In Iraq for 365

About my experiences in Iraq... the frustrations, the missions and this country... and the journey home

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Witmer family

Spc. Michelle Witmer was killed last year just five days before she would go home. She had two sisters also serving in Iraq. Michelle was the first National Guard female killed in combat and her death sprung a huge interest from the national media. I am a friend of Lori Witmer, Michelle’s mother. And I recently had dinner with the Witmer family. To my surprise, John Witmer had been keeping a blog, at which is dedicated to Michelle and to help others deal with grief of a fallen loved one.

After Michelle’s death, the media camped out on their lawn and local talk-show hosts said things like they were taking advantage of their daughter’s death. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Similar to the situation in Saving Private Ryan, the Witmer sisters, one of whom was Michelle’s twin, were given the option to return to the U.S. rather than staying in Iraq. It took them a while to make the decision of coming home, and who wouldn’t? Well, the couch generals and media likes debated this issue for weeks and were really crude to a special family. The Witmers are truly genuine people and I hold them in the highest regard.

John is a wonderful writer (he can also grill a mean steak) and I encourage everybody to visit his site… I hope you enjoy this truly remarkable family as much as I have. You'll see what I mean after a couple paragraphs of John's writing.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Gen. Waleed

I didn’t know him well. But from my few conversations with the man, I gathered he was a true Iraqi Patriot and that he loved wearing suits and he kind of reminded me of Bill Cosby... I could just picture him in front of his grandchildren daring them to pull his finger. Of course, it’s considered an insult in Iraq to fart on somebody, but still he just had an avuncular quality to him. Gen. Waleed Kashmoula was the anti-corruption director in Mosul. He was killed this past week by insurgents. At his funeral, insurgents attacked the mourners. Can you imagine us attacking an enemy’s funeral? Just think of how much media coverage that would receive. But, this particular attack barely even made the typical “elsewhere in Iraq” paragraph at the bottom of the daily wrap-up story. Still the question lingers… what type of people attack a funeral? Well, it’s people who have no regard for human life. Waleed was a man who believed in Iraq and his death is truly tragic. It pains me, but I know his efforts in rebuilding the country and stopping terrorism will lead to a free and Democratic Iraq. But for now, I just want to share a few stories of this fine man.

Many people in my unit were close to Waleed. He invited us over to his place for dinner once. And although I wasn’t able to go, my colonel and two captains attended. They feasted with his entire family and were the guests of honor. A family man, Waleed would bring his children and grandchildren to the palace to meet us. His grandkids hugged us like we were family. And Waleed asked us atypical questions like… did you talk to your mom? You should talk to your mom. She misses you.

But what I’ll remember most about the man was the way he dressed. He wore silk suits every day and shiny shoes. He had huge ears. I, too, have dumbo ears so any time I meet another big-eared fellow we hit it off right off the bat. He was bald and had these few hairs that he’d comb over kind of like Homer Simpson. A very educated man, he spoke perfect English.

I’m sure he’ll be remembered by most for his awesome dedication to the Iraqi people. He was largely the reason Mosul opened one of the largest Iraqi Joint Command Centers (JCC), where leaders from all Iraqi security forces coordinate and work together. He also helped the governor of Ninevah make important security decisions. And he was one of the first people dignitaries wanted to meet with, including General Casey and Donald Rumsfeld. And now the man we, the Americans, trusted and believed in is gone. But I believe there will be others like him.

Just normal everyday citizens are taking their arms and fighting insurgents, foiling the evildoers plan to plant a roadside bomb here or there. And little kids are providing the coalition with tangible intelligence on insurgent training camps and the homes of terrorists. It’s almost as if the Iraqis are saying “enough is enough.” And they know we’ll be there to support them as their country only grows stronger. As each day passes, it’s apparent that Iraqis are growing more confident and the insurgents are becoming weaker. The new government will succeed and Iraqi will truly be free.

