Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas 2003

Instead of spending Christmas in a combat zone thinking about home, I spent Christmas 2003 at home, thinking about Iraq and my imminent return. Along with tens of thousands of others, I was allowed two weeks of leave from Iraq. Some took advantage of the opportunity and went home. One fellow officer met his wife in Germany. Others, and there were more than a few, decided to save that leave (and the extra money it represented) and remain in Iraq.

I wasn't interested in the money - I wanted to be with my family. I had not seen them in over ten months. Although the pain of returning to Iraq would be great, the memories from those two weeks would be priceless. The sharp ache of a temporary loss of a loved one dulls with time. After a while I got used to living without my family. The quality of my life wasn't as good but I was able to focus on the task at hand. Coming home would open that wound and renew that ache, but I didn't care.

I was fortunate in that I was able to get two weeks of leave that encompassed Christmas and New Year's. So it was that on December 21, 2003, nine months to the day after I left the United State for the Middle East, I returned home. That day turned out to be the longest day of my life, and not just because I had a series of long plane flights to endure on the way to see my family after a long absence. The day was, literally, the longest day of my life. I departed a U.S. Air Force base in the country of Qatar at 12:30 A.M. on December 21 for Germany, then Baltimore, then Atlanta, and finally arrived at Tallahassee at 9:30 P.M. on the same day, 32 hours later.

Christmas 2003 was a wonderful experience for me, and filled with remarkable contrasts to the life that I had so recently been living. Yet, my mind was detached in many ways from the events around me. I felt guilty that I was at home for the holidays while so many of my comrades were still in Iraq. And the biggest feeling that stayed with me, one that I carried around like a heavily weighted rucksack, was the knowledge that I had to return to Iraq on January 5, 2004.

Yes, I know, one is supposed to live in the moment, but it was hard.

As Christmas 2008 approaches I think about all the service men and woman in harm's way around the world, away from home on the holidays. And I still feel a trace of guilt. I am at home with my family, and they aren't. Yes, I know, the guilt is not logical, but it's hard for me not to feel it. I have something in common with them, something that we shared and continue to share.

And right now, five years later, I still feel that bond with them. I truly hope that it never goes away. To all of you out there in uniform, doing a nasty, rotten job away from home and family during the holidays, I send you my very best wishes, and sincere hope that you will return home safe. God speed and God bless.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Wall of Shame

For a number of reasons no one from the the unit I served with in Iraq, the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade, out of Norristown, Pennsylvania, will contact me anytime soon about attending any reunion for the veterans who participated in their deployment to Kuwait and Iraq in 2003 and 2004. We weren't exactly the Band of Brothers.

And I don't mean that in a disparaging way. There were a lot of obstacles that stood in the way of our being a close knit unit. First, there was the rank structure. Of the 150 persons in the unit 12 were colonels, 28 were lieutenant colonels and 34 were majors. There were only a handful of of lieutenants and captains. The great majority of the rest of the unit were lower ranking sergeants and enlisted persons.

Secondly, the Norristown unit was filled to full strength by replacements brought in from other units in Pensacola, Florida and Lubbock, Texas. I was one of the officers brought in from Pensacola. Ultimately, less than half of those that deployed to the Middle East were originally from the Norristown unit.

How did this happen, you ask? The answer is controversial, complex, and was a source of conflict within the unit for the entire tour. As hard as it may be for everyone to believe, not everyone was thrilled at the prospect of being torn from home, job and family and thrown into a year (or longer) deployment to a real shooting war (unlike some of the previous peacekeeping missions some of us had participated in) to the Middle East. And despite all the secrecy involved in our ultimate destination, we could all read the papers and we knew that we were heading for Iraq.

Some of the people in the Norristown unit made a concerted effort to get out of the deployment and some succeeded in doing so. Some had good reasons for not wanting to go and others didn't. Unfortunately, personal hardship wasn't a good reason. The Army had spent a lot of money in training and salary for these people, in some cases for many years, and now was the time for the Army to collect on this investment.

Every person in the Norristown unit that was able to get out of the deployment (and like I said, almost half were able to do so) caused a double blow on the morale of the others. The original members of the unit saw their former comrades dropping, one by one, from the deployment roster. Some were jealous, while others were disappointed.

Every person that was dropped from the deployment roster had to be replaced, primarily with individuals from the Lubbock and Pensacola units. Most of these people didn't want their lives screwed up either. But they were soldiers and they did their duty. Still, they weren't happy at having to take up someone else's slack.

The net result was that we had a conglomeration of people from different units, from different parts of the country, and with different attitudes about why and how they were being sent into combat. When this amalgam of factions was placed into the crucible of the Iraqi desert heat, under way less than ideal living conditions, attached to a Marine unit that really (at first) didn't know what to do with us, the results were predictable.

More people tried to get sent home. Some succeeded. That's when things got ugly. The Operations Officer of the unit had to move out of the communal living quarters when a malcontent urinated in his sleeping bag. There were a lot of unhappy people there.

That is how, on the whitewashed wall of an office in a building on Camp Babylon, Iraq, the Wall of Shame was created. I will not glorify (or condemn, depending on your point of view) the perpetrators of this act by providing their names. Those of us who were there know who they are. Maybe if there was more work for these discontents to do then they would not have had the time or the energy to compile the list of names that made up the Wall. But there wasn't enough work for everyone, and that's a entire other story that I won't go into right now.

The list of names grew before my eyes. I outranked them all and could have stopped them if I wanted to (there were a number of senior officers who could have stopped them but didn't). At the time I remember feeling a strange sort of justice in the list. I knew all the names that were on there. The names were from all ranks, ages, races and religions. There was no discrimination and really only one criteria for having their name scrawled on the whitewash: they had either been in the original Norristown unit and not deployed, or deployed and been sent back home.

Some names generated heated discussions as to whether they should be added to the Wall. The basic defense argument was that the person didn't try to get out of going: they had no choice in their removal, or the reason for their return was reasonable. But no matter how spirited the defense, the facts remained that they were back home in the World and we were (still) stuck at the end of the world carrying loaded weapons because people there were trying to kill us.

As well as I remember, when we left Camp Babylon in September 2003, to be replaced by the 29 nation Multinational Division, the names were still intact on the Wall of Shame. I imagine some Poles or Hungarians entered the office and stared briefly at the scrawling on the wall. They probably ordered some private to paint over it. They didn't know what it was and didn't care.

I don't know if the Wall of Shame is still there, or even if the building is intact. When we got there, the Iraqis had been very busy trying to tear down as much of Saddam's palace complex as possible. But if that wall was still there, I would nominate another name to go on the list - at the very top. And no one would argue with me.

Former member of the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade, former Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, convicted felon, for betraying her oath and her trust, for stealing from the Iraqi people and lying about it. I nominate Debra Harrison to the Wall of Shame.

Maybe someday this Band of Misfits may want to get together for a reunion. There are a number of them that I admired and would want to see again. A few of them are still my very good friends. Maybe time will heal the raw emotions. I sure hope so.