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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