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A participant concentrates on her craft in an Operation Homecoming writing workshop at Hurlburt Air Field, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

A participant concentrates on her craft in an Operation Homecoming writing workshop at Hurlburt Air Field, Fort Walton Beach, Fla. (Hurlburt Field Public Affairs Office)

A participant concentrates on her craft in an Operation Homecoming writing workshop at Hurlburt Air Field, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

A participant concentrates on her craft in an Operation Homecoming writing workshop at Hurlburt Air Field, Fort Walton Beach, Fla. (Hurlburt Field Public Affairs Office)

Contributing authors attend the Sept. 12 Operation Homecoming book launch party at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Contributing authors attend the Sept. 12 Operation Homecoming book launch party at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (NEA Office of Communications)

Following are excerpts from the book “Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families,” edited by Andrew Carroll.

The book was part of a two-year project developed by the National Endowment for the Arts called Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.

The goal of the project was to preserve the stories and reflections of the latest generation of Americans and their families to experience war, according to NEA officials.

This is not a gameArmy Capt. Ryan Kelly, 1st Battalion, 150th General Support Aviation Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division (Mechanized), New Jersey National Guard. From a letter to his mother dated Jan. 21, 2005, written from Camp Speicher, Iraq:

If it weren’t for the Army uniforms and the constant noise of helicopters taking off and landing, and the Russian 747-like jets screaming overhead every hour of the day, and the F-16s screeching around looking for something to kill, and the rockets exploding and the controlled blasts shaking the windows and the “thump, thump, thump” sound of the Apache gun ships shooting their 30mm guns in the middle of the night, and the heat and the cold, and the hero missions [moving KIA remains] and the body bags and the stress, and the soldiers fraught with personal problems — child custody battles fought from 3,000 miles away, surgeries on ovaries, hearts, breasts, brains, cancers, transplants, divorces, Dear John Letters, births, deaths, miscarriages and miss-marriages — and the scorpions and the spiders who hide under the toilet seats, and the freakish bee-sized flies humming around like miniature blimps, and the worst: the constant pangs of home, the longing for family, the knowledge that life is rolling past you like an unstoppable freight train, an inevitable force, reinforcing the desire for something familiar, the longing for something beautiful, for something safe, to be somewhere safe, with love and laughter and poetry and cold lemonade and clean sheets, if it weren’t for all that Iraq would be just like home. Almost.

What’s going on over here?Army Sgt. Timothy J. Gaestel, 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Gaestel’s vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device on Highway 8 south of Baghdad on Sept. 21, 2003. He wrote his father an e-mail account of the event from the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad.

I reached around and felt my back and pulled my hand back and it was cover with blood, before that I honestly thought it just hit my IBA [body armor] and gone right through it.

I laid down on the back of the truck but this didn’t seem like a good idea and I didn’t have my weapon and had to yell for the S-2 to give me my weapon, I didn’t want an ambush to happen and for me not to have my weapon. So I stood up on my knees and yelled again to him to man the 240B [mounted gun], he was scared but that’s what happened when you don’t ever get any kind of training and you sit in an office all day. This guy didn’t react very well, when I showed him my back he started flipping out and yelling “oh, G you got him man, oh he’s hit bad man.” This is the last thing that you tell someone who has just been hit in the back and is bleeding. As you can imagine I was pretty pissed off at this point and I showed my anger toward the people in the town that we were driving through, I had my M-4 rifle at the ready and my trigger finger on the trigger and just waiting for someone to give me a reason to put it from safe to semi. I maintained my military bearing as well as one could in that situation. I sure wanted to shoot the bastard that had set the IED off. The people in the town must have thought I was crazy because I was cursing and yelling and wanting someone to give me one reason why they shouldn’t have me kill them.

Manning the home frontPeter Madsen. Madsen, a former soldier who was medically retired in 1999, is married to an Army Reserve medic, Spec. Julie Madsen. When Julie was deployed to Iraq in March 2004, Peter remained in North Carolina and cared for the couple’s three children: daughter Tyler, age 11; son Joshua, age 10; and daughter Erin, age 7.

When Julie first left for Iraq, I didn’t do as well as I thought I might. I sat in bed telling myself over and over that I could do this. Then the panic set in, and I cried. I had no idea how to get the kids to school on time, let alone how to feed them on a daily basis. I was simply not prepared for this. Apparently, our wives do more than sit around eating bonbons and watching the Home Shopping Network. The list of things that keep a house in running order doesn’t get done by itself, and that was pretty apparent in our home within days of Julie’s departure.

The house was a mess, the laundry pile grew daily, and the kids were rather unimpressed with the menu selection. I was lying on the couch watching Oprah on TiVo one evening after work when they gathered around. The eldest cleared her throat. “Dad,” she said, then paused to gather her thoughts. “Dad, we really don’t like pizza that much anymore.”

