Looking Forward To The New Year In Iraq Army Capt. Nate Rawlings has been sharing his experiences in Iraq with NPR over the last year. Madeleine Brand speaks with Rawlings about how he celebrated the new year in Baghdad and what 2009 may bring for United States soldiers in Iraq.
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Looking Forward To The New Year In Iraq

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Looking Forward To The New Year In Iraq

Looking Forward To The New Year In Iraq

Looking Forward To The New Year In Iraq

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Army Capt. Nate Rawlings has been sharing his experiences in Iraq with NPR over the last year. Madeleine Brand speaks with Rawlings about how he celebrated the new year in Baghdad and what 2009 may bring for United States soldiers in Iraq.


From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Iraqi forces took control of Baghdad's Green Zone today. Iraq's leaders celebrated the moment, saying the country's sovereignty has been returned six years after U.S. forces invaded and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Army Captain Nate Rawlings is here from Baghdad. He's with the First Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division. He's a regular contributor to Day to Day. Happy New Year, Nate.

Captain NATE RAWLINGS (First Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, U.S. Army): Happy New Year to you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Thank you. Well, so how do soldiers there in Iraq - how do they mark the new year?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Well, New Year's, like Christmas, is another workday for us. We've had our normal patrols and all of our normal missions going on. What we like to do, though, is to shift some of the administrative requirements from our day-to-day activities a little bit to later so that we can give the soldiers some time to rest and do the little things like watch a movie, play video games, just enjoy a little bit of time with their friends and platoon mates.

BRAND: And how do the Iraqis celebrate?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Well, a number of the Iraqis have wished us a happy new year. They know that New Year's is a pretty big deal for us. But right now, our new year is coinciding with the Ashura pilgrimage, which is a Shia holiday. And so, a number of the Iraqis are making their way down to the holy cities in Najaf and Karbala.

And the loudspeakers on a lot of the mosques are broadcasting prayers pretty much all day and all night. So that makes it a little bit interesting when we try to sleep, but we know that that's a real large holiday for them, as well.

BRAND: Right. So I don't know if you can characterize it, but what's the general mood there among the soldiers as the year turns?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Well, a lot of the soldiers are really looking back on this year as one where we've made tremendous progress. My unit in particular, when we left at the end of 2006, things were really rough, and there was a lot of sectarian violence. And we really didn't know which way this thing was going to turn.

And when we returned at the beginning of this year, in the beginning of 2008, we could really see that the sectarian violence was beginning to abate, and that's continued tremendously throughout this year. So we've been able to focus a lot of our efforts on stability operations and infrastructure and just helping with building up the government and the local government forces there. So it's been a really good, positive year, and I think that the soldiers all the way down to the lowest level can see that progress.

BRAND: And the Status of Forces Agreement, known as SOFA, went into effect today, and that among other things mandates the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011. Are people talking about that? And how is it affecting them?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Well, the SOFA basically states that we will be continuing to work with the Iraqi forces for the remainder of the time that we're here. And it has set a timeline, but our timeline to come home really hasn't changed even according to that. But a lot of the troops now are looking towards the future, knowing that they'll probably wind up going to Afghanistan.

So right now, the schedule of deployments, we don't really know how far out that's going to go, and so people are just sort of looking towards getting our job done here and then heading home to their families.

BRAND: And I've also read that most of the changes, at least initially, will take place at the Green Zone, where Iraqis will be in charge as of today.

Capt. RAWLINGS: I believe that's right. We're about five miles south of the Green Zone. And so for our operations, we continue to conduct our operations with the Iraqi security forces, and so not a lot has changed on our level there. But we'll continue to work closely with all the Iraqi forces in all of our operations throughout Baghdad.

BRAND: And, Nate, when are you coming home?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Well, right now, we're still on schedule for a 15-month rotation, but we're hoping to come home sometime this spring. And so, we'll find out in the next few months. As the unit that's supposed to replace us begins to get ready to come over, we'll start getting a little bit more of a date. But right now, we're hoping it'll be sometime this spring.

