The Story of an American Soldier in Iraq

Life as a soldier in Baghdad, Iraq is definitely interesting and full of life changing experiences, like... being shot at and blown up! Yee haw, what fun eh?

Actually, it has its ups and downs, and as a journalist in the US Army (assigned to CJTF-7 Public Affairs) I've had the chance to see many things that others have only heard of through the news themselves - I hope you'll enjoy them too, through my eyes. ; )

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Merry Christmas Everyone!

I hope this letter finds everyone healthy, happy and enjoying all the best of the Christmas season! I’m doing well – still in Baghdad, but redeployment gets a little closer every day!

This year was difficult for me, but filled with much deeper learning and discovery than even five easier years might have brought me, so I can’t complain.

The year started with a sloppy winter and mobilization in my new home of Heidelberg, Germany and quickly turned into a journey of discovery as I was deployed to the middle east in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the War on Terror.

I arrived in Kuwait at the beginning of March, amazed that any place on earth could have so much ‘nothing’. With temperatures upwards of 140*F, deep ash-like sand that has the ability to whip into sandstorms blocking view beyond a few feet and a horizon without a single plant or bump, Kuwait ranks as my ‘least pleasant stay’ of the year. The countryside wasn’t our only worry at the time either, as Saddam attempted to pelt our camps with SCUD missiles, sending everyone scurrying to cement and sandbag bunkers each time the air sirens whined. God’s grace and the talent of our Patriot batteries saved us from any direct hits, but the belief that chemical weapons could whiff in on the wind from even a miss kept nerves raw and gas masks close. The difficulties (forcing me to count on God), paired with several excellent chaplains, allowed my faith to grow and I was baptized in front of my fellow soldiers and Christians before we left Kuwait.

The announcement of the first push through Iraq’s protective berms along the border was met with cheers and the hope of moving on soon, but heavy attacks on incoming convoys set back our movement date by at least 2-3 weeks. I was excited but wary when we finally hit the road in late April. Luckily, the trip was a quiet one - though plagued by constant mechanical problems (my 5-ton truck’s thermostat blew and we kept overheating) and nervous by the sight of blown up Army vehicles (yes, ours) along the way, we didn’t meet with any more trouble than having to chase thieving kids out of our trailers. The trip offered a beautiful view of Iraq too, from the poorest ‘Feed the Children Ad’ Iraqis along the border, to salt marshes of central Iraq and on to the palaces of Baghdad.

Once in Baghdad we were assigned to a mini palace on the outskirts of one of Saddam’s palace compounds, now known as ‘Camp Victory’. At first perusal the building was FAR from a kingdom, but showed potential – a absolutely beautiful location, but badly looted and filthy. The looters went so far as to steal the building’s switch plates and there were several piles of… human excrement, among other things, that had to be cleared out of our ‘home’. After a good week of constant sweeping, scrubbing and preparing we had a fairly nice ‘summer home’ though, and enjoyed it until the General decided that the public affairs office needed to be in downtown Baghdad in order to control the media running rampant (and recklessly) through the city. I had enjoyed our island home, but wasn’t upset at the prospect of a change of scenery – the island was located eight beside an outer wall and a little too close to several attempted attacks. Had rats too.

And so it was that we moved into the infamous Al Rasheed Hotel (famous because reporters taped the first war from its roof top) and the Baghdad Convention Center in downtown Baghdad (after a brief week’s stay in the ‘palace of the four heads’ as rooms were reserved for us). Though touted as ‘Iraq’s finest resort’ the Rasheed may have ranked somewhere around Hotel 8 in the US – still, I had NO complaints! We had real beds for the first time in months and some privacy – both rare things in the field. When we moved in the hotel had very spotty power and even spottier water, meaning plenty of trips up ten floors of stairs after work and the continued omni-presence of the almighty baby wipe. Things consistently got better though, and before long power outs were rare and a handful of Iraqi shopkeepers had set up areas downstairs for soldiers to browse. The Hotel even opened a small night club where the latino boys from the 2/124th Infantry (who live on the first floor of the Convention Center) taught me how to salsa dance and meringue – LOTS of fun! Pools also opened at both the Palace of the Four Heads and the Rasheed, meaning lots of pool parties during hot evenings and days off. Life was pretty sweet – I had privacy, my own TV and VCD player, a bath tub and LOTS of friends to enjoy my evenings out with… I was really enjoying my time in Baghdad.

Then the attacks began…

The Rasheed was hit – badly. I’ve already written large letters home about this (contact my mom for a copy if you didn’t get it!) so I won’t get too in depth. I woke up to rockets rocking my Hotel and scenes that were reminiscent of movies like “Earthquake!” At the time, I was pumped so full of adrenaline that I wasn’t afraid, just excited and ready to react. It wasn’t until after I went back to the hotel to grab my gear for a full evacuation that I realize how close I had come to being seriously hurt or killed. I will always praise God for his protection on that day – looking at the damage in the building, Abbott and I were directly in the path of the blast but our room had less damage than many others further down the hall. It was if God stood at our door and said ‘come no further’ to the blast. After being evacuated, I ended up running around all day in my PJ’s – luckily one of my Florida infantry boys gave me a nice sweat shirt to keep me warm (and covered – my pj’s are a little flimsy).

