Samford University The BelltowerNovember 2004

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

"...Being lost or stuck in traffic takes on a whole new meaning there. People here get stuck in traffic on Highway 280 and act as if it's the end of their world, but in Baghdad, it very well could be...”

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 in December. Between now and January The Belltower will print the full text of her September convocation address. In this issue we bring you part two of her powerful personal account.

Our company was assigned three police stations in southern Baghdad to work with. After the fall of the regime, one of the top priorities of the Coalition was to clean out and rebuild the police infrastructure. Many of the Iraqi police [IPs] were Saddam loyalists. Many left their jobs. Many were corrupt. Of those that remained, most had no equipment, some had no training, and there was no money. So the Coalition assigned many military units to work within these stations to clean out the bad cops, decide what was needed, provide extra security and train the Iraqi police with much-needed equipment and procedures.

From day one the police stations were a major target of the insurgents. The Iraqi Police were seen working with the Coalition, which made them as much a target as the Americans, and sometimes even more. But they kept coming to work. To many, it’s worth risking their lives at work rather than see their families go hungry. That is hard for us to imagine.

We had interpreters at each station, allowing us to communicate with the IPs. We depended on the interpreters to not only translate what they were saying but how they were saying it. As we were there to weed out the bad cops, it was vital for us to know their character and attitudes. Some of the IPs were genuinely happy to be with Americans and treated us like special guests. But there were also those who made their hatred toward us very clear.

Patrol
The two teams I worked with were primarily used for escort missions, meaning that we were always on the roads. We would escort officers around to meetings. We would escort ration, mail and water runs. We would take soldiers to and from the airport. We would go to all three police stations to help out or transport equipment. We were the teams who got to know Baghdad. We drove 6,000 miles in the first few months. We learned all the main routes, bridges, checkpoints, police stations, alternative routes and landmarks. Since roads were shut down or blocked off almost daily due to improvised explosive devices [IEDs], it was imperative that we knew our way around. Being lost or stuck in traffic takes on a whole new meaning there. People here get stuck in traffic on Highway 280 and act as if it’s the end of their world, but in Baghdad, it very well could be.

I served as the driver for my team. My team leader ran the radio, read the map and pulled security. My gunner manned the Squad Automatic Weapon [SAW] at all times. The first few times out were terrifying. I was tense, my heart was racing, and I drove defensively. But that soon changed. You learn that you can’t be scared all the time or you won’t get anything done. It’s too stressful. You have to let go. You’re always on guard and aware of your surroundings, but there’s a point where you let go and realize that you can’t worry about everything all the time. Once you reach that point, things get a little better. That is, of course, until you hear about a soldier getting killed on the road you drove just moments ago or see remnants of blown-up vehicles on your way back. Nonetheless, life there, just as anywhere else, becomes normal.

Children
Forty percent of the Iraqi population are under the age of 14, and, since school was out, they were all outside. Many of them didn’t have air conditioning either, but of course they handled it better than we did. Nearly all of the children waved at us when we passed. Some even ran beside us and gave us the thumbs up. Many cheered and danced. It gave us the warm feeling that we had hoped to feel all along. The children were beautiful. No matter how poor they were, how thin, or how ragged their clothes, they all smiled.

There were always children gathered in and around the police stations. They loved to practice English with us, look at pictures of our families, and examine our vehicles and weapons. My being a female was especially intriguing to them. They always wanted to see my eyes and touch my hair. Nearly all soldiers wear sunglasses and the children always signaled for us to remove them. One child told us that, according to Saddam, we wore sunglasses because they allowed us to see people without their clothes on. I assured him that this wasn’t so and offered my sunglasses for him to test for himself. After seeing nothing through my lenses, he said, “Well there must be some secret button you have to push.”

The radios in our humvees continually had traffic back and forth between vehicles on the road, police stations and company headquarters. The children loved to listen to these magical transmissions, though understanding nothing that was being said. My favorite child, Mostafa, asked if it was George Bush giving us orders. I said “no.”

He then asked, "Did George Bush call you and tell you to come here?” "Well, sort of,” I said. “Did you want to come?” he asked. “Not really,” I said. "What’s wrong with Iraq?” he then asked. “Well, I just really like America,” I answered. That seemed to satisfy his curiosity for the moment. He was an incredible child, full of life, hope and happiness. I told him that he should run for president one day; he sure would make a good one. I asked him where he thought Saddam was hiding. “Russia,” he said, matter-of-factly.

In exploring Baghdad, we didn’t find Saddam, but we were able to see many of his homes and palaces. Many were left as they were after he fled and are now occupied by Coalition forces. His main presidential palace is now used as the Coalition headquarters, where Paul Bremer worked. Saddam also had thrones in many of his palaces to further show off his wealth and power. He claimed to be descended from the prophet Mohammed and considered himself somewhat of a royal figure. It was an interesting feeling to sit in Saddam’s throne and wonder what may have happened there.

END PART 2

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