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Letters from Iraq

Reflecting on my vacation home

Staff Sergeant Christopher E. Alley
United States Army
Emmitsburg Native

Well we find ourselves in a new month in a new year but you can always rely on a copy of "The Baghdad News" from the eyes of a Soldier in Iraq. First I want to wish everyone a Happy and hopefully healthy New Year. We have all had some bumps in the road of life last year and hopefully we can all recover, learn, and overcome from our trials and tribulations of 2006.

Movers and Shakers

Well by now you all know where I work and basically what I do. While living the life of a "Cable Guy in Baghdad", I have come across many interesting things and people. I always tell people here that we are living history. From the Invasion of Iraq to the execution of Saddam Hussein everyday in Iraq for the military, contractors and government is a true walk along the pages of a future history book. How that book will be portrayed is still yet to be decided but none the less I have the privilege of living and breathing history daily. To emphasize this or in the words of the political pundits to bring "gravitas" to this, look at the scope of people constantly coming through and being briefed of the happenings in Iraq. In the first two weeks of December I have met, had photo ops, shook hands and even had conversations with the likes of Col. Oliver North, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Joe Lieberman. All of these men have my utmost respect because they have all shown perseverance in one way or another. While Col. North throwing himself under the bus for the United States so that hostages could be freed from Iran to Sen. McCain being shot down and held prisoner for many years also during an unpopular war. They showed their dedication to duty and honor in the face of personal hard times. Sen. Lieberman also has shown resilience and perseverance and stood by his values and decisions and was re-elected overwhelmingly although he was banished from the Democratic Party for doing so. Even though these men have sacrificed much for this country, they are all in my meetings with them have shown so much appreciation for what all the service members here are sacrificing and doing on a daily basis. It is very humbling when you have an Oliver North or a John McCain thanking you repeatedly for serving. What do you say?

The Trip Home

December was my lucky month for leave. I was graced with the ability to spend Christmas and New Years with my family. I thank my command for the opportunity, since it meant a lot to not only me but for my wife and children. So on the 14th of December I lifted of from the Landing Zone (LZ) in the International Zone on a Blackhawk helicopter. I love riding in helicopters and I think if I could re do my career in the military I would have found my way to them as a crew chief. Anyway I always take in the sights when in the air, but this time I was flying at night. Which is nothing new to me but I had to chuckle when I looked out over Baghdad and it was lit up like New York City on New Years Eve.

I keep forgetting how bad things are supposedly here according to the mainstream media. Well after an uneventful 15 minute trip we touched down at BIAP, Baghdad International Airport. On the military side of the airport there isn't much in the way of a terminal, although there is a Green Bean there. Green Bean is the military answer to Starbucks. Starbucks would have won the contract if they wanted it, but they felt it was not in there business sense to operate here since they as a company don't support the war. This leads me to always wonder what people mean by "I support the troops but not the war!".

Anyway, after paperwork, a cup of coffee, a short nap, and 9 hours later I boarded a C-17 to Kuwait. Once in Kuwait we have to turn in out helmets and body armor, go through briefings about playing nice with others because our stress isn't other peoples stress, and set our itinerary back to our homes of record. Needless to say, even though the Army is involved it is relatively painless, or maybe it seemed so since the light at the end of the tunnel for the trip was a Coors Light! One thing that did happen while in Kuwait going home was a "Monsoon" rolled through. Now everyone knows I have been in the region before, but this was rain strait from Hurricane Katrina! Not to mention the temperature was in the low 50's during the day and dipped down to the mid 30's at night. Needless to say even after a 17 hour flight and a two hour stop for refueling in Cologne, Germany I was still a bit damp when I arrived in Atlanta Georgia.

Once we cleared customs and confirmed I couldn't get an even earlier flight to Baltimore/Washington Airport, I headed off in search of food! I was a bit upset when the Chick-Fillet was closed but then I remembered it was Sunday. Which to me was really Tuesday, since in the Middle East Thursday is Saturday and Friday is Sunday! Got that? Anyway I was allured down the concourse a bit farther by the smell of Cinnamon, which led me to the Holy Grail of Cinnabon! With a Cinnabon in hand and two Snapple's I found a place to relax and make a few calls on my personal cell phone I had charged in Iraq. Like E.T. I phoned home and let my wife know I had "Boots on Ground" and everything was still on time.

Another call to Florida and Texas let others know "I was back in the U.S.S.A, in the infamous spin on words of the Beatles! I noticed things in the airport which I find amusing now after 5 months in Iraq. First off being here I am so used to just opening a fridge and taking a bottle of water anytime I want, wasn't going to sit well with others in the U.S. trying to make a buck. Second, I forgot how the military lets the Basic Training and School trainees out for Christmas. Damn I felt like an old crusty Staff Sergeant compared to the Privates looking lost and then intimidated by me passing them. Was it my rank? Or my combat patches? Or could they just be trying to stay away from some old guy in uniform? One will only know! Well after a 2 hour layover I was off to BWI! It seemed a short 2 hour flight but it was probably due to me just enduring a 17 hour flight folded up in a middle seat.

