Army Specialist Finds Signs of Life in Iraq's Ruins

Helen Gerhardt

Helen Gerhardt enlisted in the U.S. Army when she was 33 years old. She has written extensively about her experience serving in Iraq. Scroll down to read Gerhardt's letter home. hide caption

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Helen Gerhardt enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 2000. She was 33 years old. Three years later, having just completed a double undergraduate major in fine arts and English literature, she found herself in the Middle East with the Missouri Army National Guard, 1221st Transportation Company.

Gerhardt drove 18-wheeled tractor-trailers throughout Iraq. In an e-mail to loved ones back in Missouri, she shared her first impressions of the Iraqi people and their country. The e-mail, entitled "Here Among the Ruins," was chosen as part of the book Operation Homecoming.

Helen Gerhardt is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. She is writing a book about her unit's experiences in Iraq and the larger culture wars which divide us both nationally and internationally.

This series is produced by Barrett Golding of HearingVoices.com.

Here Among the Ruins

Operation Homecoming

August 2003

Dear friends and family,

A few days ago I sat in the passenger seat of a truck with my M16 pointing out the window as I crossed the border into Iraq for the first time. All of us methodically scanned the landscape for the flesh-and-blood snipers or grenade launchers we had envisioned during training. We constantly glanced in the rear view mirror to make sure the truck behind us was at a safe distance. I felt greedy for every concrete detail to dispel the figments of the Iraq I had constructed in my imagination over the months of waiting.

Our convoy of nine trucks and a humvee felt very small to all of us. Our request for a Military Police escort had been denied without the required 48 hours notice, never mind that we’d been ordered onto the road with only about 36 hours warning. The MPs are stretched very thin, and although officially all convoys are supposed to be escorted, in reality most small groups go without. We’d been advised to make our own firepower very apparent as the next best deterrent to an attack. The convoy commanders traveled in the Humvee with a machine gun mounted on top and the other saw gunners in the 915s were placed at front, middle, and end of the convoy. Combat Lifesaver drivers and their first aid bags were also spaced evenly throughout the line. We’d been instructed to look as wide-awake as we could. I didn’t find this difficult.

The border was a real border. In Kuwait, high status sports cars, Islamic skyscrapers, gleaming ranks of enormous oil drums, and slickly designed billboards all shouted the thriving economy of our hosts. Light poles, power lines, and little green trees marched beside the near-flawless highway, unremarkable until they abruptly halted at the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, marked by bulldozed ridges topped with concertina wire. On the other side, the village of Safwan straggled loosely north and south along the road. Carefully stripped rusty car frames littered both shoulders of the road, uncomfortably reminding me of the props at our live-fire training range. Small windowless houses shed grey bricks on patches of thick, fine dust and rocky sand.

As we approached, children ranging from around three to ten years old piled out through the ragged gaps that served as doors to run toward the sound of our engines, heels raising puffs of dust behind them. At the edge of the road they lifted their thumbs-up signs, eager smiles, and open palms like little billboards of friendliness and need. During our briefing at the fuel stop before the border, we’d been strictly warned about throwing food to these kids and threatened with Uniform Code of Military Justice prosecution if we did. Several children had reportedly leapt in front of trucks for the leftover scraps of our MREs; jelly, salt packs, vegetable crackers, and coffee creamer had drawn crowds that completely blocked the road. With some dread, I had imagined hollowed faces, bony ribs, and the faked meekness of desperation.

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 acknowledgement of a beauty impossible to deny anything to, her cinnamon and curry-colored gown waved like a flag of bold pleasure in her 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 to 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.

As we passed the last house, beyond the line of other children, two young boys squatted with hands on knees, one in shorts and a Western-style oxford shirt, the other in a white knee-length desert cloak. They ignored our tight-fisted caravan as they examined and seriously discussed some mechanical contraption between them.

Everywhere as we progressed north, the middle ages met the modern; a satellite dish protruded from a mud hut, a donkey hauled a cart with two women sharing a cell phone back and forth, a large black and white cow tried to keep its feet in the bed of a small Toyota pick up truck. Roadside stands sold Snapple and long blocks of ice. Men dressed in shiny green U.S. football jerseys waved to us with one hand as they scooped salt from cracked-ivory flats into glinting white pyramids. Lines of camels were urged onward by little boys with big sticks and bigger walkmans.

Guided by MP shepherds at front and rear, long lines of Haliburton’s civilian trucks passed us going south, their slick colors and aerodynamic bulk far more alien in this landscape than our beaten up Army trucks. Faded and dusty, over twenty years old, our unarmored eighteen wheelers almost looked at home among Iraqi cars and trucks predominantly from the seventies and eighties. We saw many breakdowns along the road, owners tinkering with engines, many other cars that had been abandoned and scavenged to the frame. We also saw the remains of Army vehicles stripped to their olive green or sand-colored bones, as we had been warned was the quick fate of any abandoned piece of military equipment.

We stayed overnight in a little dustbowl of a new Army camp, Cedar II, setting up our cots on the empty trailer beds out of reach of scorpions and snakes. The next day we were scheduled to pass through the outskirts of Baghdad, near where the members of another mission had seen the smoking remains of a 915 truck after it had been rocket grenaded. We took a wrong turn off the highway and, unable to read the Arabic street signs, wandered into the slums of Sadr City where children pointed and laughed as our long convoy of illiterates passed back and forth through the narrow streets looking for a way out. The adults barely glanced at us, faces schooled into unreadable stone after years of threats by those who had held the keys to hungry prisons.

We finally found our way back to the highway, but by nightfall had barely made it past Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein.

The next day all went smoothly and we pulled into our destination camp in Mosul, a former Iraqi Army base. Wandering through the littered compound next to the buildings we had occupied, we found abandoned helmets, spent shells, and Arabic training manuals for gas mask use. In one room I found twisted hooks hanging from the ceiling next to an electronic control board and I shuddered at what my inner Hollywood pieced out of the scene.

But in the regular soldier’s barracks I found a detail that irrationally moved me more. 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 may have shared coffee and cigarettes, read letters from home, told each other the news of the families 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 that I had freely chosen.

Just outside the door I found a boy waiting for me. His light brown eyes looked straight into mine. He gestured a wide circle around us, meaning the camp? the country? “Thank you” he said, 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 some cell like that I’d just walked so easily out of.

Everywhere, from southern Iraq to this Baathist garrison of the far north, we have seen images of Saddam that have been literally de-faced, hacked out or painted over from hairline to chin, leaving black hair, shoulders, and body intact. But with Hussein still missing, the effect is ghoulish. The desecrations constantly remind us that the vengeful man still hides among the powerless that he has fed on for so many years. And we wonder whose faces will now be sketched onto the blank slates of power.

I sit writing here among these ruins, looking out the unbarred window, thinking of you, missing you always.

With all my love,

Helen

Excerpted from Operation Homecoming, by Andrew Carroll, editor. Copyright (c) 2006 by Southern Arts Federation. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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Operation Homecoming

Iraq, Afghanistan, And the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops And Their Families

by Andrew Carroll and Dana Gioia

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