Local Marine returns from Iraq, speaks with Rotary and students

From left, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Geoff Meno shows Kent Prairie Elementary fifth-graders Kylee Johansen, Keyton Kinney and Brendan Hess how to cook a Meal Ready to Eat. - Kirk Boxleitner
From left, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Geoff Meno shows Kent Prairie Elementary fifth-graders Kylee Johansen, Keyton Kinney and Brendan Hess how to cook a Meal Ready to Eat.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Geoff Meno spoke to local adults and children alike April 9, about his experiences in Iraq.

Geoff Meno, younger brother of Arlington Rotary Past President John Meno, was invited by John Meno to attend a Rotary meeting and share his insights on the current situation in Iraq. Following this luncheon, the Menos went to Kent Prairie Elementary, where the younger Meno answered students’ questions about his day-to-day life out in the field in Iraq. Among the students in the fifth-grade class Geoff visited was Grace Meno, his niece.

Both talks included slideshows of snapshots that Meno had taken while in Iraq. His presentation to Rotary was more comprehensive, summarizing his three deployments so far, first from 2005-2005 as a second lieutenant in Haditha, then in 2007 as a first lieutenant in Kharma, Fallujah and Baghdad, and finally from 2008-2009 as a captain on the Syrian border.

Meno’s first deployment focused on house-to-house searches for weapons caches, and oversaw the first national elections in Iraq.

“It’s amazing when you consider how many people here take voting for granted,” Meno said. “In Iraq, they were doing anything they could to get to the polls.”

Meno described his second deployment as serving as “America’s 9-1-1,” since he and his fellow Marines were called in from ships at sea to control the insurgents’ lines of communication, as well as to train the Iraqi Army well enough for military control to be turned over to their forces.

While Meno’s most recent deployment saw him spending more time on base than he had previously, as a result of the Status Of Forces Agreement that was signed in January, he still spent time on the ground, watching for lethal smuggling operations on the border.

“The U.S. military played no role in their elections this time,” Meno said. “With SOFA, all the rules changed. We really turned over control to the Iraqi Army, so since we weren’t doing much, we got to come home early.”

Meno expressed optimism about Iraq’s future, at the same time that he acknowledged the cultural differences between Iraq and America. He explained that the Iraqi Army had a steep initial learning curve, as they were trained in areas such as military logistics, but he’s witnessed “a drastic change” in the country since his first deployment.

“It used to be that we would go into communities, the kids would greet us, and their parents would tell them to go back into their houses,” Meno said. “Now, I’d say 10 percent of the population hates us, 10 percent loves us, and 80 percent is ‘meh’ about us.”

Meno credited tribal leaders as being one of the U.S. military’s “secrets of success” in accomplishing its goals in Iraq, and admitted that, while the Iraqi government is responsible for paying its own expenses, “We’re still paying for some of them.”

Among the photos that Meno showed, to both the Rotarians and the students, were scenes of tar melting in the heat of the Iraqi desert, Iraqis buying American troops ice cream, and Marines catching quick naps wherever they could, including on the ground and between supply crates, often in uniform and protective body-armor. In the desert, American troops took “showers” by pouring water bottles over their heads, and did “laundry” by dunking their uniforms into water buckets. One photo showed a group of Marines celebrating the Marine Corps Birthday, out in the field, with a single cupcake, topped by a lone candle.

“Here you can see some of our Marines disguising their boot-prints in the sand,” Meno said, describing one photo, before displaying another. “And this was our baseball — a tent-pole for a bat, and a sock wrapped with duct tape for a ball.”

Meno praised female Marines for the role they’ve been able to play in searching female Iraqis, to prevent insurgents from using female Iraqis as suicide bombers. He went on to point out that protective body-armor, while vital for safety, brings with it a danger of its own, by adding to the weight that American troops have to carry in the hot desert, thereby increasing their risks of exhaustion and heatstroke.

Meno concluded his day on a lighter note with the students, many of whom recalled his visit to their school a few years ago. The students expressed awe at Meno’s accounts of the lack of everyday conveniences while deployed in the Iraqi desert, but they were eager to sample the two Meals Ready to Eat that he’d brought with him.

“The last time I was here, I told you guys that my favorite MRE was chili,” Meno reminded them. “Since then, I’ve got a new fave — Sloppy Joes. It comes with Cheez-It crackers, which taste really good when you crumble them up into the Sloppy Joes.”

Meno showed the students Coke bottles that were printed in different languages, as well as the paper “coins” that he used for currency while stationed in Iraq.

While he anticipates it might take a while, Meno believes that Iraq should eventually become ready to take ownership of its own affairs.

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