Chapter 4 – McVay Brothers

“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother and I found all three.”

– Unknown

 

  McVay Brothers 22

Sergeant Mike McVay and Lance Corporal Chad McVay realized that even the road march to start the operation would be fraught with danger.  After arriving in this area of Iraq six weeks earlier and conducting missions that maintained the continuity established by the Marine unit there previously, they were now going to be part of establishing a very different combat strategy, focused on the problematic city Lutifiyah.

On an unseasonably cold evening in late October, 2004, the convoy left Forward Operating Base (FOB) St. Michael in Mahmudiyah and stopped at checkpoint 26A on MSR Tampa around 12:30am.  There, they linked up with the remainder of the individuals and equipment who would be part of the Lutifiyah mission and conducted the final leadership coordination briefing.  For the two brothers from Mineral Point, Wisconsin, as well as many of the Marines in Golf Company, this would be their first major operation since arriving to the geography south of Baghdad.  Up to this point, their days had consisted of squad-level patrols, security missions on MSR Tampa, and guard-duty at the FOB in Mahmudiyah.  By no means were those easy or simple operations, but the one they were embarking on this night seemed to promise much higher levels of insurgent-driven intensity than what they had encountered so far.

As they waited to depart the MSR Tampa checkpoint, the brothers engaged in small talk with others in the company and mentally rehearsed the key elements of the upcoming operation.  The company’s mission was to establish a permanent FOB in Lutifiyah, a city of 90,000 located about eight miles south of Mahmudiyah.  Previously, insurgents operated there virtually untouched, as US forces only conducted operations there once or twice a month.  This allowed insurgents to terrorize the local population continuously and establish psychological control of the people.  Lutifiyah was known as a ‘safe-zone’ for terrorists to operate and hone their craft.  Many of the fighters from the Battles of Fallujah and Ramadi were groomed in Lutifiyah and then traveled to where they were most needed to instill terror on the Iraqi people and disrupt coalition forces.  When they stayed close to home, almost on a daily basis in our Area of Operations (AO), these insurgents would establish ad-hoc vehicle checkpoints on various roads in the area and would kill individuals who were not of their same religious sect.  These atrocities happened at the hands of the Sunni against the Shia and vice versa.

As part of the larger Battalion strategy to establish overwhelming pressure on the insurgents throughout the AO, establishing the new FOB in Lutifiyah would give the company a much greater chance to maintain security in the city, thus accelerating the opportunity for the Iraqis to rebuild their society.   Golf’s sister unit, Fox Company, had done the same thing a few weeks before in Yusifiyah, the city west of Mahmudiyah.  After a couple of weeks of fierce fighting, Fox Company successfully broke the insurgents’ ability to continuously attack and established a much more secure zone.  The actions there provided the proof needed that the battalion’s strategy of significantly pushing out and extending units across the AO would be more effective than the rifle companies staying contracted within small parts of the geography.  Yusifiyah shared many similar traits to Lutifiyah.  Intelligence indicated many of the people we would face in those two cities had direct ties to Jordanian born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would become the most well-known terrorist in Iraq in subsequent years.

Based on the reaction that Fox received going into Yusifiyah, the company expected a fierce response from the insurgents once they understood the Marines were establishing a permanent presence in Lutifiyah.  The company’s leadership picked a much less obtrusive route than ASR Jackson to get to Lutifiyah and decided to conduct the movement at night to maximize security for the 14-vehicle convoy.  While the cloak of darkness afforded greater stealth, navigating the narrow canal roads in almost complete darkness severely challenged the skills of the drivers and the patience of the passengers.  Even with night vision equipment, it was near impossible to move faster than a snail’s pace without significantly risking the safety of the vehicles and passengers inside them.  Mike McVay remembered, “Drivers kept yelling ‘stop’ every few feet and I thought we were going to get killed on the canal roads with all the 7-tons, HMMWVs and trailers we had.”  Anxiety was high and each close encounter with the steep banks of a canal seemed to decrease the already bone-chilling temperatures the Marines were enduring even lower.  Even though most of the men who participated in the movement grew up in Wisconsin with outdoor hobbies that exposed them to the coldest weather the mind could imagine, many of them still swear that the coldest weather they ever experienced was on that night.1  Lance Corporal Tony Ludtke remembered: “It’s something that has me looking back and laughing inside because we had 20 Marines, plus gear, in the back of the 7-ton, and we couldn’t get close enough to share body heat without impregnating each other.  All we did was chew tobacco, shiver, and bitch in whispered voices about how cold we were, and of course wonder how the heck we were going to jump out of a 7 ton in full fighting gear when none of us could feel our feet.”

