The first time A.J. Luna escaped death while serving in Iraq, it was thanks to a Marlboro menthol.
It was a blisteringly hot day, and his unit was headed from Baghdad toward LSA Anaconda, an Iraqi air force base about 40 miles north. As part of a mile-long convoy of moving vehicles, they were carrying millions of dollars’ worth of supplies down some of the world’s most dangerous roads.
After hours of traveling, Luna was craving a smoke. When they stopped, he requested a short break before returning to his lookout position atop the tank. He went below for a cigarette and felt the vehicle shift into gear. “We started to move,” he says, “and then—boom.” He could see debris flying above the vehicle, with some even sprinkling down to where he was, down in the tank’s hull.
“All I can remember is just seeing the flash and how loud that explosion was,” he says. “Tell me that’s not the luck of the Irish right there.”
Luna served for 11 months and three weeks in Iraq as a member of the 95th Military Police Battalion, in the second wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. During that year in 2004, he walked a tightrope of danger. Although Luna wasn’t deployed in a direct combat role—he managed convoy communications and logistics—his experience illustrates the significant physical dangers and mental stresses inherent to such support positions. Bombs might go off, snipers might aim your way, accidents may happen. Close calls abound. But through it all, he says, you had to keep moving, and remain hyper-vigilant over 18-hour shifts fueled almost entirely by Red Bull. And, he says, you had to protect your team as though they were your family, no matter how different they might have initially seemed.
The haphazardness of death
The second time Luna escaped death, it was the result of a random switch. Normally, he says, he traveled as the lead gun truck, but that night, his colleague Morciglio had offered to swap, saying: “You guys take the middle, my truck will take the lead.”
It should have been a completely inconsequential exchange, but that front vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. Luna remembers seeing the light flashing from further back in the convoy. “I was the middle truck, and I’m usually the front truck.” He still feels guilty about it now: “You can do whatever you can do, but things happen. And that’s what you try to wrap your head around, but you don’t understand why.”
There had been a casualty just days ahead of his unit’s arrival at Camp Scania, a tent city a few dozen miles south of Baghdad. Hours before the departing unit was due to leave, a soldier was waiting in line at the Post Exchange at the base, when he was hit by a mortar round and killed. “If that doesn’t tell you how fragile this thing is, nothing can tell you,” Luna says.
Throughout Luna’s time in Iraq, the man’s death hung heavy in his imagination. In Korea, where he had served as a cable-system installer as part of a field-artillery unit a few years before, he’d number off the days until he got home. Here, he took it day by day, never certain whether his luck would be any better than that of the man who came before him. “Until I’m down at McGuire Air Force Base, until we’re touching that ground and we’re smelling it, it’s not over.”
After almost a year on the tightrope in Iraq, Luna made the decision to walk away from the Army. In six years, it had given him an education, a sense of self and a purpose. But when a good friend died in circumstances Luna saw as needless, he knew it was time to move on. “At that point,” he says, “I said to myself, ‘You know what, I've given all I could give, all that I want to give.’ ”
Today, Luna lives in Bergen County, New Jersey, where he works as the county’s director of veteran services. It’s a job he finds tremendously rewarding—an opportunity to give back to his community and connect more than 30,000 veterans with services they may not know exist.
Called up to Iraq
In December 2003, when Luna got the call to go to Iraq, he was a 24-year-old college student at Brooklyn College in New York. After enlisting at 18 and spending time in Germany and South Korea, he had returned to the U.S. to further his education while serving as a member of the National Guard. He had just finished his last university final for the semester when his sergeant rang and told him to gather his things. They were headed overseas, he told Luna. “In my typical New York fashion,” he remembers, “I said, ‘Can you be a little more specific? Overseas is a pretty big place.’ He said, ‘We're probably going to go in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.’”
Luna spent Christmas at home with his family. He told them to keep him in their prayers—his mother is a Methodist minister—but to worry about him as little as they could. “I said, ‘Don’t let it take over your mind.’” Then, after a few weeks’ training in New Jersey, his squad was off to Iraq, to serve as military police.
There’s a joke in the army that MP, as military police are known, stands for multi-purpose. In fact, Luna says, they did “anything that the Army needed.” Iraq was a desert war, where battles were fought on roads fringed with palms and pockmarked by explosions. Luna’s squad was needed out on those roads—protecting units, driving trucks and guiding supplies to where they had to be. “It didn't matter what your role was when you were there,” Luna says. “If you were in that country, you were exposed to danger.”
