Today brings another interview. I’ve been doing several of these lately because I feel like they’re a good way to get people’s opinions who normally don’t have the opportunity to share it. This one is a pretty special case in that it’s with a current soldier who served in Iraq. He’s still in the Army and has asked for me not to identify him, and that’s totally understandable. We’ll just call him Joe (as in G.I. Joe). As always, my text will be in blue to help with the reading.
Alright, well first and foremost I want to thank you for your service to our country. I don’t feel like our military men and women are told that enough. Secondly, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for this blog.
Michael: The first question I feel like I should ask is obviously what branch of the military you were in and where you served at?
Joe: I’ve been in the Army for five years. I’ve been stationed in Fort Drum, New York where I deployed to Camp Delta, Iraq for 15 months. Camp Delta is located in Al Kut, Iraq. I’ve also been at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and I’m currently stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Michael: I know when 9/11 happened you and I were both still in school. You graduated in 2006, I believe, which is three years after we invaded Iraq. Knowing that we were in a war and you would probably be deployed, you still joined the military. What made you come to that conclusion?
Joe: I graduated in 2006, and to be honest, I never saw myself joining the Army. My dad had been in for around 15 years at the time, and it was never something that I saw myself being able to, or wanting to do. I wish I could tell you that I joined because of some noble cause but that wasn’t it. I was about six months removed from graduation and my life seemed like it wasn’t going anywhere, so I found the Army to be the best option for me. I knew that joining meant that I would be deploying, especially as an MP (Military Police). I called my dad the night I joined, and the first thing he asked me was “You know where you’re going to end up if you go in as an MP right?” So I made the decision to join knowing what I was getting into.
Michael: I think a lot of people have a false idea about the military. They think you just sign up, go to somewhere like Hawaii or Germany, learn to shoot guns, and make a ton of money. However, the pay sucks and the conditions you go through aren’t exactly ideal either. Part of that false idea comes from military recruiters lying to people to get them to join. Did you go through a recruiting office and were you told any of this?
Joe: I did go through a recruiting office, but I never had any of those issues. I had a firm understanding of what I wanted to do before I went in and the process was fairly cut and dry. I was good friends with my recruiter, so I was never told anything that wasn’t true, or made any empty promises that I’ve heard from other soldiers and their recruiters.
Michael: I’m not sure how much you’re allowed to talk about, and I know you probably can’t go in specifics, but could you give just a basic idea of what your mission was when you were there?
Joe: The company I was in was tasked with a mission as a Police Transition Team (PTT). Working as a PTT is basically training the Iraqi Police forces on basic tactics and on what is, in essence, a militaristic policing style. We also supported the Iraqi Police by providing basic needs for their police stations, whether it was water and MREs, force protection equipment such as Hesco barriers, sand bags, or razor wire, or beds to house the on duty officers. We would also assist them in carrying out certain missions as well as accompanying them on simple presence patrols throughout the city.
Michael: How did the locals tend to treat you all when you were there?
Joe: There were mixed reactions from the population there. In some parts of the city the locals were very welcoming. They would come up and talk to us, try to get us to trade them things like pens, or bottles of water for candy or food (which some of it was pretty delicious). In other areas there was considerable tension as soon as we showed up. Shops would close and people would leave the streets to get away from us. I believe that had a lot to do with the influence of the local terroristic cell that was in our area. I came to realize while I was there just how narrow minded some people can be. They think of Iraq and immediately see the negativity that the media portrays. There are people there that just want what Americans have, and honestly what most Americans take for granted, and that’s simple freedom. I talked to a man that was working in a shop on the side of the road, he was a doctor, but he wasn’t able to practice locally because he refused to treat any terrorists that were brought in. Yes, there are a lot of bad people in that country, but being there and interacting with the local population opened up my eyes to me, myself being narrowminded, as well as to the the negative stigma that is undeservedly placed on the Iraqi people as a whole.
Michael: During his presidency, George Bush extended the deployments of a lot of soldiers without their consent. Did yours get extended or do you know anyone who did? Or even worse, do you know someone who’s was extended and resulted in their death?