I just wish the Iraqis like Samir and Waleed were there to witness it. At least, their children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy freedom one day. Knowing Samir and Waleed, that fact would put a smile on their face.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Veterans and this country

One man was missing an eye. Another had no left arm. Others had extreme coughs and limps. All appeared poor, wearing stained sweat pants and old shirts and out-of-style tattered shoes. They were Veterans. The heart and soul of America. And there they sat at the Milwaukee Veteran’s Hospital awaiting treatment. What they’ve seen and been through could only be understood by somebody else who’d lived through it. Many probably held their buddies as his final breath left his lungs. Yet, they are poor and take the Metro bus for their medical treatment; they can’t afford cars.

As I stood in the lobby of the hospital awaiting to register with the VA, my heart was filled with agony. It hurt to see these men. Not because they were a sight for sore eyes, but because they sacrificed so much for their country and “shabby” medical treatment hardly seems like a just reward. Why is it this country will dish out millions to pay the salary of an NBA player, but only pay its police officers and soldiers an average of $30,000? What’s more is an injured Veteran receives disability, but the most you can receive off of full disability is less than my yearly salary.

I very badly wanted to walk up to one man in particular and say “I’m sorry.” He was a black man and could not stop shaking. He stuttered and had a limp in his right leg. He still wore his old issued field jacket; no doubt the same one he wore in Vietnam. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, other than the obvious. Unlike the others I saw, he didn’t take the bus or drive. He had a backpack and after his appointment, he walked away from the hospital. I assume he was homeless.

I’m sure at one point in his life he was an up and comer. A kid with dreams to be a baseball player or a store owner. But his life was changed after his country asked a favor. He may not have wanted to serve, but he selflessly dodged bullets and chased the enemy through tunnels and slept at night praying he wakes up in the morning. And now he needs a favor from his country, and all “We the People” can offer is pro-rated medical care and a discount on a loan. It hardly seems fair. Even still, I think respect is probably what he desires most or a simple thank you from the same generation who once spat on him. Rather, he’s looked at as a bum.

It’s easy for people to say… “the war was a long time ago. People need to just get over it.” No doubt, these naysayers are the same people who would rather read about latest updates on Michael Jackson’s trial rather than a short bio of a deceased soldier. I wonder sometimes if our country has its priorities right. Then, I open the newspaper and Martha Stewart is on the front page while the war is under “international” news buried inside. To say the least, it’s just frustrating.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

So long Oklahoma

Oklahoma… it’s where I grew up and I have memories on nearly every corner from Oklahoma City to Midwest City to my hometown, Jones. But there’s not much left in this old state for me anymore, which is why I moved to Milwaukee a few years ago. Today, I will say goodbye to the family, who has been so supportive and encouraging throughout this readjusting period, and go back to my newfound homeland of Wisconsin. It’s a 16-hour drive, but with all the great sports talk radio about the NCAA tourney, it will be like taking a nap.

I’m bringing my cousin along with me to Mil town. He’s a good kid and wants to attend college in Beer town, so at least I’ll have family there with me now. As I say adios to my home state, I am a bit saddened. But my job and almost all of my friends are in Milwaukee. If you’ve never been there, it’s a great city. I am looking forward to seeing Lake Michigan again. But, I’m not looking forward to seeing my mom wipe away her tears as her oldest boy leaves her arms once more. At least this time, her boy isn’t going to war. This time, he’s going to his apartment on the Lake, where a bathroom cabinet of Brut and Old Spice awaits me.

So long Oklahoma

Oklahoma… it’s where I grew up and I have memories on nearly every corner from Oklahoma City to Midwest City to my hometown, Jones. But there’s not much left in this old state for me anymore, which is why I moved to Milwaukee a few years ago. Today, I will say goodbye to the family, who has been so supportive and encouraging throughout this readjusting period, and go back to my newfound homeland of Wisconsin. It’s a 16-hour drive, but with all the great sports talk radio about the NCAA tourney, it will be like taking a nap.

