I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
My guest today is Michael ‘Top’ Washington, retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant, and Firefighter, now serving as a mental health therapist, dedicated to serving veterans and first responders.
Master Sergeant Washington served in conflict zones across the globe, from Bosnia, to Iraq and Afghanistan.
He lost his son, Mike Washington Jr., a fellow marine, in Afghanistan in 2008.
Michael ‘Top’ Washington:
Yeah, it's interesting to think about my military lineage if you will. My father was in the Marine Corps. At the end of Korea. I think in the Marine Corps there's that pull, there's that family history. I think that's maybe all services. All branches have that pull. Certainly there was that for me. I just always knew I was going to go into the Marine Corps. Much to the chagrin of my dad who wanted me to go to college like all good parents, they want you to go to college. I had the grades and I played football, and I was in the ROTC. But I wanted to be a Marine first and do that.
So I enlisted in September of 1980 and left for boot camp two days after high school in June of 1981. The funny thing is, I was just all set and gung ho for some kind of combat arms thing, infantry, something. I went on an open contract, which means they're going to put you where the Marine Corps needs you, and so I ended up as a pay clerk. I didn't even know the Marine Corps had pay clerks. I just never gave it any thought. I was a disbursing clerk. Man, I was disappointed. I just had no idea that I was going to be sitting behind a desk. I did that for my entire seven years of straight active duty.
I think when I think about paying penance to something, that was my time. I did not enjoy my job in the Marine Corps at all. I made good friends and met some really great people, but no satisfaction. Towards the end of my second enlistment, I have two kids now and I'm so unhappy with being in the Marine Corps that I decided to get out of the Marine Corps and I looked for a job that maybe would give me that sense of purpose that I missed in the Marine Corps. So when I did my list, police and fire came up. I went to a class, an introduction to the fire service, and the gentleman who taught it, Steve Kochel from Fallbrook Fire Department in Southern California, in San Diego County, he sold it to me. Man, I said, "This is what I've been looking for."
So I started working, taking classes, joined their volunteer program and I got off active duty and went right into the fire department and just loved it. It was everything that I wanted. There was adventure. I was doing a job that people talk about, but not many people really want to do it. Made good friends. It was just awesome. But at the same time, I'm missing that experience in the military. Camp Pendleton was next door to Fallbrook, and they were just starting a brand new light armored vehicle unit there. I'd been watching the creation of these vehicles, LAV-25 over the years. I said, "Well, let me take a look. If it's supposed to be, then it's supposed to be. Otherwise, maybe my military career ended as a pay clerk.
Then I remember going over there and talking to the sergeant major of the unit and there was about 10 people in the unit at the time. It was brand new. He was excited. It was like, "Oh, did you come off active duty? Yeah, we need some active duty experience." Then he came down to the MOS. He goes, "Who was your MOS?"
Now when I tried to get into recon and a couple other units on active duty, when they hear my MOS, they say, "Well, that doesn't apply here." So I didn't really want to tell them, but I said, "I was a disbursing clerk." He was still excited, but he wanted me to be an admin person in the unit. This was probably the only time in my Marine Corps career that I was able to really just tell the Marine Corps, this is how it's going to be. It's either going to be like this, or I'm out.
I told the sergeant major, "With all due respect, I want to be in the line unit. I want to be on a vehicle. If that can't happen, okay. I appreciate where your needs are, but I'll pass." I started to walk out, and he said, "Well, hold on a second. Is that it?" I go, "Yeah, Sergeant Major. I'm going to go talk to the Air Force about maybe being a flight medic or something like that. Something that's going to connect with my fire department medical stuff." He goes, "All right, we'll give you a try." I ended up with the line unit and it was everything that I had been looking for in the Marine Corps and it was great. It was a great unit. Great bunch of people. That's when I deployed to Desert Storm.
Yeah, it was interesting. We had just done a two week training up here in Yakima, Washington. Again, we were at Camp Pendleton, so we just got back from that and a couple weeks later, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the 82nd headed out. Then the 7th Marines head out. Initially this was kind of, "Oh, this is not going to be anything. Everything will go back to the way it was." But then it just kept unfolding, unfolding, and unfolding. Now reserve units are starting to be called up.
