A soldier's story -- update
Army Warrant Officer Beth Eby of Roanoke continues her letters home with a look at life along combat’s edge.
Though Eby is not directly engaged in combat, she and her unit have been thrust into a number of dramatic encounters, from her arrival — amid gunfire — to her interview with a newly widowed Iraqi woman whose husband was killed by insurgents.
As reader Kyle Inman put it, “The e-mails from Beth Eby are more informative than a month of CNN, USA Today or White House spin.”
Consumption of Eby’s e-mails, initially written to her Roanoke County parents, Dr. John and Pat Eby, has extended not just to family friends and Roanoke Times readers but also to many regular online users of our message board. Since we ran our first two installments of excerpted letters, online editors John Jackson and Jim Ellison have posted — and will continue to post — regular, unedited e-mails from Eby.
Through our message board, readers have corresponded with Eby directly, asking her about everything from near beer and laptop computer applications to her thoughts on the war.
Some of Eby’s comrades have posted musings, too, including a response to the reader who criticized the Times as being elitist for featuring a soldier from an upper-middle-class family. (“I do know that warrant officers aren’t exactly rolling in money from their paychecks, and Daddy’s influence in your hometown won’t get you selected to become one,” Eby’s fellow soldier wrote.)
Another Iraq-stationed soldier, Will Wyche of Botetourt County, posted a note reminding readers that many soldiers are in far more danger than Eby’s unit: “While her stories of sunbathing, searching for pools, taking joyrides in vehicles, etc. may make it seem like this place is a summer camp, it's not like that for everyone. While I totally understand the difference between combat and combat support units, most stories from Iraq are completely different. I roll outside the gate everyday doing raids, cordon and searches, traffic control points, route clearance. . . .”
Dave Ursprung of Floyd County wrote to tell Eby that her letters have had a special effect on him, especially considering that none of his children or grandchildren have joined the military. “Until now the war has been somewhat remote because I’ve had no one to worry about. Now I can worry about you, and have, and will.”
Our second installment of edited e-mails from Eby begins where she left off in mid-May. She introduces us to such characters as "Baghdaddy," a bat-phobic sergeant and a skittish goat. She worries about the marriages of her fellow soldiers. And she questions when — and under what conditions — her unit will leave Iraq.
As you sit down to barbecue and other Fourth of July fare today, it’s worth remembering the soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere, men and women who are peeling open their 137th MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) and, if they’re lucky, washing it down with yet another near beer.
We are actually in the middle of a sandstorm right now, so I decided to come on over here to the Operations office and bum the S-1’s Internet connection for a while.
You have to be in full uniform anytime you step out of the tent— that means you must have your jacket and hat on at all times. Don’t even think about walking to the shower in your shower shoes! If you are caught doing that, you automatically get a letter of reprimand from the battalion commander for being undisciplined and out of uniform. If you are seen doing it twice, you get legal action taken against you.
It’s very discouraging to the soldiers who live over there because they feel that the leadership is just toying with their lives, treating them like they are children in summer camp. For Pete’s sake, you had better not talk to a boy/girl if you do not have a third party there to ensure that you are not getting too close! One person asked, “If two rats got up on my cot and one happened to be male while the other one was female, would they be wrong?” YES! Kill those rats! You see, no one is allowed to sit on any surface where someone of the opposite gender also sits. In addition, they have duty rosters to patrol the sleeping areas at night, just to make sure that everyone is in their own bed.
Here are some pictures from close to where I live, over on Camp Slayer. It's where we go to swim. This area used to belong to Saddam and his Baath regime. The lakes are a beautiful teal color and are all man-made. No one knows what makes the water so unnaturally greenish-blue (dead bodies?), but no one trusts the water enough to swim in it. The carp are suspiciously large. These buildings are occupied by [other government agencies] and it's hard to get in and see what they look like. Some of them have indoor pools and we all know that somewhere in those dungeons lay millions in gold, but no one has found it.
When I woke up this morning, I felt differently than other days. I’ve been marinating on that feeling all day, and I think that it’s that I’ve finally accepted this place as my home as opposed to just a deployment. Over the past 10 years in the Army, I’ve never lived in any one place for more than two years, and frequently in between, I’ve gone to schools that lasted months at a time. So, I’ve become a bit like a water bamboo plant, able to live in the flowing water that is the Army.
