Christian Warren looks like any 20-something Fort Lewis College student: tall and lanky in jeans and T-shirt with his sun-bleached hair moused into a short, spiky peak.
He smiles easily and displays the innate politeness of a native Southerner.
While he exudes a carefree nature, he carries the memories of being stationed in a faraway Iraqi city, where he and his fellow Marines lived among the locals they were trying to help – but who might also be trying to kill them.
The year was 2007 and the city Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. Warren was deployed with the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marines, which arrived in fall.
“The unit we were taking over for had been doing a lot of fighting,” he said.
Despite this, the job they were there to do was win hearts and minds.
“The insurgency only survives through the people who support it,” Warren said.
So they went door-to-door distributing food and tried to help local residents in any way that was useful.
Although they were sometimes attacked, they maintained their position among the people. The residence where they slept was in the middle of the crowded city.
“The buffer we had was literally a sidewalk,” he said.
The locals’ acceptance of their presence was tenuous.
“Mostly, they didn’t like us,” he said. But he didn’t blame them: “All they see is American faces, and their city is getting blown up everywhere they look.”
Through their efforts, though, he said, they were able to tamp down the violence and restore a modicum of normalcy to the city.
“The area become a model of how we won the war in Iraq,” he said.
The mental toll of doing their work in the community while so exposed to the enemy was immense.
As Marines trained to kill, “the hardest part is not killing people.”
His unit returned in the summer of 2008 to a big welcome back in North Carolina, where he was stationed.
With three years left in his commitment, there was little question he would deploy again, it was just a matter of when and where.
In early 2009, word came: they were headed back to Anbar province, but this time it was to protect the Air Force base about 45 miles south of Ramadi. The base was heavily fortified and had all the modern conveniences.
“It was like night and day from the first deployment,” he said. “It was pretty nice.”
But this came with a burden of guilt when they began receiving word of the heavy losses their brethren in the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines were suffering in Afghanistan.
His unit returned to North Carolina in summer 2010, and soon after, he was discharged.
After years of strict rules and back-breaking work, he said, “I was ready to be my own person.”
He spent a year living on a beach in Pensacola, Fla., with a group of fellow Marines. His interest in rock climbing, which began with his Marine training, eventually led him to apply to FLC because of the adventure-education program. With the GI bill to cover his education, Warren knew the college was the place for him.
While, in many ways, Warren is pivoting smoothly from military to civilian life, he is not without scars. His body complains from the years of punishing use and his mind lapses without warning to its war-time crouch.
“It’s always going to be there,” he said.
Some days, he succumbs to it. Some days, he pushes through. He goes hiking and climbing, and finds solace in the outdoors. He focuses on his goals of one day being a backcountry guide or park ranger and keeps “taking it day by day.”