I remember getting kind of excited about that prospect, and it was just dominating the news and units were just feeding into Saudi Arabia trying to protect the kingdom. There was something otherworldly about it when you think this is your first time going to war. Where you kind of don't really believe this is happening. Then other units in your division are getting called up and you're not called up yet, and you're getting anxious. I'll admit to having that feeling like, "I will get called up, and ‘I'll miss this war’ if you will. This thing that I've been practicing in my head for my whole life. Then we got called up. Then it's like, "Oh, this is real. This is really happening." Saying goodbye to my family.
Our unit was light armored infantry, we're reconnaissance and screening forces for the main marine force- that is to say that we're at the forward edge of the battle area. We do raids across the borders. When they attack, we try to slow them down while the other forces come to play. We're at the pointy end of the spear. We're not Seals, we're not forced recon, we're regular Marine Corps infantry on wheels. At the time we were light armored infantry, which the infantry guys will call lazy ass infantry. But riding is better than walking any day.
There was not that elite status, we were just regular guys out there. I remember going to Camp Lejeune and watching all these units starting to pour in. All these reserve units. We had a formation one day when the commandant came out to talk to us, General Gray. There were 24,000 Marines in this formation. It was unbelievable. You're watching units pour in and pour in. We didn't have our vehicles yet, because they were onboard the ship. So they were talking about us being line infantry. At some point when we were out in the desert at the firing range the Marine Corps had set up, they said our ship literally came in. That's where we were when the air war started.
The port that we were at had some SCUD impacts and it wasn't until later, reading The General's War and Atkinson's book about Desert Storm that I really understood what was going on. Otherwise, I knew what was going on about 10, 20 feet around me for sure. Everything else was speculation. But I kind of said, "Okay, this is really happening. Those were SCUDS that we heard impact in the area." And patriots going off in the other direction. All right, we're at war.
We got all our vehicles and we headed north and it was just a sight to see, just how much hardware was moving forward. It was just a never ending stream of tanks, LAVs, trucks, Bradleys, helicopters flying forward. It was amazing. It was amazing to see just what this country can accomplish in a short time when motivated to do so. At some point we broke off and we were at the border with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. So now the people in front of us are bad guys, and whoever's behind us hopefully are good guys. But it was a very porous screen line, because I think our company of a dozen vehicles was covering about 17 miles of screen line of footage out there.
Our job was to be that trip wire for when they came across, which they eventually did at Kopje. Then send our people across the line, escort different units that are going to go out and do some deeper reconnaissance. Then the other part too, was to report back on who was in front of us and what we were going to do about it. At some point we got word that there was going to be a B-52 strike right there in front of our position. They told us to pull back. We heard that later, because we didn't pull back. We dug in where we were at, and they said, "Button up in your vehicles and just hold on to your helmets."
Unfortunately for us, we were going to miss the show. So we got all the good food that we had been squirreling away in the vehicles, and we were sitting on top of the LAV like it was a drive in movie. Eighteen hundred came around when the air strike was supposed to hit, and nothing. Nothing had happened. We're cursing the Air Force. We're like, "They're probably in England right now having drinks. They couldn't be bothered to do this." Then I remember one of my scouts looked up and he said, "Hey, I can see some planes up there." You could just barely see them. They were so high and so small, if it wasn't just crystal clear out that particular day and the oil smoke wasn't blowing our direction, you wouldn't have been able to see them.
Almost as soon as he saw, "Hey, there's the planes." The bombs started to impact. I'm not exactly sure what this three plane cell was carrying, but I know the B-52s could carry 108 bombs apiece. So that's 325, or 750 pound bombs that they were carrying. It just didn't seem to stop. It was just like a waterfall. You could feel the heat. You could feel the concussion. You could feel it in your chest. We weren't dangerously close, but we were closer than what we should've been. Again, it was just an amazing sight. Later when we went into that position, we found a couple of vehicles, but we couldn't tell what they were. So I don't know if they actually hit some people or whoever was shooting at us from that position got word, and saw our leaflet that said, "If you don't leave right now, you're going to get bombed." That was the B-52 strike.
