Rumors of War

have you ever been the target of a mortar attack? Mark Hoffmann, Trinity ’00, and his best friend from Duke Army Reserve Officer Training Corps Chris Nigren, Engineering ’99, have. The shells make a whistling sound as they fly overhead and a whump-whump that shakes the ground and makes your toes tingle in your boots when they hit things. You can’t do anything but just put your head down and hope it isn’t your day.

Have you looked down at a village from a hilltop and known for a fact that there are people in that town who want you dead? Max Hanlin, Trinity ’02, still does. And at that very moment, but beyond your natural eyesight, those people are perched on rooftops, aiming rocket propelled grenades directly toward your base camp. The grenades will hit the ground and spray shrapnel metal in every which direction. They’ll wipe out a Humvee.

And maybe the officer beside you.

There’s a war going on in Iraq. The bullets being shot aren’t blanks, and the targets can fire back.

The bloated man that Mark saw lying on his back in the middle of an Iraqi highway was actually dead. The flaming U.S. Army helicopter that Chris watched fall out of the sky was real. When Richard Hanlin asks his son where he is, Max isn’t joking when he tells them to just watch the latest news. That was his Stryker Brigade that rooted out the most recent anti-coalition insurgent.

These men once sat in the same lecture hall where you’re taking principles of economics, once swiped their DukeCards through the reader at your dorm, once drank beer at your favorite fraternity section. They studied engineering, led the Army ROTC as battalion commanders and served as secretary of the Interfraternity Council.

Now, they’re Duke alumni who have volunteered their lives to the U.S. Army and the Iraqi war cause.

Here are their stories.

In the Army, my title is Captain Hoffmann, but nobody refers to me as that except for people in the Army, and my mom. Just call me Mark.

I was in the Third Infantry Division invading force back in 2003, just after President George W. Bush started to beat the war drums and build up troops in Kuwait. We made our way from Camp Virginia in Kuwait, through the demilitarized zone and toward Baghdad. We bypassed the cities of Najaf and Karbala but fought in the desert along the way.

I was the executive officer of a company in charge of heavy equipment transport: tanks, 70-ton capacity Bradleys, and D-9 dozers—the biggest baddest bulldozers that you’ll ever see, with six-inch bulletproof plateglass and the works. If the Muslim people would have seen these dozers, they would not have supported the Cause—the U.S. borrowed them from Israel, where they’re used to raze Palestinian villages—so we always kept them under tarps.


In case you’re curious, my rank is Captain, abbreviated CPT. You can call me Chris.

I flew out to Iraq Sept. 3, 2003—ironically, the day of my wedding anniversary.

My unit was in charge of patrolling the Sunni Triangle. We set up our Forward Operating Base just five miles southeast of Fallujah, at an abandoned Iraqi airforce base still littered with destroyed cargo jets from Desert Storm in 1990. Within a month the FOB became a hotbed for attacks. Mortars would fly into our base, five or so times a week. Outside it was worse. The rule was, if you didn’t have a reason to get off the base, you weren’t getting off. But we weren’t in constant fear of death.

Or maybe it was because we just sort of got used to it.


My son Max is an infantry officer with the Stryker Brigade in Tal Afar, Iraq, FOB regular. He’s out there now, since February.

Max is a first lieutenant. He’s in charge of a platoon with 40 guys in the First Stryker Brigade. In a typical operation Max is told by his captain to get his platoon together and go out and raid a building. They’re looking for information about weapons caches, and where other insurgents are. Max makes plans, confers with people, pulls out his night vision goggles and raids a house. Helicopters come out, and he has to communicate with platoons on either side of him that act as shields. Then, they break into the house, grab and blindfold whoever they think are the bad boys and bring them back to the base.


Dear Old Duke

ROTC was a great experience. The Army, however, is a different animal.

As a ROTC cadet, your only experience is with other Duke people. You’re still a Duke student, still in a fraternity, still involved with other organizations. I was secretary of IFC my sophomore year. Once you join the Army, basically that’s it.

When I tell them I went to Duke, people always ask me, “So, why are you in the military?”


At a school of Duke’s caliber, only the military brats end up in ROTC. That’s just how it is.

My whole family has military experience. My brother was an officer, and so were my cousins and grandfather. My brother went to The Citadel in South Carolina, and my great-uncle was a three-star general.


You know, Duke is also not cheap. The scholarship benefits ROTC offers really allowed me to go to Duke without too much of a financial burden.

I decided to do Army ROTC because I grew up in the military environment. My dad was a professor at West Point for 17 years, so I basically lived there. It was just natural.


Max was a public policy major at Duke. You know, the ultimate public policy is war.

He was attracted to the military as long as I can remember. But did I ever think that when he signed up for ROTC in 2000, “Gee, would he ever get killed or be in war?”

No. It never crossed my mind.

And I’m sure that those cadets that run around during college don’t have a clue either.

Maybe I’m just rationalizing his decision.



The Army tells you what to bring. We were authorized to bring two duffel bags, a really large rucksack and a plastic trunk for stuff that needs more protection.

I brought power tools, hammers, drills and saws so that I could make a bed and bookshelf for myself when I got there.

Initially, showers were hard to come by. We’d take water bottles and rinse ourselves with our clothes on, part by part.


Bugspray was the best thing to bring. The first two weeks I was out there, the building we were supposed to camp in was completely uninhabitable—debris was everywhere. So we slept out in the sand, where the sandfleas would bite the heck out of you at night. I looked like I had chickenpox.


I’m gonna sound like a total dork, but I brought modern physics books to read over there. Only engineers would do something like that. I read one on string theory and some Tom Clancy for lighter reading.


First Impressions

It’s not all desert over there. It’s lush and green in the fertile crescent. Wheat fields line the Euphrates River.


The lack of development is what really gets you. I can imagine that it looked the same 5,000 years ago as it does today. People still live in mud huts.


When we first arrived in Iraq, we were seen as a liberating force. Many of the people were still kinda euphoric. It was the honeymoon period.


My aunt gave me a whole bunch of stuffed toys to give to Iraqi kids when I got there. At first I was embarrassed to be taking them. I didn’t think I’d get an opportunity to give them to anyone.

But one day, we stopped by a village and I saw a little girl carrying her baby sister in her arms. I went over to her and tried to give them the nicest, softest toys I had. I was in full battle rattle though, my rifle and all, so she was a bit anxious.

Her brother came over to me and asked me in really bad English, “Name, wut name?’ So I pointed to the back of my hat, which said “Hoffmann” on it in Arabic, and he said, “Hufmun, Hufmun—tank you.”


At one point, Max was the de-facto mayor of Tal Afar, he had to meet with the chief of police and Iraqi citizens and try to make friends with these people.

He tells me that he feels that the lives of the Iraqis are being improved by what they’re doing.

During the initial advance, it was not like it is now. They weren’t trying to kill us. They would blow us kisses as we rolled by. Kids would come up to us and ask us for candy. For the first month and a half, everyone was just completely happy to see you.

The typical citizen wasn’t a threat to you. You weren’t afraid for your life.


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