In May international studies junior Russell Snyder published “Hearts and Mines, With the Marines in al-Anbar – A Story of Psychological Warfare in Iraq.” But to understand why a young veteran writes a memoir, you should understand what triggered his need for catharsis, and how the military made him a different man.
Becoming a Man
Growing up near an air force base in Great Falls, Mont., and in a family that valued military service – his father and grandfather had both served – Snyder joined the military at 19 hoping to “feel part of something big” and to “become a man” after the events of Sept. 11.
“I felt a patriotic duty to help,” he says.
Snyder joined the U.S. Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group and was trained at Fort Bragg, N.C. His first deployment to South Korea was “enjoyable and cushy.” Living on an embassy-lined street involved no sacrifice at all, he says, but Iraq was different.
At the peak of the al-Qaida insurgency in 2005, Snyder, then age 22, was assistant team leader to a three-person psychological operations unit attached to a marine battalion. With the help of an interpreter, his team’s job was to be their commander’s voice on the battlefield. This included deception broadcasts from a loudspeaker and informing civilians how to avoid military operations, stay safe at checkpoints and purify water. The first mission however was brutal, “a rude awakening,” he says.
Outside Barwanah, in al-Anbar province, Snyder’s unit reached a pontoon bridge not strong enough to support their Humvee. Halting along the Euphrates River, the unit was engaged by heavy fire lasting four days.
“It was exciting but shocking – right there I thought I might die,” he says.
Remarkably, his team survived, but 30 Iraqis lost their lives.
“There was tremendous guilt that noncombatants were among those who died. The reality of war hit me,” he says.
“But you had to be strong and not discuss it – this is the military.”
During his two years in Iraq Snyder saw collateral damage from military operations, torture and bombings at the hands of the insurgents. He began journaling in an old-style composition notebook, initially to offer last words to his family. As his hope for survival grew, Snyder chronicled the gritty conditions, gunfire and his grief.
“I wrote about it because I can’t talk about it,” he says emotionally.
Snyder felt further dismayed when an embedded U.S. reporter reported an operation that had killed many civilians as “successful” – rebranding civilians as insurgents. It was during Snyder’s final deployment, while building a website from an office, that his disenchantment with the war climaxed.
In March 2011, Snyder returned to U.S. civilian life and left the military, completing his book soon after. Snyder still supports the troops and is proud to have served the military. The experience made him stronger and gave him direction he lacked before, he says. But his experience also inspired his involvement in peace activism.
For one year, Snyder fruitlessly pitched his manuscript to publishers. In his first semester at NC State a publisher finally called to make an offer on the book, which now sells well on Amazon.com and with booksellers like Barnes & Noble. Over the summer Snyder was even interviewed on North Carolina Public Radio’s The State of Things.
“Everything felt worthwhile. I could start making things right,” he says.
Now aged 30, Snyder remains haunted by his combat but keeps his focus on the future. Next year he’ll attend the University of Konstanz in Germany as part of his studies. He hopes to become a foreign service officer upon completing his degree but only after volunteering for the Peace Corps, preferably in Morocco or Jordan.
“I feel I owe a debt to Iraq and its people,” he says.