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Marine Corps Recruiting Command

Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

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How it feels on the front lines

By Sgt. Jonathan E. Agee | | April 01, 2003

MARINE CORPS RECRUITING SUBSTATION, HARTFORD, CT -- Military family members who have never served in the midst of combat may wonder how their loved ones on the front-lines are able to cope during such stressful times.  Although each individual situation is different, there are some things that remain the same for all Marines.

To help relate some of the emotions Marines may currently be experiencing during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Joseph J. Kowalski, Jr. recounted some of his experiences as a reconnaissance sergeant during the last major conflict in the Persian Gulf.

It was mid-summer in 1990 and Kowalski was teaching a Marine combat course in Camp Pendleton, Calif. when he first heard the news that Iraq had invaded Kuwait and the United States was going into combat.

"I remember going out to the Marines and asking, 'Who here is scared?' and my hand was the first one in the air," admits Kowalski.  "I knew we were going, there was no question in my military mind that we were going ... My fears were that we were not coming home."

Kowalski's prediction was right and he soon received orders to Saudi Arabia.  He had about one month to get his affairs in order before he deployed to the Middle East.  During that time, he recalls dealing with more than just getting his affairs in order.  He had an entire family that was concerned about his well being.

"I didn't want to tell my mother," said Kowalski.  "She would have said to me, 'You're not going,' and 'you do what you're told.'  I told my father, and he just said, 'Don't do anything stupid.'"

Dealing with his family's concerns was just one of the many things he faced during this difficult time.  As a sergeant he had to be a father and big brother to all his Marines.  He remembers addressing everything from girlfriend problems to extreme fear.  But mostly he remembers staying focused on the mission and leading his Marines in a way that gave everyone under his authority comfort.

"The one big thing that the Marine Corps taught me above anything else - and I still live by this today - is you lead by example; when there's a job to get done you don't dilly dally, and have proper tact," said Kowalski.

By following this simple guideline, Kowalski was able to address most problems.  After serving in the Desert Storm for a few months, Kowalski admits that his unit became so tight they knew each other's thoughts and feelings without saying a word. "We're a tight unit, small," said Kowalski  "It's a family.  If I had to explain it, you would never understand it."

Kowalski also reemphasized that his training and his confidence in his training enabled him and his Marines to overcome many of the fears of combat.  "The way that we're trained is what you rely on - it's the Bible," said Kowalski.  "You follow your training and your good old hard-charging Marine Corps attitude."

Kowalski spent more than five months in the Middle East before returning home.

Today, Kowalski can relate to some of the concerns that family members may have, but insists that Marines are well trained, intelligent men and women, who realize the importance of defending this country.
"You go through 13 weeks at Parris Island or San Diego, you can forget about being a kid after that," said Kowalski.  "They are Marines, they are grown men and women and they know what's going on.  They will rely on their buddies, they will rely on their training, and they will rely on their own intelligence and what they have learned.  And lets face it, the Marine Corps has the best training facilities in the world.  There is no one else who trains people like we do."

Due to injuries unrelated to Operation Desert Storm, Kowalski was forced to leave the Marine Corps after serving 12 years.  If it were not for his physical disabilities, Kowalski admits he would volunteer to do it all over again for his country, his Corps and his God.

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