Samford University The BelltowerJanuary 2005

Mary Smothers in Iraq

Student, Iraq War Veteran Tells of Experiences
(Part four of four)

“...We arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia, to find a crowd of family and friends waiting to greet us. The excitement was overwhelming. What to do first? Along with sheer joy, I also felt guilty knowing how good life here was and how bad it still is for my fellow soldiers and the Iraqis. So, I’ve made it my mission to tell you about them. Keep them all in your prayers...”


Senior history major Mary Smothers was scheduled to graduate in 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 picked up where she had left off and graduated in December. This month, The Belltower brings you the final installment of her powerful personal account of war and reconstruction in Iraq.

When the Christmas season came around, the morale improved. We were overrun with Christmas cards and boxes. There was more than enough to go around for us and our Iraqi workers. A few weeks earlier, we had been told of a new mission that would begin in January. We would be reopening the Baghdad Police Academy that had been shut down during the war. We would become the teachers. Prior to doing so, we first had to be trained and certified to be instructors. This sounded pretty good. We would be off the roads and would be in a safer location. The best news was that we would have to go to the Royal Police Academy in Amman, Jordan, to do our training. We would be there for the 10 days before Christmas.

Everyone was excited about our Christmas vacation for many reasons. We needed a break and a change of scenery, Jordan was safe, and we could wear civilian clothes for the flight over. I had visited Jordan two years earlier with a group from Samford. I had loved the country then and was excited to return. The Jordanians were so hospitable and friendly. They let us choose from a menu that included Pizza Hut, KFC and Burger King. We even got one day off for sightseeing. That was a wonderful day. We felt so free--no weapons, no uniforms, no terrorists. We visited the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo and the Jordan River. What a special Christmas treat it was.

On the afternoon of Dec. 14, one of our instructors came in to make an announcement. "Last night, a group of Delta forces and Kurds…” he said. The room fell silent, all of us wondering how the sentence would end. My first thought was that there had been yet another mass grave found, an embassy attacked, or bombing. “… captured Saddam.” The room burst into applause and cheering. We couldn’t believe it. It was a moment we had all been waiting for, for so long. Everyone’s mood immediately lifted. That was the best Christmas present of all.

We returned to Baghdad motivated, refreshed and ready to begin our new mission. Our new home was a little better, though the location put us downtown right next to Sadr City, a place which soon became another hotspot. We began teaching at the first of January. We started out with 500 students. In my class there were 25 males. We had 24 Shiites, one Kurd, one Sunni interpreter, one Christian interpreter, and two American instructors. (Very interesting classroom dynamics, to say the least.) Not to mention the fact that I was a female in authority, and younger than most of my students, in a male-dominated society.

The first few weeks were hard. We knew that many of the students didn’t like Americans. It was openly expressed. I became frustrated. But then I had to quit looking through American eyes and put myself in their shoes. How would I feel if I was in their position? What would I say? How would I act?

Instead of adopting a dictatorial style of teaching, I allowed more of an open forum. I allowed the students to have time to talk about whatever they wanted to. They asked all kinds of questions about America and George Bush. They wanted to know about my family. But their favorite people to talk about were Michael Jackson and Madonna. They were crazy about them. One day when Donald Rumsfeld came to speak to the cadets, our students displayed their disappointment that it wasn’t the "King of Pop” instead.

Along with creating a learning environment, we built trust and respect, and actually had fun sometimes. One of their rewards was getting to watch an American movie. They chose Charlie’s Angels.

On my birthday I had a pleasant surprise. My students had seen the calendar marked with Mary’s Birthday. So they got together and gave me a surprise party. They brought cakes, flowers, cards and gifts. I had five birthday cakes. One said "Happy New Year," one said "Happy Breath Day" and one simply said "Happy." It was one of the most important days from the whole year. I saw how much progress we had made in that classroom. We had made friendships. People that I thought hated me actually thought enough to give me a party on my birthday.

A few days before we left Baghdad, our interpreters gave us a going away dinner, another thoughtful and generous gesture. The food was wonderful. Our interpreters had become so important to us. We couldn’t have done anything without them. That day, I was actually sad to leave. I realized that I would be leaving behind friends that I would probably never see again.

When we finally left Baghdad in May, it was such a strange feeling. It had begun to feel like home, in a strange way of course. We were all full of emotions of happiness and sadness. I felt like I was leaving a project unfinished. I knew that things were still going to be bad. I worried about what would happen to my students and their families.

When the big day came, the day to fly home, there was more excitement than I’ve ever felt in my life. Everyone was looking forward to different things--eating a good meal, seeing friends, spouses and children. I, of course, looked forward to seeing my Golden Retriever, Maggie.

It was a wonderful day. We arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia, to find a crowd of family and friends waiting to greet us. The excitement was overwhelming. What to do first? Along with sheer joy, I also felt guilty knowing how good life here was and how bad it still is for my fellow soldiers and the Iraqis. So, I’ve made it my mission to tell you about them. Keep them all in your prayers.

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