After a couple hours battling the severe cold and terrifying close calls with the canals, the convoy arrived at the compound in Lutifiyah that would transform into the FOB Golf Company would operate from for the remainder of the deployment. Getting there approximately an hour prior to daybreak, the Marines established security around the compound and began to organize the exterior defenses and interior living quarters of the buildings they would occupy.  Mike McVay recounted a task that had to be done immediately: “We needed to relocate families as their houses were now ours.”  Next to the main building on the compound that would serve as the command post and largest housing space were three other smaller homes.  It would be unsafe for the families who lived there to remain, so they were moved outside of the compound.  The Marines worked feverishly to emplace the security apparatus needed to protect their new base from what might be coming.  Sand bags were filled and positioned, and the engineers employed heavy equipment to fill HESCO barriers, emplaced Jersey barriers and constructed a large security berm around the compound wherever perimeter walls did not exist.  Small teams of Marines constructed hardened fighting positions on the roofs of the buildings to serve as security posts.  Moreover, they positioned their vehicles strategically to serve as temporary cover until the permanent security features were completed.  As early morning turned to daytime, both McVay brothers noted how calm the surrounding city remained.  Chad noted, “When we rolled into the city, it was as if everything stopped.”  While preparing for the worst, they couldn’t help noticing the eerie calm that enveloped the city.  Generally, even before daylight peaked over the horizon, the cities in this AO were alive and bustling with activity.  Today, with the exception of what was happening in the compound, it was completely silent, and the peaceful setting seemed completely out of place.  They hoped it would last.

It did not.  A little after 10am, a long convoy of police cruisers and pickup trucks approached the location from the north on ASR Jackson.  The vehicles transported the ING and IPs, who were joining the Marines on this day to demonstrate a visible joint American-Iraqi presence in support of the new base.  As the convoy drove through the temporary front gate to the site, Sergeant Ken Oliver directed the first nine vehicles to an open area on the backside of the compound, and Sergeant Nick Vento guided the remaining nine to park on the frontage road just in front of the main entrance to the CP building.  The Commanding Officer of the nascent Mahmudiyah Police Force exited his vehicle and led a delegation inside the building while the remaining IPs and ING clustered on the dirt road.

Almost immediately after the group entered the building, an incoming mortar round landed on the frontage road, right in the middle of a cluster of three Iraqis and Vento.  The round hit one of the Iraqi Policemen directly and spraying deadly shrapnel towards the others.  “Doc Rush immediately came running to help,” Chad McVay recalled.  “He thought that he was going to try to put a tourniquet on the IP, but the guy had been cut in half, and you’re not going to put a tourniquet on a torso.”  Those who witnessed the unlucky mortar strike will never forget the gruesome sight of the Iraqi laying on the road with his upper body facing up to the sky and his lower body angled down into the street.  Mike McVay and Sergeant Brad Jackson had just walked into the front of the main building when the explosion struck 20 meters behind them.  Mike ran inside the CP to where the corpsmen kept their supplies to grab a stretcher and Jackson sprinted back outside immediately, mistakenly believing that his platoon mate Corporal Keegan Murphy was in the middle of the blast.3   Coming back outside with a stretcher in hand, Mike saw that one of the IPs had “big chunks of shrapnel in his eyes” that eventually would lead him to lose his eyesight.  Nick Vento was within two feet of one of the other policemen who was struck by enough shrapnel from the mortar blast that he would eventually die from his wounds.  Ken Oliver, Vento’s friend and fellow Second Platoon squad leader, witnessed the mortar strike and explosion and immediately thought about how he would explain to Vento’s mother that he didn’t make it through the day.  Miraculously, Vento suffered only a minor injury as a small amount of shrapnel lodged in his mouth.  Jackson kneeled next to Doc Rush as the hospital corpsmen worked feverishly on the Iraqis who had been wounded.  One of the IPs had taken massive shrapnel to both of his legs.  Vento immediately applied a tourniquet to one of his legs as Doc Vandermeulen rushed to them and continued working on the wounded man.  Jackson’s attention locked in on the Iraqi who had been hit directly by the mortar, and he could tell the man did not have long to live.  “He kept calling to me, ‘Mister, mister. Water.’  After about two minutes, his pupils turned from pin-hole size to pennies and I watched him take his last breath.”  As this was unfolding, a medevac was called in to transport injured Iraqis to a facility better equipped to deal with the scope of injuries they had suffered.  On the backside of the CP, a helicopter was called into an open area large enough to serve as a landing zone (LZ), and the wounded Iraqis were loaded up and flown out.

