An Iraqi sabbatical

Wes Gray needed a break from Chicago Booth. Instead of backpacking around Europe, the “adrenaline junkie” joined the Marines.

By Jason Kelly
Photograph courtesy Wes Gray

Wes Gray needed a break from Chicago Booth. He’d arrived in 2002, fresh from an undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “The PhD program here is like a total nightmare your first two years,” Gray says. “You’re kind of locked in a cave, and all you do is work—day in, day out.”

Instead of backpacking around Europe, the “adrenaline junkie” joined the Marines. Military service had always interested him, and the regret would haunt him forever if he did not enlist. “It’s something that I knew I wanted to do, but I kept pushing off the timing of it,” he says. “So it finally came to a head, and I said, ‘I have to do this now.’”

Gray signed up in 2004, with the United States fighting wars on two fronts. By July 2006, after serving as an intelligence officer in Asia, he found himself immersed in one of them. Now 29 and back at the business school, Gray has published Embedded: A Marine Corps Adviser Inside the Iraqi Army (Naval Institute Press), about his deployment in Al-Anbar Province.

Wes Gray, right, befriended Iraqi soldiers in his role as a Marine adviser.

The book grew out of a journal he kept in Iraq to share with his wife, Katie, and the children they hoped to have someday, to show them “your dad wasn’t just some loser; he actually did something.” Gray pared it down from about 1,000 pages laden with personal details to a breezy 240 connecting his experience with the conflict’s broader context.

He was a lieutenant on a transition team training Iraqi soldiers (jundi) to operate independent of U.S. forces. “It sounds easy: send guys in, train up this foreign military, have them stand up so we can stand down,” Gray says. “What people don’t realize is the [cultural] friction creates immense challenges.”

Gray’s culture shock comes from the jundi’s conduct and tactics, which complicate the mission and, at times, compromise safety. A routine search for insurgents and improvised explosive devices exposes him to the “Iraqi fire blossom,” a random spray of ammunition in response to an attack. When a hidden insurgent fires a single AK-47 round, the jundi respond with “a symphony of gunfire” more threatening than the enemy bullet.

The Marines have a system for establishing a defensive position in hostile situations, expressed in the acronym SAFE (Security, Avenues of Approach, Fields of Fire, Entrenchment). Gray coins a term for the Iraqi method—REST (Relax, Eat, Sleep, Tea). But what Gray first perceives as laziness he comes to see as “a survival mechanism they use to cope with an extreme environment.” As one Iraqi soldier puts it, “If I already live in hell, why does it matter if I live or die?”

Institutional corruption also contributes to deflating morale. In the Iraqi military, superior officers skim money from the Ministry of Defense, as Gray discovered when he fielded jundis’ payday complaints. It’s a customary “form of payment,” he learns, a perk of achieving a certain status.

Gray enhances his own status among the Iraqis by learning to speak Arabic and trying to understand the culture, as opposed to imposing American military will. Attempting to see the world from the Iraqi perspective was more like field research than a military operation. “When you put on your professor hat as opposed to your Marine hat,” Gray says, “these people open up to you a lot more, and they’re more willing to hear what you have to say about things.”

Although he also procured some racy magazines for the soldiers’ entertainment, Gray describes his personal photo album as the secret weapon for building relationships with Iraqis. Studying the culture before his deployment, he identified the paramount importance of family. A simple scrapbook, he writes, refutes the prevailing impression of Americans “as Godless heathens, more concerned with material wealth than family.”

Gray’s family has expanded since he returned home in February 2007—he and Katie have an infant daughter, Alice, born May 14. He plans to limit his combat to the job market after he completes his dissertation on “Information Exchange and the Limits of Arbitrage” next year. “Packed a lot of adventure, but now that I’ve got a kid, all my motivation level is down,” Gray says, “so I’m pretty much done.”

Return to top