Earlier this month I had the opportunity to have a chat with an Army Sergeant who had returned to the States from a one year tour of duty in Iraq. It was my first opportunity to really sit down and talk face to face with someone from one of the combat zones, and I had a thousand questions for him. I did my best to just listen to what he had to say without comment, so often it wasn't so much a discussion as a debriefing. I did check with him several times as to whether or not he was comfortable talking about things, but he said it was fine, and actually somewhat therapeutic.
I'd like to share some of the things that he said. I agreed with some of it, and disagreed with some, but I'm going to do my best to present the information here, as he said it.
He's an E-5, a combat engineer, who's been in the service since before 9/11. His unit is based in Kansas, and while in Iraq was assigned to an area near Fallujah. His unit arrived there about a year ago, had a few days of overlap with the previous unit, and then the old unit completely left (rotated out). When his own unit was replaced, it was the same thing -- a new unit came in, overlapped for a brief time, and then he and his entire unit rotated out at the same time. I asked if it might have been better to leave a few people from the old unit for continuity, but he said, "No, not a good idea. Everyone arrives at once, everyone leaves at once. No one gets left behind. If someone was left behind, it would be bad for morale."
He got back to the States in late September, and is currently on 30 days leave from his base in Kansas, traveling around, seeing friends. After St. Louis, his plans were to head to Illinois to see his grandparents, but while in St. Louis he was here to hang out, drink beer, catch up with people he knows, and try to figure out how to fill his days, since he couldn't remember the last time he had this much time off!
During his year in Iraq, nine members of his unit were killed, and two were injured. He said he was shot at many times, and mortar or RPG attacks against his base were a routine occurrence. But he followed that by saying that the enemy was a lousy shot!
He said a common way they'd be attacked is that the insurgents would set up some sort of mortar or rocket attack, fire at the base, and then run away. The U.S. soldiers would then respond with an anti-personnel counter-battery. After that died down, the insurgents would return to regather their equipment. After this happened a few times and it became clear that the insurgents were getting the timing down, suggestions were made about changing the timing and so tactics were changed, so it was a constant evolution.
He said he went into town and walked the local streets many times, but that soldiers never walked alone. They always walked fully-armed, in groups of at least four. To go in smaller groups, he said, would probably have meant certain death from the insurgents.
He said the locals had a very careful ambivalence to the Americans. That the locals would talk to the soldiers (if the locals knew English), but that they'd keep their emotional distance from the soldiers, and stay very carefully neutral, to avoid the appearance of being perceived as either liking or disliking the troops. He said he did develop casual friends among the Iraqis, but none so close that they're the kind of people he'd stay in touch with.
He said that they had internet access on the base, sometimes. It was beamed, he believed, via some sort of microwave transmission, and was on a first-come first-served basis. Internet access would be interrupted if a soldier was killed or wounded, in which case access was turned off, to allow for the next of kin to be notified. He said that this meant that the internet access was down "about half the time."
He said being over there was the right thing to do.
I asked him about WMD, and he said that there's no real way of knowing. He brought up how there were places that entire aircraft had been buried under tons of sand in the desert. He said, "If they buried entire aircraft like that out in the desert, how do we know there aren't other weapons buried out there under even more sand?"
I asked him if he thought that Iraq was capable of being democratic. He said yes. He felt that there was less ethnic diversity in Iraq than we even have in the U.S. He didn't seem to have a strong opinion about any differences between the Sunni and the Shiites.
I asked him what he thought about Abu Ghraib. He said he thought it was overblown, and that anyone complaining about it, "Doesn't really know what it's like to be in a warzone."
We talked a bit about troop discipline. We talked about all the things that *could* have gone wrong with an occupation, that didn't. For example, there were never serious problems with U.S. soldiers looting Iraqi homes or businesses. No widespread reports of rape or other abuse. No reports of waves of starvation, or disease. He said that the worst problem he personally heard of like that from American soldiers, was one soldier who stole 2 CDs, and was caught and severely reprimanded for it. He'd also heard a couple isolated stories of soldiers who misused prescription medication, one of whom had been caught sleeping while on guard duty.
I asked him about supply chains, like if they'd had trouble getting body armor. He said they'd had no trouble with supplies, and had never wanted for anything. That they'd always had plenty of food, water, body armor, gasoline, and anything else that they needed. I pushed him on this, but he said he couldn't think of a single supply that they'd ever run out of.
Another person at my table asked him what would be good things to send in care packages, if we were wanting to support the troops. He thought about it and said prepackaged food items were always good. Not chocolate since it would melt, but nuts, dried fruit, other snacks, things like that.
He said they would play cards some times, but generally not dice, since gambling was strictly forbidden.
While he was over there, he'd made lists of things he'd buy or do once he got back to the States. He carried the list with him, and read off a few items. For example, when he got back, he'd promised himself that he'd buy an Xbox and a few games for it. Buy the latest novels in certain sci-fi series. Have a bowl of clam chowder soup. Drink a Guinness. Eat sushi (that's where I met him, btw, was at a sushi restaurant).
I asked him what he'd missed most about the U.S. His answer was immediate. "Women." He'd very much missed being able to see women who weren't covered head to toe in the traditional dress.
I asked him who he supported in the election. He said he supported Bush.
I asked him what he would tell the politicians, if they asked him for his counsel. His first response was that he'd like to counsel the politicians in Spain, since he felt that they did the absolute wrong thing in pulling out. He said, "You can't back down to terrorists. Ever."
He also said that "counting the casualties" was the wrong way to look at the war. That it was important to get the job done. That yes it was bad to lose comrades, but that using their deaths as a reason to back out was completely wrong, and would mean that their deaths had been for nothing.
I asked him again about what advice he'd give to American politicians, if he had the chance. What would he counsel them on, if they asked him for his opinion as someone who was "on the ground" in Iraq? He gave it some careful thought for awhile, and then said he would change some of the priorities. He said that sometimes special force resources are devoted to training the Iraqis, but often they're pulled from that and assigned to finding "high priority" targets, such as the names on the infamous Deck of Cards. He said that he felt that those resources would be better used if they stayed involved with training -- to escalate the process of teaching the Iraqis to police themselves. I pushed him a little on this, like to ask what if his unit had an opportunity to capture Zarqawi, would that be a high enough priority target that resources should be pulled away from training to capture a terrorist leader. He thought about it, but said that he still felt that training the Iraqi forces was more important than going after a specific individual (at this point someone else at our table spoke up, and offered the observation that if the Iraqis have an adequate police force, then they'll be able to find Zarqawi themselves, rather than us having to do it).
I offer this here in my memestream not to make any particular kind of point (as I said, I agree with some stuff he said, and disagree with other stuff), but just to share my notes from the chat. Overall, it was a fascinating conversation, and I was very grateful for the opportunity to see Iraq through this soldier's eyes.