Friday, December 16, 2005

Shared Solitude

This will be my last post from Iraq. In a few days, I will leave this camp to begin the trip home. My office is no longer mine as of this morning, and my internet connectivity will be very spotty from here on out. I will post once I get home, from my living room after hugging my kids and kissing the most important person in my life.

My Darling Wife, Pam.

This year has changed me. Pam and I have talked about those changes, and I know she fears them a little. Physically, my knees hurt more, my hearing is shot, and my hands get numb from the constant weight of body armor. My hair is greyer, the bags under my eyes darker. Emotionally, I have changed too. Don’t worry darling. I am returning home a different man, but I believe a better man. Certainly a man far more thankful for the blessings in my life.

We have had our challenges this year, and we have overcome them, I hope. Trying to remain connected and together across 9 time zones with unpredictable internet connections, messaging software that works intermittently, and dreaded communications blackouts is difficult at best. Add to that the challenges of raising 3 children alone, sometimes having to be in 3 places at once, and having to answer the inevitable “so how is he doing?” question and I marvel at how she has remained sane. She may tell you that she really hasn’t, but what else can she do? Life goes on. But my darling, you are amazing.

Each time I leave, she stays. She is there when I return. I smile and promise never again, and a few years later I am off to save some little piece of the world again. And still she stays, raising the 3 most precious human beings God has ever graced the earth with. I can hear in their voices and see in their eyes the question each time I return; “When is he leaving again?” And this time the answer is I am done. This is a younger man’s game. I can teach, I can mentor, and I can counsel, but for me the fighting is done. They have paid too high a price already, and the world needs to be grateful for what they have sacrificed too. It’s their turn. It’s Pam’s turn.

What have we shared over this year? We have shared being alone. We have shared each others challenges and emotions and outbursts. We have shared the pain of missed birthdays and anniversaries and holidays. We have shared angry moments that have come and gone, and anger that may be yet to come. In a very short time, we will share the connection of staring into one another’s eyes again at last. And such beautiful eyes they are.

In the months to come, there will be times that I need to sit in silence. And we will sit together, holding hands, and share the solitude.

I love you, my darling. See you soon.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

You're Welcome

Today, another successful election. My third and LAST election in Iraq. In January I had only been in country a few days, and today I only have a few days left. From my perspective, seeing it from 3 feet away, everything seemed to go well. I think that the Iraqis are really getting this whole voting thing, and are excited to actually have a say in the future of their country. I watched thousands of Iraqi Army troops vote a few days ago, riding out to the polling places in 5 tons waving Iraqi flags, laughing, singing and waving.

I have had conversations with interpreters who tell me that this time they really believe that they are making a difference, that the first 2 elections bolstered their confidence in the process. Fox, one of our interpreters, reaffirmed that today when he told me that he was most excited that he could vote however he wanted, even though some in his family would vote for other candidates, “because I am free”.

The most inspirational thing Fox told me today, which was also the most important thank you I could ever get, happened as he was about to go to the village near the camp to cast his ballot. Interpreters normally wear U.S. Army DCU uniforms while at work, and Fox was wearing his today. When we asked him if he was going to put on civilian clothes to go into the village to vote, he said “No, This uniform is the reason I can vote. I will wear it.”

Thanks, Fox. You don’t know how much I needed to hear that.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Ma’Sallama, Sadiqi

If someone had told me 14 months ago that I would consider an Iraqi one of my closest friends, I would have called them crazy.

It has been a tough couple of weeks since I last posted. The day after my last post, 2 soldiers I knew were killed by a massive IED, and another was gravely wounded. He will survive, minus an arm and a leg. I can’t bring myself to describe the event, but I will talk about the emotions I had, and why I am ashamed by some of them.

The initial report was of an IED strike that with several U.S. KIAs from an Artillery Battery I had worked with extensively. I knew almost all of the soldiers in the unit, and the Commander, XO, First Sergeant, and Platoon Sergeants are all men I consider friends. I was crushed by the news and tried to get as much information as I could without seeming like a vulture. When I heard that the KIAs were soldiers attached from another battalion, I felt a surge of relief for a moment when I realized that it wasn’t anyone I was close to. As it turned out, once I learned the names I realized that these were soldiers I had gone on patrols with before. I have had some difficulty processing guilt over the relief I felt when I realized that they were not friends, just acquaintances. It will take some time to work through that.

Our replacements arrived a few days after that, and I have been swamped with work getting them trained and prepared to take over our mission. We will be on duty until a few days after the elections, and then we will begin the journey home. I will not make it home for Christmas, but with luck I will spend New Years at least in the United States and hopefully in my living room. Many of our replacements are veterans of OIF I, and they have returned to a very different Iraq. I do have confidence that I am leaving the place in good hands.

The most difficult part of leaving happened a few minutes ago. I said goodbye to Junior. He has decided, actually had decided months ago, that rather than go through watching another rotation of friends leave, and getting close to another group of soldiers, that he would quit when our replacements arrived. Today was his last day. He gave us only a few hours warning so that we wouldn’t have time to try to talk him out of it, or time to plan an elaborate goodbye. As he left us, we talked a few minutes, took some pictures, laughed, and cried a little. His last words were “I want you to travel safe to your families, and I hope to visit you someday in America, but I wanted to leave while you are all still here so that in my mind, you are always here.” Then he hugged each of us, and walked away.

After I wrote the last paragraph, I looked over at the 19 year old PFC sitting in my office, plugging away at a spreadsheet. He is a good kid, a 13F (Forward observer) who probably never imagined in a million years that one of his jobs in Iraq would be to spend half his day hunched over a computer tracking access rosters. I got up, walked out and went behind the building, and cried. Emotions I have bottled up for a year just poured out. I don’t exactly know why, but for 15 minutes I just cried.
I work with a Lieutenant Colonel who was assigned here as a project officer for our new access control system. His previous assignment was as the assistant chief of staff for the 3rd Infantry Division. He is retiring at the end of this tour, after 27 years in the Army. He is opinionated and outspoken, and some of the Chairborne wonders in the marble palace of a base headquarters here look down on him because of it. He just isn’t a good enough politician for them. What they don’t know about him, and probably wouldn’t recognize the significance of, is that he can tell you the name of every soldier in the Division killed during his tour. I’ll take that over a politician any day.

One of my duties when I get home will be to give advice to units from Minnesota preparing to deploy here. We are sending 2500 Guard troops here early next year. If I have the opportunity, I will take every First Sergeant and Sergeant Major deploying into a room and tell them this story: when we lost those 2 soldiers last week, when it came time to recover their bodies, the men lifting them off the ground were the Battalion Commander, the XO, the S3, and the Sergeant Major. They did that because soldiers who just lost friends shouldn’t have to. Because they were out there, patrolling that road, on their orders. Those soldiers did their duty, and those leaders recognized theirs.

I will tell those leaders that is their duty. And I will promise them that when they lose soldiers, I will be there to carry them home.

I believe in my mission, and I am proud of what I have done.

I hate this fucking war.