Evacuating injured Iraqi Policemen on the first day establishing the FOB in Lutifiyah

 

Meanwhile, the Marines realized the mortar barrage represented the beginning of a full-scale attack on the compound.  The intensity of the small arms fire, incoming rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortar barrage confirmed that the insurgents would not cede control of Lutifiyah without an all-out fight.  The company was ready for it, however.  The specific FOB location had been chosen because the four large buildings within the compound were constructed of asphalt and brick and would withstand even direct hits from mortars and RPGs (See Figure 5).  While the volume and fierceness of the attack surpassed anything experienced in the AO to this point, the company’s systematic and measured response served as confirmation that their training had prepared them well.

(Figure 5: Ultimate set up of the FOB in Lutifiyah)

The disciplined firepower the Marines poured out rapidly scattered the attacking insurgents.  Within several minutes, the day had returned the previous calm.  However, the sights, sounds, smells and the memories of the fierce battle remained with the Marines as they continued to prepare the FOB to function as their permanent base.

In the subsequent month in Lutifiyah, the company didn’t endure an attack on FOB ROW as comprehensive as that first day; however, a constant stream of harassment occurred.  For the first 6-7 weeks after moving into the city, mortar attacks occurred frequently.  Chad McVay remembered the regularity of them: “It got to the point where we were actually placing bets on when we were going to get mortared because it was happening every day.”  The attacks were short in duration and it was virtually impossible to proactively identify when they would happen and who was responsible for launching them.  The insurgents would drive throughout the city with a mortar tube and a few 82mm rounds in the back of nondescript cars.  They would pick a location where they knew they were not under observation, stop the car, and set up the tube and launch their rounds toward the FOB.  Immediately after the last round came out of the mortar tube, they would jump back in the car and be blocks away even before the first round impacted.  While the ad-hoc way they did it didn’t lead to incredible accurate fire most days, the fact they could launch 3-4 rounds in less than 60 seconds provided them the ‘camouflage’ they needed to operate virtually unnoticed.  Even with the counter-mortar radar the company maintained at the FOB, as well as the myriad patrols every day tasked with anticipating and ambushing the insurgent mortar attacks, it seemed to be very long odds that the Marines would be successful in finding and neutralizing those carrying out the attacks.

Those odds changed, however, with the help of some non-traditional motivation.  A couple of weeks after establishing the FOB in Lutifiyah, the members of the company established reliable electricity by patching the wiring in each of the buildings they occupied to the gas-powered generators that higher headquarters had procured for them.  A week later, a few of the Marines in the company found a satellite dish and television set at an abandoned mansion near the FOB, and created an entertainment room inside of the main building.  Now those not on patrol, guard, or sleeping would have a place to relax and enjoy a bit of normalcy.  To get the best reception, the dish was placed on top of the FOB.  During one of the daily mortar attacks, a round landed and detonated right in the middle of the building’s roof.  Although the roof construction was solid and the observation posts on it were fortified well enough to repel any serious damage, the round completely severed the cable that attached the dish to the television in the room below.  The members of the company now faced the prospect of no television until they could find another cable.  One could reasonably contend that what happened next was pure coincidence, but the day after their television was disabled, one of the counter-mortar patrols the company had been running each day located and ambushed insurgents firing mortars at the base.  That was the last of the mortar attacks on FOB ROW.