I’m bringing my cousin along with me to Mil town. He’s a good kid and wants to attend college in Beer town, so at least I’ll have family there with me now. As I say adios to my home state, I am a bit saddened. But my job and almost all of my friends are in Milwaukee. If you’ve never been there, it’s a great city. I am looking forward to seeing Lake Michigan again. But, I’m not looking forward to seeing my mom wipe away her tears as her oldest boy leaves her arms once more. At least this time, her boy isn’t going to war. This time, he’s going to his apartment on the Lake, where a bathroom cabinet of Brut and Old Spice awaits me.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The weird stuff in Iraq

Somebody asked me today: What’s the strangest thing you saw in Iraq? At first, I thought he meant gruesome as in body parts, but he meant just flat-out weird. As I pondered on the weird things I observed, I realized how things, acts or customs would never be accepted in the United States. I also thought I’d share them with you…

Chained to the ground. We were in Tal Afar, going through the city from house to house searching for weapons, bad guys and bombs. We came across this one house where a guy was actually chained and shackled to the ground. Kept like a dog, there was a bowl of water within his reach. We asked the family why the guy was chained up and they simply said the man was weird and they were afraid he would do something to the children. I didn’t take his picture; I was too shocked to do anything.

Dead terrorist with his butt showing. I certainly saw my share of dead people, but most were fully clothed. I’m not sure how this particular fellow died, but I know he and his cohorts attacked us from a nearby mosque. After the threat was eliminated, soldiers and Iraqi guardsmen secured the holy site. I later arrived to document the area, and there was this guy whose pants were at his knees. He laid flat on his stomach with his head turned sideways, and his hands were around his waist. It’s as if the insurgent pulled his pants down as he died to say “you can kiss my bloody ass.”

Kicking camel. There aren’t many camels in Mosul, so when we came across a few chained up we wanted pictures with them. After receiving permission from the owners, guys posed with the animals. The camels didn’t like my flash. After a few photos, one of the camels kicked me in the groin area. I’ve been kicked by horses hundreds of times, and I promise you that Equine don’t hold a candle to camels.

Celebratory gunfire. I had guard duty the night the Iraqi Olympic Soccer Team played Costa Rica for the right to advance into the quarter finals. Soccer in Iraq is absolutely huge. So big that when Iraq wins, everybody with a gun (which is everybody) is outside shooting up in the air. I don’t know why they can’t just drink a beer instead of firing a weapon, but it’s their custom to celebrate something by shooting into the clouds. I kid you not, after Iraq beat Costa Rica, people were firing from their homes for an hour non stop. Tracers were flying everywhere. It was like the 4th of July with bullets. An hour after all the firing stopped, a man wearing a robe walked onto his rooftop. He had a pistol in his hand and was about 100 meters from me. He raised his arm and fired a single shot, and then walked back inside. At that moment, I wondered why he didn’t celebrate with everybody else.

Donkey pulling a car. No matter where you are in Iraq, you can always count on three things: lots and lots of broken down cars and tons of trash and to see something weird. But in all my adventures, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like this before…. a donkey pulling a broken-down car. I guess you could say this donkey was the king of donkeys. The car wasn’t large and the donkey didn’t look strong, but its owner sure looked mad. He was yelling at the donkey. If I could speak Arabic, I would have yelled… man, the donkey’s pulling your car. He’s pulling your car!

