Marine colonel known for heartfelt Iraq War letters laid to rest
Retired Col. Mark A. Smith, who wrote dozens of letters praised for their compassion and eloquence to the families of his Marine Reserve battalion during a deployment early in the Iraq War, was remembered this week as a “Marine’s Marine.”
A 32-year veteran of the Marine Corps — including his time in the Reserves — and an Indiana State Trooper for 24 years until his retirement in 2014, the 54-year-old father of two daughters died last week following a battle with lung cancer.
Many who served in the Chicago-based 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment he commanded during the Iraq deployment were traveling to Indianapolis to attend funeral services on Wednesday.
Smith was a man of deep faith and strong convictions who often spoke out about what he believed in, said Sharon Semrow, the wife of a retired Marine who served with Smith. “That’s why we loved him ... he didn’t mince words,” Semrow said in a telephone interview.
Semrow got to know Smith while serving as a volunteer liaison between 2nd Battalion’s Milwaukee-based Fox Company and the Marines’ families during the unit’s 2004-2005 deployment. Her duties involved distributing Smith’s weekly letters, which she said are now “priceless” to her.
“He was well-loved and well-respected by every family member because of that,” she said of his letter-writing. “It was ... sometimes the only news that we got. It was comforting.”
‘Leader-warrior’ Made up of five companies from Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, the 1,200-Marine battalion carried out operations in northern Babil province, south of Baghdad, in a restive area dubbed the Triangle of Death.
Its ranks of reservists included teachers, carpenters, truck drivers, doctors, lawyers and computer technicians and more than 70 police officers, among others, helping battle the insurgency that arose shortly after the U.S.-led invasion.
Not content to lead from behind a desk, Smith frequently made the rounds among the Marines, said Darrick Sewell, who was a lance corporal working in the combat operations center on the deployment.
“He was a leader-warrior,” said Sewell, who was also driving from Wisconsin to Indiana on Tuesday afternoon. “He rarely slept. He was just go, go, go.”
Even after lengthy operations or days without sleep, Smith could be found in the headquarters at Forward Operating Base St. Michael in Mahmudiyah each Thursday “at zero-dark-thirty ... writing away” on the weekly letter, Sewell said.
The messages also found their way to reporters with local and national news organizations, bloggers and others outside the command. Some can still be found on the military blog BlackFive.net.
After quoting one of his dispatches in late 2004, the New York Times described Smith as “a rambunctious fellow — driven, intolerant of half-measures, profane in his language” but with an infectious spirit.
With a mixture of pride, patriotism, pain and philosophy, his letters illustrate what the Marines endured and often sought to explain why they did it.
Smith wrote that his challenge wasn’t deciding what to write, but what to omit.
Hundreds of strangers would email Smith weekly to say they were touched by his writings, Smith told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2005.
‘Mayhem from the heartland’ After recovering the body of Lance Cpl. Daniel Wyatt, the first of 12 of the battalion’s Marines killed during the seven-month tour, Smith wrote of the “soul touching sight of combat hardened Marines, encrusted with weeks of sweat and dust, who have daily been engaged in combat, coming to complete and utter solemnity and respect in the handling of the body of one of their own.”
In another dispatch, he shared a photo of his troops providing candy, toys and hygiene items to an Iraqi woman and her child, expressing his deep hope that such exchanges would help end cycles of hatred and violence. But he did not spare families descriptions of some of that violence.
“Everywhere you go the ground is subject to explode in a milli-second of ear shattering violence and a cloud of lethal dust,” he wrote in one email. “Everything you do is subject to being interrupted by the thump/boom of rockets and mortars and their deadly payload.”
The Marines of 2/24 endured regular mortar attacks, car bombings and firefights, Sewell said, describing a harrowing deployment in which “even our cooks ... everybody in [the administrative shop] got combat action ribbons.”
The battalion earned the nickname “the Mad Ghosts” for operations that kept the insurgents off-balance, including frequent night raids, Sewell said.
Smith, who went by the callsign “Mayhem 6,” often included the motto “Mayhem from the heartland” in his letters.
But for all his toughness and bravura, Smith was not afraid to show his emotions.
“The tears are literally falling on to my desk. I love every one of these guys,” Smith told the Journal Sentinel in a satellite phone interview in January 2005.
A final battle Sewell, who now runs a security contracting company and a classic car export business, served in the Marine Reserve for about a decade after returning from Iraq, but said his time under Smith’s command is among his most memorable experiences.
“I don’t have any words to describe what we lost — he was just a true, great leader,” he said.
A nonsmoker, the retired colonel had long battled lung cancer, which he attributed to exposure to smoke from oil fires during Desert Storm and burn pits in the Iraq War more than a decade later.
He’d been diagnosed with “asthma-like symptoms” from the Persian Gulf War and later received the cancer diagnosis in 2012 as he was preparing to retire from the Marine Corps, he said in a 2013 American Lung Association of Indiana video.
Following radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, he received a good prognosis in late 2013, he said in the video.
Semrow last saw Smith at a reunion for the Marines of that Iraq deployment, some 60 of whom gathered in Milwaukee in November.
Sewell last saw Smith earlier this year at a more somber occasion, the funeral of Milwaukee police officer Matthew Rittner, a Marine veteran of the 2004 deployment who was killed while serving a search warrant in February.
In late March, Smith posted on Facebook that he’d been hospitalized, and his daughter later said he had been admitted to the intensive care unit, but his death still came as a surprise, Semrow said.
“He seemed invincible,” she said. “I didn’t think he’d ever die.”