For every one combat soldier, Luna says, there might be 15 people in support roles such as these, working across supply-chain management, maintenance, transportation, health services and anything else that aviation or ground-combat troops might need to do their jobs. Despite the name, they were well within the line of fire: Jessica Lynch, the first female American prisoner of war, was part of the Quartermaster Corps, which helps supply fuel, food and other services.
Military police is among the most dangerous of these positions.
The challenges of becoming a unit
Many members of the New York City-area National Guard who should have joined Luna did not make it to Iraq, he says, citing personal emergencies or health problems. So, when they failed to fill two companies with people from the metropolitan area, the Army assembled soldiers from all over the state, from wildly different backgrounds and circumstances.
Luna grew up in East New York, an area of Brooklyn with some of the city’s highest crime rates, to a mother from the Dominican Republic and a father from Argentina. His neighborhood was diverse and working class—a place where you grow up vigilant, liberal and street smart. In Iraq, however, he served alongside members of the NYPD, men from rural upstate New York, “jerk-offs” from Buffalo and people with a radically different political outlook from his own. At first, there were many cultural clashes. “We had to mesh with that,” he remembers, “and it took a while.”
What helped, however, was a gradual realization that they had more in common than they did dividing them. “Everybody has a family, everybody wants to do well for their family, everybody wants an opportunity,” Luna says. “These are things that are universal principles—who cares what region you’re from?” Working under their first sergeant, an “infantry guy” with very set ideas about what they should be doing, they worked through those problems, eventually becoming closer than they might have been if they’d always gotten along.
“That was one of the reasons that helped us survive a lot of things that we survived,” Luna recalls. While the unit before them had had seven or eight casualties, and the one that replaced them had a casualty in their first three weeks, only one member of Luna’s squad failed to make it home. From the get-go, he says, their sergeant drilled them with one message: No one in the team should die needlessly. Some things were bigger than politics. “It’s not gonna happen because we were careless,” Luna said. “That was the kind of attitude that we had to have.”
The sting of an accidental death
In the end, however, it was an act of carelessness that made Luna decide he had played his part in the Army’s machine—and now it was time to get out, before his luck ran dry.
When they made the difficult transition from day to night missions, many of the older men in their squad needed a chance to adjust to a new schedule and recoup. Even for Luna, then 25, it was a challenging switch. But the command wanted a team of three men, each aged 40, to head out that night without a break or an opportunity to recalibrate. One of them was a close friend. Luna remembers talking to him that night, before he headed out. Their return home to Brooklyn was imminent, and they discussed all the things they wanted to do when they got back.
That evening, there was a rollover accident. The driver seems to have passed out in a moment of exhaustion on his 18-hour shift. When they hit a barricade, the vehicle rolled over. Luna’s friend, the gunner, was killed on impact. Luna was beside himself with grief—that they were so far along in the tour, and that his friend had died for such a silly reason. “I’m bitter about it,” he says. “I think that he died needlessly—he didn’t have to die.” His friend’s son had been on the first tour and survived; now, his father would not be coming home.
When they came home, Luna says, his heart was no longer in it as it once had been. He couldn’t bring himself to take the same chances. At home in Brooklyn, his family had waited anxiously for his arrival; during his deployment, his brother regularly looked up the list of casualties online, searching for Luna’s name. Now, it was time to go back to them.
Adjusting to the home front
For the next few years, Luna pushed himself to finish the college degree he’d put on pause when his sergeant called. While taking classes at Brooklyn College-CUNY on his return, he tried to process the enormity of the things he had seen and experienced with help from a therapist on campus. Some things were easy—like knuckling down and doing as many papers as he could. Others, like riding the subway, brought back painful memories. In the years since, he’s moved out of the city, into the more peaceful suburbs of Bergen County, N.J.
Eventually, Luna wound up working with veteran services—first at CUNY and later at Fairleigh Dickinson College, where he completed his Masters degree. He remembers meeting people who had saved lives but were terrified by college courses; or people who, after being in the highly regimented army environment, found an unstructured college system unnavigable. In either case, Luna showed them where to go.
Now, he lives with his wife and their two young daughters in New Jersey. In three and a half years in the role, he has helped Bergen become the first county in New Jersey to eliminate veteran homelessness. Luna’s office is festooned with certificates, notes of appreciation and photographs of his family.
Outside his door, a printed-off sign reads “I wish losing weight were as easy as losing my mind!” This has been his most recent personal challenge, he says—as he speaks, he sips from a plastic bottle of cherry-red Crystal Light. In a professional context where he no longer skirts death on a daily basis, he says, it’s the least he can do. “I’ve got two little ones that I’ve gotta be there for, so I do it for them.”