Once I got off the plane I went to the rally point I set up with my wife. Although I didn't check baggage in, it was the easiest place for her and the kids to meet me. To say the least it was GREAT to see them. After some hugs and kisses we started our time together. Now most families separated for so long would probably go straight home and start to unwind a bit, but not us. First stop, Red Lobsters! I had a 5 year old daughter "Jonesing" for sea food. She always calls it Red Lobsters, because there is always more than one Lobster in the tank when we go. You got to love kids and their simplicity of looking at life. After sharing a meal with her we headed home. It was strange coming home but it felt right. After walking through the door I was greeted by one of our dogs. Dogs really are mans best friends. I have never seen him so worked up and his stumpy tail wag so much before. To say the least it was good to be home!


During my stay at home everyone knows by now we had a whirlwind affair with the media both Print and TV. I agreed to do these because I felt that I had a duty to get my experiences out, show a positive light on Iraq, and to try to counter all the negativity reported from Iraq. Most of you know how I feel about the press and I thank them for affording me the chance to tell my side of what is going on here in Iraq, but why is it that the news always has to be negative? Has our society come to a point that they can only digest dinner with death and chaos? Why does it seem that so many Americans forget about history of not only America and her strive for independence but the history of the world dealing with such regimes as Saddam's? Many people while I was home asked me "what is it like there?" or "is it really that bad over there?" and I always told the truth. Yes we get mortared and yes there is killing happening, but the positives that are happening out weigh the negative.

Watch your nightly news or the 24 hour talking heads on Fox, CNN, or MSN for a week. Watch and listen to the entire picture. Look at the reported who is always in Baghdad with pressed clothing, great makeup, and a well maintained haircut or style. Look in the background at the shining lights of Baghdad when they tell you there is no power. Listen to the carnage they describe all of which happens in Baghdad and al-Anbar Providence, and wonder about the other 80% of Iraq. Don't get me wrong, Iraq is struggling, but all new democracies have struggled. The people of Iraq want what our fore fathers have given each and everyone of us, but it will not be won on the instant gratification Americans expect. The Iraqi people are a strong people and passionate people.

They drew up their Constitution and held their first Democratic vote all while armed insurgents did everything within their power to drown Democracy in less than 2 years. The majority of Iraqis believe in Democracy and are also willing to risk their lives for the cause. Daily my interpreters' risk their lives coming and going to work here with me. Daily young and old men line up to become policemen or soldiers knowing that while in line they have made themselves targets for insurgent car bombs and once they have graduated the insurgents have placed their names on the list for assassination. If the Iraqis did not believe in democracy themselves they would not be risking their lives for what we call public service careers.

After my TV interview with DC Fox 5 the day after Saddam's execution, the reporter asked me what did I think would happen in Baghdad? More fighting? Revenge by the Sunni's and Baathists? I told him that besides the celebratory fire immediately afterwards that I think it will be quiet with little strife, which was all confirmed when I returned by my fellow soldiers that were there when it happened. Many people must realize that the Iraqi people as a whole feared Saddam to the point they thought up until his actual death was shown on TV that he would escape the wrath of the courts and return and seek revenge on all who have stood side by side with the Coalition forces. An eerie sense of calm came over Iraq once it was confirmed that he had met his demise.

Now as I write, the insurgents, and they are insurgents from other countries noted by the capture of 8 Sudanese fighters yesterday, have declared they will continue to fight the spread of Democracy. As I wrote earlier, Americans forget history, maybe because it is not strongly emphasized is school anymore. The Nazi's did not roll over and give up on V-E Day. They continued on, as well as the Japanese after V-J Day. Many years afterwards random acts of violence continued, maybe not on the level as of now here in Iraq, but that can also be contributed to technology, education, and even the internet. People have asked me, has the loss of American life been in vain in Iraqi? I counter them with aren't the Iraqi people allowed to have the same Democratic rights as we Americans? When the death toll is repeatedly said over and over again, I counter with the number of yearly deaths due to drunk drivers which dwarf the price of liberty in Iraq. You who have grown to know me have also come to understand that I believe in the mission and in the Iraqi people. These same kinds of characters mirror our own fore fathers, who struggled for freedom be it Democratic, Racial, or Religious.

What do you do on Leave from Baghdad

So many people when they leave Baghdad for leave have great expectations of how they will fill their time home. I am guilty of this as well. Once home I didn't really care what I did or we did as a family as long as we did it as a family. It was great to just sit down and relax and play with the kids or read them a book or two. It was refreshing to see but somewhat humbling how my wife can orchestrate the house with me being gone. One of the things they warn you about is having the feeling of abandoning them while you are deployed or worse yet the feeling of less worth seeing that life does continue when you are gone. Although in some ways I did have those feelings, I did love the feeling when one of my daughters or son was asking for my help.

