Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
Following a new path
In May 2003, soon after President Bush declares that major combat is over in Iraq, Jordan arrives at boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
He is immersed in Marine culture -- the shaved heads, brutal marches, moral tutelage, killing techniques, the proper way to dress himself, make his bed, walk, speak, think. He feels reborn.
"I've always had ambition and great ideas, but I didn't have the drive and organization to actually do it," he says. "The Marines basically taught me how to do everything all over again. I've always been an outsider. I never really fit in at school. People liked me, but I got picked on for being different. It was the same in the Marines in the beginning."
The drill instructors single Jordan out as a weakling. During one grueling session, he shouts, "Yes, sir" and "No, sir," so forcefully that blood vessels burst in his eyes. Afterward, he breaks down and cries.
But the senior drill instructor looks out for him, tells him: You're not a dumb ass, are you, Sherwood? Jordan repays the kindness by giving him chocolate chip cookies.
Jordan comes to see the Marine Corps values -- honor, courage, commitment -- not as a recruiting poster cliche but as a road map to direct his life. In August 2003, he completes boot camp with a new confidence.
"I'd gone from s--t bag to most-improved recruit, and I came out real squared away," he says.
Jordan, who has always been interested in photography, passes the test to become a combat cameraman. A Marine tradition since World War II, combat cameramen are a small group of riflemen who take photos and videotape for intelligence, planning, historical documentation and other purposes.
That fall, Jordan and some Marine friends visit New York City for a few days of relaxation. A storefront psychic predicts their futures with tarot cards. She tells Jordan he will be traumatized in Iraq, overcome it and live a long, happy life. Goose bumps rise on his arms.
A few months later, he gets deployment orders for Iraq, where the insurgency is burgeoning. It is February 2004, and Ginger starts a diary.
Feb. 18, 2004: "He was going to be leaving for Iraq the next day. I felt like I was going to throw up ..."
Feb. 19, 2004: "Today is possibly the worst day of my life. Jordan leaves for Iraq. ... I call him and call him. Finally, he answers. I try to control my weeping. 'I'm being issued my weapon,' he says. My God, my 21-year-old son is being given a gun to protect himself and others in a country that I don't give two s--ts about. I want to be his protector. I would go to save him, from the horrors he is about to see ..."
Feb. 20, 2004: "I just can't take all the sad eyes, people looking at me, feeling sorry for the mom whose kid is at war. I want to scream: 'It's your war, too ...'"
Feb. 21, 2004: "I know my purpose in life is to be a loving mom and nurturer and to have faith my son will come home a better man and not changed by war ..."
Feb. 22, 2004: "I've turned into one of those crazy old women, kissing his pictures whenever I walk by one of them in the house ..."
After five days, Ginger stops writing the diary -- it's too emotionally draining -- but she keeps praying, little entreaties that pop into her head, night, day, anytime, for God and St. Christopher to watch over him.
Jordan's father, Rob, who lives in Arizona, tries to avoid news coverage of the war.
"Every time you hear so many Marines were killed, your heart jumps into your throat," he says. "In your mind, you only see your son and the guy on his left and his right -- it's got to be one of them."
For Jordan, who has never been overseas, who knows nothing of Islam and the Middle East, it is a dizzying time, skipping across the globe to a country he can't find on a map, the adrenaline and monotony and time zones all jumbled together like the indecipherable Arabic he hears on the streets. He wonders at the lilting calls to prayer from the mosques, wonders at the mystery of it. What is that? he asks, fresh off the plane, when a muezzin's voice carries hauntingly over the rooftops, marking his first nightfall in Iraq.
He wonders, too, at death, which he has not seen before, the brutality of it, which he comes to decide isn't the result of man or God but of an ugly randomness. He tries to make sense of things, and can't.
In this strange place, he finds comfort in what he knows -- the smooth metallic feel of his M16A4 rifle, the shutter click of his Canon 10D digital camera, the familiar orders from his superiors, the camaraderie of his buddies.
As time passes, he sees hope and despair among Iraqis, the good the Americans are doing, the rebirth of a nation, one school and clinic and road at a time.
After a while, the regimented days and nights run together: He patrols, shoots photos, cleans his weapon, eats, sleeps, wakes up, does it again. He learns a few Arabic words, bears the hot days, cold nights, dust storms, the sewage in the streets. He finds some Iraqis friendly, some stern, the children curious. He frequently phones and e-mails his family, but he doesn't mention the close calls with insurgents. He doesn't want his mother to worry.
It's a crucial time in Iraq, where many are seeing U.S. forces no longer as liberators but as occupiers.