Gallego memoir offers blunt assessment of war, Harvard and Congress

Arizona Democrat survived deadly stretch in Iraq

“It’s important to convey when you’re in the military and when you’re in war, how powerless you are, and the only way to really convey that is by bitching about it, but not offering solutions,” Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego says.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“It’s important to convey when you’re in the military and when you’re in war, how powerless you are, and the only way to really convey that is by bitching about it, but not offering solutions,” Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego says. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 9, 2021 at 6:15am

Ruben Gallego counts 11 times he got lucky in Iraq, 11 times during his deployment in Iraq’s Anbar province that he barely escaped death. In his new memoir with “American Sniper” co-author Jim DeFelice, he credits luck — not skill, not training, not God — for surviving.

“I’ve had my run of luck in real life and exhausted it,” Gallego writes. “I’ve lived my eleven lives and will try my best to make my twelfth a good and happy one.”

It’s not luck that Gallego, a Democratic congressman from Arizona whose supporters want him to serve in the Senate someday, wrote “They Called Us ‘Lucky.’” Politicians on the rise often write memoirs, after all. But Gallego says he wrote the book primarily for the men he served with as a lance corporal in Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, and secondarily for “people who want a real view of war.” How potential voters might react wasn’t a concern, Gallego said in a recent interview. “I could have written a book that glorified … me … but that’s not what it is.”

What he provides instead is a profane, warts-and-all account of his deployment as a reservist and the events before and after. During those six months in Iraq, “Lucky” Lima’s moniker turned darkly ironic: They lost 23 men, plus 25 more in the battalion, the most Marines in a single unit killed since the Beirut embassy bombing in 1983.

Gallego avoids the temptation, common to both war stories and political memoirs, to paint himself in a better light than reality. So, he readily shares all the cursing, crude jokes, drinking and insubordination that defined his time in uniform. Gallego also admits to liking it when children would follow him on patrol because that meant mujahideen were less likely to attack, and growing indifferent to the plight of everyday Iraqis over the course of his time there.

Woven throughout the book are snippets of bureaucratic absurdity reminding the reader that “Catch-22” was only fiction in the technical sense. Each chapter starts with Gallego rushing to help Sgt. Jonithan McKenzie, an old friend from Lima in the throes of a mental health crisis after a paperwork snafu led the VA to refuse him treatment. Gallego’s undiminished anger at Pentagon brass who led the war and the ongoing systemic failures to support veterans comes through clearly in the writing, but the congressman declines to offer potential solutions. “This book wasn’t about policy, this book is about reality,” he said. “It’s important to convey when you’re in the military and when you’re in war, how powerless you are, and the only way to really convey that is by bitching about it, but not offering solutions.”

The book follows Gallego’s journey from a poor immigrant’s kid sleeping on the floor in Chicago to a representative shouting gas mask instructions on the House floor on Jan. 6. His first step was Harvard University, where the culture shock got to him. “I was a Chevy Impala guy moving into a Mercedes-Benz world,” he said.

After finishing freshman year, Gallego “flamed out” the next. It was during an “enforced pause,” as he calls it in his book, that Gallego stumbled across a Marine Corps Reserve recruiter and enlisted. (He would later return to Harvard, graduating in 2004.)

Gallego traces his history of snap decisions — after Ed Pastor announced his retirement, Gallego spent “like a minute” considering whether he’d run for the open seat — back to his childhood. “I had a very abusive father who was mentally and physically abusive of me,” he told CQ Roll Call. “It’s those types of decisions that I think, mentally, allowed me to keep moving forward instead of being in a depress[ed] state.”

The book touches upon Gallego’s dim views of Congress. It’s the work that keeps him there, not the prestige or people. “There are very few people here in Congress that if I leave tomorrow will ever give a flying f--- about me,” he said.

Gallego provides a few tea leaves for those trying to augur whether he will primary Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, whose opposition to elements of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package and Sphinx-like statements have enraged progressives.

The text seems to preclude such a run. “It’s possible that under different circumstances, the answer might be different,” Gallego writes. “For now, I’m happy being a congressman.”

But Gallego finished the book back in December, well before the “Draft Ruben” movement sprang up months later. “I never say no to the future,” he said in this month’s interview.

The fancier title alone won’t be enough to entice him to run for the Senate, even if he’s convinced he would win, he said. Instead, he will need to believe that the work itself will make him happier. “I’m a better person when I’m doing things that make me happy — I’m a better husband, I’m a better father, I’m a better member of Congress — instead of just trying to artificially hit these goals that used to give me some type of high but never actually really dealt with the dullness that I had in my body and my soul.”