A Toms River Native Publishes a Book About His Iraq Experiences [Interview]
Toms River native Bob Tanner graduated high school, started college, joined the Marines, served in Iraq, and finished college all before most of us buy our first homes.
In a project that started out as a therapeutic way to deal with the stresses after war, Corporal Tanner began to write down his experiences. Over a number of years, the personal journal turned into a full fledged memoir.
Corporal Tanner’s memoirs have been compiled and published as ‘Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox‘, which is currently available on Amazon. I had the opportunity to chat with Bob about his experiences. Take a look at our conversation:
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
Up until I was 12, I moved up and down the East Coast, living most of it in Staten Island, NY. In 1992, my family moved to Toms River, NJ and that’s pretty much where I’ve lived since then, aside from my time in the Marine Corps and college.
When and why did you decide to join the Marines?
Up until I was about 16, I had always wanted to join the Marine Corps. When it was time to go to college in 1998, I ended up choosing college over joining the service. Three years later, when I was home for summer break prior to my senior year at Rowan University, my brother and I were talking about joining the Marine Corps. I was doing well in college but was looking for a new adventure. One day in July, I decided to go visit the recruiter in Toms River and within a couple of hours I signed up to join. The funny thing is, the day I arrived in Parris Island, SC for boot camp, it just so happened to be September 11, 2001. So the adventure I sought was just around the corner.
How was basic training? Anything like what we see in the movies?
When I was in boot camp, I thought it would never end and I counted down the days to graduation. But once I graduated and moved on to infantry school, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I initially thought it was. Truthfully, the hardest part about boot camp is the mental aspect. They tear you down and then build you back up the way they envision a Marine to be.
As far as the movies go, I would say Hollywood goes overboard in some aspects but doesn’t seem to cover the parts that truly build a Marine. The movies show the drill instructors yelling, screaming, and cussing. Sure, my drill instructors did a whole lot of that but they also knew how to get inside your mind. They would make us do simple tasks repetitively until we went mad. They would make us stand up and then sit down hundreds of times because they thought we didn’t do it fast enough. At the time, it seemed like stupid games they wanted to play but in reality, it had a purpose. They wanted to remove the individuality from us and make us work as one unit.
When were you first sent overseas? Were you scared?
My first deployment was supposed to be a routine Mediterranean deployment back in August 2002. At the time, the war in Afghanistan was still in its infancy and the war in Iraq hadn’t started. We conducted security operations in Kosovo and did a few training operations in United Arab Emirates and Djibouti. The deployment was only supposed to be six months. However, right before we were supposed to go through the Suez Canal to head home, war in Iraq broke out and our Marine Expeditionary Unit – the 24th MEU – was turned around and assigned to the assault force in Iraq. When I was told we were heading into Iraq, a range of emotions swept over me, from concern to excitement. I was worried that me or one of my fellow Marines would be killed but I was excited for the fight. In the end, our unit was a bit late to the battle so most of our operations ended up being security patrols and such.
You talk about the bond formed with your fellow Marines. Tell us about that. Were you with people from all different backgrounds of civilian life?
At the end of 2003, the Delta Company Outlaws were stood up as a unit within 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. Since we were being deployed to Fallujah in February of 2004, they needed to find Marines to bring the company up to full capacity. So, they pulled together a bunch of guys from random companies and threw them all together. Some of us knew each other and had served together in prior units. But, for the most part, we were a mix of guys from different background, religions, and ethnicities, thrown together quickly to be deployed to a war zone.
Despite all that, there were quite a few things that happened that made our bond stronger than normal. First, we all relied on each other during combat to protect the others back. We had to trust one another so we could concentrate on our own sector of fire. Second, we lost a lot of great men. When each Marine had fallen, our bond became stronger and we were there for each other to mourn the loss of our brothers. But the most important thing was that we had a great group of guys from the officers straight down to the enlisted men. I really couldn’t have asked to serve with a finer group of men.
How long were you overseas?
My first deployment had me overseas for nine months (August 2002 – May 2003) and my second deployment to Fallujah was seven months (February 2004 – September 2004).
Obviously operations can be intense and stressful, but what did you do to fill the time between operations?
I’m not sure everyone really wants to know some of the stupid stuff we did to kill time. In all honesty, seven months overseas in a hostile war zone makes you very creative when you have downtime. For the most part, we’d played Spades or some type of sport like football or soccer. There was a small internet center on our camp so we would spend a lot of time sending emails back home or surfing the web. But then there were times where we do something stupid like mess with scorpions or pit scorpions against camel spiders.
What are some of your most enduring memories, both negative and positive?
There were some good times I had out in Iraq despite all the chaos. One memory that I remember vividly is right after a bomb hit my vehicle, we had to talk to some of the locals in hopes of finding out who the triggerman was. I was talking with one of the locals and I could tell my adrenaline rush was starting to fade. I was severely dehydrated and beginning to lose focus. The Iraqi man must have noticed and brought out a cold cup of water. After we talked to him and a few other locals, I remember walking back to my vehicle and thinking that there was a little bit of hope left in this insane world.
As for bad memories, the loss of each one of our brothers will always stay with me. In my mind, they will never be forgotten and their names will live on until the day I pass.
What was your transition back to civilian life like?
Initially, it was rough. I went back to Rowan to finish off my last year of college but the transition was hard. I was 25 years old, had seen and done so many things and I was surrounded by kids in class that hadn’t even moved out of their parent’s house. They were more concerned about the next party and I was more concerned about world events. I don’t blame them though. I was the same way before I joined the Corps. It’s just that after everything I went through, my priorities drastically changed.
Are you still in touch with your fellow Marines?
Yes, I try to stay in touch with as many as I can. Social media has been a blessing in disguise when it comes to keeping in touch with old friends.
What made you decide to write and publish a memoir?
After I returned to Rowan, the memories that I had from my deployment with the Outlaws were still fresh in my head, both good and bad. One day, someone suggested that I start to write things down so I could help alleviate some of the anxiety. So, I began to write each one down. This was all back in 2006. It took me nearly seven years to finally finish writing. Most of that is due to me taking extended breaks in between writing because I didn’t want to write about a particular memory or because life events took me away from it. If it wasn’t for my wife, family, and the fine men I served with, I probably never would have finished.
Aside from the therapeutic aspect, I also wanted to write to keep the memory of my brothers alive. I wanted everyone to know how great these men were and how proud I was, and still am, to call them my brothers. The sacrifices our service members make on a daily basis needs to be known by all and my book helps give a peek into what those sacrifices entail.
What advice would you give to young men and women who are considering joining the military?
I would say do it. But, when you join, go in knowing that you are no longer an individual but part of a larger team. It is no longer about you, it’s about your brothers and sisters around you. Their lives depend on you.
If you had to pick the most profound “lesson” that you learned in your time as an active Marine, what would it be?
It sounds a bit cliche but live each day as if it’s your last. Make sure to tell your loved ones how much they mean to you on a daily basis. Refrain from letting anger overcome you. Avoid arguing over petty things. Make sure the last thing someone hears from you is something positive. Do all of this because one day things will come to an end. You want your last impression to be your best.
Thanks for your time, Bob and good luck with the book! To pick up a copy of ‘Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox’, just click here.