I looked at the younger two, and they were nodding rather emphatically. Being a good father, I realized we needed to make a change.

Two weeks later, they came back. This time Joshua, my middle child, spoke. “Dad, we don’t like Chinese, either.”

Road workArmy Staff Sgt. Jack Lewis, Tactical Operations Detachment 1290, 1-25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. During his Iraq deployment, in February 2005, Lewis witnessed a collision between a 19-ton Stryker wheeled combat vehicle and a small car. No U.S. personnel were injured, but the young Iraqi driver, an honors engineering student driving his elderly father home from a shopping trip to a nearby town, was killed instantly. His father was nearly insane with grief. Lewis, a combat lifesaver, tries to calm the man and dress his wounds:

I wrapped a head bandage onto him and tied it gently in back. It looked like a traditional headdress with a missing top. Every few seconds he would get animated, and I would put my hand firmly on his shoulder. He would not hold still long enough for me to splint his arm.

“Why can’t he shut up?”

“You ever lose a kid?” This is a pointless question to ask a soldier who’s practically a kid himself.

… Forty minutes later, a medic arrived.

“What’s his status, sergeant?”

“He has a cut left earlobe. I think his hand is broken.” (I think his heart is broken).

“Roger. Okay, I got this.”

“Thanks.” (Bless you for what you do every day, doc.)

I get out of the way, letting the old guy go for the first time in almost an hour. He starts wailing again almost immediately.

An interpreter arrives on the scene.

Finally, I had to ask, “What does he keep saying?”

The terp looked at me, disgusted, resigned, or maybe just plain tired. “He says to kill him now.”

A little later, while the remains of the young Iraqi are being carried to an ambulance, Lewis goes to sit next to the Iraqi father on the back gate of the Stryker.

I felt the cold creep into me. The old man sat next to me, perhaps too tired to continue his tirade against cruel Fate, careless Americans, war, and its accidents.

I haven’t lost a full-grown son, just a little daughter. A baby. And she wasn’t torn from me in a terror of rending steel, stamped out by a sudden monster roaring out of the night. She went so quietly that her passing never woke her mother. I like to think that she kissed me on the way out, on her way home.

But still, sitting on the steel tail of the monster that killed his son, I think I knew exactly how one Iraqi man felt.

“Just kill me now.”

We sat and looked straight into the lights.

Here among these ruinsArmy Spc. Helen Gerhardt, 122st Transportation Company, Missouri National Guard. In her e-mail home, Gerhardt shared her first impressions of the Iraqi people and their country, which seemed to be a curious mix of the ancient and the modern:

The first face I saw closely was a girl maybe ten years old, thin, but beating time on a half-full water bottle as she danced up and down on the shoulder of the road with confident grace. She looked straight into my eyes with no trace of humility, her brilliant smile seemed to command acknowledgment of a beauty impossible to deny anything to, her cinnamon and curry-colored gown waved like a flag of bold pleasure in past triumphs. I wished I could throw roses and roast beef, confetti and corndogs, wanted to celebrate her gutsy contrast to my worst fears and get a good square meal into her belly. Behind her, an older woman stood still and straight, wrapped in black, staring through her daughter and me to the desert beyond.

After Gerhardt arrives at the unit’s destination, a former Iraqi army base in Mosul:

In the regular soldier’s barracks, I found a detail that irrationally moved me … A black-bottomed coffee pot sat in the sill of a window, its spout pointing out the heavy bars on the windows toward the foothills in the distance. Here, the poorly fed draftees of years past must have shared coffee and cigarettes, read letters from home, told each other news of the families we knew they had not volunteered to leave. I sat there a long time, the door open behind me, finally moved to take myself back to the army barracks I had freely chosen. Just outside the door I found a boy waiting for me. “Thank you,” he said, his light brown eyes looking straight into mine, and then he smiled with what seemed years’ worth of relief. Despite all my reservations about this war, I could not help but wonder if he was thanking me for freeing father, uncle or brother from a cell like that I’d walked so easily out of.

Lunch with piratesArmy Staff Sgt. Clint Douglas, 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Illinois National Guard. In his personal narrative, Douglas says that he and his men worked well with most of the provincial officials appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But they did have one nemesis: Zia Audin, the local warlord in Gardez, who lived with his band of cutthroats and outcasts at “Bala Hissar”:

… or Castle Greyskull, as we called it, a massive fortification built by the British in the nineteenth century in the middle of Gardez. It dwarfed all the other structures in town and dominated the entire mountain plain that surrounded the city.

