Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How I Spent My Summer Vacation September 2, 2006

How I Spent My Summer Vacation
September 2, 2006

Not many people choose Iraq for a vacation destination. In fact, I may be the first. Everybody thought I was crazy, but after spending over four months with the 101st Airborne Division in Kirkuk, I think I may have stumbled onto the best vacation package ever.
Most journalists who report from Iraq either work out of Baghdad or make brief stops in various hotspots throughout the country in search of a particular story. They may see a lot of action, but they only report on a fraction of the actual events that take place in this country every day. Most journalists do not have the luxury of staying in one place and letting the stories find them, but I did. By spending most of my time in Kirkuk, I got to know many soldiers and many Iraqis, and I am pretty sure I got to see a side of the war most journalists ignore and most Americans, as a result, are completely unaware of.
I had planned to spend 101 days with the 101st Airborne Division, but I decided to extend my stay because I wanted to see what the final weeks of a deployment were like. Many of the soldiers were scheduled to fly home this week and already many have been told they will have to wait a few more days. I have spent most of my time over these last weeks with Bravo Company and I know how anxious the guys are to get home. These yearlong deployments are very difficult for them and their families. The soldiers are used to waiting, used to last minute schedule changes, but they are clearly disappointed that their return home has been delayed.
I am looking forward to going home too, but I have had such a good time with the soldiers here, who have been so accommodating of me, that I am reluctant to say goodbye to them. They have taught me a lot about how to handle a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility, and they have made me laugh. A lot.
These months have been full of surprises. The biggest surprise was seeing just how warm and generous the Iraqi people are. It is easy to imagine this is a country full of terrorists, but now that I have walked many of the streets of Kirkuk, and been inside many homes, I know otherwise. There are insurgents here, and terrorist cells, but there are good people too. And even the bad people will offer you a glass of chai.
It should come as no surprise that our soldiers have been doing their best here, and brought about many improvements to the city and its people, but what is surprising is that all of this good work rarely makes our national news. We frequently complain about the shortage of role models in the United States, but we have plenty, and many of them are here in Iraq. It is difficult to predict the future of Iraq, and of Kirkuk. All of our soldiers hard work—improving the infrastructure of the city, trying to eliminate corruption, training Iraqi Forces, not to mention building schools and soccer fields, water treatment plants and hospitals—which is taking place throughout the country, may not be enough to bring about a lasting change here. The Iraqi people will have to become more involved if this is to occur. But our soldiers have, as they like to say in the Army, set the Iraqis up for success.
After September 11th, a lot of young men and women joined the Army out of a sense of duty and loyalty to their country. They have served the United States well, often better than we know. Quite a few of these soldiers will be getting out over the next several months and trying to work their way back into the civilian world. This is good news for the civilian world. Having watched these men and women go to work day after day—no weekends off, no five o’clock quitting time—I worry that the many skills they demonstrate here cannot be summed up adequately in a 1-2 page resume. Historically, a soldier may have been regarded as a warrior, but the soldiers of today have to be so much more. They are diplomats and teachers, managers and urban planners. And they are warriors.
I could never have been a soldier. I lack discipline, I hate to get up early, and I complain too much. But I have a great deal of respect for our soldiers, partly because they do what I cannot. Now that I have seen firsthand just how difficult a soldier’s life is, I will pay them more consideration. I think we have learned from the past that it is important to support our troops, but this means more than just putting a yellow ribbon magnet on our cars. As soldiers return from Iraq, some for good, and some only home until their next deployment, we have to make sure there is a place for them. I have met a few I would put in the White House, if they were old enough. Until that time, I hope we as Americans will serve our soldiers as well as they have served us and the people of Iraq.