We had a number of incidents where A10s and Harriers were helping us out for close air support, and that was amazing as well. Our big thing was just not to be mistaken for Iraqi and get shot up by our own guys. So we were successful in that.
Initially our unit had moved forward into Kuwait before the actual ground war had started because of our reconnaissance nature. But yeah, later on we moved into Kuwait City and people were delirious. They were just so happy to see us. Guns shooting in the air. Probably the biggest thing, the most impactful thing that happened to me was we were at a street corner. It was like a big party. Like a huge block party, but the size of a city having a party. This older man walked up to me through the crowd. It was almost like he had a Beeline towards me. He just shook my hand and looked me in the eyes and said, "Thank you." Then he walked off.
For me, and my subsequent deployments, I felt like that was the reason why I spent six months away from my family and possibly have Gulf War Syndrome now, and various issues that I carried, was for that. For that man right there. I don't know who he was. I don't know anything about him. Nothing about him. But there was an earnestness. There was a human connection if you will, that we had with that handshake and that thank you. There was nothing ostentatious about it. It was just one human to another. Thank you for what you did.
Because yes, that was a brutal occupation. There was a police station, I think it was a police station, that you could see the cells that they were keeping Kuwaiti resistance fighters in. There was another building that we went into that you could see blood on the walls and between that and the stories from the citizens, you got a pretty good impression of what that occupation was like.
After Desert Storm, I went into the counterintelligence business. The unit that I worked with in Bosnia was called the Allied Military Intelligence Brigade. That was the overarching title of the big group. Then I was with a smaller group there, working in Tuzla, a multinational division north. Where the army base at Tuzla was.
Our unit was originally put- When I say unit, it was a very small group. It was a multinational group. It had a house outside in the city. This area here, and this is right before I got there, I wasn't involved in this, but some Serb nationalists had come in and attacked that house. So right before I got there, we were put behind the wire at the Eagle Base in Tuzla, former Yugoslav air base. Then we'd go out into the countryside and work. Trying to run down these separatist groups who were doing their best. They were still attacking Muslims that were trying to relocate back to their villages after that, and the cleansing. Then there were also other groups that were openly fighting and doing their best to turn over the Dayton Peace Accords.
It was an interesting deployment in that you got to see just how brutal these groups of people who were living next door to each other can be. If you like, you think to yourself, "Well, that can't happen in America." Well, I saw it in Bosnia. Where suddenly people were categorized as being different. Somebody that you went to high school with, somebody you played soccer with, suddenly is standing guard over you in a concentration camp. That happened. That was for real. So that can happen here if we're not careful.
But again, my work was of a counterintelligence nature. My big human to human contact take away was in a town called Srebrenica where in 1995, anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 Muslim men and boys were taken out into a forest near town and massacred by the Serbs. For the populace that survived, there's a very real feeling that that was going to happen again as soon as we left. I remember talking to a teenage girl, I was actually sharing an MRE that I happened to have. She talked about her fears about what it was like for her. She was younger and this was happening, and how the war was. She looked at me, and just like that man in Kuwait City, she just looked at me and said, "Thank you for being here. Thank you for being here." I showed her pictures of my family. Again, it was a human to human moment. We can talk all day about oil, we can talk all day about various things, but at some point when you're that soldier, sailor, airman, marine on the ground working with people, it becomes a human thing.
You're going to run into bad people, that's a fact. But you're also going to run into people that, "Oh, I'm here for this person. I'm trying to help this person right here." That's how I felt with this young lady. Her thank you meant everything to me.
That was an interesting tour. 9/11 happened and I had a number of units that needed counterintelligence people, so they were calling me off the hook. I got a call from the unit that owned me, Marine Forces Pacific in Hawaii and they said, "Okay, so we need you to go to Tampa and then you're going to go forward." Forward was kind of nebulous. So I'm like, "Okay good. I just need orders." I remember getting to Tampa well, if you've ever been to MacDill, there's only really one way to get on that base, or a couple ways.
