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Two U.S. Guardsmen Recall Their Year in Iraq

by Owen Thompson

11/20/04

Upside Down World

We Were Due”: Getting the Call

On December 26th, 2003, Florida State University students Trueman Muhrer-Irwin and Donald Smith (not his real name) were home visiting their respective families in Chicago when they got a phone call that neither was expecting: their National Guard unit had been activated and they were to report for duty immediately. They drove back to Tallahassee that night.

Trueman and Donald graduated from Lincoln Park High School in June of 2001. Both were smart, funny, and fond of acting and street hockey, as I know from spending three years in the Lincoln Park drama program with them. After graduation they went down to FSU together, having been close friends throughout high school. The next year, they enlisted in the National Guard together. Donald made the decision to join the Army for several reasons. As he explains, it was “partly to pay for college, partly out of a sense of patriotism, and partly for a challenge.” (Trueman declined to give his own reasons for joining.) Asked if he felt any fear when enlisting, Donald replied that he had been more afraid then than during the actual invasion. “Going into the army, there was a certainly a fear of failure,” he said, but when he entered Iraq he had “great confidence in my training and equipment.” Their families expressed some concern over their decisions, but were supportive and “recognized the benefits,” as Trueman put it.

Although both young men acknowledged the possibility of seeing combat during their six-year contracts, neither really expected it. “The most extreme deployment the Guard had had since Vietnam was Kosovo,” said Trueman. “Of course, my Brigade hadn’t had an overseas deployment since World War II, so I should have figured we were due.”

Waiting and Watching

After returning to Florida and quickly packing up their belongings at college, Trueman and Donald reported for duty at Fort Stewart, Georgia. “Donald was the first to suspect” that they might be getting prepared to go into combat, said Trueman, “when he read online that it was the home of the National Guard training center.” Their commanding officers were not forthcoming with details, but there were strong clues that they were being sent to the Middle East. Trueman recalled the indirectness of their commanders at the fort with a touch of irony: “It became fairly obvious from the briefings we were getting on overseas pay and bonuses for deployment to various Mideastern countries that we’d be going overseas… Of course, we spent a month and a half training at Ft. Stewart before we left, and we didn't officially find out we were headed to Kuwait until maybe a week before we left.”

Still, neither fully believed they would be sent into combat. Once in Kuwait, they still had months of waiting, watching the possibility of an invasion into Iraq wax and wane as the White House made its case. “There were rumors that we would enter Iraq from the time we arrived in Kuwait, but I didn’t believe them until days before the war started,” said Donald. Many soldiers, though, seemed to have made up their minds. Watching U.S. news anchors discuss the possibility of war, Trueman said, “sounded so weird, because for us it already seemed like a foregone conclusion. No one in the military talked about the possibility. No one used terms like ‘if,’ it was always ‘when we cross the border…’”

Trueman found his own feelings on the war changing during these months in limbo, despite the certainty of many of the men around him. “Of course, some of us still retained hope that a peaceful agreement would be reached. During the early days of the deployment, I’d been all for an invasion. I knew all about the cruelty of Saddam’s regime and the suffering the people had undergone as a result of the heavy sanctions imposed on their country. Once we got to Kuwait, however, and the weeks wore on, watching satellite TV every night at dinner (the only TV we watched), I started to have my doubts about the whole situation. When Bush finally made the decision to go ahead with the invasion without U.N. support, I was not pleased.”

For Donald, on the other hand, the end of the waiting came as a relief. “To be honest, I was excited,” he said. “I thought it would have been a shame to have gone 7,000 miles around the world only to turn around and go home without doing anything.” In addition to his excitement, he “also believed that it would be a good thing for the world to remove Saddam from power.”

Entering Iraq

When the invasion began, Trueman and Donald entered Iraq as part of a ground force providing extra protection for a battery of Patriot Missiles, the same type used to shoot down Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles in the first Gulf War. They entered Iraq on the first night of the invasion. In their e-mailed responses to my questions, neither of them seemed eager to describe the actual experience of the invasion, but they did offer some comments on their thoughts as they entered Iraqi territory.

Neither Donald nor Trueman had traveled outside the U.S. much before, and their reactions to the foreign scenery of the Middle East were paradoxically mundane and otherworldly. Trueman commented that “Iraq was just more desert” after two months in Kuwait. “When it comes to desert,” he said, “I think everyone sort of has an idea of what it’s like and, at least for me, that idea was pretty dead on.”