Joe: My deployment didn’t get extended. We were placed on 15 month deployment orders from the beginning. I have been stationed with quite a few people that were extended, and their reactions varied. Some we’re ok with it. It came with a $1,000 per month stipend, which helped the cause. Most of these were single soldiers that had no issue with an additional few months. Others hated it. 12 months in a combat zone is a long time, so getting down to the last few months and then getting told that you’ve gotta stay even longer, I can’t even describle what kind of hit that my morale would take. Luckily, no one that I know has been killed during an extension. But I know that there were some that were, and that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth about the situation.
Michael: Now that the troops have left Iraq, do you feel like the mission was complete?
Joe: This is a tricky question, because to accomplish a mission you have to know what it is right? Do I think Iraq is a better place today than when Saddam was in charge? Yes, absolutely… but do I think Iraq is secure within itself? No. When I was there we started the security transition in Iraq. This meant handing over control to Iraqi security forces to let them start to stand on their own. I can’t speak for the state those forces are in now, but when I was there 3 years ago they were nowhere near ready. And even though it’s been 3 years, I can’t see how they would be ready now. After having said all of that, I don’t think that the U.S. military should have to continue to bear the burden of Iraq. We spent what I believe was far too long, and lost far too many lives to have to continue to hold another country’s hand.
Michael: Since the US troops have left, there has been a lot of violence erupt in the country between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims, who have hated each other for over a thousand years now, Rick Perry in a recent debate said if he were president, he would send troops back into Iraq. Do you think that would be successful at stopping the violence for good? Or do you think it’d just start back up when we left again?
Joe: Unfortunately I don’t see the violence in Iraq stopping for good, whether there is a U.S. presence or not. I hate being pessimistic, but I see it like this: if the U.S. is there, then terrorists are going to see us as a target. If we’re not there, then Iraqi forces become more of a target. Terrorists are just that… terrorists. They are extermely strong in their beliefs, and I don’t think an outside presence is going to stop them from carrying out attacks for what the believe is a rightful cause.
Michael: Do you agree that it’s time to end the war in Afghanistan as well, and if so do you think we successfully completed our mission there also?
Joe: Afghanistan is a little tougher for me to weigh my opinion on. I haven’t been there yet, so I can’t give you personal account as to the mission there from a first hand perspective. I hate to judge what we’ve accomplished based on media reports, and things of that nature, because, as you and I both know, they can be terribly skewed and baised depending on the media outlet. I will say this however, over 10 years is a long time to be fighting a war. Soldiers are tired, streched thin, and it’s not getting any easier. Deployments are getting shorter, and dwell time is getting longer, however knowing that the possiblilty of going back is stressful in itself, much less knowing for certain that you’re going back again. Being in a combat zone for a day is stressful, so even though deployments are at 9 months now for the majority of the Army, 9 months is a long time. Knowing what I feel as a soldier, as well as what I see with fellow soldiers, I’d say yes… it’s time to drawn thing in Afghanistan to a close.
Michael: One of the least talked about aspects of these wars has been the defense contractors that many people don’t know about. I know I’ve asked you before about Halliburton and all the stories of their faulty electrical work resulting in soldiers getting electricuted, poor sanitation of the water supply for the soldiers, etc. Then you had Blackwater over there as well who’s so secretive you don’t know what they’re really doing. All these defense contractors are getting paid three times what you are. How does that make you feel from a soldier’s stand point?
Joe: To be honest it’s pretty sickening. These contractors are going over, staying in the nicest places available to them, getting paid, like you said, three times more than what I make, and doing a third of the work. I talked to a civilian contractor while I was there that made just shy of $100,000 yearly. He did have a tough job though. While I was out in 65+ pounds of gear in 120 degree heat, he stood outside the dining facility and made sure the Ugondan guards checked everybody’s ID before they could go inside… a well deserved paycheck for that stressful job. This being the same job description for people that will turn soldiers away from the chow hall because their uniform is too dirty, or they get there a few minutes late, because, oh I don’t know, maybe they were out on a mission actually earning what little bit of extra money we got for putting our lives in danger every day we were there. So to sum it up, I think it’s disgusting that the government is willing to pay someone that kind of money to stand on a fairly secure FOB while they are willing to discuss freezing military pay, and at one point I was worried that I might not see a paycheck the next week.
Michael: The suicide rates among returning soldiers from these wars is on the rise. Also, soldiers suffering from PTSD is on the rise as well. Do you feel like the military and DOD does a good job at helping returning soldiers reacclimate when they return from overseas? If not, how could they improve?
