I am sure that in his mind it is like I am serving a prison sentence counting the days before my release. The truth is that I do not want sympathy. I not only enjoy Army life, I count it a privilege to serve. I frequently receive heart-felt thanks from people I do not even know for serving in the Armed Forces and I appreciate it. Cards, letters, emails and even a standing ovation as I traversed through the Dallas airport going home on leave from Iraq recently. However, I have been feeling lately like I should thank the American people for the honor of fighting for and representing the United States of America.
In the early summer of 2007, an IED detonated on the main street of a neighborhood in our area. A very small food store was the only thing open in the empty streets so I went inside to see if the owner was alright and if perhaps he had seen anything. The owner appeared utterly hopeless and almost in tears as he stood next to his wife. He did not know anything. Months later, the effects of the surge and our counterinsurgency strategy had taken hold. The streets were full of people and that same owner had used a micro-grant to fix up and expand his once lonely store. His grand kids were at his feet as I introduced him to a reporter accompanying me on a walk through the revitalized neighborhood. I had never heard him speak English but this day he looked at me and said, “I tell you , Sir, I love you with all of my heart!”
Right outside of our outpost in southern Baghdad is a dirt poor family of seven with children ranging in age from eighteen months to eleven years. Americans from all walks of life sent us toys and other small items to share with the Iraqi people over the holidays. We thought this would be the perfect family to share some of them with. We stopped by and the kids ran to the trucks. I asked the oldest boy if his parents were home and he said his mom was but that his dad was out picking through the trash. We later learned that he collected soda cans and sold them to make a living.
The children’s mother walked up and was very grateful and in classic Arab tradition insisted that we come into her tiny home for tea. I told her that we could not stay but saw immediately that she was disappointed. She told me that the soldiers never accepted her invitation. I promised her I would return the next day and did so the following afternoon. We arrived and to learn that she had been waiting since early in the morning and made her husband stay home so he could be there. We went inside and sat on the floor but not before she placed blankets under us!
While the mother went to make the tea, her little girl came in and sat down. We asked her how old she was and she did not know. She ran to her mother to ask and came back telling us she was six years old with a big smile. Her father came in shortly after and was thrilled beyond belief that we were in his home to have tea. We shared the only two tea glasses they had. After our visit we took a family photo for them and delivered it framed on Christmas Day.
The experience of war changes people. For some it is a negative change but most manage to absorb the experience and use it to make themselves stronger. I have said goodbye to a mortally wounded soldier in the hospital, spoken to grieving family members of our casualties, and tried to comfort soldiers who just lost their best friend in a single violent moment. I have been under fire, looked insurgents in the eye, and seen corruption up close. I have also seen people emerge from oppression and live with hope for the first time in years. I have seen children reach up and grasp the hands of American soldiers just because they trust them. I have felt the desire to help and then been given the resources to do it. Finally, I have felt the close knit camaraderie that develops when you serve with a group of people fighting for a cause larger than self. Yes, this experience has changed me. I am stronger, more driven, and humbled all at the same time.