Donald’s first impression of the Iraqi landscape was similar, albeit a little more dramatic: “At 2 AM, when I rolled across the border, my initial reaction was that it looked a lot like Kuwait, only with more missiles flying overhead. The first part of Iraq I saw was the western desert and it was bigger and more desolate than any landscape I could imagine.” He confirmed the alien feeling of the region: “For starters, the first drop of rain I felt in Iraq was eight months after I got there. The whole place is amazingly full of sand and dust. You never really see a blue sky because there is just so much dust in the air that it has a perpetual haze.” Both Donald and Trueman mentioned that they were in Iraq about half a year before they felt a drop of rain.

The greater shock, though, came when the soldiers entered Baghdad. “I went to London once,” said Trueman, “and that was a whole different kind of culture shock. Like they say in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘It’s the little differences.’ Well, in Baghdad, it’s not the little differences. It really is a world apart and what really gets you is the little similarities.” Both Donald and Trueman mentioned the dirty, smelly qualities of the Iraqi capitol, especially noting the ubiquitous odor of burning garbage, which Trueman explained as a result of the fact that “in the city’s 10,000 year history, they’ve never had a public garbage collection. People just heap their garbage in neighborhood lots or burn it in the streets.”

As for the human landscape that greeted the American troops upon their arrival in Baghdad, Donald was surprised by the Iraqi people’s initial benevolence. “I expected everything from open hostility to indifference,” he said. “I certainly did not expect the kind of friendly welcome we got.” This gratitude did not extend to the whole of the population though, or perhaps it just faded quickly; Donald had much more to say than Trueman on the nature of the Iraqi people themselves. He described them as “generous and friendly, but easily excited,” and “dramatic about little things.” He illustrated these last two traits with a story, the only anecdote either soldier gave me regarding their on-duty experiences. Blocking traffic on a street where his company was “conducting an operation,” Donald was approached by a man who demanded to be let through. When Donald told him that he would have to either go around or wait 15 minutes for the soldiers to be finished, the Iraqi man “thumped his chest and said he would rather have me shoot him than to walk a longer distance.” He found this same kind of irrationality, he said, in speaking to other Iraqis as well: “They also lose all sense of reason when it comes to religion; best just not to talk about it with them.”

Back in the U.S., the capture of Baghdad produced a flash-in-the-pan scandal when, as the Army hooked ropes and cables to the city’s statue of Saddam Hussein, a U.S. soldier climbed atop the statue and draped an American flag over its head. The move was instantly seen as a mistake and soldiers quickly replaced the stars and stripes with an Iraqi flag before pulling the statue to the ground. In the States, photographs of the second arrangement (the Iraqi flag covering the statue) replaced the initial photographs in a matter of minutes on the websites of the major news sources, but some commentators said the damage was done in the instant that Arab television networks got hold of the offending image.

Trueman had a strong reaction to these photographs. “Putting an American flag over his [the statue’s] head, aside from being a misuse of the flag, really sends the wrong message about our intentions. Replacing it with an Iraqi flag was a good way to save face.” For Trueman, this incident encapsulated one of the most important difficulties that Coalition forces encountered in the transition from invasion to occupation, still blurry at that point in the war. “I think of one the biggest problems we face is that the skill sets required to kill and conquer are very different from those required to bring peace and order. Under the circumstances, I’d say they’ve done a pretty good job, but soldiers can be dumb.”

Donald, questioned about the same incident, said he had “no opinion on that at all.”

Downtime

In the first month or so, the soldiers kept busy “the same way he had in the desert,” said Trueman. “Books, Gameboys, portable DVD players… someone had a Risk board, I remember playing that. We had access to cheap, bootleg DVDs and music; we got “The Hulk” before it was released in the States.” Donald recalled some other activities, and hinted at the boredom of the situation: “Pretty much just talking, playing chess, playing football, the first few months we were there. It’s hard to describe how little there was to do.”

The company was housed in barracks that once were home to officers in the Iraqi Republican Guard, and Trueman described the living conditions as “far better off than most other soldiers.” They lived twelve men to each apartment, all of which had electricity and running water (although the showers had to be tested for water quality before each use). “We slept on cots,” Trueman said, “but eventually we got three-and-a-half-inch foammattresses for them.”

Initially, Donald and Trueman’s company were told they would only be in Baghdad for a month. But the Army, said Trueman, “was having a hell of a time keeping peace in the cities, with the massive looting and mayhem you saw on the news. They’d underestimated the presence they’d need there, so they started sending in additional units like ours.” Their stay was extended from June to August, and then again to October. “Finally,” said Trueman, “they stopped giving us dates. Eventually some General took pity on us and told us the truth that we’d be there for the full 365, boots on the ground.”