Everything else. To be honest, everything in Iraq seemed weird at first, but after awhile you got use to it. Other weird things worth noting…. Wires: there are wires everywhere. We’ve lost a few soldiers due to errant power lines. Man dresses: for some reason the enemy’s costume of choice are black man dresses (and they don’t wear underwear, so I’m told). Food: they pickle or fry everything and serve with flatbread, which at first tastes odd. But after awhile, it grows on you. (I’ve eaten a lot of pickles since I’ve been home.) Prayers: Muslims pray five times a day, and they listen to the loud speakers from their mosque. The music / prayer call reminded me of the movie Black Hawk Down. Car horns: I swear every Iraqi’s ambition was to have their favorite song programmed into their horn. Some honkers honked and you could hear the honk for five minutes. Obsession with Tina Turner: I saw more Tina Turner albums in Iraqi homes than I ever have in my life. And I have no idea why. It was just weird. I mean, who likes Tina Turner?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Girls and Counseling

I always imagined a psychiatrist’s office to be pristine and fancy. I pictured Picasso paintings and leather couches. To be honest, those things kind of make me nervous for the simple reason that I am just a guy. I’m not one of the types of guys who admires art or likes scented candles. If I am going to talk to somebody about deep personal feelings, I need to be comfortable in the room. And my shrink’s office was 100 percent masculine, with the exception of a flowered sofa. Prestigious degrees hung on the wall and papers were scattered every where. This doctor of mine was just like me, except she was a girl. She wore braces and was very tall. Quite attractive for a 40 something year-old lady, but I’m not here to hit on her. I’m here to get help.

After my first session, I felt so much better. She doesn’t really say much, just listens and take notes. Occasionally, she’ll interrupt and ask “and what does that mean to you?” Of course, she asks about my family relationships. She asks about other possible skeletons in the closet. I tell her everything. She says, “you are suffering from Post traumatic stress syndrome. And frankly, I am very positive about your condition. Because you recognize signs and you can vividly remember your dreams.” I then brushed my fingernails against my shirt and said well, I have read lot’s of Dostoevsky and understand the human mind. No doubt impressed that I read the great Russian author, she smiled. Little did she know that my instincts were kicking in… Without even trying, I was flirting (with my psychiatrist). While I’ve got my flirting skills back and getting girls numbers, I really need to work on me and just concentrate on the nightmares and my writing and my future.

On the second visit, I focused on the right things… not my shrink’s long legs. I told her about my latest nightmare…

I camped outside with Abby. The moon was bright and the bull frogs and crickets loud. I love the Oklahoma country. As a kid, I slept outside all the time. This time I fell asleep in the back yard within a matter of minutes. I woke up hugging a tree in the front yard, crying and yelling.

My little bro said he was looking for me in the back yard when I started yelling “get down, mother fucker. Get down, or I’ll shoot.” I was chasing him with my arms at the ready. I chased him to the house and I was yelling for my friend “Sammy,” telling him to get his weapon and that Haji is everywhere. I then proceeded into the house at 3 a.m., pounding on doors telling everybody that Haji is everywhere and that we need to go. At first, they thought I was playing a joke until they looked into my eyes… they knew I was dreaming. When I woke up with my arms wrapped around a defoliated Craped Myrtle, my parents and little bro were there. I was relieved I was just dreaming… as the experience felt real. In the dream, I manned a guard tower at my parent’s house. We had a strong perimeter set up and somehow black man dresses surrounded the area.

I don’t think the dream had any significance, because my shrink helped me deal with it.

See, just after two sessions, I feel a lot better and don’t feel as weird about what I’m going through. And I am a lot more receptive to girls hitting on me. Like the other night, a buddy and I were watching the OSU game (I hate Texas) and this girl goes “who are you rooting for?” Green light! I got her number. I won’t call her, because she was too “in to me” but I’m back and I owe it to the counseling. If anything, I’m starting to feel a lot more like I should: a single veteran with lots of money. And the girls are noticing. But, I’m very picky, so I don’t always notice them. Life is good: now if I could just wake up before noon.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Great Milblogger

You guys have to check this guy out. He's a great soldier and writer. My hat's off to him as he continues to blog. Enjoy...

Also, check out She has a variety of topics to enjoy. Tomorrow, after I sleep for 15 hours, I plan to write about my counseling sessions. They are going well. Thank you all for your support. I need to go splash on some Brut and run around the house wearing my cape.

