No one knows when Iraq will achieve enough stability for U.S. troops to start withdrawing from the country.
But Col. Philip Marler is pretty sure he’s not ever going back again.
An internal medicine physician at the Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville, Marler returned last week from his second tour of duty in Iraq. It’s expected to be the final chapter in his 30-year service with the U.S. Army National Guard.
“On Aug. 31, I’ll turn 60 years old. That’s my mandatory retirement date,” he said.
Marler’s most recent tour was the fourth deployment of his military career. He was activated during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but the Gulf War ended before he could be sent overseas.
In 2004, he was sent to northern Iraq, where he worked as an emergency physician in a clinic on the frontlines. Then in August 2005, he was deployed for two months to his home state of Louisiana, to help coordinate medical services in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Marler hoped he would reach retirement before being sent to Iraq again, but he got called up in October 2008.
This time, he was sent to Camp Bucca, a sprawling prison compound in southern Iraq.
“It’s the largest internment facility in Iraq, with about 12,000 detainees and prisoners, all charged with or suspected of war-related crimes,” he said.
Violence in Iraq has decreased markedly since the “surge,” or coalition troop escalation, in 2007. Marler didn’t have to worry nearly as much about being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. But he said this deployment has been the toughest.
“The first time (in Iraq), I was blissfully ignorant,” he said. “This time, I knew enough to be scared.”
But it wasn’t bombs or gunfire that had him spooked. “I was scared of the detainees,” he said. “There were so many more of them than of us. We were armed most of the time but couldn’t take weapons into the prison (only the guards could carry arms).”
Several months before Marler arrived, there had been a riot involving about 2,000 detainees. “They were protesting something and they set fire to the compound,” he said.
But no major incidents occurred while he was there. “We had one escape, but (the prisoner) was recaptured in two or three hours,” Marler said.
He said the detainees were allowed time for recreation and daily prayers, and they were fed a typical Iraqi diet, not Army rations.
“They were also monitored by the Red Cross to make sure the Geneva conventions (against torture) were being followed,” he said.
Marler did not know he would be stationed at Camp Bucca until he got to Fort Benning and was given his assignment.
“I wasn’t real happy with it,” he said. “I’d rather be taking care of our own soldiers. The military population is young and healthy, and they’ve had a lot of preventive care. The average Iraqi citizen has minimal care, bad care, or no care, so they have a lot of chronic health problems.
“But even though the level of care we provided was basic and austere, some told me this was the best they’d ever gotten.”
Marler treated run-of-the-mill ailments such as arthritis and rashes, but he also encountered conditions that he doesn’t see at the Longstreet Clinic.
“We spent a lot of time screening for and treating TB (tuberculosis),” he said. “It’s still pretty common there. If we knew someone was infected, we isolated them.”
At any given time, there were about 10 doctors taking care of the prisoners. Unlike in 2004, when Marler had been deployed as part of a medical unit, this time he was working with people who had not trained alongside him.
“I didn’t know anybody when I got there,” he said. “But I made some good friends.”
At least he didn’t have to sleep in a tent. The Army had modified “pods” similar to those used by moving companies, crafting them into tiny individual living quarters for each staff member.
Marler said a sense of camaraderie developed in the mess hall, which was fairly sumptuous by Army standards. The troops could chow down on homemade pastries and even Baskin Robbins ice cream.
But the kitchen staff outdid themselves on Christmas Day.
“The dining facility was run by Indians and Pakistanis, none of whom were Christians,” Marler said. “But they turned that room into a Christmas wonderland for our benefit. It was really heartwarming, because I don’t think the holiday means anything to them. But they were very proud of their work. They even carved a manger scene out of butter.”
While Marler calls his deployment “tolerable,” he was happy to get back to Gainesville.
“I missed my family, and my practice,” he said.
His wife Joan said with each deployment, the separation seemed harder to bear.
“I’m glad this was his last tour, because I don’t think I can take any more of this,” she said. “He did not want to go this time. He’s a real homebody. Now he says he’s never going to leave my side again.”
Though the couple have joked about being “attached at the hip,” they’re both relieved that they don’t have to worry anymore.
“I feel I dodged a bullet, figuratively and literally,” Marler said.
But he has no regrets about his deployments. “That’s what I was trained to do,” he said. “I signed up for the military because I wanted to be useful in some way.”