Serving in the military is often described as a brotherhood.4  Many view Marines as taking that concept a step further, with the unique motto ‘Semper Fidelis’ – Always Faithful – providing a principled guide for the special relationship existing between those who have worn the famed Eagle, Globe, & Anchor.5  Marines who have served together in combat, however, experience the brotherhood in an even stronger fashion.  “After our deployment, when we get together, we don’t want to leave each other,” Mike McVay explained.  “We experienced success together, and we experienced loss together.  Over that year, we developed the same feelings and emotions that are triggered by the same events or memories.  We all became wired the same.”  Golf Company, as a reserve unit located in Madison, drew mostly from the area surrounding the city and the rest of the state of Wisconsin for its members.  Brotherhood and our comradery existed in Golf Company at a higher level than the average active-duty unit, given the shared experience that many of its Marines possessed even before enlisting.  Several of the guys in the unit grew up as friends in the same hometown, competed against each other in athletics, or met each other in college or post high-school employment.  Prior to deploying, a very strong bond existed, and would grow even stronger as a result of what they would experience together.

At the zenith of the brotherhood spectrum sits biological siblings who deploy to combat together.  There were six sets of brothers in Golf Company at the time we deployed.  While that did provide some angst to the leadership of the company when thinking through the planning of helicopter and convoy operations, that was more than overshadowed by the incredibly strong foundation of esprit de corps that having biological brothers provided.  There was no better example of that than the relationship between brothers Mike and Chad McVay.

The brothers with their father Mike

Mike McVay was born in 1978, followed four years later by Chad.  Their parents, Mike and Sue McVay, provided them an upbringing typical to a Midwestern-values small city in the middle of Wisconsin.  From his earliest memories, Mike was motivated and influenced by the thoughts and actions of his father.  The senior McVay had served in the Marine Corps in the mid-70s as the Vietnam conflict winded down.  Too young at first to really understand what his father’s service meant, it did not take long for Mike to develop the yearning to be a part of the Marine Corps.  He and Chad heard many stories from their father about how his service changed his life.  For Mike, those stories spoke to him and established a level of certainty of what his destiny held.  When he was about 10 years old, he remembered seeing one of the iconic Marine commercials, where a knight on a live chessboard fights through everyone on the other side and, when he slays the opposing King, is transformed into a Marine.  “I was hooked,” Mike said.  “From roughly 4th grade on, my mind was set.  I wanted to be what my Dad was…the best!”

Beyond his father, the McVays’ grandfather served in the Korean War and one of their uncles did three tours in Vietnam.  A familiar theme to many who joined, Mike felt like it was “our family history that drove me in the direction” to serve.  He experienced a slight detour to his selected destiny while in high school.  He played football and had hopes of earning a scholarship to play in college.  However, Mike suffered a season-ending injury the night before the first game of his senior year.  Despite the disappointment the injury provided as it closed off one potential option in his life, it also brought him back to complete commitment to his desire to serve.  Though there were several branches he could have chosen from, realistically there was only one choice for him.  “If I would have joined any other branch other than the Marines my family would have disowned me.  My dad would have given me shit forever.  I wanted to be the best.  If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right.  So that’s what I did.  I joined the Marine Corps.”  He graduated boot camp in 1996 and joined Golf Company soon after.

Chad’s path to the Marine Corps was much less linear than his older brother’s.  From his early years, Chad hands-on mechanical inclination didn’t translate well to the traditional academic environment.  Building a V8 automobile engine from scratch with no prior knowledge of how, which he did before his 16th birthday, provided an outlet for him to excel in areas that interested him.  However, school held no pull for him, and he ultimately made the decision to drop out after his sophomore year in high school and went to work for his father full time.

