Making Sense Of The Election From Baghdad

Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions

What do you do if your kid doesn't remember who you are when you return from Iraq? Is it hard for soldiers to make friends with Iraqis? Capt. Nate Rawlings addresses these questions from listeners here.

Nate Rawlings Watches Election Results i i

Capt. Nate Rawlings watches the election results come in with his soldiers on a base in Baghdad. Courtesy Capt. Nate Rawlings hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Capt. Nate Rawlings
Nate Rawlings Watches Election Results

Capt. Nate Rawlings watches the election results come in with his soldiers on a base in Baghdad.

Courtesy Capt. Nate Rawlings

Capt. Nate Rawlings has spent the past six months stationed in Iraq. In the essay below, he discusses what it was like watching the election results from his base in Baghdad. You can also hear him talk about Iraqi reaction to Barack Obama's victory with Alex Chadwick, in the audio above. Do you have a question for Nate? Send it through this form.

Election Day dawned in Baghdad as many previous days, with an early morning patrol brief. About 6 a.m. I checked the headlines online, just in case anything earth-shattering had changed on the final day. Throughout the past month, I had been waiting for the "October surprise," that final jab or revelation that would steer the fate of the electorate. But it never came.

I headed to our vehicle line to receive the day's mission from our company commander. I was augmenting our mortar platoon as a vehicle commander with the mission to conduct a convoy moving staff officers to another base for a large briefing. The mission kept us out in sector most of the day, and by the time I helped my crew break down the vehicle and carry our .50-caliber machine gun into the arms room, the polls had just opened on the East Coast. The broadcasters on CNN reported that the increased turnout might create massive polling problems in key states, but that early voting was proceeding smoothly.

I caught up on paperwork for the rest of the evening, working in our logistics shop to take advantage of the television with a satellite hookup. I worked late into the night and returned to my hooch around 3 a.m, just as the first exit polls were beginning to be broadcast.

My roommate Capt. Brian Kalaher, our battalion's support platoon leader, persuaded me to grab a couple hours of sleep and promised to wake me if anything drastic occurred. As the Boston Globe Web site called each state for one of the candidates, Brian called out the electoral count.

"McCain's up, 7-3," he called a mere 30 minutes after my head hit the pillow.

"Thank you," I replied, hardly even waking up. At first it appeared that Sen. McCain would make it a contest, but by the time Brian woke me up at 7:30 a.m. to go to my morning meeting, it was all over.

Initial reaction among soldiers was mixed, but largely optimistic. Military communities tend to be fairly conservative, but in the weeks leading up to the election, many soldiers told me they were voting for Sen. Obama. Most of these soldiers were serving their second, third and, some, their fourth tours in Iraq. While they knew that Sen. Obama advocated a troop increase in Afghanistan, they were willing to bet that a troop drawdown here would at least slow the rate of deployments and allow them more time with their families and children. I encouraged the soldiers to look beyond the tag lines for each candidate and support the person they felt would best repair what is broken in our country. A surprising number of my troops told me that person was Barack Obama.

The first soldier I saw after our morning staff meeting seemed incredibly excited.

"Sir," he said, "With Obama as our new president, does this mean that we'll be home by Christmas?"

I informed the soldier that, unfortunately, President-elect Obama would not be sworn in until Jan. 20.

"Oh," he said. "Well, that'll probably mean that we'll head home about when we were supposed to anyway, right?"

I told him that I thought so. Surprisingly, he didn't seem that disappointed.

Every day I can get online I read the daily Doonesbury comic strip by Garry Trudeau. Doonesbury is also featured in Stars and Stripes, the newspaper available free to military personnel while deployed. I have always thought that Doonesbury is so popular among the troops because Mr. Trudeau captures the hilarious and tragic nuances of military life more accurately than most writers of any medium.

The comic that ran the day after the election featured three soldiers watching the election returns on a tiny television from a remote outpost — a scene similar to our own. When the television commentator calls the race for Barack Obama, the black soldier expresses his feelings with a resounding "Hooah!" One of the white soldiers watching with him also expresses his elation at the news, while a second white soldier says, "He's half white, you know." The black soldier responds, "You must be so proud."

I laughed at Mr. Trudeau's depiction and marveled at how similar it was to the scene here. Throughout the day my soldiers debated the selection of a new commander in chief, how soon they thought troops would be diverted to Afghanistan, and whether Obama's victory would mean we would come home sooner or later. Many soldiers marveled at the election of a president that, regardless of their race or background, they could claim as their own.

