Friday, September 04, 2009

An Anniversary

Today is an anniversary for me. One year ago today, I first stepped off the plane at Baghdad International Airport. I was nervous, excited, worn out from the trip, unsure of what to expect, and ready to go do something. All I knew for certain was that it would be an interesting time here. A year later, and that last part has certainly been true. I've worked for the State Department and now the Corps of Engineers. I've made a gazillion PowerPoint briefs, written information and decision memos, researched data, participated in way too many meetings, made some great friends, organized this and oversaw that, become an expert in the afternoon on things I didn't even know existed that morning, been under guard in the Red Zone and wandered freely in the Green Zone, and have not regretted a single moment of it. (Well, maybe some of the meetings).

Whenever I go home, people ask me, "What's Iraq like?". I don't know how to answer that. It's hot. It sucks. It's great. Wonderful people. Terrorists. A different way of life. Like being in a minimum-security prison. You can make an impact. You can't make a dime's worth of difference. You're valued. You're treated like shit. No time for yourself. Great pay. Not worth it.

Iraq is a maze of contradictions. When people ask me what Iraq's like, they're looking for a sound-bite insight into something that would take a thousand "War and Peace"-size tomes to even begin to understand. Like the blind men and the elephant, this blog has been my attempt to explain my little bitty piece of the puzzle.

Had I stuck with my original plan, I'd be going home for good right about now. But I changed course back in January, left the State Department in March, and came back on a one-year tour in April for the Corps. So I still have about seven months to go.

There has been a monumental change in Iraq in my twelve months here. Last year, we were in charge. We did what we wanted, we owned the streets, and only coordinated with the Iraqis when we needed to. Now the Iraqis are in charge and flexing their muscles. They don't do things nearly the way we would, and they don't want our help (at least, they don't want to be seen as wanting our help). We're pretty much confined to our bases now. Our convoys roll at night, every night, hauling equipment to Kuwait or Jordan as part of the drawdown and bringing back food and fuel and other supplies for the thousands of us still here. Last year, we were still planning on being here for a long time. Now, we're working on drawing down as fast as we can. Officially, all the military will be out by December 2011. Sounds like a long time, but it really isn't. Unofficially, there's an election coming up in January in which the Iraqis will vote yay or nay on the Security Agreement. If they vote "nay", as they most probably will, then we have to be out of here in January, 2011, which cuts our drawdown time in half.

But for now, I'm just trying to get done what I can get done in my remaining seven months. There's a lot to do. It looks like I'm going to be in charge of two really cool programs, and I'm excited about that. Instead of doing PowerPoints for the high mucky-mucks, I'll be doing things that will affect Iraq and Iraqis for potentially years to come.

But the main thing, for me, has been the people. There are all kinds here. Young American soldiers. Old grannies and grandpops (me included). Ugandan, Peruvian, Iraqi, British, and Gurkha guards. Sikhs, Kenyans, Malaysians, and Australians. The other night, I wound up sitting with a guy from the shop where they repair MRAPs and HummVees. Had a great time talking with him for an hour. This morning, I discovered an Army buddy had been promoted to Major. At our compound in the International Zone, we had a small Band of Buddies, made up of Army, Navy, Air Force, and civilians (me). Now we're all scattered to various other commands, or home, except for the Navy Commander and me, and in a few weeks, it'll just be me. Not to worry: there will be new group of friends formed in short order.

But one thing about being in Iraq is that sometimes your friends don't come back. I lost two good friends on Memorial Day in Fallujah. Terry Barnich and Maged Hussein were two of the smartest, nicest guys I've ever met. I'm not just saying that - these guys were brilliant in their fields, dedicated to the mission, and absolute gentlemen.

Terry is now buried near Chicago and a friend sent me this picture yesterday. Terry and Maged, we still miss you guys.

So. Twelve months down and seven to go. Has it been worth it?



  1. Great post, Skip. I can't believe it's been a year. We're thinking about you over here!

  2. Dear Skip ~

    Of course it is worth it...every moment you are there, every meeting you are all matters. All to often we are short sighted in the things that are meaningful. Your contributions like that of your fellow comrades marks and positively changes others lives.

    It is people like you, your Band of Brothers, Terry and Maged that make us all realize there is more ~ You are all excellent examples of who the rest of us aspire to become. Thank you for your service and for being such a wonderful, thoughtful friend.

    Yours' in arms,


  3. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/04/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  4. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/04/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  5. I look forward to each of your posts, Skip. We miss you in Asheville.

    Now that I am back from my trip to Canada and the Group of Seven, I will organize my thoughts to interview you by email for my Arts Spectrum blog ( The theme will be what your time in Iraq has meant and is likely to mean for your art.

    Ted McIrvine