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Letters from Iraq

Staff Sergeant Christopher E. Alley
United States Army
Emmitsburg Native


July 2007 - Handover & coming home

The day finally arrived for us to start the trip home after almost a year in the International Zone. Our replacements have been set up for success and now it is up to them to run with it and to continue forward setting the conditions for the eventual handover over to the Iraqi Government.

It felt strange to brief and then slowly hand over our little fiefdoms we carved in the International Zone, then again in a strange way it felt like only a few weeks ago we received our briefings and were handed the reigns to our tour of duty in Iraq. I have the utmost confidence in our replacements to continue to succeed due to the fact that like us, they are a National Guard unit who like us not only bring our military but also our civilian experience to the table for success. After serving as both an Active Duty solider and now a National Guard soldier, I see the pros and cons to both types of units but I must admit that a National Guard soldier who's lineage comes from the Minutemen of centuries past truly define the average American today. What I mean is that an Active Duty soldier trains 365 days a year in his military job specialty and they are very well trained, very well disciplined, and very good at what they do. On the other hand a National Guard soldier trains one weekend a month and two weeks a summer in their military profession but also train the other days of the year in their civilian profession, bringing together a true mix of education, experience, sense of duty, and as a whole represent the true mixing pot that is The United States of America today. I can never say it enough that, I am so proud of the men and women that I have served with and how we represent the past the present and the future of the land we all love.

Homeward Bound

Under the cover of darkness we boarded our convoy of Rhino's and along with our escorts we made the trip down Route Irish to the Baghdad International Airport for our flight to Kuwait. Once we arrived at Victory Base Cluster (VBC) we had to wait to move to the other side to the airport so we hunkered down and some of us sat and guarded our baggage and enjoyed our last night in Iraq by sleeping under the stars, not like we had to worry about rain!

Once we moved to the airport we played the official game of the Army, "Hurry up and Wait", until our plane was ready and our equipment was palletized. Not like the journey into Iraq, we left on the workhorse of the Air Force a C-130. A C-130 is a cargo plane that can land and take off on very small runways and are meant to be the main resupply aircraft for forces in forward areas. After loading our 60 or so passengers and our two pallets of baggage and equipment we were very cramp inside all sitting on web seating with our legs interlocked between each other. This isn't so bad once you are at cruising altitude but while on the tarmac where it is 125 degrees and the plane has no air conditioning and you are wearing your body armor on the flight out, it became almost unbearable, and many were near the point of becoming sick, not to mention it was almost impossible to keep yourself hydrated since you were sweating it out as fast as you were drinking. Anyway after about 40 minutes we executed a perfect reverse corkscrew out of Baghdad airspace and we were on our 1 hour and 15 minute trip south to Kuwait.

Once we arrived in Kuwait we were met by the command group of one of our sister units who are just starting their tour of duty and were days away from moving north "over the berm" into Iraq. I am close friends with the commander and we couldn't resist the photo op in Kuwait, and we promised each other a beer next summer. It was good to see their faces and to pass along our guidance of "be safe".

In Kuwait we moved to a camp for "Outbound" from Iraq soldiers so we could start our "decompression" and start to relax a bit and let our minds relax and stop operating on the blade of a razor. The camp was sparse, and to remind you, Kuwait is even hotter than Iraq with the daily temps hitting the high 130 range. So with these conditions and our minds unwinding a lot of sleeping was done. When we did venture out it was only to do a bit of shopping at the "haji shops" on base or at the PX. We did though have the great experience of having such places to each at like McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subway, Nathan's Hot Dogs, Panda Orient, and yes Green Bean the military version of Starbucks. I indulged in a pizza and a sub from subway once or twice just because the food in the DFAC was a rung or two below what we had in Iraq, and you become tired of the same food no matter what country you are in.

Well after five fun filled days in Kuwait we started on the next leg of our trip home and boarded the "Freedom Bird". We had to make a side trip before we headed west towards The United States and we picked up a load of Air Force personnel in Qatar.

On a side note, for all of you who know I lived in Saudi Arabia as a kid and for those of you who also lived there as well, I flew pass, within visual distance of Ras Tanura (RT),

which was all lit up when we passed! That will probably be the closest I will ever be to becoming a returning student again.

After leaving Qatar the next stop was Shannon, Ireland. It was a cool, cruel stop because the temp was in the 60's and we were not allowed to partake in a traditional drink of travelers through Ireland be it Guiness or Jameson. This led me to do a bit of shopping for the family, which I always try to do in my travels.

