A LETTER HOME

I read the following letter on another website. It is an email that was sent home by an American soldier stationed in Iraq. It was penned just prior to Christmas last year and I found it an interesting read. I hope you do, too. The website is http://frontlinevoices.org/. Here is his letter, unedited…

14 November 2003

Fellas–

Well today is my 200th day in Iraq but who’s counting? I apologize that it’s been a few months since I’ve written, but things are getting progressively busier and more hectic. It’s actually ironic that things are tougher now because the prevailing thought in the May/June timeframe was that we couldn’t wait till Oct/Nov/Dec because that’s when things would be stable and easy. If we had only known then what we know now.

I decided to write another email in response to some questions people had asked me about what things in Iraq were like from the soldier’s perspective. Although I can’t generalize for all soldiers here, my observations below are what soldiers in my unit (an infantry task force) are experiencing. I hope it gives you some insight.

First of all, there’s no such thing as an average day here. Every day is different, and most soldiers have learned that once you start thinking you have life in Baghdad figured out, it all changes in an instant with a sudden mission, attack, bombing, or all of the above. The most recent event for us was a sudden no-notice mission to send a sizeable portion of our task force to Karbala to conduct offensive operations in mid October. Several hours before we got orders to move, three Military Police soldiers (including the Battalion Commander) were killed in an attack. With no nearby heavy armored assets available to respond, my unit in Baghdad was sent down to restore stability and round up the culprits. Our unit was given everything we wanted including F-16 fighter jets, AC-130 gunships, and a special-forces team. By the time we left Karbala almost a week later, we had accomplished our mission, rounded up several of our targets and most importantly suffered no casualties. It was a memorable and humbling experience because it’s not everyday you spend the morning ours of your 23rd birthday helping secure an objective and rounding up militants… members of the same group that just days before, killed three Americans.

My next point might surprise some, but people who watch/read the news back home probably have a better idea of what’s going on in Iraq than the average frontline soldier. While the news tends to report the macro view of the war, the soldier only sees and is most concerned about what is going on around him/her. When a soldier returns back to the base from a mission and has some free time, the news isn’t the first thing they are likely to turn on. If they decide to watch TV, it’s usually an entertainment or sports channel, but more often than not, they do other things: sleep, phone friends/family, internet café, check for mail, write letters, read magazines, and exercise.

Some soldiers prefer spending their time doing hobbies and projects. We have one soldier building a huge wooden deck and another one trying to set up a sports bar that serves non-alcoholic beer. A few soldiers and I recently adopted five dogs (a mom we named LuLu and her four puppies), and I know others have done the same with a few sheep and donkeys that were roaming around the area. As the months continue to pass and we approach the holiday season, soldiers are starting to invest in decorations to help make their living areas feel like home.

For Halloween, we hung up decorations in our rooms and gave away candy to the Iraqi children (no costumes unfortunately). We have similar plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If anything, the Iraqi capitalistic spirit is starting to emerge as some vendors in our base are preparing their shops for the GI holiday shopping spree. As far as our living conditions go, we can’t complain. We all live in buildings, but are still trying to get the running water and sewage fixed. Our shower facility had a water heater installed last month, ending our 5-month stint of cold showers, and the port-o-potties… well, they smell horrible but are better than nothing.

Mosquitoes will continue to be a problem no matter what we do. When we first got here, we tried to fight them. But we’ve concluded resistance is futile. They come in droves and most of us have just accepted our fate as breakfast, lunch and dinner for them.

On a brighter note, the food we receive is great. A Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) dining facility was installed two months ago that serves us three hot meals a day. The facility has made life here immeasurably better, and easily overshadows other shortcomings such as our bathrooms and the mosquitoes. It’s a fully functioning cafeteria that serves us fresh meat, veggies, and fruits, leaving us with basically one major thing left to fix: the electricity problem. We still average between 5 and 10 blackouts a day, forcing most soldiers to carry a flashlight with them at all times. A minor inconvenience, but nothing we can’t handle.

The last two things I wanted to mention was morale and dealing with loss. The level of morale here in Iraq is a mixed bag. Overall, I think it is moderately high considering the environment, working conditions, and stress soldiers are put under every day. Imagine being a young 19-21 year old lower enlisted soldier with no more than a high school degree being asked to work 100-hour weeks (at least 14 hours a day, seven days a week), in a highly dangerous and terminally thankless job thousands of miles away from home.

It’s tough, but their spirits are holding up well, especially since the 2-week R&R leave program has started. Though troubled by the increases in attacks and body count lately, the troops here are undeterred. If anything, they are more focused. They want nothing more than to do their jobs well and go home safely to their families. It’s inspiring to see, and it’s unfortunate that the vast majority of the American public will never see, or fully appreciate the bravery they exhibit every day.

As we work tirelessly to keep morale afloat and rebuild Iraq, it comes at a cost not measured in dollars. After doing the things we do here for as long as we have, it’s inevitable that soldiers will die. Loss is a huge part of the solder’s experience here. So far my unit has suffered three deaths.

Our most recent one happened a week ago when the vehicle the soldier was traveling in struck a roadside bomb (IED). The soldier had only arrived in Baghdad a week prior straight out of basic training, and had fought with another soldier that night for the last seat available in the vehicle as it went out on a mission. Young, eager, and ready to participate, he got the last seat available on that mission, only for it to be his last. To honor him, we conducted a beautiful memorial ceremony for him two days later on Veterans Day complete with bagpipes, a bugler, and a 21 gun salute.

For those who’ve never been to a military memorial, it’s a tear jerker. When the bugler plays TAPS, you feel chills go down your spine. When they do roll call and call out the name of the deceased soldier, only to hear silence, you get a lump in your throat. And when you go render a final salute to the fallen soldier after the ceremony, you can’t help but reach in and touch his dog tags. That’s loss and it’s important to note because it is something soldiers here deal with.

I hope I was able to answer some of the questions people had about the Operation Iraqi Freedom experience. Although life here isn’t a cakewalk, it’s not over our heads. Most of us here are just digging in and getting ready to tough out the next six months. We’re told that around the March and April timeframe, the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood will begin heading over to replace us, which means we’ll be back in Germany in May, and vacationing in June trying to squeeze a year’s worth of fun into one month. Thanks for making it this far in my email and again, thanks for all the letters and packages. I hope you all have been getting my replies.

Take care, be safe, and have a happy Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentines, and Easter.

–On the ground in Iraq


This editor thanks all of the American troops in Iraq and Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Some gave all to keep you and I safe. God Bless.