Zia Audin — sorry, General Audin — was responsible for many of the rocket attacks on our firebase and at least some of the IEDs that exploded around our patrols. All of the American and Afghan agencies around the region knew this, and most interestingly Zia Audin knew that we knew. But he didn’t try to kill us out of a sense of either hatred or malice in his heart; he did it out of jealousy and pride, for Zia Audin was heartbroken. He suffered from an unrequited love of America, and this was awkward for all parties. So Zia Audin, in a fit of adolescent pique, did what came naturally — he tried to kill us.

But the 20th SFG had their revenge:

“We’d whittled away at Zia Audin’s power and his honor to the point where his men sat dispersed at their various barracks despised, bored and hungry. Because of their previous turns at bad behavior, the locals were enthusiastic about informing on them. Shame is a powerful force in Afghanistan, and we disgraced these sad, pitiful [expletives] without mercy. The consistency with which the Americans had dealt with Zia Audin had also generated no small amount of goodwill among much of the local population.

Night flight to BaghdadAir Force Master Sgt. Thomas Young, 167th Airlift Wing, West Virginia Air National Guard. Here is his personal narrative:

We park on a cargo ramp and off-load again, with engines running. I wipe my face with a handkerchief, double-check the takeoff speed and distance, then take a swig of water and a whiff of oxygen, just to clear the cobwebs. The loadmasters are almost too good. Before I can unbuckle my harness and stretch my legs, the guys have the cargo off the airplane.

“We’re all closed up back here,” calls Shambaugh. “Let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”

Works for me. As we taxi out, I briefly imagine Saddam himself boarding an aircraft ramp in his better days. No time to ponder that now, though. Throttle up, brakes released, and we’re off again, lifting into the angry night over Baghdad.

Langley’s flying now, and he wants what the Air Force pilots call “smash.” Smash is kinetic energy. Up high, it’s altitude we can convert into speed by diving. Down low where we are it’s velocity we can trade for altitude or a good, hard turn.

“I’m lowering the nose to get more speed,” Langley says, thinking out loud. I’ll remember that sentence for the rest of my life.

A tremendous flash lights up the cockpit like daylight. Magnified by night vision goggles, it blinds me.

For a tenth of a second I think: there’s a fireball. It’s all over.

The missile warning tone screeches like a demon. Langley whips the airplane into a steep bank, and my arm grows heavy with the pull of g-forces.

I expect heat, pain, fire, eternity.

Instead comes speed, and speed brings life. I realize I felt no impact, my vision is restored, and this airplane is still flying.

Preserving their words

When Capt. Michael Sullivan e-mailed his family from Iraq on Dec. 12, 2003, his description of his day would have sounded familiar to thousands of servicemembers who have deployed to that country:

“Frankly, I easily could have been killed or at least seriously injured — it really just came down to the timing.”

Sullivan was stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 313th Military Intelligence Battalion at Forward Operating Base Champion in Ramadi.

The day before Sullivan sent his e-mail, a car bomb detonated just outside his division’s headquarters. The blast wounded 14 soldiers and contractors, and killed the three Iraqis and an escort who were in the truck.

Sullivan was unhurt, even though his living quarters were “20 feet away at the most,” he wrote.

Normally, Sullivan told his family, he would have been lifting weights outside his quarters right about the time the truck exploded, exposing him directly to the blast.

Instead, “by a miracle of timing,” he and his friends had made plans to lift 30 minutes later that afternoon.

But two soldiers who were on the porch “were blown backwards through the front doors and into the building,” he wrote. “Both suffered injuries, one fairly severe, but they both survived. It took quite a while to mop up all the blood.”

Sullivan’s e-mail, titled “Try Not to Worry About Me,” is one of about 90 short stories, poems, letters and journal entries that make up “Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of American Troops and Their Families,” which was edited by Andrew Carroll.

The book’s entries were selected from more than 1,200 submissions by servicemembers who have spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as members of their families.

The book is almost impossible to put down. Some of the writing is laugh-out-loud funny, some is solemn, some is achingly sad. And with only a very small handful of exceptions, the submissions are heartfelt, honest, original, and free from flag-waving.

The selection of writings runs the full spectrum of emotions and topics, from soldiers describing their close calls to suddenly widowed spouses talking about how difficult it is to deal with a house full of children.

Reading the stories can be a humbling experience, particularly for a journalist. No matter how much time a reporter might spend embedded with a unit, the only way to really begin to understand what it’s like to wear a uniform and be in combat is to listening to the voices of the servicemembers themselves.

“Operation Homecoming” was part of a two-year project developed by the National Endowment for the Arts, called Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.

The goal of the project was to preserve the stories and reflections of the latest generation of Americans and their families to experience war, according to NEA officials.

— Lisa Burgess / S&S

Stripes in 7

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