When the soldiers realized they were in for the long haul, Trueman said, “guys started having their game systems sent over, they bought TVs and mini-fridges; they eventually installed air conditioning in all the rooms,” which kept the apartments “at a frigid 65 degrees most of the day.” The soldiers got more and more Internet access over time; at first from an Iraqi entrepreneur and then from the Army itself. Trueman said he “spent a lot of time on-line and even kept an on-line journal that was read by a few hundred people.” As the company started making itself at home, Trueman contributed his own style of interior decorating. “A lot of the walls were adorned with massive collages of girls from Maxim-type magazines (no porn allowed). I had hockey posters, though; there were already enough half-naked women on the walls. Of course,” he added parenthetically, “the guy inside me says, ‘What? There are never enough half-naked women!”

Donald didn’t go into as much detail on his living situation in Baghdad, but did mention that the soldiers bought weights and set up a small gym for themselves. “Hands down,” though, “my favorite downtime activity was sleeping,” he said. “We were never on a set 24-hour schedule and getting more than a few hours’ sleep at a stretch was really difficult. I got most of my sleep in three- to four-hour blocks, so anytime I had a chance I tried to catch a little.”

The two soldiers’ descriptions of their social lives within the barracks were similar. Both mentioned that they spent a lot of time with young men they might have had nothing in common with at home, due to what Trueman called the “pretty broad range of people” one finds in the National Guard. He acknowledged, though that some tension was natural. “Some people will never get along and there are some people you’ll never like,” he said.

Donald alluded to the frustration of being confined to the same group of people for so long: “We spent way more time together and knew way more about each other than any of us wanted to.” Both Donald and Trueman, though, said they were likely to stay in touch with the other soldiers in their company. “There’s a sort of fraternity among men who’ve served together,” Trueman said. “You’ll always share that. You many not see them for ten years, but one day you’ll run into them in a Wal-Mart in Hoboken and it’s like, you’ll still have that bond. You may not be friends, but you’ll always be brothers.”

Surprisingly, Trueman and Donald described their thoughts of home in completely different terms. “Oh yeah,” Trueman said, “we always reminisced about home. We’d talk a lot about our plans for when we got back or tell stories about home.” Donald, on the other hand, said that he “didn’t think about life back at home at all.” As he explained it, a sort of psychological barrier grew between his present and his past. “It was actually hard to remember what I did back in civilian life. America was so different that it really felt like two different lives that didn’t have anything to with each other. I had a similar experience in basic training, where it was so different that I didn’t miss or think about what I’d done before.”

While Trueman did think about home and his civilian life, like Donald he also found his way of thinking changing as the months went by in Baghdad. “I spent the first few months of the war questioning the President’s decision. But after a while, the reasons for going in stopped mattering as much to me. Whether the initial invasion had been right or wrong, we were in it and it was our job to finish what we’d started. There was no question in my mind that the Iraqi people would be better off that they’d been under Saddam.”

Looking Back, and Ahead

Trueman did not complete the year in Iraq, due to an explosion that badly injured his foot. On 12 November 2003, he was flown to a hospital in Germany and then to the U.S. His current status is called “medical hold,” which means he is still on active duty, stationed at a medical base in Georgia for the time being. Asked what the best part of his experience in Iraq was, he answered, “It’s hard to describe any of it as ‘good.’ Overall, though, as a general life experience, I feel that it was a good experience. I think I learned a lot of lessons about the world, life, and myself. I feel like I came back a better and more mature person.”

Donald, who managed to complete his year in Iraq without serious injury, is back in Chicago and working full-time. His reflections on life back home were unavailable at the time of this article, but he did seem to be following the news on Iraq when we spoke. In regards to the reports of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison, he offered no comment, citing his lack of any contact with prisoners while in Iraq.

Trueman was more expressive on the issue of the torture reports, but seemed almost at a loss for words to express his shock and disappointment. When he first heard about the news reports by word of mouth, he said he was sure people were exaggerating. “I heard about these piles of naked bodies, but it was just hard to believe. When I saw the pictures, it was just terrible,” he said. “It affects our current mission, and it’s a setback for our image around the world. It’s going to hurt our human rights work in the U.N.,” he added. In reference to the chaos of the Vietnam Era, he called the torture reports “the worst thing to happen to the Army in thirty years.”

In discussing the future of democracy in Iraq (albeit before the current torture scandal), Trueman sounded hopeful but contemplative. “Aside from a few people who may truly believe in theocracy, everybody wants democracy,” he said. I think Americans get so caught up in our own rhetoric that we forget that we’re not just a democratic country; we’re a democratic, capitalist country. People don’t disagree with picking their own leaders. I mean, you can have democratic communism—hell, even a democratic theocracy. It’s an idea that appeals to the common man everywhere.” Despite that last echo of President Bush, however, Trueman also saw the reasoning behind Iraqi resistance to U.S.-guided democratization. “What irks people is when they think someone else is coming in and telling them how they’re gonna do it. It makes you wonder if what you’ll have in the end will really be a democracy at all.”

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano