Commentary

Book excerpt: ‘Staying Alive: Surviving Abuse, Fighting a War, and Beating Cancer – My First Twenty-Five Years’

“Staying Alive” by author, Marine veteran and Emmy Award and three-time Peabody Award winning journalist, James Curry is more than a memoir; it is a blueprint of survival, courage, and perseverance. Curry takes an unflinching look at his life impacted by domestic violence, savage combat, death, homelessness, isolation, betrayal, homophobia and illness, and how these life-altering experiences led him to happiness, success, and ultimately, love.

Joining the Marines at 17 years old to escape a chaotic and abusive home, Curry was unprepared for the daily barrage of blood and violence he would experience in Fallujah. Surviving that tour of duty and three U.S. Embassy postings, Curry was honorably discharge in 2008. But, like thousands of returning veterans, the mental toll would take years to process. Post-traumatic stress, homelessness, and crushing feelings of isolation and betrayal were his thanks from an indifferent military and country. During his five years of service, Curry was also living in constant fear of discovery of being gay, made more complicated by an ultimately disastrous sexual relationship with a fellow Marine. Completing his military service, Curry found himself stranded in an unfamiliar city, broke and alone. After a series of forgettable jobs, and a brief stint working for a San Diego TV station, he got his big break working as a producer for CNN. Just as the future finally looked bright, Curry received the shocking diagnosis of cancer. “Staying Alive: Surviving Abuse, Fighting a War, and Beating Cancer – My First Twenty-Five Years” is truly an extraordinary and engaging story of hope and transformation.

Chapter Ten: “Devil Dog, Where Are You From?”

New Delhi, India, 2005

Embassy duty in India was boring, so dull and repetitive that I thought I’d go nuts. There I was, basically just standing around all day. Yes, I was doing my job, but it seemingly accomplished nothing. Compared to the days of combat with my buddies, each one an emotional roller coaster packed with life-and-death situations, this seemed meaningless — though safe.

However, from time to time the robotic routine was interrupted by extraordinary experiences that were almost surreal. In fact, there were times when I stopped and almost pinched myself, thinking how lucky I was.

I had one of those over-the-top experiences when I was stationed on guard duty for President George W. Bush’s state visit to New Delhi in 2006. I was assigned to his hotel, part of an elaborate US security operation for the trip. The president, accompanied by the First Lady, Laura Bush, was traveling with his top aide, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Together, they were there to hammer out some kind of nuclear deal between the United States and India.

I didn’t pay much attention to the politics of it but was fascinated by what it took to prepare for the arrival of a president. Weeks before Bush set foot in India, a cadre of Secret Service agents, White House staffers, military aides, and other government officials flew to New Delhi to do advance prep for the visit. They set up shop at the Maurya Sheraton hotel, located in the heart of the city’s commercial district, not far from the US Embassy. Every single hotel room was rented out by the White House or some other governmental agency. Many of the rooms were used for sleeping, while others were turned into office spaces.

Security was obviously a paramount concern, as it always is. The Secret Service and the military shut down the entire perimeter of the hotel. Fences were erected, streets were blocked, and traffic was diverted. Inside the presidential suite, bullet-resistant glass panels were installed, and the doors leading to an outdoor terrace were bolted shut. The White House housekeeping staff came in and changed the sheets and some of the decor based on the needs of the president. The Navy doctor who served as the president’s personal physician even brought a supply of the president’s blood, just in case there was a medical emergency. The entire operation was an impressive, well-oiled machine. And I was proud to play a small part in it.

“Curry, we need Marines to stand post on the president’s floor at the hotel,” my detachment commander said. “I’ve chosen you for this assignment.”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant,” I said without hesitation, eager to escape my boring embassy lobby post.

Though the president’s coming to town was obviously a big deal, my assignment didn’t turn out to be very glamorous. The most interesting part of my day was just arriving at work. Our armored Chevy Suburban, with tinted windows and blue strobe lights, blasted through all the security checkpoints and pulled up to the front of the hotel. The foreign press rushed from their staging area to our vehicle with their cameras and microphones at the ready, hoping to fire questions at someone notable. But they immediately retreated with disappointment as soon as I stepped out of the car.

