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United States & World

Rep. Ruben Gallego talks new book exploring how the U.S. treats its veterans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was hours after the violent attack on the Capitol ended when Congressman Ruben Gallego was finally able to speak on the House floor, urging his colleagues to accept the results of the 2020 election. And he made a special plea to those Republicans who were still raising objections and stirring doubts about the results.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUBEN GALLEGO: You owe it to democracy. You owe it to the hundreds of thousands of men and women that have sacrificed their life. You know better. You are better. Be the good American. Be the American you want. Preserve this democracy. Reject this movement. And stop this terrorism that is happening from the White House. I yield back my time.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: While he didn't focus on it at the time, because he rarely does, his service in the Marine Corps informed much of that speech. In a new book, he writes about the time when he served with one of the units that sustained some of the highest casualties of the Iraq War, describing both the terror of battle and the deep bonds forged because of it.

Congressman Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona, writes of the heroism of his fellow marines in battle but also their struggles - and his own - as they reentered civilian life. The book is called "They Called Us 'Lucky': The Life And Afterlife Of The Iraq War's Hardest Hit Unit." And Congressman Ruben Gallego is with us now to tell us more about it.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

GALLEGO: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: One of the points that you make in the book - and I think this is a point that will be familiar with anybody who is a veteran and the people who love them - is that you don't generally talk about your service. It's not - you know, it's not cocktail party conversation with you, especially the hardest parts. And so what finally did make you decide to write this book, you know, all of it?

GALLEGO: Well, a couple of things, but the most important reason is because every time, you know, I met up with my friends and my comrades in arms, my brothers, they all said the same thing, you know, that our story is being lost. And they asked me - a lot of them asked me to write this story. And a lot of them had tried to write this story. And it just wasn't getting done. And I figure, since I have a certain amount of privilege as being a member of Congress, that, you know what? I need to take this on. And to be honest, I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do it because I knew it was - I'm just - you know, it was just going be difficult bringing up a lot of old memories and, you know, a lot of feelings and even things that I had suppressed for, you know, a decade and a half.

MARTIN: Is it still hard? It's hard to talk about even now?

GALLEGO: It's extremely hard. But that's why I wanted it to get out there, too, because the world needs to know - you know, the world needs to know the story about these men. And they also need to know the story about what happens after war. You know, we struggle.

MARTIN: You know, so much about your story is unusual. But then it isn't, you know, because you were a student at Harvard when you enlisted. And you didn't, you know, go in as an officer. You went in specifically wanting to serve in the infantry. But also, your path to Harvard was unusual. You came...

GALLEGO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...From, you know, an immigrant background, you know, working-class immigrant background. So the theme of luck runs through the book. It's luck and hard work.

GALLEGO: Yeah. But, I mean, the theme of the book is - it's luck and hard work, but it's mostly luck that ends up saving your a** in war.

MARTIN: So they called your unit Lucky Lima because you were reservists. And you were actually two months in the most dangerous territory in the war without a...

GALLEGO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Casualty. And then everything changed. And I'm not going to ask you to walk through all of that, but I am going to say that the Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment - Lima lost more men than any other American unit in the war. You lost 46 Marines.

GALLEGO: Yeah.

MARTIN: You lost two Navy corpsmen, including, you know, your best friend.

GALLEGO: Yeah, and lost my - I mean, it's - you know, one of the things that - about war is that you become so close to your fellow Marine, to your friends, that, you know, they're like your brothers. And then they get taken away from you. And this thing that brought you together is also the thing that tears you apart. And, you know, you just never - you never get to say goodbye. It's not like in the movies where there's a guy - you're holding a guy in your arms as they die. I mean, most of the time, they're just gone. You're in a different spot, and they're disappeared, and you don't even get to see them or see their gravestones for months after the war. And it's something that, you know, will really haunt you. I mean, it will haunt me, certainly, for the rest of my life.

MARTIN: I want to go back to where we started our conversation, January 6. I just can't imagine that you ever thought that you, once you left the Marines, that you would be kind of under siege at the United States Capitol on the night that election results were supposed to be validated. So do you mind if I go back and ask, like, what was going through your mind when you saw these - this mob kind of breaking down the door of the House chamber - or trying to?

GALLEGO: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of thoughts going on in mind. But what - I think what finally kind of snapped me into - back into Marine mode is when I saw the younger staffers on the House floor. And I saw their faces and how terrified they were. And it reminded me of the Marines that I was with in combat - not the original Marines that I was with, but the ones that replaced the guys that died. And I remember their faces the first time we saw combat and how fearful they were. And I realized that I had to - or I didn't realize. I just kind of snapped into Marine mode and, you know, did two things, you know, try to organize a little resistance if we - if it came to it and helping everybody in putting on their gas mask and helping the evacuation portion of it.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Congressman, you obviously poured your soul into this book. And how do you feel now that you have done so?

GALLEGO: Look; I'm terrified (laughter). You know, it was painful to write this book. It's painful still to talk about this book. But what I want people to get out of this book is that, you know, these are - you know, these were great men. And they're good men now. But, you know, we were your everyday Americans from all walks of life - Latinos, Native Americans, you know, country white boys from Ohio - you know, that just joined together for one common cause. And that's really just to keep each other alive. It wasn't for God and country. It wasn't for the Iraq liberation or anything like that. It was just to keep ourselves alive. And we're still struggling with that. You know, I've lost some guys from this company. And you leave the war, but the war never ever really leaves you.

MARTIN: That was Congressman Ruben Gallego. His book, "They Called Us 'Lucky': The Life And Afterlife Of The Iraq War's Hardest Hit Unit," is out Tuesday. Congressman Gallego, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GALLEGO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.