Sunday, July 01, 2007

HOME FIRES: Five Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life

July 1, 2007, 9:40 pm

When I was in middle school it was an insult to say, “Your mama wears combat boots.” That comment usually followed a different gut-wrenching remark bashing someone else’s mother. Three weeks ago the little pink plus symbol appeared on my home pregnancy test. In eight months I will be that “mama” who wore combat boots. Suddenly it doesn’t sound like such an insult! Having been part of a war and part of our nation’s history, I now have the opportunity to teach a member of the next generation the valuable lessons that I have learned.

I wonder, my child, what the history books will declare? Will this war ever be looked upon as necessary as World Wars I or II? Will Generals Abizaid and Casey live on in the public mind like Generals Lee and Patton? Instead of learning the name of each general’s horse, will you know that our generals traveled through the Iraqi desert and cities in a Stryker? Will you understand the political agenda? Will the name Saddam Hussein send shivers down your spine as Adolf Hitler’s did to me? Will you have to live through a war ?

Will oil continue to rule the world? As difficult as it may be, I’ll have to decide exactly what to tell you about this war I was part of.

I’ll share the sort of history that you’ll probably never find in a history book. I’ll begin by introducing you to the Iraqi characters who performed leading roles during my tour. Perhaps you’ll hear the tragic tale of a promising Iraqi governor and understand that these sort of events, that to Americans only seem to happen in the movies, are a reality in Iraq.

On April 6, 2004, as I sat in the smoke-filled conference room at City Hall, taking notes and sipping my small cup of tea, the first governor of Ninevah Province was elected. Osama Kashmoula was a short, fairly young, teddy bear-like man. He had a welcoming presence and warm smile. Osama spoke to the Provincial Council and often the press about the great achievements the council and Ninevah Province would accomplish, beginning with the successful democratic election. He explained to his people that as the governor he was not to be referred to as a Sunni Arab because he represented all of Ninevah Province — Sunni, Shia, Christian, Yazidi, and Turkoman alike. Governor Kashmoula had hopes of improving Ninevah’s security force, economy, and overall understanding and implementation of democracy.

The following three months were filled with lessons about democracy, corruption, and betrayal. My combat boots took daily walks alongside the governor. They even flew in Black Hawks seated next to this promising leader. They spent nights on the roof of City Hall after days of attacks on the surrounding police stations and were tightly tied as a rocket blasted from the marketplace into City Hall. They were on my feet as I sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and played guitar for the Provincial Council and local sheiks.

Then, one day in July, the car carrying the governor to a meeting with the Iraqi president was attacked. Osama Kashmoula was shot and died later in a hospital in Baji.

There are many rumors as to who aided in planning the attack of the governor. No one but the chief of police and some of the government officials in Baghdad knew that the president was sending a car to pick up the governor It was left unresolved whether or not a high ranking police official, the governor’s bodyguards, or members of the national government played a role in his death.

As we pulled up to the governor’s house, one week after his death, it was crawling with bodyguards toting AK-47s. This was the day of mourning for all female friends and relatives. At this moment I was honored to be wearing combat boots, I was asked to deliver a condolence letter to the governor’s wife signed by the President of the United States, recognizing the accomplishments of this man and the loss that would be felt throughout the nation. I sat on the governor’s couch surrounded by the women in his life and realized that although we come from extremely different places, we all love and mourn in the same way. War is ugly whether you wear combat boots, Birkenstocks, or high heels.

Not every memory has a tragic ending, My child will flip through picture books and see the desert, camels, Old Skinny the Iraqi dog, ancient Turkish castles, the Tigris River, the open markets, and the looks on all of the children’s faces as we handed out bags of candy. I’ll share the beauty of the land in northern Iraq, the lakes, the mountains covered in green, the cave that was transformed into a restaurant. He or she will learn that even in the worst environment (a war zone), you can still find something positive.

Rather than trenches and battlefields my boots walked through palaces, through halls of freshly budding democracy, to homes of grieving widows. They rode in the turret from Kuwait to Mosul, stomped through farm lands in Samarra, and sat along side government officials. After hearing my stories, I hope that one day this child will be proud to say, “Yeah, my Mama did wear combat boots!”