‘Good people sleep peacefully at night, safe in the knowledge that rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’
— George Orwell
‘For half an instant, I was deafened by the sound of the air splitting apart. There were sparks and flames all around, and my first instinct was to grab my legs and make sure they were still there. As I was checking for my legs with my right hand, with my left hand I was reaching for the microphone to call in that we had been hit. ‘Keep driving,’ I shouted at my driver, before even making sure that he was OK. A female soldier had died on that same stretch of highway when her legs were amputated, and she bled to death. Ever since, I was terrified that would happen to me. Before we went down that highway, my team had said to me, ‘We already got hit once tonight; we’re not going to get hit again—come on sir, let’s just take this road.’ So, for some stupid reason, I agreed, and it is a decision I distinctly regret and wish I could take back. We had a tire blown, windows were shattered on the west side, headlights were shattered, and a couple pieces of shrapnel were sticking out of the trunk. Not a scratch on any of us, but the shrapnel we found at the scene was still warm to the touch. I know from experience just how much worse it could have been. I have no desire to experience that level of insanity.”
First Lt. Robert C. J. Parry still remembers the salty taste left in his mouth after the IED (improvised explosive device) attack on the day he simply calls Oct. 12. After serving a one-year tour of duty with the California Army National Guard’s 184th infantry, Robert returned from Iraq in January 2006, carrying with him the memories of his time spent in the insurgent-plagued Dora district of southern Baghdad.
In 2004, Robert and his company received their orders, and they knew they were headed to Iraq. He and his girlfriend Maribel had been planning to get married and decided that it was time. With no time for a honeymoon, they were married Aug. 3, 2004. “We didn’t really get to enjoy the time after we got married because we were already thinking of the day we would have to say goodbye. We were almost mourning the date when he was going to leave,” Maribel Juarez-Parry says. Life without Robert at home was emotional for Maribel. While Robert was in Iraq, she would wait anxiously for his phone calls and e-mails. She would always have the television on and run to it whenever she heard any news from Iraq. Even when she walked the dog, she would only walk where her cellphone had the strongest signal. “I always had that fear of missing a call on my cellphone,” Maribel recalls. “I was checking it constantly.” Robert shared in his wife’s sadness when she would call him and beg him to come home. But he knew that he had a job to do for his country.
Raised in West Covina, Robert valued his family’s service in the military. His dad was a defense scientist who worked with the military for more than 30 years. His grandfather was a World War II veteran, and when Robert was first commissioned to the California National Guard, he was assigned to the same unit as his great-grandfather. Robert was sent to Iraq as a member of the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “The Night Stalkers.”
While the hierarchical structure of the military allows for efficiency, Parry knows that war is never a simple thing. “We killed more than a handful of people for essentially driving badly. We didn’t have any choice because we never knew if they were car bombers,” Robert says in the mechanical way soldiers speak about killing. Defending themselves, the soldiers shot a driver who continued to drive past several blockades toward their military vehicles. The car blew up because of explosives hidden inside it. “To us, it is unconscionable that somebody insults you so you strap a bomb to yourself and then go blow them up. Over there it is perfectly normal; it’s to be expected,” says Robert.
First Lt. Rusten Currie, Robert’s roommate during the war, served beside Robert in Iraq, and he admired Robert’s perseverance throughout their tour of duty. “When you’re at war, it shows who you really are, more than just pretending to kill one weekend a month in the Reserves,” Currie says. “[Robert] continued to do his job, and that’s one of the most admirable qualities about the man; he never quit.” Answers Robert, “We went over there thinking we were doing a good thing for oppressed people and that we should stay until the job was done. Now that I have seen the culture up close, I realize that success will look like something we won’t recognize. It’s like there is a shiny new bicycle called democracy and a hefty set of training wheels called the American Army. They are riding it down the road but until the time that we can take those training wheels off, they won’t be bicycling themselves down the road. I think that’s where we are now: they need to start pedaling on their own.”
When a soldier is at war, their family and friends eagerly wait for them to come home and regular life to return with them. Robert’s wife, family and friends were lucky enough to see him again. A boy from a gang-infested area of Los Angeles was also waiting for Robert to come home. Robert has been involved in the Big Brother program for almost six years, and he is the Big Brother to Malcolm. Since coming back from Iraq, Robert and Malcolm have gone out to dinner and shared their separate experiences from the past year. Robert enjoys being a good influence on this young man who has no other positive male role models.
Friends and family weren’t the only things waiting for Robert when he returned; his employers at Pollack PR Marketing Group in Century City held open his position as a senior account manager. Before landing the job at Pollack, Robert ran the West Covina Guardian, a weekly newspaper, for four years before he decided to go back to school. He graduated from the University of La Verne in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Since returning from Iraq, Robert has written an Op-Ed article, The War You Didn’t See, which was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Sunday opinion section, and he is writing a book with “a unique perspective of the war.”
“You learn not to take things for granted over there,” Robert says, reflecting on lost lives. “I leave behind friends. I leave behind part of my soul. I take with me memories, some of which I wish I could not.”
Freshly stateside from Iraq, Robert Parry has three favorite words: “I am home.”