There were a couple of things that happened that brought Chad back around to his earlier aspirations to serve.  Jeremy Denman and Eli Jacobson, two of Chad’s good friends growing up, enlisted in the Marine Corps reserves and joined Golf Company.  And then September 11, 2001 came.  “When 9/11 happened, it was an immediate wakeup call for me,” Chad remembered.  “It was real then.  It was serious.  There were going to be guys going overseas, and I remember thinking that my brother would be one of them at some point.  And that motivated me to think if I was going to serve, then I needed to get my stuff together in order to do it, or I would always regret not doing so.”  Chad’s mission became to get back into school, graduate, and enlist in the Marine Corps.  He did all three, attending boot camp in late 2003 and joining Golf Company just in time to deploy with the unit to Iraq.  As he went through the process of enlisting, knowing he would joining Mike’s same unit, the Golf Company leadership invited the McVay parents in to the training center to make sure they were ok with both sons being a part of the same unit.  With a combat deployment almost a certainty at that point, and as the brothers were their parents’ only children, options were discussed that included having Chad join Fox Company instead of Golf Company.  Mike had a very direct reaction to that possibility.  “I was not cool with that at all.  I would have gone nuts if I he were in a different AO on the battlefield and I was separated from him.  That would have been the most stress I could have gone through.”  Mike’s feelings were a genuine representation of how he felt about his brother.  And Chad felt the same way.  One of the lessons that many service members learn when they go into combat is that what they are really fighting for are the people right next to them.6  The McVay brothers realized that long before they deployed to Iraq.  The bond they shared dictated that they would want to share everything.  Every good moment.  Every hardship.  Every laugh.  Every tear.  They would be there for each other when needed most.

The two brothers, shortly after Chad joined Mike in Golf Company

At the time the company was going to deploy, Chad was single, but Mike was married with a family.  The burden put on Mike’s wife Tricia when the he left provides some understanding of what many military families have had to endure.  Friends with Mike since high school, Tricia was both not surprised by and incredibly proud of when he decided to enlist.  “I knew that he had the drive and wanted to be a Marine.”  By the time that the deployment came along, they had an 8 year-old daughter and 1 year-old son together.  Rationally, Tricia knew that he had signed up for exactly the eventuality that was coming to fruition, but it didn’t stop the thoughts that there should be a different way.  “We had a little baby and a young daughter and I wasn’t happy and having a hard time with him leaving.”  However, after the unit had been gone for few months and having been reassured several hundred times by Mike, Tricia came to peace with the situation, knowing that he “was doing something he absolutely loved and it seemed that they were well organized and trained well.”  While gone, Tricia filled the role of mother and father, therapist, teacher, disciplinarian, and every other role that an adult can play to their young children.  And she did it with poise, grace, and success.  The spouses, significant others, and families of those who have deployed overseas in defense of their country don’t get nearly the credit they deserve for the support they give and the sacrifices they themselves have made.

The McVay brothers share many traits.  One of them, like many siblings, is appearance.  Especially, post high school their looks often keep others guessing.  Living 45 minutes apart from each other, people nonetheless confuse them from each other routinely.  Mike explains: “I will be in a store in Madison and somebody will come up to me and will ask, ‘hey how you doing?’  And I will say ‘I have no idea who you are.’  They think that I’m Chad.”  Their physical similarities once almost led to serious consequences.  A few years before Chad enlisted, but after Mike had already been in Golf Company, he invited Chad to be his guest at the Marine Corps Ball.  The occasion was a solemn and celebratory event done every year across the Marine Corps in recognition of the birthday of the service.  Mike had his Dress Blues on, and Chad wore a nice suit.  Sitting at a table in the convention hall where the event was located, they looked to be the same person, with the exception of the clothing they had on and the goatee that Chad was sporting.  First Sergeant Bonham, the senior enlisted Marine in Golf Company at that time, approached the table.  For whatever reason, he locked his eyes on Chad, and assuming he was Mike, started to dress down who he thought to be a Marine who he saw sitting in front of him without a uniform on, and with facial hair clearly showing.  It took several seconds for Mike to get his attention and convince him he was screaming at his brother, not him.  The First Sergeant, Mike and Chad were able to laugh off the situation.

