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As a kid, Andrew Weable played soldier. Ambition and adrenaline led him to the Marines, just a few weeks before Sept. 11.
But on the ground in Iraq, he faced the reality of war and documented his days in letters home to Columbia.
Sunday, October 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:07 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Andrew Weable watched events unfold on television. A frantic call from his mother interrupted his thoughts about what the attack could mean for the United States and for him.

“You’re not going into the Marines,” Melanie Weable said.

Andrew had committed to spending the next four years in the Marine Corps just a few weeks before, and Melanie reasoned that it wasn’t too late to walk away. But for Andrew there was no turning back. He told her he had a job to do and he was staying. The truth was, he was excited.

Andrew had known since eighth grade that he wanted to be a Marine. One of his favorite games at that time was to pretend that he and his best friend, John Parker, were carrying out covert missions. They also played paintball and “shoot-‘em up” video games, taking bets on who would kill each other first. Melanie hoped it was just a phase he’d grow out of. One of Andrew’s grandfathers fought in World War II, while another fought in Korea and in Vietnam. But the family had no other military ties.

Eventually, it became clear it was more than a phase. Tall and strong for his age, Andrew played football for Rock Bridge High School and took up ice hockey. More than playing the sports, Andrew loved the adrenaline rush before a game. And what could be a bigger adrenaline rush, he reasoned, than going into battle?

“I’ve always had goals,” Andrew says, “and I know it’s kind of odd, but one of them was to go into combat.”

After graduating from Rock Bridge in 2001, he and John joined the Marine Corps on the buddy system.

Two years later and recently returned from a seven-month deployment in the Gulf, Cpl. Andrew Weable has realized his ambition. At the age of 20, he has experienced combat and much more. Now he’s ready to move on.

After three months of boot camp, followed by 10 more weeks of training and then six months of “recon,” Andrew drastically readjusted his impressions of the military long before he arrived in Iraq. He expected to be treated like a man.

Instead, he says, he was treated like a child. He disliked the way in which some of the higher ranking officers used their authority and was unprepared for the fact that his meals and his uniforms in boot camp would be deducted from his already small paycheck.

Before taking their Christmas leave that year, Andrew’s unit members were told by the platoon sergeant that they most likely would not be sent to the Gulf. But events took a different turn. Shortly after their return, his company, which is part of the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment, received word it would be deployed.

Andrew’s high school friend Erin Balas doesn’t remember Andrew as being excited about the prospect of going to Iraq. “He was more kind of scared,” Erin said.

Andrew left for Kuwait on Jan. 24, 2003, and remained there until the war began. His battalion was among those that led the advance north to Baghdad. They were on the move for two weeks, traveling so rapidly in their armored vehicles that supplies couldn’t keep up with them and they were forced to get by on one Ready-To-Eat Meal a day.

They had trained in their regular uniforms but were now maneuvering in thick protective suits with gas masks constantly at the ready. Andrew was shot at several times by Iraqi soldiers dressed as civilians, but chemicals and land mines remained his biggest fears.

For five weeks, Melanie Weable and her husband, Michael, had no word from their son.

Finally, Andrew was handed a satellite phone and allotted five minutes to call home. His letters arrived sporadically, from three weeks to three months after he had written them. In one dated April 12, he wrote from Baghdad that he expected to be back in Kuwait in two to three weeks.

“I have seen and experienced everything I have wanted to in combat. I am definitely ready to be home,” he wrote.

He could not have known that his time in Iraq was just beginning.

The task of the Marines had changed from one of invading and conquering to one of rebuilding and peacekeeping.

Andrew’s company was sent to Karbala, about two hours south of Baghdad, where part of its mission was to train a new police force. Many of the men Andrew was now working with freely admitted they’d been firing at American troops just a few weeks earlier. Andrew didn’t bear any grudges.

“They did it because of Saddam,” he said.

On July 1, Andrew’s company was sent to al-Mahmudiya, a few miles outside of Baghdad, to conduct counter-ambushes along a stretch of highway where the Army had been repeatedly attacked.

It was there, while out on regular patrols of the town, that he had the opportunity to meet ordinary Iraqi people and to hear their views on the war.

He and his fellow soldiers knew which houses they could call on to take a break from the desert heat. Accompanied by an interpreter, they used these house calls as an opportunity to learn about any security problems in the neighborhood.

