Installment # 6, 16 April 2009:
Hello! I’m still doing fine. Thanks for thinking about me, and for reading my letters. I was adding up—this is the 26th letter that I’ve written while deployed in the war. Wow! It’s been five years since I sent you the first one. I’ve considered gathering them all up and putting them in a book, along with some of the three zillion pictures I’ve taken. Let’s think about doing that when I get home…
I left you last with my account of Hummer training in the stunningly remote and most unsavory wilderness of northern Kuwait. Not long after that, I flew to Iraq in the dead of night on a small plane. I shared the flight with a handful of weary travelers. The cargo bay was dimly lit. We sat in web seating, shoulder to shoulder along the sides, facing each other. The sound of propellers droned monotonously through our earplugs, a mechanical lullaby virtually impossible for sleepy people to resist.
I watched as the others nodded in and out, and commiserated as they continuously stirred and shifted their armor. It was cold at altitude, so we snuggled under our vests and tried to stay warm. The crew called me forward as we approached Baghdad. I looked out a small window and beyond a huge prop that churned in the blackness. What I saw swept me with emotion: stretched in all directions was a blanket of hundreds of thousands of lights; not the diamond hard pinpoints you’d expect to see from an American city—these lights were softer, with a brownish halo that arched above the city’s sprawling expanse, betraying an otherwise invisible layer of atmospheric dust. Down there, somewhere, I spent my first tour of duty. I lived between buildings, in narrow streets, with sandbags and concrete all around me. That was not a good time: rumbling explosions rocked the city, mortar rounds came in far too frequently and the occasional rocket slammed into the building where I worked.
How things have changed! In the summer of 2004 it was a task for us to light several blocks at a time—now the entire city glowed, as it did before the war when the brutally tyrannical Saddam Hussein was all-powerful. For me, those lights bore testament to the multitude of great things that our soldiers have accomplished in Iraq. Saddam’s life was a miserable failure. We wiped him from the world stage and set freedom in motion for millions of people in the original birthplace of civilization. But what will we do now? Will we continue to pursue and truly defeat our enemies—those who remain unwaveringly committed to our destruction not only as a nation but also as a people—in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in all the other places where they patiently bide their time? If we do, then maybe—just maybe—no more innocent Americans will die at their hands on American soil, and none of our soldiers will ever have to come back here to fight…
Iraq is still a very dangerous place for our soldiers, but here’s another indicator that things have improved: after we landed a young captain took off his battle gear and put on a reflective safety belt. These belts are designed to keep you from getting hit by traffic. Understandable in Kuwait, where I had just come from, but in Iraq? In 2004, or even in 2006 on my last trip, my sanity would have been questioned had I done such a thing!
Not any more—the threat from the enemy has decreased so much that the safety benefit of wearing a belt that lights up like a torch in the night is thought to outweigh the risk. Still, I’m not completely comfortable with the idea—and I’m not the only one. The captain smiled and asked if I had ever seen the classic WWII propaganda poster with a couple of badly battered GIs making their way back from the front line, one wounded and carried across the other’s back. The injured soldier, bewildered, asks his buddy, “How’d they know we was comin’, Joe?” The implication was clear to the WWII home front audience—someone blabbed! One of our artistically talented but smart-alecky soldiers had a different take on it: he printed off the poster and painted brightly glowing fluorescent yellow belts around their waists. Mystery solved!
How about one last story? I recently had a computer problem, so I went to see the kids that handle our battalion’s computers—our cyber-warriors in the S-6 shop. Theirs is a high-tech specialty, yet they work in a shack. You have to understand that, while great improvements have been made to living and working areas, much is still ramshackle and hastily knocked together.
I was leaving said cyber-shack when my boot snagged on something. I was shocked to find myself flying up and out, cutting a graceful curve through the air, as if I were diving into a pool. I’d love to tell you that my finely tuned reflexes kicked into action and that I executed a well-practiced roll, and that I kissed the ground ever-so-slightly before regaining my stride and going about my business.
Here’s what really happened: my elegant instant of flight ended with a nasty kerrrwuhmph!!!! I hit hard and dug my chest into the rocks. The 60 rounds of ammo that I carry in the right side of my shoulder holster swung up and bonked me in the head—Blap!!!
A puff of dirt shot from the ground and billowed over me. I took a moment. I was lying motionless as the computer kids poured out to see what had made such a thud. They goggled down at me from the deck, mouths agape with a mixture concern, disbelief and amusement.
“Are you okay, sir?!?!” they chorused.
I told them I was, and got up and dusted myself off. Then, I did indeed go right about my business. Proven again: I’m tougher than I look… and so is my ego!
Take care! Your friend and neighbor,