 

Mike and Chad during a training event at Edwards Air Force Base prior to deploying

As similar as they are in looks and actions, there are tangible differences between them.  Chad possesses a quiet leadership style, and is much more likely to operate ‘under the radar’ in most situations.  Though he looks like a professional bodybuilder currently, he doesn’t intimidate those around him.  He is very loyal to people he is close with, and leverages these relationships to operate effectively across myriad interactions with others.  With Mike, you know he is there in any situation.  Direct and intimidating, his enormous physical presence is matched by an equally oversized leadership persona.  One summer the company was conducting their annual training at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.  On the first day there, as the Marines broke for lunch and checked in at the chow hall, one of the junior Marines in McVay’s section was told his name wasn’t on the list and so he would not be allowed to eat there.  McVay moved to the front of the line and started to address the issue with the Marine charged with checking people in.  When it was clear that the Marine was holding his ground on not admitting the Golf Company Marine, McVay lost his cool, rocketing from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds.  His booming voice reverberated through the building, and in a matter of seconds, the Marine was allowed to enter.  Lance Corporal Dan Millar explained, “As a Sergeant of Marines, there was no way in hell Mike was going to let anything stand between his Marine and eating lunch with the rest of the section.”

One of the words used often to describe Mike is confidence.  He exudes it, but not in an arrogant way.  It is a confidence born out of competence.  His whole life he has worked extremely hard at everything he has attempted.  That competence rubs off on others quickly.  Cody Peterson remembers when his mother met McVay for the first time, prior to the deployment.  She wanted to assess the quality of the Marine who have direct impact on the care and safety of her son.  Peterson remembers what she relayed to him before he left: “She told me whatever I do, to stay with Mike. She had just as much confidence in him after one encounter, as all of us had in him.  Mike brings a sense of safety to people because they know when shit hits the fan, he will be right there with you.”

Mike also has a wicked humorous side.  One day, while deployed and at FOB ROW, McVay was having a random conversation with Lance Corporal Cody Peterson.  Somehow they got on the topic of their company commander – me – and how I fancied myself a pretty good basketball player.  Peterson, a decent ball player himself and a master trash-talker, started doing impressions of me, as if the two of us were playing 1 on 1 against each other.  He drew a crowd as he mimicked the court movements of his company commander.  His impression went so far as adding in the trash talking he envisioned I would do:  “Hey Peterson, what you got, huh?”  McVay observed the comedy for a few minutes as the crowd of Weapons Platoon Marines grew, and then decided later that day to have some fun with the situation.

“Peterson!”  McVay barked as he walked into Cody’s sleeping area.  “Yes Sergeant.” Peterson could tell that his section leader was upset about something.  “You need to get your ass up to the CO’s hooch.  I don’t know how, but he heard about the impression you were doing of him.  He must just be having a bad day, but he’s pissed about it.”

The suddenly despondent Lance Corporal made his way over to the CP building and to my room, where I played the role that McVay had perfectly laid out for me.  “Peterson, I heard you’ve been doing an impression of me on the basketball court.  I want to see it.”   Cody immediately responded, “No, not me!  Sir, it’s not even that good.”  I told him I wanted to see the routine and right before he reluctantly launched into it, I asked him, “You do know that you can get busted a rank for degrading an officer, right?”  After he was done, I dismissed him.  As he left the room, he almost collided with McVay and Lance Corporal Todd Rossier, who had been watching and now were laughing uncontrollably as McVay’s practical joke had clearly got Peterson.

