COLUMBIA — At first it wasn’t easy for Michael Joseph Fiscella.
When the 27-year-old former Marine talks about the war, he talks about the boot camp process — the building up, the tearing down.
“It gets to the point where you wouldn’t waste a bullet on yourself,” he said. "To where you're not even a human being."
His three tours of duty covered the years 2003 to 2006. He was deployed to Iraq for two of them.
He remembers a camaraderie built upon a common hatred for the drill instructor. But it wasn’t all tearing down, he said. The camp also built their esteem.
With work Monday through Saturday, Sundays were designated free time.
“You could go to church if that’s what you did back home,” he says. “You could write letters, spit-shine boots.”
Fiscella spent most of the time ironing his uniforms, his woodlands, deserts and bravos. For the Marines, "everything has to be perfect,” he said.
Thirteen weeks in, Fiscella said, his parents noticed a change. “When they visited, they told me I talked different," he said.
The entire person changes. “You don’t have to say you're better. You know it. It’s ingrained.”
For many of the men, he said, the Marines created a new found sense of pride.
“It’s the greatest, how you feel that day," he says, describing the end of boot camp. “Graduation day is a 180. By the end, you feel like you can take on anything.”
After boot camp, Fiscella went to tank school for 69 days before being put out to fleet.
His first mission was Iraqi Freedom One. After spending a month in Kuwait, the Marines moved into Iraq in March 2003.
At first, the men slept in the tank itself. “It looked like a gypsy wagon,” Fiscella said, chuckling. “Because that was our life, all our stuff and our gear.”
On that mission, he was a tank driver—a job he thought was great for a first deployment. He said he felt safe in the tank, and that laid the groundwork for later missions.
For his second deployment, he was sent to Fallujah where his unit was assigned to look for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the road, check the bridges and overpasses and look out for bombs. The desert's freezing conditions didn’t make it any easier.
“I had gloves over gloves,” Fiscella said. “I remember stopping to get gas and not being able to take my hands off my weapon.”
“When you pull up, it's just Army refueler guys surrounded by Army trucks,” Fiscella said.
Despite the conditions, Fiscella loved the job. “I was a gunner,” he said. “You have to love that. You have a 120 mm gun and a 240 coaxial machine gun. You can put the fear of God in most people.”
When the mission was over, it took them only a couple of days to get stateside, so there was no time to decompress and get out of the war mind frame. The Marines were hyped on adrenaline, and going back to civilian life was like going from day to night.
“You build up so much of a defense, a sound and way of reacting,” says Fiscella. “Then you go back home and people touch you and you give a different reaction.”
He describes it as a necessary buffer space.
His third and last mission was aboard a ship, and it was the only time he wasn’t in an active war. On the ship, it was constant repetition.
"At 5:45, I shaved, brushed my teeth and called reveille,” Fiscella said. “6:15 was chow. By 9, you were down in the belly of the ship maintaining the tanks, checking fluid, making sure they ran.”
Being at sea let him travel. Tattoos act as markers for his locations. A waterfall symbolizes Hawaii; there’s also a koi fish for Singapore.
His chest, though, may have the most important piece.
It’s an image of him dressed in uniform, standing in front of a row of four rifles meant to represent his fallen comrades. The rifles are never-ending, and fade into the distance. It doesn’t speak to a particular place, but the war in general.
Unlike many who come back from war and internalize their experience, Fiscella has never had a problem retelling his stories. He is just more selective with his audience.
“It’s a lifestyle now,” says Fiscella of being a Marine. "I talk to people and they think I’m probably military or something."
"It’s unique to me 'cause I don’t notice a change. But I can tell if someone else is by the way they walk,” he says, “so I guess that’s what they see in me.”
As for the issue of whether to withdraw troops from Iraq or stay there, Fiscella strongly sides with the latter. That’s why he’s still in the inactive reserves.
“You fix a problem before you leave,” he said.
Currently a student at MU, he plans to be a chiropractor, a job that reflects the medical push his career aptitude test had always predicted.
But Semper Fi, the Marine motto, remains true for him: Always faithful.
“I remember Gunnery Sergeant Popaditch,” Fiscella said. “He had been hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) and lost an eye. He had limited vision in the other, and his hearing was messed up. When he got back stateside, the Marine Corps band from our base was there and played all the normal songs.
"Then they asked him if they could do anything else for him,” Fiscella said, pausing. “He said, 'Play that Marine Corps hymn one more time.'
"It’s that feeling of pride. I can remember it like yesterday."