It’s just me, guys, I thought to myself. So while the pomp and circumstance of a state visit was exhilarating, the reality of my small role in it seemed like a letdown. It wasn’t that different from what I did at the embassy, except that I was standing guard at a hotel and dressed in a suit instead of my Marine Corps uniform. Every day, it was the same drill — me standing in front of three elevators checking the credentials of anyone who came onto the floor, ensuring that his or her presence was authorized. As my twelve-hour shift dragged on, without any break for a meal or the bathroom, my enthusiasm for the task faded. I was both angry and hungry. And the M&M’s with the presidential seal that a White House staffer gave me did little to improve my irritable mood.

Still, I took this simple task very seriously. And I kept myself alert by listening to the State Department and Secret Service radio traffic via an earpiece that was attached to a radio that hung from my belt, all of it concealed by a cheap blazer.

As I stood there one evening, the earpiece suddenly chirped alive as President Bush and his detail of aides and Secret Service agents arrived at the hotel. His every move was announced as if it were the play-by-play for a baseball game.

“One floor away. Stand by, guys,” an agent said seconds before the elevator doors slid open. I found my heart pounding in excitement, as if a movie star were arriving. And though I wasn’t a Secret Service agent (or an employee of any of the hundreds of other three-letter agencies helping with the trip), I was still a United States Marine. And in my mind, that counted.

The entourage scattered, leaving only Mr. and Mrs. Bush and one Secret Service agent alone in the elevator. The doors opened, and there they were, waiting to be led to their room. For a second, their humanity kind of peeked through because they seemed confused about where to go. I have no idea what their schedule entailed, but it must have been a hugely demanding one because both the president and the First Lady appeared run-down and exhausted.

I resisted the urge to stare but watched the first couple out of the corner of my eye. Of course, I had only seen them on TV, which makes everyone look larger than life. But seen up close, the president was on the thin side, and Mrs. Bush was petite and almost frail. And they seemed shorter than I expected, rather ordinary, like an elderly couple coming back from dinner rather than the most powerful man in the world and the First Lady of the United States.

“Your suite is this way, sir,” said the Secret Service agent, a tall, rather masculine woman with short curly hair. She was wearing an ill-fitting pantsuit and bore a striking resemblance to O. J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. Just before the Bushes walked down the corridor, away from where I was posted, the president glanced in my direction and paused.

My heart raced. Did he catch me staring? I wondered.

“Is he one of our embassy Marines?” I heard him whisper to the agent. I’m not sure what gave me away. I wasn’t wearing a uniform, just my inexpensive dark suit. It was one of two suits the government had bought for me during my training as an embassy guard. The agent nodded her head: yes. The president turned around, grabbed his wife’s hand, and slowly walked toward me. Oh, my God. My palms started to sweat.

“Devil Dog, where are you from?” a smiling Mr. Bush asked gamely, looking me square in the eyes as he extended his hand. He was confident, cordial, and charismatic, though not much taller than I was.

“Pennsylvania, sir,” I answered nervously, as I shook his hand firmly. I knew I had to make a good impression.

“It’s not Texas,” he quipped, favoring the state he’d governed, “but that’s okay!”

I grinned.

“You been to Iraq?” he asked.

“Yes, sir. I was in Fallujah a year ago, sir.” He paused. And you could almost see in his eyes a world of knowledge and pain about the intense fighting that had taken place there.

“We’re doing some great things over there,” he finished, “and I want you to know that we’re kicking ass in Iraq.”

His down-to-earth manner and use of the word “ass” was unexpected and refreshing. I expected the president to use more formal language, but I guess he figured he was talking to a Marine, so he could let loose. Though now that I think about it, George Bush was known for being plain-spoken no matter whom he was talking to.

Some high-ranking officials I’d met who used similarly earthy terminology did it only to be patronizing, hoping they could fit in or “speak our language.” It was as if we young enlisted Marines were children, not sophisticated enough to understand the complexity of formal diplomatic discourse. They had to dumb down their thoughts in order for us to understand them. Some Marines might have found this insulting. But I didn’t mind. In fact, I preferred it. It removed the awkwardness of meeting someone for the first time.

