FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Tomorrow marks the fifth-year anniversary for the Iraq War. News headlines usually headline what soldiers face during their time in Iraq. But what happens when those soldiers come home? How do they settle into life stateside, and are there things that a soldier could actually miss about Iraq?
Here to tell us about life after living in the battle zone is Army Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Jones. He's a career military man who's done two tours in the current conflict in Iraq. He worked as a convoy commander near the Iraqi city of Tikrit, and his service earned him a Purple Heart. Jeremiah, thanks for being on the show.
Sergeant JEREMIAH JONES (US Army): Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: So how'd you first get into the military?
Sgt. JONES: After I graduated from high school in 1987, I tried, you know, different odd-and-end jobs. And I really didn't do too good, you know, to - as far as going to college or furthering my education. So I figured the military would be the best thing for me to get out and see the world and further experience life.
CHIDEYA: Does your family have any experience being in the military?
Sgt. JONES: My grandfather was a Korean-era veteran. My dad was a Vietnam-War-era veteran. We had an uncle that was in the Air Force, an aunt that was in the Air Force. And I think that's about it. And then me.
CHIDEYA: So you went in having some family tales told around the dinner table, no doubt, about what it meant to serve. But were you prepared to go into war yourself?
Sgt. JONES: Well I joined in 1989, and less than a year after I joined, I went to Desert Storm. So to tell you the truth, by the time Desert Storm started to the time it ended, I was so young at the time that I really didn't understand, you know, or really didn't take in effect, you know, the full gravity of what war is until now. You know, now I can say I wasn't really prepared for what I was going to see.
CHIDEYA: Some people have said that this war is fundamentally different than Desert Storm because this is a war where you are occupying territory as opposed to just taking it. And do you think it's a more difficult war, the current Iraq War?
Sgt. JONES: Well, of course it's different, because I've been in both, and I can compare the two from experience. Back in Desert Storm, I believe we lost 1,500 soldiers, and maybe more than 50 percent of them were either accidental deaths or something like that, other than enemy fire.
Now, coming up on Thursday, the number is going up to 4,000, and that's all combat-related and enemy, you know, death by enemy fire. Plus, like you said, we're occupying. In Desert Storm, it was easy. We just stormed through, kicked them out of the country, and then we left. You know, now, you know, I don't know what, you know, what we're trying to do now other than, you know, changing them to a democracy or changing their way of life and freeing, you know, freeing the citizens there and showing them a different way of life or a better way of life. So, yeah, it's a lot harder.
CHIDEYA: What were you told? I mean, how much are you told about what the ultimate mission is? Was there a lot of messaging around what the bigger goals were, or just your job is to do this on this day and get this done so we can keep on keeping on?
Sgt. JONES: Exactly. That's exactly what I got was this is your job. You're a convoy commander. Your job is to move this equipment and these trucks, this personnel from Point A to Point B safely. We'll let you know when you come back, and do the same thing on the way back. And that's it.
CHIDEYA: As a convoy commander, you're on the roads, which can be extremely dangerous in this situation. What were some of the scarier moments, or even if you weren't scared, what would be scary to us? What were some of the moments where you felt that your life was in danger?
Sgt. JONES: The scariest part is before a mission, right before you leave the gate, you know, because it's the fear of the unknown. You don't know what's going to be in store for you out there on the road. And when you first reach your destination and you look back at whatever you went through, you know, either firefights, IEDs, RPGs or anything like that, you look back and like, oh, my God. You know, I just made it through all that.
You know, but during the mission, you're not really scared at all. Your instincts just kick in, and from your training, you just do your job.
CHIDEYA: You actually survived a hit that earned you a Purple Heart. Tell us what happened there.
Sgt. JONES: Well, it wasn't just one hit. I got hit 13 times total. The first one was a very bad one, and the last one that you're talking about, where I got my Purple Heart, I was a convoy commander of that mission, and we were going to block traffic, and I had seen a pickup truck on the left-hand side in this intersection that really didn't look quite right. So I told my gunners to take a look at them, and as soon as we got a fix on him, he took off. We turned to make chase, and he was blocking the way for three land mines, and as soon as we turned the corner to follow him, we ran over that and blew my truck in half.
