Palermo was maybe scarier than getting thrashed by my drill instructors at bootcamp. I think the biggest thing that it prepared me for was the verbal abuse and constant mental assault. In bootcamp, nothing is ever good enough and you are always told about it. Hell, I had been in bootcamp for four years already at Wisconsin.
When I first mentioned that I was thinking about joining, to some teammates I'm not sure that they believed me. I don't think that it was until I had actually signed the contract that they took me seriously. I couldn't really say if they were surprised or not because they all knew that I was pretty patriotic, especially with all the anti-war stuff that went on on campus. Right before I left for boot I went in to say my good byes to Hueber and [former UW Head Coach Barry] Alvarez. That was the first they heard that I was going. I think they were pretty shocked, I think they always kind of thought of me as the 'smart kid', not the 'gi joe'.
(4) What was it like to go from being a recently college grad to being deployed to an extremely hostile, violent environment? How did you prepare yourself in making such a drastic change?
Is there a more hostile environment than Madison, WI during an American war??? I think I might feel safer over here. In all honesty, there is nothing to prepare you. You want to try and prepare yourself, but nothing in the world is going to prep you for combat. You just have to hope that when the bullets start flying back at you that you dont' freeze.
(5) One of your more poignant posts was on March 12, 2007 when you discussed losing your buddy, Lance Cpl. Nathan Windsor, in a firefight. You said of Windsor, "He was 19. He was Blake Howey's best friend. We called them 'the twins'. They have been reunited." I think it's extremely hard for people in our age-range to fathom losing friends who are 19, 20, 21 years old. How do you gear yourself up to go out on your next mission after these types of events? And how do you and your platoon mates cope?
It's hard to lose a friend at any point in your life, but two factors play into it over here. The first is that you realize that this is your job. We're Marines, on top of that we're grunts. Our job is war and killing. That starts to desensitize you to a certain extent. Everyone came over here thinking that they were invincible, but in the back of their mind they didn't know if the guy to their left and right was too. The second factor that plays in is that the death here isn't natural. It's violent and unnecessary. You aren't just losing a friend, you are seeing him die, you are trying to save his life but you fail. All the training in the world can't desensitize you enough to handle that well.
But, when it happens, you realize that the only way to honor the fallen is to throw your gear back on. Our friends have died, but they will have died in vain if we don't go back out there and try to win this thing. We fight on for the glory of our dead.
(6) On your blog, you openly discuss the loss of Marines that have, in one form or another, been a part of your life. Additionally, at times, it seems as if the internal conversations/debates that you have with yourself there (why do Iraqis continue to contribute to such bloodshed, for instance) come alive on the page. What role does writing play in helping you confront these things?
I first started the blog just to keep up with my family and some close friends. I sent out an email to about 30 people letting them know that I was going to do it. I didn't know what I was going to write about because I didnt know what I would see over here. Even then I didn't know what I would censor. But the writing is an escape for me. I don't like talking about what is happening over here. I don't like calling family and friends up and telling them or discussing it, but I still need to get it out. This is my medium, and it helps that the audience is largely anonymous.
Also, the more this blog has grown, the more I realize that this is a way to honor my friends that are gone. They deserve to be remembered. AMericans needs to know on a personal level what these guys have done for them.
(8) What do you plan on doing when you come home to the States? And do you see this (being a Marine) as a career?
The first thing I'm gonna do when I get off the bus is hug my mom and sisters, shake my Dad's hand, take an ice cold Miller Lite from his other hand, twist the top off and take a good long pull. I also plan on attending the Badger/UNLV game, and then a few up in Madison. After that I could care less.
No, I will not be making this a career. I'm very glad that I joined, and I would do it again in a heartbeat, but I will be out after my 4 years.
(9) What was your most memorable moment/moments as a college student and college athlete?
As an athlete I have a couple-
When we beat Ohio State at home at night, breaking their winning streak with Lee's [Evans] touchdown from Schabes [former Badger QB Matt Schabert].
Beating Purdue my senior year on Sparky's [former Badger CB Scott Starks] fumble return and breaking into the Top 5.
The first time I got in a game...I jumped offsides about 3 plays later and I thought Coach Hueber was going to eat me.