After 2 ½ sober hours in Ireland we left for our final destination, FT. Dix, New Jersey. I never thought I would be so glad to see Jersey but it came to mind, before I pushed it back reminding myself of the "stupid human tricks" we will have to complete before we finally get home. Once we touched down at McGuire Air Force Base a round of applause went up for us finally being back on American soil.

Stupid Human Tricks

After being in Iraq for a year I can truly state that FT. Dix, New Jersey did not change a bit and we knew that the fun had just started. One thing that was different from the last time I demobilized at FT. Dix when I returned from Kosovo in 2004 was that the buses took us from McGuire AFB to FT Dix to a former chapel now used for briefings where the USO and Vietnam Veterans were waiting for us to shake our hands, welcome us home, and feed us an American picnic type lunch. I have to admit it was kind of nice and I know it wasn't just therapeutic for us and making it easier for our transition home but also therapeutic for the Vietnam Vets who we applauded as if they had also returned!

The schedule at FT Dix for our out processing is also designed for us to decompress and to ease us back into a land of no IDF. The reason for all this concern about us readjusting and taking it easy is driven because of lessons learned. When our grandfathers returned from WWII or Korea the means of travel was a ship. This time on the ship let soldiers have time to talk out things they had seen or done with others who had done the same, which was a comfort zone and let them ease themselves back into society. Then things changed when our fathers returned from Vietnam. The jet plane, "Freedom Bird", brought them back in hours to a land that didn't respect their service or sacrifice and then the Army out processed them out in a day or two after a handshake and a steak dinner. Vietnam was different than wars past not only from military perspective but also from a society prospective. The veterans from that war did not receive the time nor the support net to talk, relax, and decompress from the daily stress they endured. Today, those lessons have been documented and learned from, and the executives and leaders today don't want another generation of soldiers to be left without support be it physically, mentally, or socially. I must applaud them for this, and I know that the veterans of Vietnam don't want another Soldier/Sailor/Airman/Marine to ever go through the trials and tribulations they endured and still carry with them.

That being said, sometimes good intentions are over thought and over acted on. We are scheduled to spend approximately 7 days to demobilize at FT. Dix. During this time we must go through Admin screening, Medical screening, Briefings on reunion, re-employment, benefits, and numerous other ways for us to commit death by PowerPoint. We all understand the necessity of all these stations but at the same time we are treated as privates who have just entered the military, not combat veterans who have just returned from serving their country. Case in point, we are not allowed to drink during our time here at FT. Dix! I can understand that the Army doesn't condone drinking, and there are studies proving the influence of alcohol and its effects of depression and PTSD, but why not allow the soldiers a few drinks in the controlled atmosphere of FT. DIX surrounded by people who have just come back from the same situations and stress? Instead the soldiers will be let out on society once they return home and the binge drinking will commence without people who understand what that soldier went through and soldiers watching out for other soldiers. It truly boggles my mind, not to mention even in my group of veterans there are underage soldiers who haven't achieved that magic age of 21 who aren't allowed to drink but have lived through rocket attacks and mortar barrages. I guess there is a reason to my perceived madness but I, along with my brothers and sisters in arms will comply and suck it up for another few days.

This is not the end!

Now that my tour in Iraq is coming to an end, this won't be the end of my writings. I have found something of a release in my monthly writings and I hope to continue if only be it a daily or weekly journal. I hope I have never come off didactic, (I had to use that word as a promise to a former English teacher who reads my letters) but more informative into what life is like in the eyes of a soldier in Iraq. I had a very special experience serving in Iraq and doing what I did, daily though we are reminded of how dangerous Iraq is and the world as a whole. In my year I experienced almost every emotion known to man, and it was a rollercoaster of an event. Although I missed a year in my life as a husband, a father, and as a citizen of small town American I admit it was a growing experience for me. I have always appreciated what I been blessed with by being an American, but this year reinforced it within me and hopefully within a few of those who have read my letters through my experiences.

I want to say thanks to some special people who helped me through this year but also who encouraged me to continue writing and posting these letters through out the year. First and most importantly to my wife and kids, without their packages, pictures, phone calls, and their ears for listening I think my outlook on this year would have been completely different and I am forever indebted to them; Mom and Dad, for being strong and always reminding me to keep my head down; the rest of my family and friends old and new thanks for listening and trying to understand the last year of my life; Mike from thank you for taking the time of posting my letters and sending me those pictures of a beautiful rainy day in Emmitsburg, in you I have gain a friend; lastly I want to thank everyone I served with, and we will forever share a common thread in our lives!


Read other Letters from Iraq by Sergeant Christopher E. Alley

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