Planning For Life After Iraq

Army Capt. Nate Rawlings will be returning to civilian life at the end of March after two years in Iraq. After earlier thoughts of becoming a filmmaker, he now hopes to get into journalism school. He talks about how combat experiences affect his perspective on life.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, looking for a job? Well, the State Department is hiring especially if you speak Farsi or Mandarin.

COHEN: First, though we go to Baghdad. And here from someone who's been a regular guest on our show, Army Captain Nate Rawlings. He's with the First Brigade combat team of the Fourth Infantry Division, and over the past few months, we've checked in with him for his perspective on life as a soldier in Iraq.

BRAND: Captain Rawlings returns to civilian life at the end of this month after spending two years in Iraq, two year-long tours of duty. Welcome back to the program. I guess this might be the last time you and I speak, at least on the air. Tell us what your plans are at the end of March when you come back.

Captain NATE RAWLINGS (First Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division): Well, my plans initially are just to do all the necessary things I have to do to transition off of active duty. And I'm still waiting here from one graduate program in journalism. If I'm accepted I'll go and hopefully be living in New York next year and if not, then I'll - like a lot of people, I'll be looking for a job which felt exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time because since 2001, I've known that I would be an army officer and this is the first time I've really have to think about what I wanted to be when I grow up.

BRAND: Right. So, yeah, the last time we talk to you we're talking about the fact that you wanted to be a journalist because this experience had really warmed you to that idea. Tell us a little bit more about why that appeals to you so much?

Captain RAWLINGS: I initially thought it when I deployed the beginning of this year that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I thought I have of stories to tell and soon will have a lot of experiences from my first tour as a platoon leader. And I realized this year collecting information and interviewing people and just collecting sort of non-fiction pieces that I really enjoyed that line of work.

BRAND: Now we aired Whitney Terrell's piece - profile of you yesterday on the program and I want to ask you something that Whitney wondered in the piece.

(Soundbite of "Day to Day" piece from March 2, 2009)

Mr. WHITNEY TERRELL (Novelist): Conversations like these make me wonder just exactly how much the war and this premature introduction to death is going to change Nate, not just as a person but as the writer or filmmaker he hopes to be.

BRAND: Have you thought about that? How much does - these tours of duty in Iraq have changed you?

Captain RAWLINGS: Well, the two tours have somebody made me more aware of the suffering of people and the impact of a strong force can have both for both for good and for bad. But the other side of that is that my experience in combat has really made me appreciate the sacrifices and the abilities of a seemingly ordinary young man. And that's made me want to rededicate myself to sometime to continued service to those types of people. I know before I shipped out the very first time, my mother was scared that something would physically happen to me, but she's also nervous that I would come home cynical and altered by this experience. And I don't think anyone who's seen violence and participated in violence can claim to be the exact same person that you were before. It's just not possible. But in the end, I think you have to look at the person you were before and you went to combat and then the person you became to that experience and some combination of those two people is the person you'll strive to be for the rest of your life.

BRAND: So, you feel like it's given you a different perspective in how you view your fellow man?

Captain RAWLINGS: Oh, absolutely, and it's given me, I guess, an empathy for the suffering of people like the people in Iraq, because you see that kind of massive of poverty and what a breakdown in the government systems can do, and what little things can do to help lift those people up, and we've done a lot of that this year. We'd given economic assistance programs and rebuilt schools, rebuilt hospitals and fixed sewers and so, a lot of the civil military projects this year I think they're starting to take hold now that the violence has waned a little bit. And seeing that has really given me a better perspective on how government can work for good and for bad. And it's just made me really appreciate also the value of a great effort like our troops put forth here everyday.

BRAND: I also want to ask you about another idea that was in Whitney Terrell's piece we heard yesterday. He talked about the fact that because a lot of soldiers in Iraq come home having an experience that most of their fellow Americans will never have, that there's this feeling of isolation or feeling of aloneness that some have when they come back to the states. Do you ever feel that when you come back?

Captain RAWLINGS: Well, there are certainly times that you feel that you've had an experience that other people really can't understand. That's one of the hardest parts of coming home from combat as trying to put the things he have experienced into a context that makes sense for the rest of your life. There's not an easy way to truly understand, you know, how it smells, what it looks like, the heartbreak of senior close friends killed by an enemy that's extremely hard to find. A lot of people turn to organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. They're very extremely important because it's easier some time to share with someone who may not necessarily has been here but he knows what it feels like, but at the same time I saw in that as soon as I get home I can reconnect with my family that I remember very quickly that our friends and families suffered too, that they, in a sense weathered the storm in our absence. And so, they're the people that loved you before you went to war and they'll love you when you come home. There's an adjustment period obviously, and it's never an all-or-nothing thing, you have your good moments and your bad moments and what you try to do is just try to make the tough moments fewer and further between and get back to the things you really enjoyed about your life before.

BRAND: Do you have one particular image or event that stands out in your mind that you will remember for - you think - for the rest of your life that you want to share with us?

Captain RAWLINGS: My favorite memory probably with the Iraqi troops is from when I was still an embedded adviser to the Iraqi army battalion we fought with. And we did a raid on a house with their commando platoon. And my team sergeant and I were helping search the house for weapons. We came into a room, and two little boys, may be three or four years old were sleeping in the middle of mattress bed in the middle of the room. So my sergeant and I took a knee(ph) and signaled to each other to be quiet and right then four, five, Iraqi army soldiers came barreling into the rooms, ready to jut ransack the place. And my sergeant and I put a finger to our lips and I - we hoped that it would be the international symbol for be quiet and try not to wake up the children. And the Iraqi army chief's pass a signal back to the guys in the other room and they cleared the entire room quietly, thoroughly, and never woke up the two little boys. So, when we left that house, I remember thinking that if we can get the entire force to operate with this level of tactical proficiency and at the same time show the necessary restraint they have to have in securing their own people that, you know, we may just to pull this thing off, maybe we can leave this place a little better certainly than it was back in 2006 and even better than it is now.

BRAND: Are you ever tempted to stay in the army and sign up again?

Captain RAWLINGS: Absolutely. I think my mother would pretty much disown me if I decided to do that, but there's a lot of things I still want to do. Commanding a company is a great honor that I would love to have a chance to do, command about 140 soldiers depending on what type of company it is. And that's something that I'll look into doing in the Guard or the reserves as soon as I get settled wherever it is I'm going to get settled. But my main reason for leaving the army, and what I told all my commanders and superiors, is that I just have a lot of different things I want to do with my life and I don't think I'll ever do the same thing for more than five, 10 years and so I need to - I mean, really want to go ahead and get started, and I never saw myself doing much longer than four or five years, and the two tours to me in a really great organization with outstanding soldiers has been a dream.

BRAND: Army Captain Nate Rawlings joined us from Baghdad where he's serving his final tour of duty. He return to United States at the end of this month. And Nate, it's really been a great pleasure speaking to you over the last couple of years. And I wish you all the best and good fortune and good luck in your future.

Captain RAWLINGS: I wish you guys the very best too.

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