Marine's War Diary from Iraq Covers a Melrose Gallery's Wall in New Show

By Patrick Wall on March 15, 2013 11:33am 

MELROSE — Tim McLaughlin, a Boston lawyer and a former Marine, found himself in The Bronx Thursday reading excerpts from his battlefield diary and commenting on photos he snapped in Iraq to a semicircle of onlookers.

At his side was Nick Popaditch, a gunnery sergeant in the four-tank platoon that Lt. McLaughlin commanded during the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago this month.

McLaughlin pointed to one photo of him horsing around with a knife and another of troops stationed behind the “LD,” or line of departure, in Kuwait.

Popaditch recalled a later time when the Marines were stationed in the desert waiting to return to Kuwait and dysentery spread through the cramped quarters — they called it “Saddam’s Revenge.”

Another snapshot showed McLaughlin lounging on the “back patio” atop his tank.

On his lap sat a diary, 36 pages of which have been enlarged and printed on poster boards that cover a wall of the Bronx Documentary Center for a new multimedia exhibit called, “Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq.”

“The reason I did it was probably because I had an extra book,” McLaughlin said, looking at the diary in the photo, “and a lot of downtime.”

The idea for the exhibit emerged a few years ago when the journalist Peter Maass was interviewing McLaughlin about an incident during the invasion and the Marine pulled out a diary that he had stowed away since returning from the war.

When Maass opened the tattered journal, sand trickled out.

“Iraq was literally embedded in his diaries,” Maass said Thursday at the gallery at 614 Courtlandt Avenue.

Maass then approached the photographer Gary Knight.

Both men had covered the invasion and, as it turned out, the battalion they reported on while it rolled into Baghdad in March 2003 had been McLaughlin’s.

They decided that McLaughlin’s diaries, combined with their own writing and photographs from Iraq, could offer a more immersive and direct account of the war than most Americans had found in the media.

“Our perception of war is mostly filtered through one, two, three, four filters,” Maass said. “This is his handwriting on the wall. No filters.”

Scrawled across the blown-up diary pages are a list of life-changing events (No. 9, “Pentagon, September 11th 2001,” No. 22, “Strip clubs”), a poem, a Marine’s carol (“The Twelve Days of Combat”), a whimsical letter to Victoria’s Secret, and diagrams and descriptions of battle.

“Dump truck approaching, would not stop,” he wrote in one entry. He fired three rounds. “20 women, children + fathers get out screaming. By the grace of God no one died, although one guy had a new hole in him + tons of blood.”

McLaughlin continued with his tour of the gallery Thursday.

He pointed to glass cases where some of his wartime mementos were displayed — prayer beads an Iraqi gave him, a neatly folded American flag.

McLaughlin’s flag briefly shrouded the head of a giant Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad before Marines famously toppled the figure while the world watched on live TV.

The government and the media rushed in to interpret the symbolism of the moment. (Maass wrote an award-winning article about that episode for the New Yorker, which is how he came to interview McLaughlin.)

“I’m on a tank,” McLaughlin said Thursday, recalling his thoughts at the time. “And you’re worried about what the flag signifies?”

When McLaughlin motioned towards a citation for his Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal in a different case, Popaditch asked him to read it aloud.

Popaditch, who wears an eye patch, was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq and lost most of his vision. He was later awarded a Purple Heart.

Next to the citation were a psychologist’s “Progress Notes” on McLaughlin’s mental state.

When McLaughlin first returned from Iraq, he drank too much and had trouble connecting with people or sleeping without medication, he explained.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s just a fact of life,” he told Popaditch. “It’s not a disorder. It’s just a natural reaction.”

In addition to his work as an attorney, McLaughlin serves as president of the board of Shelter Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides free legal service to homeless and low-income veterans.

There he finds soldiers who were sent abroad to serve, then kept out of sight and mind when they returned home.

When McLaughlin, Maass and Knight sought a space for their exhibit, several well-known museums and galleries passed, some citing war-story fatigue.

“I really do worry that America moves on sometimes,” McLaughlin told the crowd Thursday, “and forgets that it asked its men and women to go fight its wars.”

At the end of the gallery tour, McLaughlin stood off to the side with Popaditch, one of 15 Marines in his platoon who went wherever he led and did whatever they needed to do.

McLaughlin asked Popaditch if he had enjoyed the exhibit, and Popaditch said he had. McLaughlin looked pleased.

“There are about 15 people whose opinions about this actually matter to me,” McLaughlin told him.

“That’d be our 15?” Popaditch asked.

“Yeah.”

The free exhibit runs from March 15 to April 19 from 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

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