Samford University The BelltowerNovember 2004

Mary Smothers with Iraqi children

Student Tells of Experiences at War in Iraq
(Part three of four)

“...Jo, one of the interpreters, came out to help us. He had been inside during the explosion and had carried many victims to the hospital in his van--its seats were now covered with blood. I asked him how many IPs had been injured. He said, 'Too many'...”

Senior History Major Mary Smothers was scheduled to graduate last May, but was diverted to Baghdad instead. Her National Guard unit returned to the U.S. as her peers were collecting their diplomas, but Smothers now plans to graduate this month. Between October and January The Belltower will print the full text of her September convocation address. In this issue we bring you part three of her powerful personal account.

The worst part of the summer months wasn’t the food, the accommodations, or the danger; it was the heat. The heat got to everyone. It was exhausting yet wouldn’t allow you to sleep. It averaged between 130-135 degrees in July and August. We didn’t get air conditioning until September. It was a momentous day, and the first day we were comfortable. No one wanted to go outside anymore. But at least when we had to go out we knew we had a cool room to return to. Life was getting a little better.

One day in September when we were out guarding an area with a suspected explosive, I observed some children playing with a small kitten. The kitten was barely two weeks old and must have gotten away from its mother. I asked the children if I could have the kitten, to which they responded “Give me a dollar.” Everything there costs a dollar. But I had no money and I wanted the kitten, so I gave them some gum instead. The kitten was a small whiny thing and no one thought he would live through the night, but he did. In fact, he stayed with us throughout the rest of our time in Baghdad. He became somewhat of a mascot, and we named him Rufus. Even though I’m a loyal fan of dogs, I enjoyed having Rufus around. I’ve always found animals to be therapeutic, and he made everyone a little happier. That was a good thing, because also in September we found out that we would be in Iraq for a year.

The 365 days boots-on-the-ground policy came as a shock to many and affected the morale of all soldiers. We had thought that the latest we would be there was November. We knew we’d be home by Christmas. But to hear that we had eight more months was hard. Counting down the days at that point did no good, so we began to count down months instead.

October 27 brought the biggest blow to our morale. That morning, the first day of Ramadan, the terrorists struck hard. They hit the Red Cross building downtown and three police stations in Baghdad, including one of ours, Al Bayaa. We felt an explosion that morning a little after 8 a.m., and as we were getting ready to head out on a mission my team heard the radio traffic saying that Al Bayaa had been hit. We sped to the station, our hearts racing. As we came nearer, we saw smoke rising. People were all along the roads and everyone was frantic. Only two out of the 10 of our guys who had been working that morning were still there. The rest had been taken to the hospital after a suicide bomber in a stolen police vehicle drove through the front gate and detonated his explosive cargo. The engine block was blown through the front door. Windshields and windows were broken thoughout the entire block. There were other MPs already on the scene, setting up roadblocks. We took our positions. The roads were lined with spectators, some crying and trying to get by to see if their loved ones were okay. Some were just carrying on as if nothing had happened. A few of the new Iraqi army troops joined us at the roadblocks and helped keep back the crowds.

I was angry. I prayed for so many people, so many things. I wondered how our soldiers were, how the Iraqi Police (IPs) were and if any children had been there. Jo, one of the interpreters, came out to help us. He had been inside during the explosion and had carried many victims to the hospital in his van--its seats were now covered with blood. I asked him how many IPs had been injured. He said, “Too many.” He knew that two IPs in his van had died. Ali, another interpreter there, also had died.

We stayed at our roadblock until about noon, and then all units from our company were called to rally at the front of the station. Our captain had just received word from the hospital that our comrade, Sgt. Bell, had died. Everyone became very quiet. Many began to cry. We sat in silence, waiting for the wreckers to come get the four Humvees that had been sitting in front of the precinct. All units came back to the compound and no one was to leave for the rest of the day.

No one said anything. Many of us sat and watched the news. At least 33 Iraqis and five Americans were killed that day in Baghdad alone. It was hard to grasp the reality of how bad things had gotten in a matter of minutes. Life can be taken so quickly. Many in our unit were angry, frustrated and unmotivated to work. We all had to sort through our own issues and questions. It was that day that made many question the validity of our company’s mission as well as America’s. Was it worth it? What good were we doing? Are the soldiers dying for a good cause?

I sought my answers from God. My life, as always, was in his hands. But, of course, I continuously worried about the lives of others around me. In struggling with the other questions, I found my answers through the children. Thankfully, none were at the police station that morning. I saw Mostafa a few weeks later, but he was no longer the happy bright-eyed boy I was used to seeing. He said, “I’m sorry this happened.” I was sorrier than he could imagine. Children shouldn’t have to live with thoughts of car bombers and they certainly shouldn’t have to see or hear them. I realized that the work we were doing would pay off one day; if not for the present generation, then for the next. Perhaps the children there now will have a different life and will grow up to make Iraq a better country. And for that, to me, it’s all worth it. I realized that the Iraqis were suffering even more than we were. It wasn’t their fault. I knew that there was no question in my mind of whether or not we should be there. We had to be there.

Having worked through these issues I was able to be more at peace with my job. I felt better and my mind was clearer. Keeping a clear head makes for a more effective soldier or worker in any situation.


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