Another similarity Chad and Mike share is an intense desire to help others.  Both are leaders in the Leathernecks Motorcycle Club – Chad is the Wisconsin State President and Mike is the Sergeant in Arms.  The Wisconsin Chapter focuses on reducing Veteran homelessness and assisting those who suffer from post-traumatic stress receive the help they need.  In 2018, Chad received a call from one of the club members about a Marine living out of his car in Wausau.  The way that Chad and others sprang into action is representative of the valuable impact the club has.   Chad describes what they did:  “We got him lined up to get treatment at the VA.   We put him up in a hotel for two months and we helped get him back into school.”  Since then, the Marine has quite drinking and Chad and other club members are checking in on him regularly to make sure he is ok.  “We started to show him the brotherhood that he thought he lost when he got out.”  Chad explained.  “His whole life has turned around.”  While they do operate the club as a not-for-profit and have some pooled resources they can use, much of the money going to the Veterans they help comes directly out of their pockets.  For them, serving others remains a calling.

 

 

Mike and Chad have helped numerous Veterans through the Leathernecks Motorcycle Club

An additional example of what the McVay brothers did to help another in need is much more personal.  Like many of his warrior brothers, Chad Adler, who was in Golf Company when the unit deployed, faced a challenging transition upon returning.  Adler began suffering from post-traumatic stress shortly after getting back.  Upon the advice of other Veterans at the local VFW, he went in to be seen at the local VA hospital, but was essentially told nothing was wrong with him.  He knew better, and things unfortunately spiraled downward for him over time.  He turned to alcohol to calm the demons, but it provided only short-term relief, and his developing addiction brought on a whole different set of problems.   “As the years rolled on, the struggles got worse,” Adler explained.  “I was on a crazy and unstable roller coaster.”  His Golf Company brothers had no idea of the depths of the struggles he was enduring.  Nick Vento, who had been his squad leader in Iraq, called and/or texted several times a year to check in.  But Adler hid the truth of what he was feeling.  “I didn’t want to look weak, and I didn’t want to be a burden to others.”  The pain and the drinking got worse.  Much worse.  He was very appreciative of the concern Vento consistently showed, saying, “That is what made Nick an amazing Squad Leader.  Though we were no longer in uniform, he was still doing what a good leader does and checking on his Marines.”  However, Adler felt in large part that Vento was checking in on him because, as his former immediate superior in the chain-of-command, he had to.  Whether or not there was any merit to this, his state of mind at that time made him feel very isolated and suspicious of others’ motivations.  In 2013, Adler hit a depressing low.  “I wanted life to just end,” he explained.  “I wanted to erase the pain.  I wanted to forget and be forgotten.”

Adler endured suicidal thoughts for a few months, and the worst outcome could have been realized, until he “had a phone conversation with Mike McVay.”  Mike had reached out to him after seeing some concerning posts from Adler on Facebook.  “I didn’t realize this at the time but I think a lot of what I would write or post was subliminally a cry for help.  I think Mike picked up on that.”  They exchanged contact information, and soon connected to talk through what Chad was feeling.  Adler fiercely protects the details of the far-ranging call he had with McVay, but openly states, “I firmly believe that I am alive today because of that phone call with Mike.”  What makes the details of this intervention even more amazing is that until that call, Adler can only remember one other interaction that he ever had with McVay previously.  As he was in Second Platoon the entire time in the company and McVay in Weapons Platoon, their paths had not crossed at all, except for the day that Adler had joined Golf Company, July, 2001.  A few years later he connected with the younger McVay after randomly running into each other at a concert.  Similar to the relationship dynamic with Mike, he had not known Chad well prior to this, and was amazed at the genuine concern being shown for him.  They met for lunch soon after, and a seemingly perfunctory discussion went deep.  They discovered how alike they were, and for Adler, the day reinforced, “as Marines, we truly will always be here for each other.”  For Chad Adler, the brotherhood that Mike and Chad McVay consistently provided was exactly the ‘Semper Fidelis’ he needed and helped him to focus on the future he now knew he wanted.

