Local hero comes home: Marion veteran returns from Iraq

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 18, 2005

Another one of the Black Belt’s sons sent overseas in the service of his country has returned home safely.

Alex Barton, a 2002 graduate of Marion Military Institute who’s “been in Marion all my life,” returned home from Iraq March 15 after a tour of duty in the Marines.

“Now I’m just helping out on the farm, trying to soak it in,” Barton says, referring to the Marion farm owned by his parents, Burnis and Sherry Barton. “It’s a big adjustment. I guess you could call it culture shock. It feels so good just to be with my family again.”

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Barton first decided to join the Marines in the winter of 2002, after a semester at Tuscaloosa’s Shelton St. Community College in which he admits he felt uninterested in school and missed some of the structure he had at MMI.

“I wanted adventure,” he said. “I went [to MMI] 8th through 12th grade, with no real intention of joining the military. But when I left, I did kind of miss it a bit.”

Thanks to MMI, Barton said he didn’t have to worry about the adjustment period that causes problems for some new soldiers.

“When I joined, a lot of the stuff I’d learned those five years really kicked in,” he said. “I didn’t have to adjust to the military life because I’d already led it.”

Barton was assigned to Paris Island, SC for three months of boot camp ending with his graduation in April 2003. He spent a number of months at Fort Observer in advanced training, learning the role of a radio operator. His job was to enter the field and relay precise coordinates for a strike to the Naval Destroyer or other heavy artillery, ensuring that the target was properly dealt with.

But before being able to put those skills to use, Barton was transferred to Military Police duty. He was activated in June 2004 and began getting mentally prepared for the trip to Iraq.

“I spent all that time, all that schooling, for nothing,” Barton says with a shrug.

After a brief training stint in Death Valley, CA, Barton was shipped out as part of the 4th Battalion out of Bessemer and arrived in Iraq near the end of July. He was stationed in one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq, at the Camp Taqaddam base in, in Barton’s words, “the suburbs of Fallujah.”

Being one the latest reinforcements to arrive meant that Barton, who had attained the rank of Lance-Corporal, had few privileges when it came to being assigned for duty.

“The new guys always gets stuck with the crappiest job, and that’s having to work the gate,” he said. “The post out there is called the ‘suicide shack.’ Your job is to address and search the vehicles that are coming in. All the new guys get [the short end of the stick]. I did that for 2 months. Fortunately, I never had any problems with any suicide bombers or anything.”

The lack of attacks on the “suicide shack” didn’t mean Barton could afford to let his guard down, though.

“You had to be really thorough,” Barton said, noting the disastrous explosion in nearby Mosul that resulted from an Iraqi citizen smuggling explosives inside a U.S. base. “Those guys are smart. They’ll play dumb. They’ll pretend they can’t speak a lick of English when they probably speak it better than you do.”

Eventually, Barton was removed from gate duty and took part in Operation Phantom Fury, the brutal and dangerous drive to stamp put the growing insurgency in Fallujah.

“60 percent of the people in Fallujah are of the Sunni religion, and they’re where most of the terrorists come from,” Barton said. “It was a really hostile, dangerous place. I guess that was probably where I was the most scared.”

As an MP, Barton helped keep an eye out for suspicious activity on the edges of the battle.

“I was on recon patrol, the gunner of a 50-cam machine gun on top of a Humvee,” he says. “I was manning a roadblock from near the treeline outside the city. A lot of insurgents would try to sneak weapons out with them. They’d try to just blend in with the rest of the crowd. We would pull the Humvee into a ditch, so all you could see was the machine gun and my head sticking out.”

Once the main thrust of Phantom Fury was over, however, there was still a great deal of work to do. It was during this time that Barton made a discovery that he said was probably his biggest contribution to the war effort.

“We had to go through the rubble every day and make sure no one was operating out of the ruins,” he said. “We spent a lot of time patrolling the area. I guess the best thing I did while I was over there, I noticed where the ground had been dug up and replaced. We dug it up and found 14 anti-tank rounds that had been stolen. They were probably planning on making IEDs [or Improvised Explosive Devices] out of them. They bury them and they’re rigged to blow up.”

Barton says that even considering the danger, this time was the time he enjoyed most from his stay in Iraq.

“The highlight for me was just being out and patrolling,” he said. “You go from working a gate and staying in the same place day after day to seeing and doing lots of different things. People might call me crazy, but I liked being away from the base. You’re getting out and making a difference. It’s fun. When I got out there I found things, I arrested these people…I can say I made a difference.”

After his efforts in Fallujah, Barton was assigned to work as part of the “Rough Riders,” the security force that patrolled the 22-mile perimeter of Camp Taqaddam.

“We’ve had problems with Iraqis stealing off our own bases, so they made a security team,” he said. “22 miles of wire all the way around–it’s a lot of area to cover. But it’s not really that dangerous. Most of the time it’s kind of relaxing. You’re your own boss, doing your own thing.”

Before he could return home, though, Barton was re-assigned to gate duty and endured the most harrowing experience of his stay.

“Right before we went home, I was really almost killed,” he said. “The road into the front gate goes over another big road, like an interstate. We were sweeping off the bridge over the interstate and the insurgents got in these large canals along the lower road and started shooting at us. That was when I found out the rails on the bridge were bulletproof.”

“That was the closest I came to getting waxed,” he added. “I was shot at several times on that bridge sweep…it all happened right before I came home, too.”

But Barton escaped, and on March 2 he flew out of Kuwait to a “decompression” camp in California.

“‘Decompression’ is where they teach you not to run people off the road anymore, not to pull out you guns on ordinary people,” Barton says with a bit of a grin. “On the 15th of March I was back sitting on the farm, trying to adjust.”

Even after all he has gone through, Barton says that returning home has been an experience unto itself.

“The first thing I noticed when I got back, I was just overwhelmed by the greenery. I was like, wow…it’s so…green!” he laughs. “In Iraq it’s just tan sand everywhere. And even when I got back to the States, I was in San Diego, which has some trees, but nothing like back here.”

“When I stepped off the bus,” he said, “everything was sort of hazy. Like a dream. My parents were there, my girlfriend was there…I was like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. All I want to do now is sit here for a while.”

Barton says that eventually, he’ll go back to school and figure out his life from there. But for now, it’s time to reflect on all the things he has accomplished and the service he has given to his country.

“I wanted to get out and get and have an adventure,” he said, “and the Marines sure as hell gave me one.”