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CHAMPAIGN — When August Christhilf was first deployed to Iraq, it was the Fourth of July, and a friend told him it was 120 degrees.

That’s not a safe temperature to take a chicken out of the oven, and his fellow Marines were chugging water off palettes to ward off heatstroke.

Now a major in Marine Corps Reserves, Christhilf wanted to join the Corps exactly because he thought it would be tough.

His dad was an English professor at Eastern Illinois University. Christhilf wrestled and played football at Charleston High School, then, like Dad, studied literature in college.

“I thought about becoming a teacher,” he said. “But I always wanted to be a Marine. As a kid, I was always running around in the trees in camouflage. I’d heard the Marines were the toughest.”

So after graduating in 2002, he enlisted.

“The Marine Corps takes some of its officers from the enlisted ranks, so for me it was a good route to become an officer,” he said.

As a grunt, he was a rifleman in infantry. As an officer, he worked in ground intelligence, surveillance.

After training in California and Quantico, Va., he was soon in Kuwait, then Iraq.

That summer of 2004, “we spent a month acclimating.” That included wearing scarfs like the enemy. They slept in tents, or Iraqi houses.

You didn’t touch anything metal, he said. Even a water can could burn you.

Oddly, in that desert deployment he saw snow, but more often sandstorms that could be mixed with rain.

“Everything was orange,” he said.

That was not a good thing. Iraqi insurgents know how to handle the storms. And some of the storms were bad enough that coalition aircraft couldn’t fly.

“Sand gets into every orifice,” Christhilf said. “You just got used to it.”

In the 2004-05 deployment, his unit was sent into the Karbala region in central Iraq, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad.

“We were tasked with training the new Iraqi army,” he said. “As a green infantryman, I knew enough to train them.”

Some were former members of Saddam Hussein’s army.

But “I enjoyed that a lot. I made a lot of friends with the Iraqis.”

In the power vacuum after the fall of Hussein’s government, Muqtada al-Sadr organized supporters into a political movement with a military force known as the Mahdi Army.

That stopped the training.

“My unit was sent into the offensive in Najaf,” he said. “We got into fighting that lasted a couple months. There were daily combat operations.”

Improvised explosive devices were especially deadly early in the long war. Marines drove in Humvees that had no doors. Later, steel armor kits were bolted on, making the vehicles less maneuverable.

“We lost Marines,” Christhilf said.

But he had learned a great deal.

“My heart stayed with the infantry,” he said. “I learned about good leadership and bad leadership, and how I would want to lead Marines in the future.”

After officer candidate school, he was a second lieutenant, on his way back to Iraq for his second deployment in 2007.

This time, he was with a small team of Marines in Anbar province. Marines fought with insurgents in urban warfare.

Then, in “the middle of nowhere” near the Syrian border, he spent seven months trying to stop smugglers.

They weren’t worried about eggs or cigarettes; weapons were a main concern, as were insurgents.

“We captured some high-value people we were looking for,” he said.

The Marines had to work with Iraqi officials and their subordinates, the major said: “It was eye-opening, the level of corruption.”

In Walid, his unit was near the ruins of a British fort.

“We were standing on the Silk Road; it made me realize the length of the history there,” he said.

He returned to Iraq in 2009.

It was a platoon for ground surveillance, “eyes and ears on the ground,” he said.

“That was awesome,” Christhilf said. “I had a group of about 50 Marines.”

On the list was a gunnery sergeant. A gunnery sergeant works with an officer, “a symbiotic relationship.” In this case, he discovered his sergeant was a Charleston High School graduate he knew.

“We played football for the Trojans,” the major said.

As leader of the surveillance team, Christhilf traveled across a wide area in trucks and helicopters to get their reports.

Back in central Illinois, Christhilf is in industrial operations management. He and his wife have children aged 13, 12, 6, 2 and 1.

He’s a Marine For Life Network representative now that he’s in the reserves. Christhilf helps Marine veterans find jobs and improve their lives by coordinating and growing a professional network in downstate Illinois. Contact information is at his LinkedIn page.

Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at pwood@news-gazette.com.

Reporter

Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).