Chad Adler’s Facebook post reinforced the impact can have on another

 

One of Mike’s gifts has always been teaching others.  As a mortar section leader, his job was to make sure the mortarmen always operated at a high-level of proficiency.  Constant drilling in the fundamentals was essential to be great.  “Mike always pushed our section to be the best and the fastest at our craft,” said Cody Peterson.  And he did it with flair.  The precision necessary to be great with mortars could easily lead to monotony, given the need for high volume of repetition.  Mike always kept the training and operations lively and moving.  One of his favorite lines in addressing his very competent section was “Mortars!! Get over here shitbirds, time to make it rain!”  The crude way in which he would refer to them collectively was a poor façade for the way he felt about them.  He had intense pride in what his Marines stood for, how they operated, and what they routinely accomplished.  They followed him, a bit out of intimidation, but mostly from the loyalty borne from knowing they worked for a competent leader who cared for them.

A few years after returning from deployment, Mike was able to leverage his teaching gift to give back to his community.  He volunteered to be an assistant varsity football coach at the local high school.  His physical presence, authoritative style and solid knowledge of the intricacies of the game made him a solid choice to coach.  However, the role model that he provided was where he had his greatest impact on young men who played in the program.  He spent countless extra hours with the kids, helping them hone their skills.  He exceeded their enthusiasm with his own and made himself available to work with any kid who wanted to get better.  One of the players, Brady Tibbets, approached Mike after his sophomore season and shared that it was a dream of his to play college football and he would do anything to make that happen.  Mike laid out the challenges in his direct and no-nonsense style.  “You’re gonna be short for college football.  We compete in the second smallest division in the state, and you are on a team that doesn’t go deep in the playoffs every year.  Every chip is stacked against you.”  But he followed up the sobering assessment with hope.  “But, if you are willing to put in everything you have for this, I will do the same for you.”  Mike spent the next 2 ½ years teaching, challenging and guiding Brady.  He accompanied him and his family on close to 20 college visits, and in the end Tibbets earned a scholarship at Illinois State.  A few years later, McVay sat in the stands of the National Championship as his former player squared off against perennial powerhouse North Dakota State.  Brady graduated from Illinois State and went on to his get a graduate degree, all paid for by the university.  Mike knew that he had been a very real part of the kid’s success story, as he had been in countless other kids he coached.

 

Mike holding his grandson, with wife Tricia and their kids.  Chad and wife Corrina.

Mike and Chad McVay are the epitome of Marine Corps brotherhood.   Combat tested and proven, they continue to serve those who are need, in words and actions.  They do it together and for each other.  They remain proud of their own service, and yet expend much more effort honoring and supporting others who have served. They both are thankful for the opportunity their chosen service provided them.  “The Corps was a big part of my life,” Chad said.  “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about something to do with my service and the friends I lost.”  Said Mike, “I would do it all over again today, if I could. The Marine Corps is who I am.”  Yes, the Corps is who they are, but these two brothers themselves represent the Marine Corps in every way that is meaningful.

 

Footnotes

1The cold they felt was not so much about the absolute temperature that evening – it was about 41° F – as it was about the temperature differential between day and night.  That day, it has been in the 90s, so the 50+ degrees drop was largely responsible for the impact of the temperature.

2As relayed in chapters one and three, the FOB in Lutifiyah became our main company HQ location, while we maintained a location on MSR Tampa to fulfill that mission.

3Jckson would later find out that Murphy had gone in the main building through a separate entrance just prior to the mortar rounds landing.

4While the term brotherhood could connote a male-only paradigm, I do not use the term as narrowly.  In this book, my references to it tie to the Marines and Sailors of Golf Company, who were in fact all male.  However, I served with numerous female Marines who I would consider to be in in the inner circle of “the brotherhood.”

5The Eagle, Globe, and Anchor is an emblem used to represent the Marine Corps. Whether it appears on a uniform, printed page, or a flag, the Eagle, Globe and Anchor is an icon of greatness. (explanation taken from Headquarters Marine Corps website page at https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/hrom/New-Employees/About-the-Marine-Corps/Emblem/)

6This concept was explored in Chapter 3 – Ryan “The Buddha”

 

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