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.
“Hurry up and wait” is the old military axiom that describes just about every major expedition.
My luggage has been lost by British Airways and I have sat around Kuwait for two days waiting for it to arrive. It contains my 40-pound body armor and I suspect it is sitting somewhere next to a conveyor waiting for someone not too lazy to pick it up. After two days I decide to push on without it. The Army provides me with another set of armor (they said before they wouldn’t). I buy another set of clothes at the PX and head out on a 4 a.m. transport.
The army doesn’t operate on 24-hour time for nothing. At all hours of the day and night there are companies standing in formation in front of the assembly hall waiting to be dispatched. Around 5 a.m. I accompany 40 camouflaged troops into the belly of an old C-130 transport and everyone promptly falls asleep. “Did you bring your earplugs?” the guy next to me asks. “You’re going to need them.” Fortunately, I did. When the propellers finally rev up half an hour later, the noise is deafening.
I had read almost everywhere that the drop into Baghdad International Airport is hair-raising — like riding the Coney Island Cyclone for a mile down. This is to avoid anti-aircraft fire. As dawn breaks and a sliver of sky peeps through one porthole, I wait for the excitement to begin. We do a series of slow turns — and suddenly we are on the ground. “They’ve developed a new approach,” my neighbor explains. “It isn’t quite as dangerous as it used to be.”
Now it’s hurry up and wait again. The Green Zone is only ten miles away but the first helicopter shuttle — a British unit — won’t arrive until 1630 — 4:30 in the afternoon. After that there’s an American flight at 2030. The “Rhino” — a 23-passenger heavily armed bus — only makes one run a day, well after midnight. “They don’t like to have to push through Baghdad traffic,” says the transit officer. “Too many IEDs.”
So it will be an all-day wait beneath a concrete pavilion, surrounded by sandbags and furnished with picnic tables and rows of seats that seem to have been salvaged from a movie theater. The temperature is a pleasant 70 degrees, however, and the air is fragrant. “You should try this when it’s 135 degrees,” says one veteran.
If the bad guys have started to lay off transports, it may be because they are now targeting helicopters. Word soon comes back that the Brits don’t want to fly until after dark. There are rumors of Russia surface-to-ground missiles in the neighborhood. So it’s dinner more reading and dinner at the mess hall.
When the choppers arrive at dusk, there are eight of us waiting, including an Italian journalist who has been in and out of Iraq since 2000. “I used to drive my car in from Jordan,” he says. “You could go anywhere in Baghdad then — and that was a year after the invasion. Things have gotten much worse the past two years.”
We take off, skirt the airport and begin a long series of slow, twisting loops along the Tigris, never rising more than a few hundred feet in the air. A tethered gunner rocks back and forth between two machine guns at the open doors, always staying on the downward side. Even after we land, the crew is tense and anxious to get off the ground again.
A few hours later, when I email all this to my son who is a student in Chicago, he writes back:
“Yes, I saw in the paper the other day, after they shot down another American helicopter, one general commented, ‘ We are engaged with a thinking enemy.’ It’s too bad it took them four years to realize this.”
Next: embedding with the 82nd Airborne.
William Tucker is a special correspondent for The American Spectator currently embedded with the U.S. Army in Iraq.