After the Rasheed hit were moved into a building down the street from the Palace of the Four Heads - which is currently having the heads removed (wonder what we’ll call it now?). The place is nice enough, but I think we all miss the privacy we had; here we’re like 6 to a room. We have some children who live next door there though, and I like seeing them around and having them run to greet me when I come down the street. They’re usually begging for ‘choco-latte,’ which tends to be a very rare thing here – the heat melts it away instantly, but I often try to give them something when I can – small toys, candies or sodas. Somebody – either soldiers or contractors – took the time to hammer together a simple swing set at the end of our street and it’s almost always stacked with kids. Play ground equipment is rare here too – it was only for rich kids before.

I finally got a chance to visit home in mid-November and it was a MUCH needed break! I’m afraid I got a little sick while in Kuwait (sinuses : P ) so I spent almost the first week just sleeping, and I had a lot of trouble with my teeth (fixed by mom’s co-workers!), but just being home was amazing. I was getting so uptight and shaky, I REALLY needed a break! The chance to come home, and enjoy the silence and the small blessings was amazing! The ability to just walk outside whenever I wanted, wearing whatever I wanted, without having to worry about being shot is more of a blessing than you know! Being able to stroll into Walmart and buy anything your heart desires or able to jump into a car and drive anywhere without an armed escort are major blessings too. At the same time, I felt disgusted at how much wastefulness I saw – it is amazing how many Americans pour money down the drain; spending three times (or more) what they need to drive a ‘cool’ car, buying new furniture ‘just because’, throwing away clothing that’s out of style and tossing food because of some tiny imperfection… The people here in Iraq would go into shock if they saw how wasteful the US is. So many people here wear clothes into tatters and drive their cars until there’s literally nothing left, even many soldiers have to make do with similarly sorry supplies and poor living conditions. I swear, the rest of the world could get rich off of our dumps! Oh well…

I’ve learned an amazing number of life lessons this year – I almost feel as if several years have been stuffed into this one! I think my most important and useful lesson of all though is contentment. I don’t think I will ever really ‘need’ anything again. I just don’t think it will be hard to live with a nasty looking dresser (for example) after I’ve had to use nothing but cardboard boxes for the past year. And I’ll never curse eating mac n’ cheese for a month straight (when the money’s lean) because I’ve had to eat MRE’s before. Just EXISTING is something I can be thankful for. When I can home I found my self praising God for all kinds of tiny things we often don’t notice – the grass under my feet, the scent of a rose, that extra hour of sleep, oreos with a cold glass of milk… all of these things are things so many others don’t have. I guess ‘thankfulness’ would ride hand-in-hand with ‘contentment’. No matter how bad things get, they CAN get worse – so thank God that all you have to worry about is that leaky roof or the car’s oil leak… there are MUCH worse things you could be facing!

I’ve also finally learned how to just “be myself”. It’s something that’s SO much easier said than done, but actually living alongside so many people who see everything about you, you just give up on giving people any sort of ‘impression’. Even more surprising though, is that people like ME. All my life I’ve tried to figure out why people didn’t like me; why they teased me; why they gave me a hard time; it’s because I allowed it. Since I stopped worrying about what other people thought of me and just started saying and doing what I felt and wanted to do, people have drastically changed how they react to me. I’m not trying to brag, but I’m one of the most recognized faces in this area! When I returned from leave I actually had people – from the US, Australia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, all over – come up to me to tell me how they had missed me and how glad they were that I was back. I even got a few hugs! People say that I’m the happiest person they know. To my surprise, I’ve had people walk up and ask me what I do to make everyone in the room smile when I enter. I think it’s because I pray every night that people may see the spirit of Jesus in me – that his light would shine through me as an example to others. I know I smile all the time now – even when I don’t much feel much like it (and that makes other people smile too), and I try to care for, talk to and help everyone. If someone needs something, I’ll try to get it, if they need to talk I’m there to listen, and I don’t treat anyone as if they’re at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’. Everyone from the janitors to the general gets the same treatment. All of this social activity is new to me –I’ve always been an introvert before, so the change kind of blows me away. But I do praise God for so many good friends!

Anyhow, that’s a quick summary of the year for me – it’s amazing how much has happened in just a few months, hmm? We’re slated to head home sometime in January or February and everyone is looking forward to being done. I know I feel done – ready to move on out of the Army all together! I should have about a year and a half left once I leave here – hopefully with no more deployments so I’ll be able to explore Europe! I can’t wait to be able to just kick back, curl up on a couch with a nice warm blanket and a cup of cocoa and watch the snow fall. I pray everyone at home is enjoying that treat already! ; )

Please continue to keep all of us over here in your prayers – almost everyday I hear a story from a soldier that tells of how prayer saved lives. It DOES make a difference, even if you don’t always see it and we all appreciate the few minutes of your day that you dedicate to us!

With much Love to everyone and wishes for warm holidays!

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