A Black Marine in the Adirondacks says he felt isolated during tours in Iraq – North Country Public Radio

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Nov 11, 2021

A content warning: this story includes mention of suicide.

Nicholas Rowe is an African American living in Essex County who spent most of his adult life in the Marines. Rowe said his time in the military shaped him. But he also often felt isolated and his feelings about the U.S. mission in Iraq changed during his service.

Rowe on the job above Liberia, 2003. (Photo provided)

Rowe graduated from an elite public high school in New York City. But he wasnt sure what to do with his life and felt like he was squandering his potential. So in 1999, he joined the Marines.

I thought that joining the Marine Corps would kind of whip me into shape. And I thought I would just do just four years to right the ship and then go to college and continue the life that I was meant to have, he said.

Rowe chose the Marines because it was physically hard. Boot camp is a grind. He said that wasnt enough for him. A Marine has to choose a specialty. So, Rowe chose the one that he thought would challenge his brain.

I started out as an Arabic cryptologic linguist. So, my whole career, I worked in a field called [the] signals intelligence ground electronic warfare, Rowe said.

Nicholas Rowe (front, right) training before his first deployment to Mosul, 2003. (Photo provided)

His job was to listen to different forms of electronic communications and translate them for his Marine bosses. Then, after the terror attacks on 9/11, Nicholas Rowes world changed.

The Marines sent him to Iraq. Rowe did 4 tours of duty, he was doing his job really well, and he got promotions.

I reached the rank of Master Sergeant, which is an E8, the highest rank that you can get is an E9, Rowe said. And for a brief moment, I was the youngest E8 in the Marine Corps.

By his second tour in Iraq, Rowe was starting to have doubts and said most of the units he served in had few if any other Black Marines. Rowe describes it with a short phrase.

I felt like, I was a raisin in rice pudding, he said.

The number of black Marines mirrors the general population, about 11%. But, Rowe said in the units he was with the numbers were far lower, he often felt isolated.

This wasnt a new feeling for Rowe, after all, hed graduated from a mostly white high school.

But he expected the Marines to be different. The Marine Corps desegregated in World War II but still struggles to diversify its leadership ranks. Rowe said when he was in, Black people were mostly still found in service positions food service, transportation, and logistics.

Rowe (back, left) in Mosul, Iraq, 2003. (Photo provided)

Marines are a tight bunch, especially when overseas and in the combat zones where Rowe went out on patrol. But, Rowe said he always felt like he had something extra to prove like he wasnt just representing himself.

"To tell you the truth, I felt alone, but I tried to bury that underneath the drive to change people's minds [about black people]. And not to say that I was special, maybe a little bit to say that I belonged. But mostly to say that Black people are capable," Rowe said.

Whenever he speaks he always chooses his words carefully, like a chess player, always considering the possible outcomes from every move.

This is a common experience for Black people not just in the Marines. They often feel they arent seen as individuals by their white co-workers and feel theyre judged differently.

Rowe held all that down through all his tours in Iraq. He said he coped with life in a mostly white male, military culture. But, during his second tour, he also started to lose confidence in the U.S. mission.

I don't even understand why we're here and then by the third [tour], it was like, Well, we're here and, I hate to use this language but, we f***ed up, we made this mess so let's try to clean it up. But it seemed like it just never got clean, he said.

Nicholas Rowe with his daughter. She's grown up and is applying for college these days. (Photo provided)

Rowe said the stress kept building. Things got bad in his personal life, too. He was divorced in 2012 and he said that separated him from his children. Thats what almost broke him. He almost didnt make it out of the Marines alive.

I got out on a medical discharge. Full disclosure, and here Rowe slowed down a little. "The year before, I actually, attempted suicide."

The Department of Defense reports that the year Rowe attempted suicide he was one of 164 Marines who tried to end their own lives. Suicide has become a major concern across the military.

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A recent reportestimated that 30,177 veterans or active-duty soldiers have died by suicide since 9/11 compared to 7,057 service people who died in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But, Rowe was able to get help therapy, and treatment. The Marines offered him the option to leave or stay, and he got out in 2013.

I really didnt have any reason to stay. I couldnt think of a reason to stay. Honestly, at that point I was just kind of counting the day until 20 [years in service], he said.

Back in civilian life, Rowe went to Columbia University and he said his doubts about his experience as a black man in the military kept growing.

Like the past 15 years was just a big a** lie. All of the changing minds that I thought I was doing was bullsh**. And instead of connections with people, I kind of started to question whether people were laughing with me or laughing at me. And again, as the only Black person [I wondered] were they looking at me, because I was an example of strength, or were they looking at me just like as a fool, Rowe said.

But Nicholas Rowe was a Marine for most of his adult life, 14 years. So despite all those doubts and questions, he said the experience shaped him in ways he still values.

All the good and bad that came with the military the structure, the customs, and courtesies. When I'm around that there's, a part of me that feels like I can breathe. Because someones speaking my language or someone understands the things that I'm feeling. And I have the proper words to express those feelings. Whereas, you know, maybe in a civilian setting, I can't, he said.

Celebrating the U.S. Marine Corps anniversary. November 10, 2021. (Photo provided)

When I left the service I made it a mission to find my voice, which I don't know if I ever, really thought about finding or even care to find. I think I found what I need to do, he said.

Rowe said he sometimes still wonders if it was all worth it, the years in Iraq in a war zone, the depression, the suicide attempt, the PTSD. Rowe said, Inside me, I have to be ok with all of that because I need to be happy in life and reconcile all of it and say its OK because Im here and thats a good thing.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, you can contact the following agencies 24/7:

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A Black Marine in the Adirondacks says he felt isolated during tours in Iraq - North Country Public Radio

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