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Former war protester, cool under fire, earns combat promotion

4 Apr 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Andras T.S. Eder carried protest signs denouncing the Operation Desert Shield in 1991.  Fifteen years later, he was promoted for his performance in combat.

The 36-year-old Hungarian immigrant was promoted at the beginning of the month for his performance under fire while serving alongside his Marines from C Company, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5.  It’s just one phase of a multi-faceted man who constantly reinvents himself, taking on the next great adventure in his life.

“I try to be even-keeled,” Eder said.  “It seems like the Marines can approach me with anything.  I’m not going to be surprised.”

Eder was called out in front of his company by Col. Larry D. Nicholson, Regimental Combat Team 5’s commander.  Without knowledge of why he was being called out, he was promoted to his present rank.

“My eyes probably bugged out when they called my name,” Eder said.  “It’s an honor to receive such a distinguishing recognition.”

Still, he said the recognition was one for all in his lifesaving trade. 

“It’s about all the corpsmen out there doing their job,” he added.  “It’s not a singular achievement.”

Eder serves as the company’s senior corpsman – their resident doctor.  It’s a role that he never saw himself in 10 years ago and one he doesn’t know how long will last.  He takes on new chapters of his life with gusto, an approach that brought him from working on boats for oil roughnecks in the Gulf of Mexico to a double master’s degree focusing on Latin and ancient Greek literature to turning down an opportunity as a Navy officer for the hardships as the medical caretaker for Marines.

“Perhaps, looking back, it’s been an adventure,” Eder said.  “I just love life.  I think that I want to experience it.”

Eder’s life experience is unlike any other.  It’s as if someone took all sorts of shards of multi-colored glass and shook them in jar.  The glass was dumped on a table and the mosaic pattern that remained made the pattern for Eder’s life.

He was born in Budapest, Hungary and emigrated in 1980 with his parents, leaving behind the still-Communist state before eventually settling down in Columbus, Ohio.  Remnants of his eastern European accent still linger in his soft-spoken voice. 

He is an unashamed lover of philosophy and once taught Latin as a graduate student who viewed war with disdain until he took a philosophical approach to his thinking. 

“I was a peacenik,” he said.

He decided he didn’t understand war and in order to truly know it, he had to become part of it.

He made a phone call to the Navy recruiter.  The recruiter learned of his schooling and referred him to an officer program, but the only choice they offered was in supply.  He called back the Navy enlisted recruiter and said he wanted to work with Marines. 

“I just thought you have to put your foot where your mouth is,” Eder said.  “I had to experience war.  Now when we talk about war, we can be more serious.  We can now understand what peace is because we understand war.”

Three years later, he’s got two tours in Iraq under his belt. 

“The high point of this tour is we didn’t lose anybody,” Eder said.  “We’re one of the very few units who didn’t lose anybody.”

But that doesn’t mean things didn’t get tense, even if he never showed it.  Capt. Eric J. Penrod, Eder’s commanding officer was with him when they were performing sweeps in Fallujah.  A rocket-propelled grenade struck a humvee and small-arms fire followed.  Penrod directed Eder to go help.

“One lieutenant was hit by small-arms fire and another was affected by the blast,” Penrod explained.  “He was very cool.  As soon as he got over, he assessed them and turned to.  He went right to work.

“I kind of expected that from him,” Penrod added.  “Watching him there just reinforced that impression I had and what I’d heard of him.  It brought it to the forefront.”

He said while his parents Emil and Elizabeth Eder, living in Scottsdale, Ariz., never expected their adult son to drop everything to become a sailor who would be joined at the hip with Marines.  Still, there’s not much they could say, he explained.  They’re the ones who instilled his adventurous spirit.

“They were crazy enough to leave a Communist country with two young kids,” he said.  “When I made that move, they could say nothing about it.”

At 36, Eder’s also grown into a sort of mentor for his Marines.  He’s the oldest man in his company and watches over his Marines like a doting father.

“Another high point is seeing the younger guys,” he explained.  “Something grew up in them.  You can see something in their eyes.  From now on, they’re going to want something else.”