Joe: I think that they have good intentions when trying to help soldiers readjust to life back at home. There are quite a few avenues that soldiers can take when dealing with suicide, or PTSD. I don’t thing that it is by fault of the DOD’s efforts to help that these rates are rising. When soldiers are facing 3, 4, 5, or more deployments in such a short timespan it wears on you. You see things you don’t want to, and face things you never thought you’d have to. When you get back to the states you get readjusted, then have to leave again. It’s an extremely hard cycle to face, and on top of that, soldiers that do admit to suicidal thoughts, or the possibility of having PTSD are seen as weak, or crazy, and are, more often than not, treated as such. I think that the outlets for soldiers are more than available to get help, but its the fear of how people willl look at them that pushes soldiers away from using that help effectively.
Michael: So this will be my last actual question and I want to move away from Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re seeing a lot of US-Iranian saber-rattling going on. At the same time, North Korea is transitioning to a new leader after the death of Kim Jong Il. And just last week, we unveiled the start of shifting troops from the Middle East to Asia, perhaps in fear of the ever-growing Chinese military, despite them saying that it’s for defense purposes only. Do you think these countries are viable military threats to the US?
Joe: I do. The military is streched thin as it is, and we’re cutting numbers and soldiers are either recovering from being deployed, or getting ready to deploy again. I think that Iran is the most unstable of the three countries that you mentioned. There is obvious tension between the U.S. and Iran and their nuclear capabilities are very real. North Korea I don’t think is as threatening as some would like to say. They’re in a leadership transition and I don’t see them making a lot of noise in this aspect. China poses a threat for a couple of reasons. One being the numbers game. Simply put, they are growing, and we’re cutting back. Secondly, any kind of military conflict with China would, in my opinion, revert back to “conventional warfare”. By a conventional war I mean a war faught with front lines and the enemy actually wearing a uniform, as opposed to a guy wearing traditional clothing worn in the middle east. Soldiers today are trained with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, and the thought of a conventional war is on the back burner. So if China were to make militaristic threats, training for soldiers would have to be reverted back to pre- 9/11 training, which would obviously take time to implement.
Michael: Finally, I just want to give the floor to you. I want to give you a chance to talk about anything you want to that maybe we haven’t covered that you want people to know.
Joe: I just want to go back to one of the earlier questions you asked. You talked briefly about the public’s view of the military, and you’re right. Some people do see it as signing up, shooting guns, going cool places, and making good money. And there is some truth to that… I have shot a lot of weapons that I wouldn’t have had a chance to as a civilian. I’ve got to go to Ireland, Germany, Kuwait, Iraq (though not so cool), and parts of the U.S. I wouldn’t have traveled to otherwise. So there’s the upside. That’s what the public gets right. What they assume that’s completely off the mark is military pay and allowances. First starting off in the Army I got paid about $550 every two weeks in base pay. Now take into account my housing allowance, which was around $1000, living in New York at the time. We had a tiny, and I mean tiny, one bedroom apartment at the time and paid $650 a month not including utilities. So throw utilities in there and… well you see where I’m going. Needless to say, ramen noodles were quite plentiful for the first little while that I was in the Army. That’s not how someone that has agreed to give their life for this country should have to live. Then people say, “oh well you get free medical treatment”… true, but you go to a civilian doctor, then go to an Army doctor and you tell me which you’d rather have… coming from this side, I’d rather pay. Army doctors treat you as more of a liability than trying to figure out what is wrong with you. I have a bad knee and it took 3 1/2 years… YEARS, to figure out what was wrong. So if you want medical care like that for free, you can have it. Okay, now that I’m off my soapbox, I just want to thank you for the opportunity to do this. I don’t feel like soldiers are given the due credit that is deserved sometimes, and you’re giving people the opportunity to kind of get a true-to-life glimpse of a military member and I appreciate that. Also, before I go I have to pay respect for my fallen brothers and sisters. You paid the ultimate price so that those of us that made it could come home to our families. Those lost are the true heroes, I’m just doing my job.
I couldn’t have said it any better myself. I hope this has shed some light on things to the readers. The thing that I want to encourage the most is helping out these troops. They’re giving their blood, sweat, and tears for you and I, and many of them never even hear the words “thank you.” Thank a soldier every time you can. Don’t forget that without them, you wouldn’t be able to do what you want to do.