When we first heard about Gaurav Taneja, he was in Iraq, fighting the war as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Reserve Corps. Whiles we waited for him to return to share his experiences, his father kept us posted by e-mail, telling us that they were eagerly awaiting his return.Taneja is now back in the Bay Area and bears the proud distinction of being a war veteran. Whether or not we agree on the need for war, there is no denying the courage required of a human being to put his life in danger, to endure hardship, and to fight for what he believes is the call of his nation.
“We were due to return home from training in January when our group was called back and told we weren’t going back home yet. And that’s when we kinda knew that something was on, and we were probably going to go to war,” says Taneja, who has been part of the 2nd battalion of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for about six years now. According to him, “the Marines are a pretty special branch. We do land, air, and sea. Our job is to go to the frontlines and destroy the enemy.” Taneja is a nuclear, biological, and chemical defense specialist in the Marines. “I teach marines to survive in nuclear, chemically, or biologically contaminated environments, which is possible. I teach them how to detect contamination on them and around them, how to report contamination to headquarters, how to make sure that if they do get contaminated, that they clean themselves up, and so on,” he explains.
When Taneja’s battalion was summoned to Iraq, they were prepared for war and hoped for the best “Also, it was something that we had been training for all of last year, and we just wanted to get it over with,” says Taneja matter-of-factly.
On Feb. 21, 2003, Taneja and his battalion went to Kuwait and spent a month there before crossing the border into Iraq at an undisclosed location. Once in Iraq, they spent two months fighting in the war. On the way to Baghdad they stopped in An Nasariya for a day or so, where they liberated ambushed troops in Al Jiraf a few miles north. A few days later they were in Al Fijar where they arrested a general who was traveling to An Nasariya, and who was up there with the Baath party members, and also arrested a colonel. When they later found out about the liberation of Al Fijar by U.S. troops in May, “we were really proud of the fact that it (Al Fijar) was the first town liberated in Iraq,” says Taneja.
In spite of a 13-week intense preparation for war, as well as many other routine training sessions, Taneja concedes that nothing comes close to the actual experience. He recalls a three-hour firefight in Baghdad, which he admits, was a little scary at times. In that particular instance, the Marines fought a Palestinian militia group that was shooting at them and driving at high speeds towards their position from an Iraqi Intelligence Compound. “For whatever reason, we didn’t have the usual of support of artillery, tanks, helicopters, or planes,” says Taneja. Hence, basically it ended up being a gunfight on the Marines’ side as they were getting bombed and getting rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) aimed at them, claiming eight casualties that night. “There is nothing that can really train you for the real thing, so you have to harden your body, harden your mind.”
Taneja’s experiences in Iraq range from close encounters with the enemy, to kind gestures by the locals. “When we were in Iraq, everybody that we talked to, was first of all, not only very very happy to see us, but also surprised to see that not all the military over there was white or black, but also had Indians. For them, such a concept was hard to digest. But for us, that’s what makes us stronger—diversity.”
“Just about everybody was like ‘down with Saddam’ and ‘U.S. No. 1.’ They brought us flowers at times. And one of them, when I gave their child some candy, brought me some cold water. And it was really great. It was a hot, hard day,” Taneja recalls.
For the Chicago-born, India-raised Taneja, joining the Marines is the culmination of a lifelong dream. His family moved to India when he was 2½ and returned to the U.S. when he was 15. Taneja was a senior in high school when he signed up with the Marines, which he chose to join not only “because it is the hardest of all, but also the best.”
“Actually, joining the Marines helped me to get some direction in life, get a little more focused. The reason I joined the military is because I have wanted this since childhood. … this is like a dream come true for me. The other thing was, being an American citizen, it just seemed like the right thing to do,” he says. Having lived in India, the issue of patriotism did sort of arise in his mind, but from a practical point of view, “I am an American citizen, and that is where my patriotism should lie,” he reasons.
Like any other parents, Taneja’s parents, too, were a little apprehensive with his decision to be a soldier. “I signed the contract in October 96 and July 97, and both times, they were nervous, a little scared. But I told them I would be alright. … I told them I would come back home a lot, which I did. I missed my family, but it was definitely worth it. I would definitely do it again,” he says of his life as a Marine.
“I think, in a perfect world, there would be no war. But we don’t live in a perfect world and there are people like Saddam Hussain and others who want to raise havoc. And I know that people may believe we went to war for oil, which is possible. You know, we don’t go everywhere in the world that is a hotspot. But I for one know that Saddam Hussain was an evil man who assembled weapons of mass destruction … and I am 100 percent sure that he had at one time planned or would have planned to use it on us. So I think we really did the right thing.”
Currently, Taneja is majoring in business adminstration at UC Riverside, after which he would like to go for a master’s degree. For the larger future, he plans to work in business communications, management information systems, or federal law enforcement. “After that, wherever life takes me, life takes me,” he says.
For now, he likes to hang out with friends and is an avid soccer fan. He misses India a lot, especially since his mother and sister live in New Delhi, and he misses them. And then, “food can never be the same,” he says, as he adds laughing, “you know, Indian from India is Indian food.” He confesses he especially missed it while fighting in Iraq. “Now that I am back, I have been checking out Indian food like there is no tomorrow.”
The 23-year-old Taneja, who served in the Iraq war as a corporal in the Marines doesn’t know whether he will sign up again, although he does say that a promotion to sergeant could influence that decision. However, he will always wear the proud title “Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran.”
In parting, this young veteran shares a few words that underline the stark reality of war: “One realization that comes to mind after all this is that the gung-ho ness of war goes away when you get shot at and you have your fellow Marines get hurt. After that it is all about surviving.”