All Spotlights » Marine veteran reflects on transition to life at GV
Marine veteran reflects on transition to life at GV
By Jeff Mc George
GVL Staff Writer
At 27, Daniel Waddell does not look like a Marine veteran. Some might say he does not look old enough to be a Marine.
Outgoing and accommodating, Waddell comes off as a confident, easy-going college student. There is a hint of physical strength in the broad shoulders beneath his winter jacket, but he is by no means the butch-haircut, linebacker stereotype of a Marine vet.
He is genuinely willing to discuss anything about himself and his experiences unless they make him feel as if he is bragging in even the smallest way.
"I don't look at it like I'm sacrificing, like I'm giving this to be here," Waddell said of his service. "I kind of get embarrassed some times when word gets out that I'm a Marine and people come up to me and thank me for my service. I kind of brush it off. I guess you're welcome to, but it kind of makes me feel awkward."
However, the truth remains, Waddell has experienced a lot, and it is the kind of experience to which few can truly relate.
The Grand Valley State University student is a Marine veteran, a demolition combat engineer whose job meant hunting down and sometimes destroying what everyone else was trying to avoid -- namely improvised explosive devices.
Waddell is an encyclopedia of acronyms, most of which spell death: RC-IED's, SVB's, PETN, C4, TNT. The veteran said spotting the devices was often impossible.
He said he would scan the road for trip wires or someone with a remote device, but the most deadly explosives were difficult to spot. Triggered by a "pressure plate" buried beneath the ground, these were often found the hard way.
"And those weren't the worst either," he said. "The secondary is the one you have to watch out for."
"Secondaries" are explosives meant to detonate after the initial blast when Marines exit their vehicles. Waddell said this was the most dangerous time for the Marines because they have to secure the surrounding area on foot to protect civilians.
"The enemy is constantly adapting, that is what they were doing while I was there, I have no idea what's going on now," he said.
The young Marine spent the seven months of his second tour of duty in Anbar province in the west of Iraq. Anbar is widely accepted as the most dangerous province in Iraq and was considered the center of the insurgency. Major confrontations were centered in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, the capitol of the province.
Waddell's unit spent most of its time near Ramadi.
"Mortar attacks, pop shots, IED's ¿ I'm not gonna sit here and talk like I'm all salty," he said. "To me what I think I've seen is nothing, minimal. I have some friends who, on the other note, they were just at a different location at a different time and it was just, you know, so much worse."
Waddell said he always knew he was in danger, but he never felt as if the situation was out of control or he was unprepared. He said he learned to not spend too much time thinking about it and to rather focus on what they learned in training and staying aware.
"You just start hearing booms," he said of the mortar attacks. "Obviously you can tell how close or how far away they are, but you just go inside your protective bunkers or barriers or whatever and kind of ride it out."
Waddell was reluctant to exaggerate any of the combat, often dismissing it as part of the job and definitely not anything about which to brag.
He got most excited when talking about the positive affect the U.S. military has had on the lives of Iraqis and some of the humanitarian work his unit did. Waddell said his unit spent a good deal of its time working for the community's benefit.
"Sometimes it's as simple as cleaning up a section of town," he said. "Doing little things to just bring back the day-to-day life ... like repairing a building or building a soccer field."
He also had a lot to say about Iraqis in general and the spectacular scenery.
"The thing that I don't know if you'll get, if you talk to other vets, I saw a lot of beautiful stuff over there," Waddell said. "That's something you'll never hear about. There are other things that are amazing to see, too, like a sense of pride and community that is overwhelming ... overwhelming, like they really love who they are and where they're from.
"Imagine driving down the street here and seeing every 10, 15, 20 feet just flag after flag after flag."
Waddell added he is extremely proud of his service and credits the Marines with helping to provide some stability and normalcy for people who had not experienced it in a long time. However, he was reluctant to say he was responsible for any part of helping it happen.
Also, he said the transition back to school was not seamless.
Waddell studies supply chain management at GVSU and lives in Grand Rapids with his wife Sarah, who works for a pharmaceutical company.
He is on the dean's list and said he enjoys his classes and is impressed overall by GVSU. Yet, he struggles to relate to the younger students who do not seem to want to be there.
Waddell is also one of the founding members of GVSU's student-veteran's organization. Officially recognized in January, the group has more than 20 members and is growing.
"Dan has been involved in the organization since before its inception," said John Koch from the GVSU's veteran network. "He was one of the first students to contact me and helped push the creation of the organization."
Koch said the veteran's group is collaborating with faculty to organize a 5k "Fun Run" for Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Day, which is March 28.
Waddell said he is enthusiastic about how the idea has been received and looks forward to the event.
These days, he tries, often in vain, to stay in contact with his "boys," most of whom are now in Afghanistan. Waddell said they are simply too busy, and there is not the communication infrastructure he was used to in Iraq.
Waddell is solemn when he talks of his friends overseas and is concerned for their safety.
He is familiar with military funerals, and his eyes grow watery when reminiscing.
"Those that paid the ultimate price, they paid the greatest sacrifice of them all, regardless of what people think or how they believe," Waddell said. "To me, that's my definition of a hero. They made the absolute, greatest sacrifice. That's the most unselfish thing anyone can do."
Waddell does not consider himself on the same level of heroics.
Regardless of how he sees himself, Waddell did volunteer to put himself in the same line of fire as these men and could have met the same result.
His answer to this idea was characteristic: no bravado.
"Yeah, it's heads or tails ..." he said.