Marine second-lieutenant Patrick Callahan serves in the University of Michigan’s Naval ROTC program. He served in the Navy from 2000-04, then enlisted in the Marines in 2005 as a private, later earning promotions to sergeant.
As a Marine he served two tours of duty in Iraq, at the same time pursuing a degree at Eastern Michigan University and an officer’s commission in U-M and EMU’s joint Naval ROTC. Upon receiving his commission this year, Callahan was invited to join the NROTC staff at U-M until next spring, when he will ship out to a new assignment. Michigan Today asked Lt. Callahan to describe the impact of the 9/11 attacks on his military experience.
When did you enlist, and why?
I joined the Navy in 2000 because I wanted to do the SEAL program. I was a little bit of a type-A personality. I wanted to be the best of the best. That’s a community I wanted to belong to.
I wanted to test myself and be with that type of self-motivated individuals. There’s definitely some adrenaline, some excitement going on there. You’re 18 years old, you don’t quite realize what you’re getting yourself into. But I’m color blind. I didn’t know that until I was in the Navy, and at the time, that was a no-go: it made me ineligible for any special operations program in the Navy.
What did you end up doing?
I was a bosun’s mate, which is a lot of logistics: line-handling stuff, underway replenishment, ship-to-ship transfer of fuels. I did a lot of small boat operations—counter-smuggling and counter-piracy operations. The sort of stuff you’d see on TV: small boats, 10 or 15 guys on it. I was a driver on that. It’s sort of a jack of all trades position.
How did life in the Navy change after 9/11?
I’d been in less than a year. We were still in port in San Diego. Up to that point, training covered a very wide spectrum of contingencies, because we didn’t have a mission—the mission was to be prepared for all missions.
After 9/11, the focus became fighting terrorism and counter-insurgency, but it was different for the Navy because there was not a lot of insurgent or terrorist activity on the waterways, except for small boats. The Navy had that experience with the [bombing by al-Qaeda of the] USS Cole. So a lot of our training was focused on port security and small boat deterrence. Before the USS Cole bombing, we had already started to implement some of those policies. We were learning what works for port security, but we either didn’t understand or just hadn’t caught up with what the enemy’s tactics were. They were using small speedboats to drive essentially a vehicle-borne IED into the side of ships. It wasn’t a conventional style of combat training we were doing. I was aboard a guided missile cruiser. Its conventional role is to steam to a location and launch missiles and five-inch gun rounds. [With terrorists,] you’re not fighting a force that stands in a specific spot and fights linearly. It’s very asymmetrical. So you’re basically waiting for them to come attack you. So you train for riots [at ports] and stuff like that.
Trying to teach an 18-year-old kid to try to control something like that—you’ve got a high level of decision making processes on a very inexperienced group of people. Because really, it’s not going to be that senior officer out there at the port gate who’s making a decision that could have huge political impacts. You open fire on a crowd because they scared you, and suddenly you’ve got an international incident. That for me personally was a large portion of the training: escalation of force procedures, how to apply the right amount of force to the right situation. A lot of situations required kid gloves, but we had to train for that. It kind of shifted our emphasis away from conventional warfare.
Why did you choose to leave the Navy?
It wasn’t that I didn’t love the military. I loved the people, I loved the structure, but I wanted a different job within the military. When you’re in the military and they own you, it’s very difficult to find any wiggle room and direct yourself. So my decision came about that “I need to get out so they have no control, and so I can figure out a direction I want.” Basically I wanted to be in combat, and the Marine Corps recruiter had what I wanted, and I had what they wanted.
You enlisted as a private and later made sergeant. What inspired you to go for a commission?
Other than lack of education there was nothing I saw officers doing that I didn’t think I was capable of. I felt confident I could do that job, so why not try at least? I’d kick myself if I didn’t try.
You served in Iraq, even as you were working toward your degree and commission.
I served two tours in Iraq, the first in 2007, then in 2008-09. 2007 was kind of the tail end of the—it was a little more kinetic at the time. It was just when the Iraqi security forces were starting to get on their feet. They weren’t operating on their own, but they were starting to become a viable solution to the insurgency.
2008-09 was extremely transitional, to the point where we were downsizing bases within Iraq, and I was part of that. When I got there in 2008, Fallujah, which was a major base, was huge, I mean it was just ridiculous the size of this thing. But while I was there we completely retrograded everything out of there to a smaller base outside the city called Baharia. The Iraqi army took over the base and was operating on their own.
So I went from doing a lot of patrols every day—combat patrols, foot patrols, mechanized patrols—to suddenly I’m having to coordinate through a military liaison with the Iraqi army or police, and if they showed up, we did it, and if they didn’t show up, I was not authorized to leave the base. It was really an effort to push combat operations into the hands of Iraqis.