I remember showing up and man, it was a hard base to get onto. There were airmen with machine guns looking like everybody who's walking around this base. This is not even 30 days after 9/11. So everything was a threat, including a guy walking up in civilian clothes. But here's my orders. It took a while for them to let me on base. No, that's good. I'm glad there was that security. But nobody knew who I was or where I was supposed to go. So it looked like I was going to stay in Tampa. I was kind of disappointed, because if I'm going to get called up, it was important to me to go forward.
So at some point, they got me a shared apartment out in town and I was settling into the idea that I was just going to work behind a desk. Then somebody called somebody and it was General Harrell. He was a special ops guy. He called somebody and said, "Hey, we're looking for this Washington guy. He's supposed to be in Saudi Arabia right now." So as quickly as everything happened, it pivoted on a point and the next thing I know I'm flying into Riyadh, and I'm working for a group that was based out of Riyadh.
This group partly oversaw a lot of operations throughout the Middle East. My job there though, was actually to help run operations and be the NCOIC of that group in Riyadh. However there were times when they were looking for a counterintelligence person, so I was able to move forward with that. Like I said, going to Pakistan, working in Kabul, doing a vulnerability assessment and helping open the American embassy there.
That's some of the work I did in some of these places. Yemen. Probably the first place I worked when I got there. I was still trying to find the people who attacked the USS Cole. That was the main mission there. Then being back in Saudi Arabia and working with the Saudi government, trying to track some of these people down. There were a number of small missions that would come up and just say, "Hey, we've got a job for you." You'd go out for a couple weeks and come back, and be the NCOIC, make sure people are getting letters and writing letters. Actually sending emails, it was email time. Desert Storm was letter time. Yeah, it was a really interesting tour. Really interesting.
It's a combination of accessing the information that's out there, and then working with the Saudi Arabian government and their intelligence apparatus and who they know and who's where and things like that. How porous is the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. At that point, we wanted ships to be able to call into that harbor again. We had to make sure that security was set up to do that, and part of that was making sure that we knew the route to travel into Yemen from Saudi Arabia and what tribes were out there that would facilitate that crossing of borders and so on and so forth. It was really interesting work. But there was a fair amount of research. Just computer research that had to be done.
If you will, shoot, what was that movie where they got Bin Laden? Zero Dark Thirty. Take away the Seal part of it at the end, but if you look at all the work that had to go on the front end from the people who are all computer systems all day long to the people who are working with the Saudi Arabians, to the people who are doing surveillance or doing these things. All that stuff had to happen before the guy, the pointy end of the spear goes into that building and does that. Sometimes it's boring. Sometimes it's like, "Okay, I've just got to go through this other report and link this report up with that report." Kind of like police work. Then other times it's that boring surveillance thing where you're sitting in the car, or you're walking around and you're waiting for this person who may or may not show.
It's also working in pairs or a very small group as well. You can't do surveillance by yourself. It's just too easy to lose somebody. So you would work in a team. But you could find yourself at a remote end of the triangle if you will.
Yeah, so Djibouti, Ethiopia. Went into Eritrea, Sudan. Again, those are just hot places for counter insurgency operations. So we have a base in Djibouti called Camp Lemonnier, and at the time, when we were just starting to move back in there, it was really just the ruins of an old French fort. So we were moving in there and looking to improve it. That was a pretty hot place. Both literally hot, and hot in terms of the terrorism threat and what was going on just over the border. So our job was to monitor that and help the gunslingers go out and do the stuff that they do. Going into Ethiopia and working with those governments. A lot of it was working with other governments and their people, getting their cooperation. Again, just like everywhere else I worked with counterintelligence. There was desk work, there was surveillance work, there was working with the governments and it was really good strong work.
Djibouti is like France's Okinawa. I guess the army regiment is there, that's their largest presence outside of France. Then outside of their base they have a Foreign Legion base which was next door to ours. My thing was just interaction with them about security, about what they know. Again, that interaction with a foreign government, with that foreign entity to try and work with them so we can shore up that assistance and that connectivity if you will that we can work together. I can go to them and find out what they know, and they feel comfortable enough to share that with me. I didn't go out there and do any of that crazy stuff that the Legion is known for. I worked with their intel people and their leadership a little bit.