BRAND: And now, my producer tells me that you are - when you return, you're looking into going into possibly journalism. Is that true?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Absolutely. I've had a wonderful experience getting to really collect a lot of the thoughts from this experience and interview a lot of my fellow soldiers and officers and found that I really enjoy collecting those interviews and collecting everyone's thoughts for pieces and putting them down into writing, and so I'd love to be able to continue that.

And I think it's a really interesting time in journalism. It's a tough time right now because we're sort of moving from the idea of print journalism and subscriptions into a lot of online readership. But from what I've read, readership online and viewership online is really skyrocketing. So now, you can get those stories out to a much larger audience, which I think will be a great and beneficial aspect in the next couple decades.

BRAND: Yeah. Is there any area you want to focus on when you get back? Any particular subject matter?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Honestly, much to my mother's chagrin, I think I would like to come back to the Middle East and continue to cover a lot of the developments here, maybe Afghanistan, continue to cover a lot of our diplomatic efforts abroad.

I think that the next four to eight years of the Obama administration are going to be incredibly interesting, with a lot of the diplomatic efforts to just to try to put a lot of the things back together. Certainly, what's going on now in the Gaza Strip is incredibly interesting, as well. So I think, once I learn the business and learn a lot of skills, I'd love to go abroad as a foreign correspondent someday.

BRAND: Army Captain Nate Rawlings with the First Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division joining us from Baghdad. And it's been great speaking with you. Have a great new year.

Capt. RAWLINGS: Thank you. Happy New Year to you, too.

BRAND: Nate regularly writes about his experiences at our website. You can read his latest essay on why some soldiers are getting nervous about coming home at npr.org/nate. And you can also send him questions about his experience. Again, that's npr.org/nate.

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Essay: Troops In Iraq Face Economic Battle At Home

Capt. Nate Rawlings salutes one of his soldiers who decided to reenlist. Courtesy Nate Rawlings hide caption

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Courtesy Nate Rawlings

Capt. Nate Rawlings salutes one of his soldiers who decided to reenlist.

Courtesy Nate Rawlings

Capt. Rawlings Takes Your Questions

Do you have a question for Capt. Rawlings about the situation in Iraq or his thoughts on withdrawal? Post your inquiry at the bottom of this page, and he'll pick several questions to answer.

Getting access to American news in Iraq is easier than ever. Unfortunately, it's not the comfort it once was.

During past combat tours, soldiers would return from patrols, log on to the Internet and feel good that, while things might be falling apart in Iraq, life back home was stable. Now, as we make tremendous gains in security and infrastructure in Baghdad, the life we yearn for is falling apart.

As my good friend Dawn pointed out in an e-mail, every one of the top 10 most e-mailed stories in The New York Times on Dec. 8 addressed the current economic recession. And via The Boston Globe, I learned that even poor Santa has been having trouble getting work.

Although troops in Iraq and Afghanistan face a myriad of challenges during combat operations, they have been spared most of the day-to-day carnage of the current recession. Some of the recent developments have been positive: For those with spouses and children back home, falling gas prices and desperate retail bargains have meant they are spending less to support their families. They have managed to save more, to lower their debt and, in some cases, to make their first investments. Single soldiers, for the most part, sever all economic ties when they deploy, breaking leases and leaving cars with family or friends, resulting in few monthly bills.

The grace period will soon end. In the final months of deployment, soldiers in our unit are preparing to return to an economic wasteland far different from the country they left a year ago.

"I think people getting out are in more danger than they think," said Capt. Josh Hall, an engineer officer who has decided to remain in the Army for at least another year, rather than try to find work in such a grim economy. "It's a bad crossroads, because a lot of soldiers are getting out because they keep doing [combat] tours, but the job market is collapsing behind them."

This assessment is even more accurate for enlisted soldiers than for officers. Young captains who consider leaving the military do so with a college degree and significant management experience. But unless an enlisted soldier has an occupational specialty with a directly applicable skill set, he faces a depleted job market. And while the military offers transition training, such as resume-writing courses and seminars on how military skills translate to a civilian workforce, soldiers must find a new job largely on their own.