His love for his Marines came through in the simple genuine words he had when he spoke of them.  The group of rough, cussing Marines ready for a fight at the first chance welcomed the old man of the unit who sported years of higher education.

“These guys are just as intelligent and smart as anyone I know,” Eder said.  “When I first came to the battalion, I felt like the dumb one.  It was a hard thing to convince them they were the smart ones in the fellowship.”

Eder’s combat promotion was the genesis of his command asking why Marines could be promoted for their combat performance, but not their sailors.  A little research by 1st Sgt. James L. Calbough, C Company’s senior enlisted Marine proved they could.  Matching that with Eder was even a second thought.

“He just does everything right,” said Calbough, a 34-year-old from Louisville, Ky.  “He knows what he’s doing and not just the corpsman stuff.  The Marines look up to him.”

Calbough said Eder’s intensity carries through in everything he does.  His door is always unlocked, ready to offer medical service or just plain old advice to young Marines.  He once saw a Marine complaining of stomach pain.  Calbough said most corpsmen might have sent him off with a remedy for upset stomach, but not Eder.  He followed it through until it was properly diagnosed as appendicitis. 

“He carries himself as a Marine,” Calbough added.  “He’s part of the brotherhood.  Some of these guys, without a doubt, would take a bullet for him.  If I had to pick five Marines for a mission, I’d pick him as one without a doubt.”

Tours in Iraq weren’t always sunny days, though.  The man who once rode a bicycle across Europe and traveled across the United States has seen his share of tough times here too.  He’s patched up Marines who were clinging to life.  He’s reassured them they’d be fine, even as he had their blood on his hands and he’s haunted by the sight of Iraqi children living in poverty, squalor and fear of insurgents.

“The toughest part is going out there and see a little shack and seeing all these people come out with their animals,” Eder said.  “You want to give them all your food and water.  You know it’s not going to do a whole helluva lot, but it helps.”

Still, his lifelong quest for learning hasn’t ended here.  He sports tattoos on both forearms.  They’re quotes from Frederich Nietzsche.  On his right arm, it reads, “Intuitions, Dissimulate.”  His left reads, “Ideas, Distort.”  They come from Nietchze’s essay “On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense.”

“I read that essay about a hundred times last time I was out here,” he said. 

This tour, though, he sought knowledge from his wartime experience.  He doesn’t pity Iraqis.  Instead, he’s gained a profound respect for the Iraqi people.

“They’re making do in a harsh environment that would floor half the people in America,” Eder explained.  “They have an incredible survival instinct.  Certainly there’s a lot things we can learn about a country that gave us civilization.  It’s incredible being a tourist with a gun.”

Eder’s tour in Iraq is done.  Within days of sitting for this interview, he’ll be back at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and knows he’s probably looking at orders.  He’s still got three years left on his Navy enlistment.  He hopes to stay with his Marines, but know that the great adventures in his life beckon.  He just doesn’t yet know what that might be.

“Specialization if for the ants,” Eder explained.  “Human beings – there’s so many things we can accomplish.  I don’t think I’m a complete man, but willing to experiment and find out what I can do.”

No matter what happens, Eder said he’ll forever be connected to the Marines who call him simply, “Doc.”

“When I found out, it was a surprise to all of us,” said Cpl. Scott A Hintz,a  23-year-old from Stevens Point, Wis., whose known Eder for almost a year.  “He deserved it.  He’s done a lot out there.  Every day, every mission we’re on, he’s out there.”

Pfc. William E. Hoey, 21-year-old from Westfield, Mass, has known Eder off and on for about two years.  He said Eder’s become anintegral part of the every day life of his fellow Marines.

“I thought it was a out time,” Hoey said of Eder’s promotion.  “He’s a really smart guy.  He deserves the rank.  He deserve higher.  He’s level-headed.  I’ve never seen him freak out about anything, ever.”

For Eder’s part, the Marines and the time spent with them are enduring parts of the glass mosaic of his life.  He knows he won’t stay with them forever, but vows they’ll never leave his heart.

“This tour not only opened my eyes to peace and war, but opened my eyes to the things I can still learn.  These guys are a pretty big part of my life.  It was a pretty big part of me to go through this experience with these guys.  I’ll stand proud with a hint of tear in my eye.”