U.S. troops fight for respect, change

by Jenn Buck | 4/20/04 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the last in a multi-part series chronicling a student journalist's time spent in Kurdistan, located in northern Iraq. In this article, the correspondent offers a first-person perspective on life with the soldiers she has reported about.

ERBIL, Iraq -- The current war in Iraq is said to be the most widely-covered one in history, with embedded reporters delivering accounts of the conflict from within.

Yet it remains difficult to imagine what the lives of soldiers might be like. Images of tough guys with dirt on their faces and rifles in their hands contribute to the notion that soldiers are somehow a different class of people -- a hardened breed of warriors who have the ability to deal with life and death on a daily basis in a way that regular people cannot.

This correspondent had the privilege of working alongside the American military in northern Iraq for three weeks, and living among troops revealed a different story.

The men and women I worked with played catch and argued over what was for dinner. They checked their mail regularly for news from the United States and played video games over bags of popcorn until the wee hours of morning.

Most of them were college students. Some had wives and young kids. I seldom met soldiers over the age of 25. Almost all were Reservists or National Guardsmen who joined for tuition money or retirement benefits.

In the provincial capital of Erbil, I met families who cheered every time they saw American soldiers. For Kurds, Coalition forces meant liberation from the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein. In a very real sense, U.S. troops helped them find freedom. I worked with a student newspaper that was publishing free from the fear of censorship for the first time.

When I asked a soldier if he was angry that news from home indicated there may never have been a threat of weapons of mass destruction, Bush's premise for going to war, he shook his head.

"We were needed over here regardless of the WMDs," he said. "They needed their freedom. If I had to come over here for any other reason, I would come back. I would come back, over and over."

One soldier I worked with, a 24-year -old entrepreneur from Philadelphia, went out of his way -- and way above his rank -- to procure two million dollars to build new schools for Kurdish kids.

Spc. Edward Schoenleber is a funny, normal young college graduate who loves Playstation 2 and playing with kids. He belonged to Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, a chapter of which exists at Dartmouth.

Schoenleber also carries two weapons and is responsible for helping educate hundreds of poverty-stricken children. And every time he leaves his apartment, he wears a flak jacket and a helmet, and is escorted by private guards.

His friend Cpl. Joe Patrick is a University of Vermont alumnus who works in the government building in Erbil, providing security for humanitarian organizations that aim to help rebuild Iraq. Patrick found me a place to stay and showed me where to get phone cards to call home to the United States.

Neither of these young men is a hero, nor would they say they are. They will be the first ones to tell you that they went to Iraq because they were told to, not because they had an idea of saving people. But what happened when they arrived changed something for them.

American soldiers in Kurdistan face their own mortality every day. Some work on dangerous bases where they get shelled almost nightly. Others travel far into rural areas close to the Iranian border, past mountain caves where Al-Qaida operatives have been known to hide. But once they met the Kurdish people, they said, they realized it was worth it.

A Marine I met told me a story about a base he had been stationed on earlier that had been plagued by sniper fire.

"So I went out and bought up a great big bunch of toys, and every night we'd go out and pass them around to the local kids," he said. "And sure enough, pretty soon that sniper fire stopped."

But war rages on. There is anger, fury, pain, suffering and loss at every turn.

But it's not a faraway place, some unimaginable other world where soldiers robotically execute orders. It's a town like any other, where people live and work, raise families and meet friends.

Much of life in a war zone may be hostility and fighting, but underneath it all, I found a tiny ribbon of universality.