It’s interesting when you sit here in the United States and you hear these various names, you realize how we feel about this person, and let’s use Gadaffi as an example: We know how we feel about him and our history with him, but you don't realize how he's looked and viewed to the outside world. To a number of other places. So when you think that he's being invited to a conference, it's like, "Why would they do that?" Then when you listen to them talk, it's like, "Oh, why wouldn't they do that. He's a player for this country."
It was that education piece. I ran into that in Bosnia where, from the American or the Western view, they're portrayed as this, and they are really those people. But I had to get in tune with how my host country, and my allies, were looking at him. Then that way I was better able to work with them. I couldn't go to a country who viewed Gadaffi as a good person, as an ally and just start tearing them down. I had to look at him as a neutral entity, not blowing hot or cold with them, one way or another. They already know how the United States feels about Gadaffi. They don't need Mike Washington to pile on.
Let me start out by saying that June 14th was probably the culmination of 40 some odd years of pain, trauma, things that we as a society and especially people in uniform, whether it's law enforcement, fire, or military, we've been taught and encouraged to just push away, to laugh at, to drink, to deal with the things that we work with.
And then for me finally, it was that day at the fire station where two Marines pulled up with my son's mom in the back in their white suburban, and I knew exactly what was getting ready to happen because I had rehearsed this day when he left for Iraq and then when he left again for Afghanistan, I asked, "What if this day happens?" And sure enough it did happen.
And that quickened, I think, my challenges, my issues, and maybe the collapse of the façade, that mask that I wore for so long, like so many of us do. And it was just a downhill slide, a rather quick one from there that led me at some point to standing on a bridge, just waiting to go over, just waiting for that one little urge to push me over, and instead I got a pull back, if you will, a presence that pulled me back in a voice that was my son's, and said, "This doesn't end here dad, this is, you got work to do."
I think about this from time to time, looking directly over my computer screen at a picture of him. I think he joined for a lot of the same reasons that I did. I think it's difficult for a young man who has a sister in the Army and a dad who's in the Marines to go to college. I'm trying to get into his head with this. So he's like, "Well, I've got to go. I can't sit in the classroom, when my sister's in the army. I can't do it." But then there's that part two where that was just the soul he was. He wasn't the big gunslinger, let's go get them, barrel chested freedom fighter guy. He was a gentle soul. He was that kid that his mother and I brought him up to be just that helper, making the world a better place in small increments. Him and his sister.
That was his statement when we were listening to the Fallujah fight on NPR. It was that classic road trip with my son down to California to get some stuff from my dad who had passed away. When I asked him, I said, "I get the feeling that you're not going to college." He goes, "No." I go, "I get the feeling you're going in the Marine Corps." He says, "Yes." Very sheepishly, I might add. Almost like he was embarrassed to say it, or he didn't want to hear me tell him no he couldn't or whatever. I had to ask him why. At first, I had to tell him that there is absolutely no push, nothing that he needs to do to satisfy me as a man, or as a person, as a citizen. He's that guy already. I had to make that known to him that I just thought he was a great person, great human, great son, that I had no complaints with him, or his sister, that going in the Marine Corps is not necessary. Is not necessary for me to go, "Yeah, there you go. Family lineage." It just doesn't need to happen.
Although I know that was probably a bit of a pull as well. But when he told me that he just knows that there's people out there who need to be protected and being a Marine Corps rifleman is probably the way to affect that most directly. I didn't have anything I could come back with. I think I may have mentioned college. Where you can be a Marine officer later, go to college first. But I kind of knew that was the path he was on, and that was his main motivation. It was pretty pure. I couldn't fault him. Still didn't want him to go, but I was proud of what his motivations were.
Afghanistan would become kind of a backwater. We took our eye off the ball, and we snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory I think with our focus on Iraq. Consequently, when 2/7 went to Afghanistan, they weren't in charge of an operational area that would normally be assigned to at least a division. So for the civilians and the audience, that's 800 Marines recovering an area that 15,000 Marines would cover normally if we went by the book. Being a counterinsurgency war, you need a lot of people. You need a lot of eyes on people. A lot of capability to go and immediately seize upon intelligence of a bomb making factory or a concentration of insurgents. We just didn't have it there. It just wasn't there.
