After a few months of round-the-clock reports, media coverage of the war in Iraq has dwindled to a single daily announcement of a U.S. military casualty or the latest capture of a former Iraqi government insider. Embedded journalists have been pried loose to cover the conflict in Liberia, the gubernatorial politics in California or the sexual assault accusations against an NBA basketball star.
Yet, thousands of U.S. soldiers remain in a country that does not behave as if the war is over, their reconstruction efforts hampered by continued ambushes and attacks on their lives. Their war is definitely not sidelined by other global conflicts; it remains a daily ordeal with no end in sight.
This reality hit me right between the eyes recently when I had the privilege of working a military transport that served as my own personal embed into the war know as Iraqi Freedom. During the active phase of the war in Iraq, commercial airlines, in a long-standing wartime practice, are pressed into service by the U.S. military to transport troops from locations around America to a common departure point in Europe, and, from there, on to the Middle East.
Large wide-bodied aircraft that normally cross the North Atlantic or Pacific oceans with tourists and business travelers headed to Europe and Asia are, instead, filled to their crammed overhead bins with soldiers in full battle gear on their way to active duty. Or, sometimes, with weary but excited veterans returning home from the desert.
We loaded our soldiers in the middle of the night. One long, continuous line of sand-colored fatigues stretched like a desert caravan from the base terminal across the tarmac to the ramp stairs of our airplane. The base commanders stood at the foot of the stairs and shook the hand of each and every soldier, who then clambered up to the aircraft door weighted down with a waterpack, Kevlar vest, night-goggled battle helmet, backpack, bedroll and weapon. When we asked why each of them boarded with a Meal Ready to Eat, or MRE, in hand, since we were to feed them several times before we landed, an officer told us that the troops were provisioned with their first combat meal in advance.
The soldiers ranged in age from 18 years old to their late 50s, encompassed a rainbow of ethnic backgrounds, the gamut of United States geographic diversity, and included reservists, civilians, officers and enlisted. This group was unfailingly polite, always a “please,” “thank you,” “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.” Never a complaint, always a compliment – they were endearing with their combination of stoicism and gracious manners.
The mood became more somber as we neared our destination and prepared to say goodbye. The crew hurried to gather e-mail and home addresses to keep in touch with the soldiers through their families, promising to write to the West Virginia physician’s assistant’s wife and two children who were upset that daddy wouldn’t be home for Halloween. And to the mother of the soldier from Arkansas who had just experienced the longest airplane flight in his life.
Someone passed around an American flag for everyone to sign as a memento of the trip, and soldiers and crew alike took photos of each other like the last day of summer camp. As the soldiers deplaned, we hugged them goodbye and wished them a safe return. Many hugged back until our ribs creaked, and often, the flight attendants were not the only ones with tears in their eyes.
Now, I read the paper and watch the news wondering if the latest ambush at a checkpoint means that one of the MPs on my flight isn’t coming home. Or if the sniper attacks have injured or killed one of the mechanics, communications specialists or chemical unit soldiers that looked me in the eye with a smile before walking off my airplane to an unknown fate.
For me, now, like the loved ones and families of these soldiers, there is not enough news about the war, not enough footage of living, breathing soldiers who I hope, one day, to welcome with open arms on their return flight to U.S. soil.
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