I enjoyed doing something around the house and having my son looking over my shoulder and watching my every move, which I would reward him with the chance to help or pass tools. People forget that when a soldier is deployed irregardless of being an Active Duty Soldier or Reservist or National Guardsman it affects many more people on a day to day basis. Daily, here I have to care about myself and that is about it. I do take care of all soldiers who, when deployed are your adopted family but it isn't the same. On the other hand my wife now must juggle more on her plate minus an extra pair of hands and an extra driver in the house. My children must trudge on without a Dad in the house helping Mom with everything in and out of the house. This might mean less parent involvement when it comes to Field Hockey or Dance or T-Ball. Then again on the other side of the coin it has taught me quicker to appreciate what I have and not to waste the few experiences I have with them at such a young age, because they are growing up and growing up fast. So besides venturing out to Chuck E. Cheese, out to eat, getting a Christmas tree, and visiting friends and family, I really didn't do much at all but enjoy my time with everyone.

The Return Trip

Well the time at home came and went and it was time for me to leave and to return for the last 7 months of my exploits in Baghdad. I left early in the morning Tuesday the 2nd, and to my complete surprise we even left the house 2 minutes earlier than my hopeful time of departure. After going through traffic which reminded me why I don't work in D.C. or Baltimore we arrived at the airport. After a short and incident free farewell I started my journey back to Baghdad. The flight to Atlanta was flawless and relaxing, giving me time to get me mentally prepared for Iraq again. Once in Atlanta and doing a few "Stupid Human trick" one of which was being put in column formation and marched through the atrium food court to the announcement of a VFW member announcing the soldiers fighting against terror. I was afforded 5 hours which gave me enough time to have a bite to eat and for my sister and her husband to come spend some time with me. It was great spending time with them and talking about experiences and the future.

I then said my farewells and went past the point of no return guarded by the folks of TSA. I always chuckle when going through security in uniform and I have to take off my boots and being asked repeatedly if I have knives or other contraband on my person. Well I am glad that Uncle Sam trusts me with Top Secret information, lets me carry a rifle and two hundred rounds of ammunition and hob knob with Senators, but I can't keep my boots on going through airport security. Once aboard the plane, which I scored an aisle seat, I was on my way back. We stopped in Hahn airport to refuel and to let the smokers get a two hour fix. Once on the plane we taxied onto the runway and throttled the engines only to be rewarded with a large bang we thought was a flat tire. After the jeers of "Get a can of fix a flat" and "Call AAA" we were told we were returning to the terminal because we had lost the #2 engine. Well better here than over the Atlantic I thought.

Anyway it took another seven hours to get us another plane, which the only positive in the nine hour stay was the catered German meal, since nobody is expected to be there more than 2 hours. Once our new stead arrived we boarded thankfully because the naps on the floor were getting hard. We arrived in Kuwait at 4am and were told we would leave at about 2:30pm. So they issued us a tent to nap in and we could also shower and do a bit of relaxing as well. Well let's just say one reason they use Kuwait as a staging area, is because it makes you thankful to be arriving in Baghdad.

The conditions in Kuwait are awful to say the least. The tents don't have heat; the people there somehow have planned everything so that it is very hard to make it to the chow hall to get a hot meal leaving you to snack on formerly frozen prepackaged meals we call "Jimmy Deans". Well after going through the "Stupid Human Tricks" again we loaded up on our C-17 going to Baghdad. Well after sitting on the runway for 2 hours the crew came to the conclusion that the #2 engine wouldn't fire up, anyone else sensing that 2 is now becoming one of my least favorite numbers, you are correct.

Well we returned to our cool conditions, about 50 degrees day time temp, 30 at night, and awaited our next move dictated by a seemingly unorganized system. The next morning after napping in the warmest place we could find, the tent terminal, we were taken to a C-130 for our flight to Baghdad. Now to describe a C-130 it is hard. It is the workhorse of the military but not all that appealing. I think the best way to describe it is: If a C-17 is a Cadillac, then a C-130 is a Yugo. Our cramp flight to Baghdad was not bad and was actually one of the best flights on a C-130 I had had in a long time. We arrived in Baghdad mid morning and hooked up to get a Blackhawk back to the International Zone. What had taken me about 2 days to get home had turned into a 4 ½ day trip back. Is it only me to think how ironic it is to be so hard to get back into the so called "Deadliest City in the World"?

Quick Hits

I have only been back three working days and have fallen back into my usual routine. I do like my job here because the time goes fast, and the people I work with make it so painless. In a strange way it is good to be back, and now I can concentrate on my job for the next seven months. As I said before I am now back with my adopted family and have now caught up on everything I missed while I was gone. It is really a strange feeling which I think only military personnel can understand.

Also if anyone is wonder if I have really returned then I have to pass along that yesterday I was in a meeting with two Generals, two Colonels, and two very high representatives of the Iraqi government, one of which when I was leave called me back to give me a set of prayer, "worry", beads to bring me faith and luck for the new year from the Iraqi people. Yet another experience I have been afforded, which many Americans will never hear about nor really understand the true meaning of the working together of two different cultures striving for the same common goal of Democracy.

Until next month everyone stay safe and keep your heads down!


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