Stories of service: P.J. Herbert of Shelburne Falls

Published: 11-10-2017 8:17 PM

When P.J. Herbert joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1989, he had just graduated from high school and was looking to add camaraderie and direction to his life. Through 10 years in the military, including three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Somalia, Herbert found that brotherhood he was searching for. 

Herbert, 45, of Shelburne Falls, now spends time with his wife, Kay, his service dog, Bear and his four adult children. His youngest, Adam, is also a Marine. Each year, Herbert looks forward to November, which he refers to as “my month,” when he can get together with fellow Marines to celebrate the Marine Corps’ birthday on Nov. 10 and Veterans Day on Nov. 11. This gives Herbert the chance to talk about his experiences. 

“It’s hard to talk to your spouse and kids about what you’ve seen, but I talk with the guys in the Marine Corps League,” Herbert said, sitting at a Dunkin’ Donuts, his dog under his chair and ready to support Herbert with his balance. 

Herbert suffers from a traumatic brain injury and other physical afflictions from his time in the service. Despite that, he would “do it again in a heartbeat.” 

Herbert’s first two tours were in Iraq during the early 90s and the Gulf War. He was a counterintelligence specialist whose job it was to search for and analyze enemy documents, including searching prisoners he knew could be armed and dangerous. 

“After a while you’re there, even women and children you couldn’t trust,” Herbert said.

In his second tour, Herbert was in northern Iraq providing security services to the embattled Kurds around the time “when Saddam Hussein was gassing them,” he said.  

Traveling through the mountains of northern Iraq, Hebert and a group of British Royal Marines hit a roadside bomb. He is the only survivor of that explosion. He doesn’t remember much from the attack, and has brain damage from it, but what he does remember comes back to him decades later. 

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“I do think about it, and can sometimes hear the propellor or helicopter noise,” Herbert said. 

Herbert was taken from the scene by helicopter, and spent five to six weeks in Incirlik, Turkey recovering. Initially, doctors thought he only had a concussion, and he was back in Iraq mere weeks after the explosion. 

During his tour in Somalia, during what “was supposed to be a humanitarian mission,” fighting broke out between Somali militia and U.S. forces. During one encounter, a Marine was incapacitated out in the battlefield, and Herbert felt obligated to do something.

“One of the guys were shot, and I ran into a kill-zone to pull them out. I provided fire so the team could get across the kill-zone,” Herbert said. “You don’t really think of anything except, ‘that’s one of your guys.’” 

Herbert  was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his valor, the fourth-highest combat award of the U.S. military. 

The 10 years Herbert spent in the Marines granted him membership in an eternal brotherhood, and he thinks about his service and fellow veterans often. He was an officer in the Buckland Police Department after the military, but had to leave his job because of the worsening brain injury, arthritis and a herniated disc — all related to combat.

“We look out for each other,” Herbert said. “There’s no age limit to this brotherhood.” 

Most holidays aren’t particularly important to Herbert, personally, as he spent many in deployment, but Veterans Day allows him something other holidays do not: the opportunity to appreciate and be with those veterans who are still alive, and who may be experiencing the lasting effects of war. Too many veterans, he says, will never have that opportunity.