You were in Fallujah? That’s a legendary place for Marines.
I’d venture to say it’s the Iwo Jima of the Iraq war.
The major battle for Fallujah took place earlier, in 2004. Was it still violent when you arrived?
The area I was in, when I said it was a little more kinetic, was not Fallujah but Haditha. We were dealing with the backlash of the alleged incident there. [Marines were accused of recklessly killing civilians and prosecuted in a military court; virtually all the charges were later dropped.] It was not terrible as far as combat operations. Lots of IEDs, but not a lot of direct fire engagements.
The locals had really become tired, that’s the impression I had. I was a team leader when I started and I was a squad leader when I left, and talking to the locals was a huge part of my job—you’d go door to door and ask, “How are things going? How’s the economy? How’s the school that we built? What do you need?”
I almost felt like I was playing lip service at times, telling people “Hey, it’s getting better, it’s okay.” But then when you see a different area that isn’t getting the same kind of treatment for whatever reason, and you notice the standard of living of the people in the area where we were working, it was better, and security was much better. Winning over the hearts and minds: it’s a cliché, but it was successful. That’s the way you win an insurgency. And once you gain their trust, we noticed that even the IEDs started going away. Because they didn’t want those insurgents there. That was the biggest impression I got from the Iraqi people: they didn’t want the insurgents there any more than we did, because their kids were getting hurt by the same IEDs that were killing Marines and soldiers.
Were you disappointed you didn’t see much combat?
Was I disappointed? Yeah, I’m not going to lie to you. And I still want to get into those [special forces] communities and play a more combative role, but I’m not so naïve to think that all the special forces does is knock down doors and do crazy stuff. The reality is that what I was doing as a young lance corporal and sergeant was the majority of what special operations was developed for. While special forces have capabilities that are so-called “high speed/low drag,” I’m not as interested in that anymore. What I really wanted to do was get into the branch of the special forces that does foreign military training, because I actually did a lot of that in Iraq also. That’s gratifying in a different way.
That seems to fit with where you are now, training young officer candidates at U-M.
I guess I’ve gotten really good at training other people to go out and do the job. It’s definitely gratifying to see them be successful. So I still would love to do the other stuff, but I also understand that I’m having a bigger impact doing what I’m doing than I would if I was just a guy behind a rifle.
Ten years later, do you feel reverberations from 9/11 still rumbling through the military?
Definitely. For the Navy, 9/11 was a focal point. I think that’s true for all the services. For the Marine Corps I especially noticed the difference because dwell time to deployment time was pretty much cut in half. It used to be a two-to-one ratio, 14 to 18 months dwell time in the United States, where you were conducting training, doing field exercises, you get to see your family or pursue an education. Well, the dwell-to-deploy ratio is now about a one-for-one, and it has been for a while for the Marine Corps. You’re looking at seven months in Iraq or Afghanistan, and I think nine months was the longest dwell time that I did. And that dwell time is not like the old dwell time.
You have to put lots of X’s in the box before you’re deployment-ready in the eyes of the Marine Corps. You’re in the field a lot. There’s definitely a lot of stress involved in that, but the plus side to that increased tempo is that we get a lot more positive attention than we did. Health and welfare programs became better and more effective. Family readiness: through the roof. Medical care, financial planning.
What we funded and developed changed too. We weren’t worried about building a bigger, faster, more expensive tank—we wanted UAVs [drone aircraft] that were more precise and created less collateral damage. I think this environment changed the whole face of the military. I think the military as a whole is looking at what its new fighting weight is going to be. The days of the million-man army are over; there’s just no need for it anymore. Hopefully that won’t change.
It looks like we’ll be focusing on a broader variety of combat abilities while maintaining a much, much smaller force. They’re going to cut 20-40,000 people out, and they’re going to select the best possible candidates to stay, and there will be more incentives to stay. So it’s been a roller coaster ride: we went from a large military that had no sharp focus, to a larger military that had a good focus, to a smaller military that’s just as operationally capable.
Here’s a personal question. You’re from Washington state. How did you end up in Michigan?
Well, I met a really beautiful girl and I got married, and her family is in Michigan. There’s something everyone in the military learns, and that’s if there’s an opportunity to be near family, you take it, because you never know when you’re going to get it again. I have two boys. My son Patrick will be four in October, and my son Caleb is 19 months. When we move from here, there’s no telling the next time they’re going to see their cousins and uncles and aunts again, because I’ll be in Lejeune, NC, or Pendleton, CA, or Hawaii or Okinawa. I haven’t seen my family back in Washington in three, four years. So you take the opportunity to see family when you can.