Families would supply them with food and tea and stories of what they had suffered under Saddam. He said most of them wanted the Americans to be there because they feared Saddam was still alive and would try to return.

The homemade Iraqi food was a welcome relief from the monotony of pre-packaged military meals, but it didn’t satisfy Andrew’s craving for American staples such as pizza and ice cream.

What he missed from home was “the luxury of the little things” — sharing a beer with friends, going to the movies or shopping at the mall. Supplies had to come through Kuwait, and often the more coveted items had already been taken by the time they reached al-Mahmudiya.

Andrew’s boots, for example, had so many holes in them that he resorted to wearing tennis shoes around the compound before a replacement pair finally arrived. By this point, Andrew was well-acquainted with Marine policy.

“Priority number one is mission accomplishment and number two is troop welfare,” he says.

Andrew had hoped to be home in time to celebrate July 4. Instead he found himself standing guard in al-Mahmudiya, counting the hours back to Missouri time and imagining his friends and family watching fireworks and enjoying the holiday. “I’m just tired ... of being tired,” he wrote in a letter home that day.

For her part, Melanie was tired of waiting for her oldest son to come home. She says that the Marines gave her no information about when to expect him. Her only source of information and support, besides Andrew himself, was an online network set up by Tracy Della Vecchia, a fellow Columbia native and Marine mother.

Andrew admits that his family probably suffered more than he did at times when they did not know his whereabouts and couldn’t help but imagine the worst. Indeed the worst was yet to come.

Starting around mid-July, the compound Andrew’s company was using as a base began to come under repeated mortar attack from an unknown assailant. In a letter dated Aug. 6, Andrew wrote: “... So, we got mortars dropped on us again yesterday. I hate that sound with all my heart. This is the fourth time this has happened. Our mission in Task Force Scorpion was to stop the ambushes on the Army convoys. We stopped the ambushes on the Army, but guess who they redirected their anger at? Us ...”

Toward the end of August, Melanie finally received the call she’d been waiting for. Andrew’s company had been told that it would be back at base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., in a week, but that company members weren’t to notify their families until three days before their arrival for security reasons. Andrew reasoned that his family had been through enough and made the call.

It wasn’t the first time he had told his parents he was coming home only to disappoint them later when he discovered it was no more than a rumor, but this time seemed different. The Weables took a chance and booked their flight to California. After a 14-hour wait in a gym on the base and a surprising lack of military fanfare, the doors opened and a happy chaos ensued as families surged forward to join their loved ones.

Andrew emerged from the crowd looking the picture of health, said Melanie. He’d even grown an inch. Over the next couple of days that they spent with him, he seemed unchanged, though perhaps a little more responsible, his mother said.

After two weeks at Twentynine Palms, Andrew drove home to Columbia for four weeks of “R-and-R” with friends and family. Now, finally, was his time to indulge in all those “little luxuries” he had dreamed about on guard duty in al-Mahmudiya. At last he could get a full night’s sleep, instead of a few hours snatched here and there with his boots still on. His 12-year-old brother, Matthew, met Andrew at the door with the question he’d been waiting seven months to ask:

“Did you shoot anybody?”

Andrew responded that he couldn’t really tell because everyone was shooting at once.

Andrew’s not one for recounting war stories said his friend, Erin, who describes Andrew as a “happy-go-lucky guy.” He’d expected Andrew to seem more serious after his experiences in Iraq, but he’s the same old Andrew, Erin said, except maybe more cheerful.

“He told me that there were moments when he was over in Iraq that he thought he would never make it back and he would never see Columbia again, and I think now that he is back and his friends are all around, I think that’s what’s putting a smile on his face,” Erin said.

What has changed are Andrew’s plans for the future. When his four years are up, he won’t be re-enlisting for a career in the military as he’d originally planned. He’d like to go back to school, perhaps to study psychology, but that’s still two years away. And with his combat experience, he knows there’s a strong likelihood he will be deployed again.

He says he has no regrets about joining. He got what he wanted to get out of the experience and believes that his company did a good job in Karbala and al-Mahmudiya. It’s just that military life was not what he’d imagined it to be back in eighth grade when he and his friend, John, dreamed of being Marines.


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