My gunner, he broke a couple of his ribs, my driver got his foot broke, and me, I got stitches and a little limp and a little loss of feeling in my right arm. But other than that, that's in a nutshell what happened.
CHIDEYA: Have you lost any friends in the war?
Sgt. JONES: Yes, ma'am. I lost a good friend of mine. And I was the squad leader, and Matthew Silburn(ph), he got killed on the convoy after mine when I got the Purple Heart. It was a continuation of mine, the very next day. So, yeah. And it's kind of hard. I met his family. You know, and they take it a lot harder.
I think as friends, the guys that were there, we took it a lot harder than anybody else. But yup, I have.
CHIDEYA: What about life in the United States after you've been in a war zone? When you come back and you put your foot on American soil, I'm sure that there are a lot of emotions. What are some of the different things that happen to you as you ease back into civilian life?
Sgt. JONES: I don't think there's an easing to it. You say put my foot on American soil. As soon as I stepped off that plane in Indianapolis, I fell face forward onto the tarmac and started hugging the ground because I was so happy to be home. I guess the hardest part, especially being a convoy commander on the road, is dealing with traffic out on the expressway. It's kind of scary there because you're constantly scanning the roads, and, you know, you see people up behind you, tailgating you. And me, I get upset because, you know, I'm doing it now. When you talk about it, it flashes through your mind.
You want to push people out of the way because in Iraq, we had total control of the road. We owned the road, and if you got in our way, we'd push you off to the side. But here, at home, you can't do that. That'd be classified as road rage, and I have to watch my attitude when I'm driving, still.
CHIDEYA: What does your family think of you? I mean, do they think of you - I'm sure they think of you with great pride, but did they ever say okay, Jeremiah, let's talk for a second. This is crazy dangerous. You don't have to keep doing this. You could do something else.
Sgt. JONES: Yeah, a lot of them do, but, you know, my wife, she's like, you know, don't you volunteer to go back. I think as long as I don't volunteer to go over, you know, I'll be fine. You know, but my family, they just - they know me. You know, that's just my life. You know, when I got out of high school and joined the military, I found my niche in life, and the military is what it is, and I love my job. So they're not going to try to take that away from me, because there's really nothing else I want to do.
CHIDEYA: Do you ever miss the adrenaline of being in a war zone or a war time?
Sgt. JONES: Oh yeah, I love it. I'm sorry. But it's not that I'm a warmonger, but there is a certain high you get that you'll never get over here. You know, that's why I guess people go bungee jumping or, you know, skydiving or some of that craziness. But there is a certain amount of adrenaline rush that you get. Even when I got hit all those times, you know, there's a feeling that you get, and you're shaking, and you get kind of - you know, you get kind of used to it.
So I do miss it, but you know, I don't miss it enough to go back anytime soon. I'm not going to volunteer.
CHIDEYA: When you think about the losses, people who have been killed and some of the ones who've been profoundly injured in ways where they'll never lead an independent life again, do you ever ask yourself the question: Is it worth it? Is that a question you ask yourself?
Sgt. JONES: No, I can never ask that question. Because if I do, then I'll start doubting my orders and doubting my job. But I will tell you this: Up to the point to where we caught Saddam Hussein, you know, one life is too many to lose, but it was worth the lives up until that point. So from that point on to now, as long as catch bin Laden, we free people, and we do our jobs, it'll be worth it. I'm not saying that we should have any American young men and women killed, but as long as we get the job done, then that's the sacrifice we have to make, even if it takes my own.
CHIDEYA: Well, Jeremiah, thank you.
Sgt. JONES: Yes, ma'am. Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: That's Army Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Jones. He served two tours in Iraq as a convoy commander. He currently lives in Cassopolis, Michigan.