I’m sitting in the chow hall at the transit base in Kuwait when a Navy Seabee walks over to my table — a big hulking young man a smile so broad it can only mean he’s going home soon.
“Can I sit here?” he asks.
“Sure.” I was about to ask him myself.
It turns out, naturally, he is a farm boy, with a smile so engaging it could almost be called conspiratorial. Sure enough, he is headed home from a nine-month tour in Iraq but long after he has told me about his days of following the Marine Corps through Fallujah and other provincial cities, the smile persists. Only America can produce people this happy.
“I grew up on a farm in Minnesota but now I live in a little town ten miles outside of Dubuque,” he says. “I love farm life. Wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” Although he looks 18 it turns out he is 33 with a wife and three children. “I joined the Navy right out of high school,” he continues. “I played football but I guess I wasn’t big enough to get recruited. After my first enlistment I went to college and got an engineering degree. My reserve unit got called up after this war started. I’ve still got a nice job waiting for me back home, though, at John Deere.” It seems like everybody I’ve met so far works for John Deere.
“If you look at the demographics, you’ll find that most of the recruits in the volunteer army come from poor or rural backgrounds, especially rural,” he offers. “You find a lot of people like me from small towns. We’re all professionals. I’ve had questions about this war since it started in 2003 but that doesn’t make any difference. We’re here to do a job and no one does it any better.
“The problem is with extensions and re-enlistments.” His face is a little more sober now. “I know guys who are back for their third or fourth tour. That’s especially tough for guys like me who have a family. It’s eventually going to be a problem. A lot of people wanted to do twenty years but are deciding it’s not worth it.”
Indeed, among the toilet-stall graffiti — probably the best indicator of the general mood — someone has scrawled “re-up papers” with an arrow pointing to the toilet paper rack.
I ask him about those doubts on the war. “It just seems like the rationale has kept changing,” he says. “First we were here to search for weapons of mass destruction, then we were building democracy, now it seems like we’re just here to survive. The Sunni and the Shi’ites almost seem to have forgotten about us. The only time we get in trouble is if we get caught between them.”
I ask him if he has ever considered politics. Surely everybody in Iowa can’t be this engaging. “Well, I’m a moderate Democrat and my wife’s a moderate Republican. She’s probably a little more in tune with folks back home.”
But won’t the Democrats be looking for returning Iraqi veterans to run for office?
“They tried that last time but it didn’t always work. They had that one guy in Ohio who didn’t quite make it [ex-Marine Paul Hackett]. I don’t know whether I can really talk about the war with people who haven’t experienced it. It’s a hard thing to explain. It’s kind of a brotherhood.” Still, he seems to be thinking about it.
This good-natured farm boy is perfectly representative of the soldiers I have met so far — smart, professional, utterly dedicated to the task at hand yet willing to entertain their doubts. As usual, America will be served best by a military that has its own mind.
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