Samford University The BelltowerOctober 2004

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

"…Our convoy north was long and hot. The driving was rough as much of the road was desert. Everyone was tense as we remembered hearing of all the convoys being attacked..."

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 then
The Belltower will print the full text of her September convocation address. In this issue we bring you part one of her powerful personal account.

In the middle of my senior semester, my National Guard unit was activated for overseas deployment. So, I quit school, quit work, moved my belongings back to my parents' home, and packed my duffel bags. I said hurried goodbyes to my closest friends and family. At that point, we had no idea of our final destination, our mission or our return date.

Many who join the military, more especially those of us who join the Reserve components, never really expect to be deployed to a combat zone. But, of course, by raising our right hand and giving our oath to protect our country at home or abroad, that is what we are volunteering to do.

Ever since I can remember, I've always had an itch for military service in some capacity. I thought about the Air Force, then the Marines and the Army. I also knew I wanted to go to college, so I found that the National Guard offered the best compromise by allowing me to do both. During my sophomore year, I joined the 214th Military Police Company in Alexander City, Ala. The Army offers hundreds of job specialties, and I chose military police, in part because I hoped to be an FBI agent and thought such experience would help me get there, but also because the training seemed the most interesting.

Eight months later I shipped off for basic training. Less then four weeks later, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, our Drill Sergeant had an urgent phone call and left us unattended for a few moments. "Strange," we thought, because we were never left unattended. What could have happened to warrant such? He soon returned with an even harsher expression on his face than usual and informed us that we had just suffered from multiple terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. "Privates" he said, "you will soon be going to fight the terrorists, so take this training seriously." We had knots in our stomachs because the reality of what he was saying soon sank in. When we graduated in December, many of my friends were shipped off to Afghanistan. The rest of us wondered when our turn would come.

I returned to Samford a few weeks after graduation from basic training and military police school. I soon got back into my old routine with friends and school, and the thoughts of war, terrorism and deployment soon left my mind. I began my senior year just as everyone else with the excitement of graduation, enjoying the last year as a college student, and planning for life after college. But God had a different plan in mind.

On March 18, our unit left for Fort Benning, Ga. That evening, the war in Iraq began. We all watched, anxiously, as the bombing of Baghdad went on through the night. We wondered where we would end up, when we would get there, when the war would end, and how many lives would be lost. We felt helpless as we watched our fellow soldiers overseas when all we could do was watch, wait and pray. We ended up waiting for 10 long weeks at Fort Benning before we actually left the country. During that time we trained and had physical examinations, shots and weapon qualifications. The longer we waited the more ready we were to go and get the job done.

The "war" ended quickly, but of course everyone knew it wasn't over yet. We did, however, naively expect that the post-war work would be fairly smooth and safe. We thought that the Iraqis would be so thankful to us for freeing them from Saddam that they would be more than willing to cooperate and work with us. We expected to be treated as liberators. I suppose we half-hoped that we would be welcomed with American flags lining the roads and locals cheering us on. Along with most Americans, we soon found out how very wrong we were.
We arrived in the Kuwaiti desert at the end of May. We knew it would be hot, but never expected it to be unbearable. When we got off of the airplane it was like hitting a wall of heat that simply took our breath away. "What have I gotten myself into?" I began to think.

The four weeks we spent in Kuwait seemed to drag longer than the 10 weeks we had spent at Fort Benning. We had tents, but most of us slept outside to catch as much as we could of the little breeze that came during the late hours of the evening. The days were long and the temperatures reached 130 degrees. We had a great deal of free time and too little to do besides wait. There was no ice, no air and no mail, and sandstorms became an almost daily nuisance. Iraq must be better than this, we thought. It has to at least be cooler.

Our camp in Kuwait was used as a holding area for troops coming in as well as those going out. So we met many who had returned from Iraq and were waiting to go home. From their stories, we realized that things weren't going to be better, and that we should enjoy Kuwait while we could. The scariest part, they said, was the convoy north. Half of the convoys got hit on the way in or out. We began to think back to the Jessica Lynch story and wondered if that would happen to us.

At the end of June, we got our call that our equipment had arrived at port. We were also told that our mission would be in Baghdad. We would be working in police stations. We were told we would be living in one of Saddam's former palaces. The last part excited us, and we thought, "It can't be that bad."

Our convoy north was long and hot. The driving was rough as much of the road was desert. Everyone was tense as we remembered hearing of all the convoys being attacked. We didn't talk much. Our halfway point was a camp in Urr, the place where Abraham was born. It was a desolate, windy place. I tried to sleep on top of my humvee, but it was too cold to sleep. We woke up the next morning before 4 a.m. and headed out again. We saw the sun rise as we were driving.

We arrived in Baghdad late that afternoon. As we got closer, everyone tensed up even more. It was the first big city we had seen in over a month. We saw remnants of tanks along the road, burned up vehicles and sheep herders that stopped to watch us pass. Most of the children we passed waved excitedly, but the adults gave us looks of uncertainty and distrust.

We pulled into an old industrial complex with burned out buildings. Destroyed vehicles littered the grounds. There was trash everywhere. The buildings had no windows or doors. "Is this our palace?" we wondered. Our commander then told us that plans had changed and that we had been reassigned. We were home. We couldn't believe it. "Let's start cleaning up the place," he said.

We tried to clear out the trash enough to put up our cots. We hung ponchos up over the windows to try to keep out some of the mosquitoes. We were tired. We ate MREs, drank hot water, and then most of us tried to go to sleep. I'm not sure if anyone slept that night. At least for me, it was the first night in my life that I heard gunfire. I cried. And, it wasn't any cooler. Two days later we started our mission.



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