Honorably discharged Marine Cpl with two combat tours in Iraq will speak in Ashland on Friday.
For Benjamin "Benji" Lewis, the turning point began when a crying Iraqi woman approached his dug-in position during the first siege of Fallujah in April 2004.
Lewis, 23, was serving as the mortar man and the acting linguist for his Marine Corps unit.
"It was a pretty intense time — for the first five days we had little or no sleep," recalled the Corvallis resident. "This woman was approaching our position. People started shooting at her."
Lewis quickly began yelling for a cease-fire.
"It was evident she wasn't a threat — I ran out of my foxhole to see what was going on," he said. "Her face was encrusted with salt crystals from crying. She let me know that the night before, her house had collapsed from the mortars, that she had lost two children."
He and others in his group asked their commander to have her taken to a Red Cross site. Their request was denied.
"So we gave her a bottle of water and sent her back," he said. "I was the one responsible for putting mortar rounds on her house ... this was the first sign to me that maybe we weren't in Iraq on a humanitarian mission."
Lewis is speaking out against the war in three presentations in the Rogue Valley this week, beginning Friday evening in Ashland. Cpl. Lewis completed his four-year hitch, including two combat tours to Iraq, in the Corps in 2007, receiving an honorable discharge.
"I was a good Marine — I never got into trouble," he said.
It wasn't until he was notified last October that he was being considered for involuntary activation in the individual ready reserves and a third Iraq deployment that he began speaking out. Under most enlistment contracts, the IRR program provides that a Marine can be called up for four years following discharge.
"By this time, I made up my mind not to participate," Lewis said, noting he is opposed to the war both on legal and moral grounds and challenges the legality of the IRR program.
The Marine Corps notified him on April 16 that his IRR orders had been canceled.
But the college student is continuing to speak out and counsel other Iraq War veterans.
"The general feeling among many is that they are struggling with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)," he said. "Some I've talked to want to be recalled so they can go back to Iraq and die there for atonement."
Born on a U.S. Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, where his father was a career officer, Lewis joined the Corps in 2003. After being trained to fire mortars, he was selected for Arabic language training.
From Fallujah, his unit was sent to Haditha, where the Marines established their headquarters in a police station for several months.
"When we came back on leave, we found out the insurgents had executed all the police in a soccer stadium," he said, adding the police were killed apparently because of their association with the Americans.
"We felt awful."
Lewis, who later served a year as an urban combat instructor in the Corps' Twentynine Palms base in Southern California, returned to Fallujah during his second tour. Much of his time was spent manning checkpoints.
"There was an Iraqi gentleman who wanted to get into the city but I told him we were closing the checkpoint for the night," Lewis said. "I told him he would have to come back in the morning.
"The guy said, 'I've got this great idea. Why don't you go home, then I'll be able to go home.' "
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.