Noon on St. Patrick’s Day, 2008, is a date indelibly etched in the mind of Norman Forbes. Along with other members of the 2nd 30th Infantry, 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, Forbes was driving in a convoy along a Baghdad road. They were en route to pick up some detainees who’d been picked up at a mission about a week earlier.
Forbes remembers “just driving along,” when an improvised roadside bomb exploded next to his armored Humvee vehicle.
“It was instantaneous,” he said, “faster than a lightning bolt. I didn’t know I’d been hit ... the adrenaline and shock .... all four limbs at the same time.”
Forbes would be wheeled a few minutes later into the aid station with part of his left hand blown off, his left femur crushed and shattered, a shrapnel hole clean through his right leg and a huge wound to his right forearm.
He represented one more casualty in the ongoing war following the American invasion of Iraq, and one that would result in Forbes being awarded the Purple Heart, a military decoration awarded in the name of the president to those wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917.
Eighteen months later
Fast forward to Sept. 1, at the Caxambas Boat Ramp on Marco Island. It’s dawn, and the pinkish-orange hues of a typical Marco sunrise dance gently on the almost-still water.
Over at the floating dock, four men prepare a boat for a morning’s fishing, their conversation punctuated by the jibes and raucous laughter reserved specifically for the male of the species. It’s good to be heading out — that much is patently clear from their demeanor and good humor.
One of the men is Norman Forbes, and the others are his Iraq and Afghanistan veteran buddy Anthony Spina, charter fishing Capt. Bill Jones and Spina’s father Frank.
Sharks on the radar
The outing — in search of sharks — is a treat for the two younger men, who have spent the previous evening talking deep into the night after not having seen each other for six months.
Forbes, 28, has flown in from Texas to spend a few days with the Spina family.
“We had another buddy who couldn’t make it for personal reasons,” Spina, 33, says. “He lost both legs ... they thought he was going to lose his right arm too, but he didn’t. He’s walking with state-of-the-art prosthetic legs. He’s doing good. When I saw him, he yelled at me when I tried to help him. He wanted to do it by himself.”
Forbes shows his scars. His left hand is a healed pink mangle with no pinkie. His left upper leg looks like he was attacked by a shark, as does his right forearm.
He’s healed well, though, his psyche included.
“I saw a shrink once a week for seven months,” Forbes says. “Something about PTSD. But I also worked real hard in the gym.”
Unlike many vets who are reluctant to talk about their experiences, Forbes says doing just that is therapeutic for him and prevents the experiences from festering in his mind.
“I found it beneficial for my psyche to talk about it every day to whoever asked,” he said.
But, he concedes, there’s no question it’s difficult to have listeners actually relate to what they’ve been through.
“It’s nice when you get together with buddies, because you get somebody who can understand what you’re saying,” Forbes says.
“Some people had a lot of war,” he says. “I was only there for four months,” and I was never really knee-deep in the action.”
“I unfortunately was,” says Spina.
Prompted to recall just one incident, he hesitates for a full 30 seconds.
“You know,” he says, “there were so many fights that I can’t think of one specifically. Most of the time, you’re fighting for 16 hours ... you can’t break that down into (talking about it for) five minutes.”
Then, he does talk, in general.
“You’re in Baghdad. They hop out on the roofs and shoot at us. We shoot back. Anything they can throw at us, they do.”
A hold on opinions
Both men decline to pass judgment on the morality of the American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The best thing I can say,” says Forbes, “Is that we were fighting for each other. We were in the same uniform. That’s all we could have done.”
As for the adversaries, Spina says he hated them.
“I hated them because they hurt my buddies,” he says, “Because I was there ... because I had to stay in their shitty country.”
At the same time, both men agreed resolution of the conflicts would be desirable at this point. “You don’t want to see war, especially when it results in injuries and deaths of your own countrymen,” Forbes says.
At this point, it’s clear Forbes and Spina have said all they want to. After all, it’s a beautiful Marco morning, and the sharks are waiting out there to be caught and released in a fun outing.
Fishing with the pros
Frank Spina says he organized the outing to give Forbes a taste of this part of paradise, and at the same time, give his son his first shark fishing experience.
“And,” he adds, “there’s no better shark fishermen on the island than me and Billy.”
Those are not idle words. Frank Spina and Capt. Bill are 2007-8 back-to-back winners of the annual Collier County Maui Jim shark fishing competition, and are looking forward to a possible hat trick later this year.
Before easing out onto the water in the flats boat, Capt. Bill says besides sharks, they might look out for some tarpon and maybe some snook. As it happens, they’ll return around noon with tales to tell of catching a few bull sharks, losing a spinner (shark) and assorted other bites.
Looking to the future, Anthony Spina plans to look for some sort of law enforcement work, while Forbes is on course to work as an air traffic controller in Dallas.
“I got me a little honey there,” he says, his voice bordering on the wistful.