The food in Iraq was different. Not saying it wasn't good, but it was just different. This here is a beef or lamb smothered in an orange sauce on top of flat bread. Posted by Hello

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Samir, the Arabic version of Chris Farley. I wish you could have met him. Posted by Hello

Thursday, March 03, 2005

So nobody else has to

The man sat in the back row. When I asked: are there any veterans here? He and a few others raised their hands. After I spoke to the half-empty church, a crowd of people ran up to me to say thanks or to ask for my pictures. But the man just sat in the back staring at me. As I passed each pew, people caught me from behind to just say thanks.

The man just sat in the back, as if he were waiting for me to pass by when nobody else was around. From a distance, he looked old and a little dirty. He had a long, fluffy white beard that resembled Santa Claus. He wore an old leather jacket, jeans and a red-and-white checkered flannel shirt. There were smudges of dirt upon his wrinkled cheeks. But what caught my eye were the watermelon tear drops flowing from his bright blue eyes.

As I approached the back row to exit the building, the man stood up, walked toward me, put his arms around me and simply said, “I was in Berlin. It hurts doesn’t it?” I only said I’m sorry and thank you. He wiped the tears from his eyes and walked away bawling. My uncle said he’d never seen the man before and that he was a visitor from Texas. His daughter attended the church and heard a soldier would be giving a testimony.

Since a recent post, I’ve been talking to schools, universities, youth groups and churches about Iraq. My message is always the same… pray for the soldiers, good things are happening and never get reported, know that this war is just and that the people we fight do not represent Islam; they represent evil. Sometimes, I receive standing ovations. Other times, I have kids picking their noses, just waiting for the bell to ring. I get frustrated when people don’t pay attention. I have to hold back from saying… “excuse me. Am I boring you? Do you realize I am PR Man and I have a cape? Don’t make me suck you into a black hole.” But I don’t, I just give them the sniper stare. I run a slide show of 200 or so pictures, some of which show little kids smiling. Others depict the reality of combat. I entertain questions and this is where the fun begins. One kid asked me if I’d ever been shot at. I described the time an RPG landed near me but never exploded and the time bullets whizzed by my head, pinging off of metal. Another asked if I’d ever lost a friend. I replied more than I can count, but told them about T & Mitts and how both were expecting children. They asked about the Iraqi children and if they attend school. I answered, it’s not that easy. See, the terrorists have targeted schools we’ve built and many vagrants have kicked kids out of the classrooms to live in the buildings, but for the most part, kids are receiving more education now than under the Saddam regime simply because we have spent millions rebuilding and re-supplying dilapidated schools. I tell them about Samir and how he was the Arabic version of Chris Farley. When they learn of his baby and Samir’s unfortunate murder, tears fill the eyes of the girls while the boys just look dazed.

After one presentation, a person told me that it was great, but it was kind of depressing. I asked… well, what the hell do you think war is? It’s not something in a book or a movie; it’s real and real people live through it. They don’t pick the cause… they just fight it, so you can enjoy an education, the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion and enjoy that beautiful flag. For the most part, I’ve noticed that people don’t realize or care about what’s really going on in Iraq or the rest of the world. They just go about their daily lives not knowing how lucky they have it. They can’t fathom that right now there is a 22-year-old former all-state football player standing in a guard tower or on a patrol or behind a Howitzer not knowing if the next 30 seconds could be his last. Of course, not for one second do I throw all of America into this generality. The readers of this blog and the millions of military supporters and the fine folks at Oklahoma State are different… the kind emails and generous comments I’ve received in the last week about my nightmare and struggles to be normal again truly made me feel special. You people are so genuine and I can never thank you enough for the support you’ve given me and my fellow brethren.

Much like Berlin and World War II is still with the man who confronted me, I know Iraq will always be a part of me. I know his war was much different than mine, but we were both subjected to images that will forever follow us. It’s strange how just one year can define a lifetime.

Last night at my old church, somebody asked me why do soldiers do it. I said, “so nobody else has to.”