So we had these companies that much like Sebastian Junger's Restrepo, that fire base, that FOB out in the middle of nowhere. You just have a company of Marines or a company of soldiers out there, and 2/7 were those people. Just going out every day, being blown up, being shot, being wounded. At the end of, I believe it was a five and a half month tour, 20 Marines had been killed and 125 were wounded. Maybe 150 were wounded to varying degrees, including a lot of amputations and just some devastating burns from the IEDs that were there. So they paid a price. They paid a big price for us not paying more attention to what we were sent to Afghanistan to do.
When Michael was in Iraq, I'd email, I think I even wrote a couple letters to people in his squad. People need to get mail. There's nothing worse than mail call and everybody got a letter except you. I did that for my guys when I was in Saudi Arabia, I'd write to their parents, "Hey, your kid's doing great, blah, blah, blah." It was an extension of that. I wanted them to know that we're okay here and there's a lot of these guys that I knew personally, because I'd go to 29 Palms. I'd go to the 2/7 Marine Corps Ball. I lost not just a son, but I lost nephews in Afghanistan. I lost nephews after Afghanistan, because 2/7 has lost, I don't know what the count is, over 20 to suicide since that 2008 deployment. I needed them to know that we're all right. I needed them to know that I didn't want anybody to go out and get payback. I wanted them to go out and do their job, protect each other, and come home. I just wanted to be encouraging to them. That was my goal. That was it.
I know as for leaders, as a senior staff MCO, I know these losses weighed heavy on them, so I needed to be there for them in that capacity as well. Because if you're going to lose somebody, you can't help but take it personal. Like, "What did I do wrong here? Maybe I shouldn't have, maybe I should've. If I did more of this, less of that." I just needed them to know that there's no blame here. There's no blame. This is war. This is what happens. Just get the rest of the Marines home as soon as you can. Do the job and get home. That was my goal.
My ex-wife did a great job. For all the deployments that I went on, she had to fill multiple roles and not watch TV because you don't want to know what the news is going to look like. Then the added burden too is being in the reserves. So you're living in this community, and this is not a society now that understands military service.
While people were very gracious and rallied around, there's not a lot of people who can say, "Yeah, I remember when my dad went." Or, "I remember what it was like." There was that piece of isolation that must've been just terrible to deal with. Like I said, Desert Storm had letters. I was in the office enough time to get emails sent out. Sometimes that wasn't easy either. That instant communication was not the best thing. I just can't imagine how difficult that would be.
I know when my son in law Eric deployed to Afghanistan, I can't remember when that was. It was the year that Marshawn Lynch did his big run in Seattle that brought the house down, one of his great runs, because he was home on leave for that. Him and my daughter went to that game. That's the year if we have to put a point on it. I felt a small part of it, because I wanted to be there for my daughter and even though I knew he was in a very safe, protected place, I also know how things happen. So I felt a little bit of that, but nothing compared to what the typical spouse, and I'm going to say wife, because it's almost always a wife, goes through when their husband deploys. It's a burden we can't understand. Me as a Marine, a civilian, you just don't get it. TV can't do it justice. I don't know, there should be a TV special where you talk to spouses about what it was like. Because America needs to understand what that's like. Because it's huge.
I'm grateful for my service. I'm grateful for the men and women that I've worked with. Just outstanding people. I think that for this country to make that pivot that we need to make, I need more of my veterans to get together and provide a centrist forward operating base. Something in the middle. Because I'm convinced that we are all just a few points to the left and right lateral limits. Most of us are not on either extreme. We're the silent majority. Maybe it's time for us to stop being silent. Maybe that's what we need. Because we're hearing a lot of noise from the extreme edges and my experience in Bosnia really makes me think that, "You know, it happened there." Yugoslavia was a first rate country. Then it happened. It can happen here.
That was Master Sergeant Michael Washington. After his military career, Master Sergeant Washington served in the Seattle Fire Department, and is now a mental health therapist with a practice focusing on veterans and first responders, helping them work through mental health challenges and pursue ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’.
To hear him speak more about that, tune into my interview with Mike Washington on our other podcast, Burn the Boats. You can find it wherever you’re listening to this episode today.
Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Warriors In Their Own Words.