PAUSEX: Iraq. Nothing is over.

Baghdad Monument

I’m a Howard Stern fan. I was listening to an old broadcast of the show from October, 2006, and when Robin was reading the news, she matter-of-factly stated that the number of US service members who had died in Iraq that month had just reached 100. Howard acknowledged it with a barely audible grunt, there was an awkwardly long pause, and then Robin moved on to the next news story.

If you are a follower of this blog, then you know I’ve been recounting my year in Iraq during OIF I in a series of posts (Iraq: Ten Years Later). It’s been a sometimes enjoyable and sometimes painful experience and I can’t possibly get down everything I want.

I’m very aware, however, that I am fortunate to have the luxury of ruminating over that experience. One, because I made it home safely and two, because my basic needs are met. I’m able to delve into the airy “what it all means” discourse. Many of my veteran peers do not have that luxury. And based on my thesis research, veterans who served in the Iraqi military are for the most part, uninterested.

While I’m waxing nostalgic over my year in Iraq, others Iraq veterans are bummed out about the country’s slide to civil war, concerned now that if this unraveling is the end result, their service and sacrifice might have been squandered. Others still, are writing about how Iraq Was America’s Best Run War (Foreign Policy). A rage-inspiring self-congratulatory title designed to get you to read it, I’m sure.

There is no shortage of interesting and important things happening in the Middle East right now. Egypt is still struggling to find itself out of its most recent upheaval. Syria continues to implode. Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have just resumed.

But over in Iraq, things are getting really nasty.

July 22, Reuters: Al Qaeda militants flee Iraq jail in violent mass break-out – Over 500 militants busted out in brazen raid on Abu Ghraib prison
July 29, The Independent: Iraq car bombs: At least 60 dead as rush-hour attacks hit Baghdad and nearby cities
August 2, AP: Iraq sees highest monthly death toll in 5 years – over 1,000 killed in July

I think, as a result to the daily barrage of bad news stories that came out of Iraq while we were there, we have become completely desensitized – and uninterested – in anything that happens there, no matter how spectacular or significant. Syria and Egypt are interesting because they’re new. But Iraq, well, we’ve been watching death and destruction there since we were children.

It’s unfortunate, because what’s going in Iraq is significant and important. And the lives and souls of millions of Americans are forever tied to that ground – for better or for worse. It is worth paying attention.

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Valentine’s Day Deployment

January 2003

Once upon a time on Ardennes Street…

Another morning like any other in the 82d Airborne Division. A company run at a nice, easy pace. A run designed to build esprit de corps and unit cohesion.

I had been in the Army for almost two years. The entire division had deployed to Afghanistan since 9/11 with the exception of the 325th AIR, the Falcons. War with Iraq seemed more likely with each passing day and each week brought news reports of units being tapped for deployment to Kuwait. At the time, the rumor was that we were being held back to serve as a strategic response to any worldwide contingencies. Paratroopers from the 504th and the 505th were cycling back to Bragg, chests puffed out at the Airborne PX, showing off their new CIBs. Our fear was that this whole thing would pass before we got our chance in the show.

As we beat feet, singing cadence, the company I was running in started rumbling loudly. I looked up and saw that we were passing a company from the 504th who had just returned from Afghanistan.

“Three Two Jive!” someone shouted from the passing formation.

“No war Oh-Four” someone responded from our formation.

“We got ours! You guys missed it” we heard.

A junior NCO from our formation got out the last word “They’re saving us for Iraq” which was said with more hope than fact.

We passed the formation and continued running, wondering if we would ever get our shot.

14 February 2003

Worst. Valentine’s. Ever.

Wearing my brand new desert uniform and maroon beret, I stood outside on a browning grass field, worn down from sweat and mountain climbers. Hundreds of paratroopers were busy all around me checking and double checking serial numbers, burning 550 cord, loading trucks, and making sure duffel bags and rucksacks were nicely lined up in formation. I called my girlfriend to tell her that I was leaving to deploy “somewhere” and that I didn’t know when I would talk to her again.

For weeks prior, we trained and prepared for a deployment to Iraq, although no one told us that is where we were actually going. We all suspected it was Iraq, and I am sure our command new that was where we were going, but that word didn’t filter down to my level. The war hadn’t started yet and everything was a secret.

Instead of finalizing romantic plans for the evening, I made sure she knew where she could find my will. I tried to sound as confident and reassuring as I could as I finished up the call like it was any other night. “All right, I’ll talk to you later. I love you. Bye!”

I powered down my phone and turned it over to my squad leader who placed a piece of white tape on it with my name and date. I let out a deep breath of air and turned my attention to the best Valentine I could get – my team, my squad, my platoon. We would spend the entire year together in a hot, exotic locale. Romantic for all the wrong reasons.

I wouldn’t hear her voice again for three months.

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