Photo courtesy Vaughn WardMarine Maj. Vaughn Ward shakes hands with an Iraqi soldier in Fallujah in 2006. Ward earned a Bronze Star for his 'heroic and meritorious achievement' for work to build security, trust in al-Qaida stronghold in Iraq.
(Reprint from IdahoStatesman.com, October 19, 2007)
Marine honored for work to build security, trust in al-Qaida stronghold in Iraq
During a typical day on the trash-strewn streets of Fallujah, an ancient, bullet-scarred Iraqi town on the Euphrates River, Marine Maj. Vaughn Ward could be handing out candy to children one minute and returning AK-47 fire the next.
He had tea with town elders, dug through the carnage of roadside bombs and kicked in doors at suspected insurgent homes.
For his work in the volatile town, Vaughn was awarded the prestigious Bronze Star. After years serving his country, the 38-year-old Idaho native is coming home to raise his family and tell his story.
Ward's commander in Iraq, Lt. Col. Chris Landro, said he tapped Vaughn for one of the toughest assignments in Iraq ' living in the center of Fallujah and leading a company of Marines to rebuild security and trust in the al-Qaida stronghold. Landro said Ward was able to connect with local residents, and his company played a large part in the resurgence of Fallujah, which was a virtual ghost town when Vaughn arrived.
"He tried to endear himself to the people of Iraq," Landro said.
It was Ward's courage, though, that led Landro to nominate him for a Bronze Star with a combat V, an award the military gives for "heroic or meritorious achievement." Landro said Ward led from the front and never shied from danger.
"He would never say, 'Do this.' He would always say, 'Follow me,' " Landro said.
Ward's friend, retired Marine Col. Tom Sullivan, said Ward has a rare zeal for public service.
"There's not a selfish bone in this guy's body," Sullivan said.
When talking about his award, Ward is quick to give credit to his troops.
"It's a reward not reflective of individual action," he said in an interview.
Ward arrived in Fallujah in March 2006, not long after the fierce Battle of Fallujah had left the poverty-stricken city desolate and nearly empty. Despite the constant threat of snipers, he insisted on foot patrols in Fallujah, both to root out roadside bombs and to connect with the populace. Fourteen of his Marines were hit by sniper fire in seven months; two died.
When he sat down to tea with local businessmen and imams, even those he suspected of helping insurgents, he would always take off his heavy military gear to show trust. He and his troops handed out toys and candy to children while walking amid the raw sewage on the streets.
The ranks of the Iraqi army and police forces were ill-trained and untrustworthy when Ward arrived. By the time he left, he was fighting alongside Iraqis, a progress he believes has been underreported.
"There's no doubt they're bleeding for this country of theirs," he said.
Violence was part of daily life in the city, and one scene particularly touched Ward. A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of Iraqi police recruits just outside Ward's base. Recalling the mutilated bodies and ghost-white faces of his troops, some still in their teens, Ward trailed off and composed himself.
"I've seen some terrible scenes," he said.
But seven months after arriving in Fallujah, Ward said the city was starting to thrive again, with Iraqis moving back to town, businesses reopening and more locals rejecting insurgent tactics. Importantly, Ward was also getting local tips about impending attacks.
"They saved a lot of our lives," he said.
Ward grew up on a farm in the Magic Valley town of Shoshone, one of a long line of military men. His ancestors have fought in every major American conflict since the Civil War.
"We've never missed a war," Ward deadpanned.
The tall, lean soldier has been involved in the military and politics for much of his adult life. After graduating from college he worked as a staffer for then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne. In 1995, he joined the Marines. He later joined the Central Intelligence Agency, where he did counterterrorism work in the Middle East and Africa before volunteering for active duty in 2006 and heading to Fallujah.
Ward has served across the globe, from Liberia to Japan, but it's his time in Iraq about which he speaks most passionately.
Now he's moving back to Idaho ' he said he's looking to settle in Boise ' and wants to share his story with Idahoans and convince them that the solution in Iraq is not in the partisan bickering he sees in Washington, D.C. He thinks national leaders should also get Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia involved in stabilizing Iraq.
"There seem to be two poles ' get out now or stay forever," he said. "I think somewhere in the middle is where we need to be."
Ward wants to set up a series of meetings in Idaho where he can talk about his experience as a Marine and take questions about Iraq. Eventually he would like to run for office, but for now he's just concentrating on bringing his wife, Kirsten, and 2-year-old daughter, Av', back home to Idaho.