Among the many soldiers I spoke with, the guaranteed job security and universal health coverage provided by the military have been the most cited reasons for remaining in the Army.

But for many of those who have spent years away from their families, it's still not worth it.

"Personally, I would rather be underpaid and with my family than overpaid and here," said Capt. Jeff Tounge, a West Point graduate with two young daughters who has served two deployments in Iraq. "Besides, it's a good time to join the economy in recession because there's room for tremendous growth."

Joining a company at this time may be difficult for Tounge, but he believes that if he can get his foot in the door, there are unlimited opportunities for advancement as the economy eventually heals.

Capt. Justin Twombly, the logistics officer for my battalion, has a similar outlook.

"I'm not that concerned about leaving the Army," he said. "I realize that finding a job might be more difficult in the coming months, but I've got tremendous skills I've developed over the past five years, and my wife and I want more than six months together before one or the other of us is dragged off on another deployment."

Justin's wife, Capt. Jen Twombly, is the communications and automations officer in my battalion. While Jen served her first overseas deployment in Egypt, Justin served as a tank platoon leader in Iraq's infamous "Triangle of Death," living on and fighting from his tank for weeks at a time. Both of the Twomblys are now here in Iraq and will be leaving the service upon our redeployment.

"There have to be proactive leaders in the military as well as in the civilian workforce to build up the economy and help businesses live by their good name," Justin continued. "I've been a good leader in combat, and I'm going to work very hard to be one of those leaders in the civilian sector."

Many friends and family have asked me if the changes in the economy have altered my plans to leave the Army. I made the decision to exit the service before this combat tour, before the recession began. While the current state of the economy has made me appreciate the guaranteed job and benefits, I still believe that the time is right for me to leave the service. I have enjoyed writing these columns tremendously and have decided that rather than film school — my plan six months ago — I would like to tell stories through journalism. It has been one of the great pleasures of my life to be a soldier, but I am looking forward to concentrating on writing, which has been the great passion of my life.

I'm aware that it won't be an easy path. As I completed my application to journalism school, the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy. And as I finished this piece, I learned that Day to Day would be canceled, and the wonderful and talented people with whom I have worked these past few months will soon be seeking new jobs.

The tremendous turmoil in the journalism community is tragic, but it does not change my belief that there are stories that still have to be told. As the war in Iraq winds down, we will undertake troop surges in Afghanistan, a different and difficult war that will last for many years. The Obama administration faces enormous diplomatic challenges in all regions of the world. I hope to be among those writing that record and believe that despite all the odds, it's the best possible time to join the world of journalism.

When young soldiers ask me about the recession and whether the economy will ever recover — how such a cataclysm can befall our nation — I tell them to watch The Godfather, stemming from my belief that the classic film contains metaphors for almost any topic. The scene I ask them to reference is the one in which Clemenza teaches Michael Corleone how to make tomato sauce; he explains the impending war between the five families of the New York mafia and why they have to "go to the mattresses."

"These things have to happen every 10 years or so," Clemenza explains, "just to get the bad blood out." I tell my soldiers that recessions come and go, and in the associated carnage, they trim the fat off of the economy and shine a spotlight, sometimes painfully, on processes that were not working. This recession looks to be longer and more painful than most, and so I encourage them to "go to the mattresses" in the ways that work for them. If that means remaining in the service and serving yet another combat deployment, that is a valid option. If they choose to exit the service, they understand that the job market is difficult and that they must be prepared to do more with less. Regardless of their plans, I encourage them to save as much money as they can, cut costs and make smart investments.

The decision to exit or remain in the service is a difficult one, and it is one that each soldier must make at the appropriate time. Most joined to serve in the defense of their country, and the majority of those who remain do so out of that continued desire. Faced first with a war that never seemed to end and now a recession without an identifiable terminus, soldiers universally hope that the bad economic blood will be spilled and the economy will heal. When they leave the service, their employment options will hopefully reflect the effort and sacrifices they have made.

Throughout the past few months, Capt. Rawlings has been answering readers' questions. Post your inquiry below and he'll choose a few to answer.