In this case, I really liked how thoughtful the president had been to take time to talk with me, even though I could see he was tired and anxious to get to his room. And despite the president’s informality, I kept my responses to him short and stern. Most were either “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.”

In that moment, I understood the gravity of what was happening. I was actually having a conversation with the president of the United States! Remember, I was a poor kid from small-town America with no connection to elites and no promise of ever meeting people from the top echelons of society. Yet because of my service, I was able to garner the attention of a sitting US president and the First Lady. Sure, it was by happenstance, but it was still a big deal, and I felt it. As soon as the first couple left my side, part of me wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them what had just happened!

Another part of me — the less vain and more rational and logical part — wanted to scream at the president. Yes, you read that right. The man had just said we were doing “great things” in Iraq. Huh?! Was he kidding? That simple statement triggered an angry reaction within me. Great things? I wondered whether he really had a clue about what the war was like. Though he had served in the Air National Guard from ’68 to ’73, Bush had never been to Vietnam or served in combat there.

Well, a lot of my comrades from Iraq were doing exactly what he had not wanted to do! Did he know the kind of horror we witnessed? Had he ever seen a blood-splatted Humvee? And did he fully grasp how the war he had started was affecting the young men and women fighting it? Obviously, I saw it firsthand and experienced the bloodbath that this man had created.

As all this flashed through my head, I must say that it took every ounce of military discipline in my body to resist grabbing him by the shoulders and screaming into his face, “Are you fucking nuts!?”

Combat was always on my brain, and the cost of it was still fresh in my mind. Iraq was a bloody war where my military brothers and sisters were dying every single day — and for no apparent reason. It wasn’t a game. It was a disaster! And no pep talk, compliment to me, or motivational speech from the president was going to change that fact.

But in his jocular manner, President Bush seemed to trivialize it, as if the war were some kind of collegiate sporting event in which one team was beating the “ass” of another. While I like his friendliness, his attitude really bothered me.

Bush’s rationalization for the war — which lasted nine years! — was that he had to remove a regime that had developed and used weapons of mass destruction, though no such weapons were ever found.

On the battlefield, the impact of his disastrous decision was obvious. But few people understood the further consequences of this massive mistake, including the president himself. Neither did he understand that the pain of witnessing all that bloodshed did not end when we finally went home. Not at all. Not for one day.

I was one of the lucky ones. At least I got to go home. But for the 4,487 military personnel killed in action, that would not be the case. (Not to mention the nearly 31,000 service members who went home wounded.)

I desperately wished that I could have articulated some of this to President Bush in the moment I met him. But the time wasn’t right. And, of course, as an active-duty Marine, I wasn’t in a position to address the commander in chief in a critical way. (Though I could have done it politely, to make my point, I didn’t have the balls.) Instead I respectfully agreed with his assessment.

“Yes, sir,” I said before shaking his hand one last time.

“Thank you for your service, Marine. I’m proud of you, and so is the rest of America,” he said. Then he and the First Lady turned and walked down the hallway to their presidential suite. The entire exchange lasted less than five minutes.

Over the years, I’ve replayed that conversation in my head many times. And my feelings about it are always mixed. Yes, as a twentysomething Marine, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the president of the United States. It’s an experience I will never forget. However, I often think about the war that Bush started and how it still affects me and my fellow Marines all these years later. Nobody can ever fully recover from a wartime experience. Despite that, I learned as a Marine that respecting an office is quite different from respecting the person who holds it.

“Staying Alive” will be available on Amazon and elsewhere on Feb. 26.

James Curry is an Emmy Award and three-time Peabody Award-winning journalist. His work has been seen on CNN, The Weather Channel, Fox Business, and local news stations throughout the United States. At the age of 24 he was one of the youngest newscast producers ever appointed by CNN. James is also a Marine Corps combat veteran. He was in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004 and later was handpicked to serve as one of the Marine Corps’ elite embassy guards. He holds a B.S. in political science from Troy University in Alabama and a M.S. in journalism from South Dakota State University.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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