As the celebrations continued in cities throughout America and conservative pundits began the post-mortem analysis to prepare for the next election, soldiers scattered to their various posts. They climbed up their guard towers and into their Humvees, ready to begin another day and execute their duties until the new commander in chief orders them home.

Making Iraqi Friends And Connecting With Family

Over the past few months, Capt. Nate Rawlings has been taking questions about his experience as an Army officer stop-lossed in Iraq. In the latest installment, he discusses the friendships he's formed with Iraqis and offers advice on how parents should cope if, upon returning home, their child doesn't recognize them. This morning, he talked about what it was like watching the election results come in from an Army base in Baghdad. You can hear the interview here and send him your questions through this form.

Question One: Have you made friends with Iraqis?

Dear Capt. Rawlings

Do you guys have the time or opportunity to get to know the people of Iraq? Is there an emotional attachment to them? I get the impression that once over there, you become very committed to the citizens and their safety and welfare.

—Elaine McNish, Ringgold, Ga.

During my time here in Baghdad, I have had the pleasure to get to know many Iraqis very well. Units develop strong friendships with many of their interpreters, who are usually local Iraqis or Arabic speakers from Jordan or Sudan. My lead interpreter during my time as an embedded adviser to the Iraqi army is a young doctor from Baghdad, who I count as a close friend. Soldiers patrolling heavily populated urban areas, such as our current area of operations, spend a great deal of time getting to know shop owners, local leaders and ordinary citizens; however, in an area with thousands of residents, it is difficult for a platoon of 40 soldiers to get to know many of the Iraqis well.

As a platoon leader, my troops and I patrolled areas well south of the Baghdad city center in rural farm areas with small villages. We got to know many of the Iraqis very well and worked hard to improve their security. During a particularly brutal insurgent ambush in February 2006, my sergeants and I had to make the gut-wrenching decision to call in artillery close to a village to repel the attack.

Yet even a weapon as large and destructive as artillery is surprisingly accurate, and in the process of defeating the insurgents, we did not hurt any civilians. While it was very difficult to use such weaponry in the vicinity of Iraqis we had come to know and admire, it was a decision I would make and support every time in order to bring all of my soldiers home from the battlefield. During the intense sectarian violence in late 2006, we wondered every day if we would find the body of one of the Iraqis we had come to know well. Some platoons had that terrible experience.

Our present operations have enabled us to get to know many Iraqis very well, and we are routinely invited into homes for Chai tea and food. There is certainly some animosity among some Iraqis, but most that I have encountered appreciate our reconstruction projects and efforts to support the local governments and their desires in the community. The increase in security and the stabilization of life for many of the Iraqis has helped to quell some of the bitterness, but it will be a long time before the population fully recovers from the destruction.

Question Two: How Do You Stay In Touch With Family?

I was wondering how soldiers in Iraq with young children at home try to keep in touch with them. Do you all use Skype or other forms of electronic communication? I think it must be very hard for soldiers with young children at home in the States.

Thanks,

—Jill Mount, Seattle

Many of our soldiers, including many who are younger than me, have families and young children back in the United States. In my platoon, about half of the soldiers are married, and two-thirds of those soldiers have children. We do use Skype where the Internet connection is fast enough. On big forward operating bases and camps, there are free phones and computer centers for any soldier to use. Generally, they can talk up to 30 minutes at a time when other soldiers are waiting. On small combat outposts, there are also Internet and free phone connections run from satellites, which provide good service except during sandstorms.

The distance from family members and long deployments have been very hard on my soldiers. Most are dedicated fathers and miss their families tremendously. Two noncommissioned officers from my platoon who were veterans of the initial invasion in early 2003 are on their fourth tour now, and they have missed countless birthdays, Christmases, football games and plays.

One benefit of having so many veterans of multiple tours is there is a great body of institutional knowledge among the soldiers, and they take great care to prepare their buddies for the difficulties of deployments and returning home.

One of my soldiers, an extremely dedicated father, left when his son was about a year old. Every day, he talked about looking forward to the moment when his family would meet him in the Fort Hood (Texas) gymnasium, and he could scoop up his son in his arms. The veterans cautioned that after such a long time away from home, the reunion might be difficult.

On the day we flew home, his wife met our group. And when my soldier hugged his now 2-year-old son for the first time in months, the child was scared and began to cry because he did not remember his father. My soldier was heartbroken, but his friends who were veterans of previous homecomings reminded him to take it slow and ease back into his family life. By the time we had a barbecue a few weeks later, the dedicated father was toting his son around, playing and enjoying himself tremendously. It certainly doesn't make up for the long absence or the tough homecoming, but having someone who had been there before made the aftermath much easier.

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