Thursday, May 31, 2007

Mail to Iraq is fast!

News from Beth received early today...

Evan called this morning. He sounded more upbeat, but tired. He received the first shipment of books I sent him from Amazon, and was really happy about it. One of them was written by the founder of the Lonely Planet books and is about traveling to all of the countries known as the "axis of evil." (Iran, Albania, Libya, North Korea, etc). He was really excited about that one. Mail to Iraq doesn't take nearly as long as mail to Afghanistan did. It took at least two weeks, (sometimes three), for packages to reach Evan in Afghanistan, but now they take just one week, or even less. He should be getting the Summit coffee sent to him last Friday, very soon.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

Evan got a quick call out to Bethany yesterday morning. No news, except that he's doing OK, and that his schedule will be extra full for the next two weeks, so don't expect to hear much from him. It's always good to get that kind of warning. Every day you wonder why there was no call, and after a week, it starts to get nerve-wracking. Everyone with a kid in college feels the same way, but when you hear on the news that 4 American soldiers were killed in Iraq yesterday, it especially ratchets up the fears.

I've met some families with loved ones in Iraq who refuse to read, listen or watch anything in the news. I understand completely.

The blue star banner above notes that someone in your immediate family is deployed in a war zone; you'll occasionally see them in front windows or on car bumbers; during WWII, nearly every house on every block had one. In the "war on terrorism," most people do not even know what it stands for.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Thanks to Davidson's Summit Coffee Shop

Bethany sent an email today with another detail from Evan. There’s an old Mr. Coffee in his barracks room. Evan’s a primo barista who cut his chops at the Summit when in high school—so he’s, well… a bit of a coffee snob. But there’s no good coffee on his base and no filters for the maker.

He asked me to run down to Summit, pick up some fresh ground and mail it to him—with a stack of filters (unbleached only, please). To get it out today, I walked to the Summit and asked the barista for a bag. Faced with a hundred kinds of beans, I said Evan worked there in HS, so what would they recommend for a fellow barista; he’d been in Iraq for a few weeks and really missing good coffee. We picked out a few bags, and with a big smile, they said it was on the house. “And tell him whenever he needs more fuel, we’ll take care of him.”

That was really nice, and the sentiment a really big deal for us. I told Beth, and she relayed the story back to Evan later, when he got one more call out. He said “Cool, I’ll get a picture of me and my bags of Summit in Iraq and send it to them.”

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Bored in Iraq?

Bethany heard from Evan twice today. Not much news. He is actually bored this week, and not as satisfied with the work patrolling the streets of Iraq.

When in Afghanistan, he worked in landmine and IED removal, mostly on large, rural road construction projects. It was usually a good experience. At the end of the day he could look back and say—“yep, opened two miles of road today, found and blew up a couple landmines, nobody got hurt, that’s good.”

After a few months, when sections of the road opened, he watched what was once a barely navigable path now carry trucks full of wheelbarrows, food or people across the countryside. Working in the desert, while very rough, provided wide-open views and generally peaceful days.

Iraq, so far, has been a crowded urban experience. Sometimes he’ll just sit in his gear all night on standby with his squad, in case they are needed for an emergency mission. But the personal active sense of "mission accomplished" is not the way it was in Afghanistan.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Arrival in Baghdad

Evan spent a week in Kuwait waiting for a plane ride to Baghdad. He hung around the barracks, did some field training, and adjusted to the 100 degree+ heat. He had no idea when he would arrive in Baghdad, and felt it could be several weeks. He was able to talk for about 45 minutes. The Kuwait base was large and comfortable in contrast to the isolated sandy tents where he had spent so many days in Afghanistan

He sounded chipper and healthy.

The next day we got an email from Bethany saying he'd landed in Baghdad and would try to get in touch as soon as things settled down. He was busy with stuff like, finding a bunk, the chow hall, and those other details. It would probably be a while before he went out on missions because much of his unit was out on leave for a few days.

One of the first missions

Evan's work is similar to a police officer's patrol. Sometimes he stands by for an emergency response-- Humvees gassed up, and loaded in case another patrol calls in for assistance. Sometimes they are assigned a specific mission, for example, checking out a tip that a cache of weapons might be stored in a particular building. Other times he will just ride or walk through neighborhoods.

Through a translator they speak to local residents about problems or fears they may be experiencing, and ask how to help. In one of his first missions, a family invited his patrol into their home for a cup of tea. They sat on the floor and drank a glass of strong, sweet black tea. The family said they appreciated the patrols, because they feared violence in the street from outsiders, and the soldiers patrols definitely made them feel safer. They had nothing specific to report or any immediate problems. They just wanted to express gratitude and hospitality.

I thought this was interesting, because one picture we get here is that every Iraqi is afraid to speak with the troops because they might be seen as "collaborators." But this family actually invited a whole group of soldiers into their home. I'm sure it wasn't missed by the neighbors. Something to think about.

Mission and a child

Message from Evan's wife, Bethany around 5/14...

I spoke to Evan on the phone for over an hour this morning. It had been several days since our last real conversation. The last time he called I couldn't understand anything he said because of the poor connection so I talked the entire time. It was the definition of a one-sided conversation.

He told me a story that I have decided to post here so that all of you can know how good and wonderful he is.

Evan's squad was on a mission to check out a house somewhere in Iraq. I don't know where and wouldn't mention it, even if I did. Evan and a buddy went around to the back of the house to make sure no one escaped. Before the family within knew what was going on a little boy slipped out the back door, probably to use the outhouse. As soon as the child saw Evan he burst into tears. He was very small - probably no more than three years old. Evan scooped him up as he ran, held him and tried to comfort him. It didn't work; Evan was wearing all of his gear, including his night-vision goggles and probably looked a little like the Terminator, but he still tried to make the boy feel better. After the action, he set him back inside the house. I think this was very sweet and it was more than Evan had to do.

Evan downplayed this story. He said "I just didn't want anyone to get surprised by him and make a stupid mistake, AND I didn't want him to get scared and run away and have his family wonder where he was. It wasn't a big deal, but you can post it if you want."

What to do about Iraq?

A friend from Afghanistan emailed me today asking if I felt the troops should leave Iraq immediately. I have a split opinion. If they leave immediately, there would be a genocidal bloodbath where millions would be killed. Afghanistan after the Soviet departure is a good lesson there—or maybe the major Iraqi factions could unite and oust all the trouble makers and criminals on their own. On the other hand, if the soldiers stay long enough in Iraq, some stability could be attained, though many thousands will be killed over several years by insurgents and those who profit from political instability—or maybe we’ll be stuck in a quagmire where 1,000 Americans will be killed each year on an impossible mission.

Above all, I feel the adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have been terribly mis-managed. I can provide a reading list of well-researched books that support this point of view. My experience in Afghanistan clarified it. Kabul lacked so many basic services: sewerage, electricity, phone lines, trash collection, basic road repair, honest police and government. All these were simple things, but even after 4 years of international presence, there wasn’t even trash collection. If you can’t take care of the basic needs of the people, you invite insurgency. That’s how the Taliban came to power.

If the U.S. really wants to “win” the war against “terrorists” it needs to make a national commitment on the level of WWII, but not building HUMVEES and bombers. We need to build transit busses, hospital operating rooms, university libraries, fair judicial systems, street lights, water treatment plants, and well-paid and trained police forces. Our soldiers play a vital transition role to fight the gangs, but it is grossly unfair for them to shoulder the main burden of putting Iraq and Afghanistan together. Even 100,000 more soldiers cannot make peace in Iraq, as long as we fail the people’s basic needs there.