26 February, 2008


I read something over at Trying to Grok that reminded me of someone I met yesterday.

I don't know what gave him away... maybe it was the mile-wide grin on his face, or the way he walked so lightly in dusty boots recently unburdened of at least 50 pounds of gear, but the USO director instantly knew the broad-shouldered young soldier was home from Iraq. And so I echoed his words with a warm smile, "Welcome home."

A few minutes later he picked up the pool cue, perhaps hoping to channel his somewhat restless energy while waiting expectantly for his wife to arrive. I watched him relentlessly knock each ball into the proper pocket. Line it up, knock it in... line it up, knock it in. Thunk... thunk... thunk...

I walked past the Pool table. "Hi, again!"

"Hi!" The big smile returned to his olive face and dark eyes.

"On leave, or home permanently?"

"Eighteen days' leave." He turned to line up a shot and I saw the patch on his sleeve, emblem of a proud and storied unit.

"Twelve months, or fifteen?"

"Fifteen, but rumor is they're going to shorten it to twelve so they don't have to pay us more."

I laughed gently, but told him I was sure the concern was much more the strain on the military at large and the units that were having to turn around so fast. Mistaking "strain" to refer simply to psychological burdens, he spilled brief descriptions of a couple men in his company who had found themselves unable to cope with the pressure-cooker of life as a combat soldier and had cracked or made terrible choices. These were told as simple facts of life, without condemnation. He never stopped moving around the table, lining up the shots... knocking 'em in... occasionally looking up and making eye contact as he spoke.

With those stories in mind, I asked where his unit was posted. He named a town in Northern Iraq. "So you guys have been in the middle of things lately, huh? Tough situation?"

He stopped and thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, not really... this time. It's been pretty good where we are, not like [another northern city]." He took another shot, then paused again, his face suddenly brightening.

"It was kinda bad at first, but we worked really hard to change things. We've been working real hard on this one village. They hated us when we first came, ___ months ago--the unit we replaced had never even gone over there during their deployment. But we did our own thing, tried new ways of doing things, and now the villagers like us--well, I don't know if they like us, but they trust us a bit and they work with us. Before they wouldn't even talk to us."

Upon questions and clarification, I determined they'd "chased out the bad guys, which made the villagers think we were okay." I inquired as to whether the villagers had been afraid of the "bad guys," or had genuinely hated the Americans. He thought about it for a moment, then said he wasn't really sure. He shrugged as if it didn't really matter, "But they're kinda happy with us, now." He smiled almost shyly. "They like how we help them--we're doing a lot of things."

His face brightened suddenly again. "We've caught a bunch of HVT's in our sector, like 5 or 6--the most of anybody. Like this one guy we thought was just a local [terrorist]... turns out he's a bigtime [important person]." He swelled with pride before turning back to the table.

As he continued systematically knocking billiard balls into the pockets, I asked questions and he responded with thoughtful pride and a critique of the Iraqi soldiers he encounters. He paused to pantomime how the disciplined Americans hold their weapons across their chests while pointed at the ground, then demonstrated with derision the way the Iraqi soldiers wave them around or let the barrels drag alongside them. I added with irony, "And they keep their finger in the trigger, right?" He busted up with a hearty, "Yeah, I don't let them walk behind me; who knows where they'll be pointing when one of them goes off!"

I mentioned the 3ID's Iraqi NCO Academy in central Iraq and he thought that was a very cool idea, saying the Iraqi soldiers "sure need it!" But then a shadow crossed his face, as if he realized he was probably being unfair. He mentioned that his squad had taken individual Iraqi soldiers on patrol with them and he'd had to grudgingly admit they'd acquitted themselves well. Upon further thought he offered the opinion that they weren't really that bad, they just didn't have good leadership in all-Iraqi squads. And he told familiar stories of how when an IED goes off, Iraqi soldiers have been known to fire in the direction of the IED and two Iraqi squads end up firing at each other--"No fire discipline," he said with a roll of the eyes. However, he suddenly switched topics and wanted to ensure that I knew the Iraqi Police in his area had really stepped it up and grown in skill and reliability since his last deployment. "Used to be if something happened, they just run away. Now they stay and fight. They just need more training and leadership."

I asked how much they'd been able to do with the village he'd mentioned. A combat outpost set up, yet? He reported that a patrol base would be built while he was on leave, which meant--as he happily informed me--he'd be stateside while the rest of his squad spent a week sitting in a vehicle without showers or real food as they guarded the construction team.

He enthusiastically explained how the patrol base was going to help them interact with and support the villagers, and launched into reports of the initial "CLC" (Concerned Local Citizens, now called Sons of Iraq) events his platoon had conducted, and their ultimate plans for the CLCs. "The villagers are really excited about it. Lots of people are signing up. They're already helping us out with things--and they're not even being paid, yet!" He turned back to the table for another shot. I caught a flash of the rank insignia attached to his sleeve and swelled with pride at another example of enthusiastic and informed soldiers in the lowest ranks of our military. Strategic Corporal? Heck, try Strategic PFC!

Talk ranged across a variety of topics and over half an hour, with him lining up the shots and me following him around the table at a distance as we spoke in mostly quiet undertones. It was easy conversation, never tensing up, never touching on anything too personal. Then his cell phone rang and he lunged for it with a smile, so I wandered back to my post at the front desk.

A few minutes later I heard it ring again as he stood near the desk. "Okay babe, I'll be out on the sidewalk." He closed the phone, turned to me and stuck out his hand, "I really enjoyed talking to you, Ma'am. Thank you."

"Me, too." He towered over me, his large, broad hand enveloped my small one, and suddenly I was sucked into a place halfway across the world, as I caught a glimpse of the corded tendons in his wrist and felt his thickly calloused hand... a hand that had been toting a rifle and working so hard in a dangerous place so that I could stand so safely here and talk to a man whose first name I didn't even know. "Thank you for your service. You're doing good work over there... keep it up." I smiled as I looked up at him, honored to have made the acquaintance, and grateful for the continuing education.

Yup. Invested.