For my current lifestyle, I think it’s the best way to be. It’s difficult to drag someone else into a life like this and expect a lasting relationship. I cannot imagine having children! It’s why I’m wondering if this is something I’m going to commit to for another 10 years. The benefits in retiring from the Army are pretty good, but only if you can have a life to show for it at the end.
Right now, 9 out of 10 divisions in the Army are deployed or in the process of deploying. We are scheduled to return to Germany between August and November of this year and are already on the calendar for another 18-month tour [in Iraq] starting in November 2005. That gives me one year to set up a life just fragile enough that I can destroy it in the 18 months that I’ll be gone again. Already, I’m looking at 2007 before I’ll truly have some time to devote to anything besides this. When people ask me if I want to ever have kids, I jokingly respond that I haven’t found time to pencil one in yet. If the plans for the Army are going to continue with these back-to-back deployments to war zones, I just don’t know if I am going to be up for it, no matter how nice it would be to have a pension at the end. It’s a lot to ask of anyone — to give up years of his or her life for wars that you don’t understand. It’s not the pay that keeps me here, that’s for sure, although I certainly am comfortable enough financially. I love the people in the Army the most. I have always found that I am comfortable around soldiers. I like the security of long-term employment, and I love the adventure of always trying something new and finding intense situations to get into.
I don’t much like the way we are dying out here though. I know that the people of the U.S. support the troops, and I trust that the president has a plan that I just don’t fully understand right now, but sometimes it’s a challenge to voice an unfaltering support when the individuals around me are getting hurt or killed. I think I would like a better explanation, if that makes sense.
Today, the commander revoked his latest policy banning sex between soldiers in Iraq. In our afternoon meeting, there were grins across the room as the memo was read. As if any of them are getting some! It leaves the opportunity, though, so there’s still hope for them.
Anyhow, since the command had banned all sex a few weeks ago and announced that pregnant females would meet harsh punishment, some of the female soldiers that were already pregnant decided not to tell or get medical assistance and instead to self-abort to avoid legal ramifications and the possibility of being removed from the military. It was a shallow line of reasoning, but since some of these self-abortions went bad, as they often do, it caused the command to re-evaluate, I suppose. I can’t speak for them.
The way I see it, if a woman gets pregnant out here, it’s probably not on purpose. There are not many pregnancies out here overall, but the ones that are make the spotlight and cause people to think it’s of epidemic proportions, which it’s not.
When the soldiers first got here, they issued condoms to everyone. That was stopped in the hope that people wouldn’t have sex and I pause to laugh out loud for a moment. Anyhow, there’s really still no excuse to get pregnant, because the birth control pill is free and you can buy condoms at the PX [post exchange] if you have the nerve to do it in front of 50 onlookers. But accidents happen, and it’s not as if you can expect to keep mixed genders together for a year and a half and not have intimate relationships between single men and women.
If women of childbearing years are going to be a part of the Army, then it’s just an attrition rate; you have to realize it's not going to go away. I believe that more women have died out here [in combat] than any other war [in the last] century. So, if a few get pregnant and need to go back and serve the military from Germany or the United States, I just hope it doesn’t detract the public from the very real contribution that women are making out here.
Everyone calls 1SG [first sergeant] Bartnick “Baghdaddy” because his greatest mission is to take care of his soldiers. Recently, he and his Bandits conducted a search and cordon, looking for hidden weapons, and they came across a locked door at a grocery store. They needed to investigate each area of the town, so they had to go inside. It was dark, so they could not see much through the dusty windows, but they heard rustling behind the door.
They knocked louder. (They prefer to knock on doors instead of breaking them in because it helps establish our presence as a security force as opposed to an invading omni-force.) No one answered, so they shined the flashlight into the dirty window again.
At that moment, two red eyes rushed the window and glared back at them, making them all jump back. The pupils were vertical! They quickly cut the lock and forced their way in. Running around the room was a very nervous GOAT.
It appeared to be the only occupant. Bartnick decided to secure the goat so that it would not wander out the front door and disappear. If the owners of the store were innocent, then he didn’t want to lose their prized goat.
He moved in on his mark, and as he did, he accidentally knocked over a stand of apples. Then he tried to get to the goat while trying not to trip on the apples. He leaned down and started to move them out of his way when he realized that the apples were, in fact, anti-personnel grenades!
There were 25-30 grenades between him and the very skittish goat. He told his troops, “Get out of here! I’ve got it,” as he tried to simultaneously pick up the grenades and corner the goat. He imagined how the wrong step could set off a huge chain reaction of explosions. He finally caught the goat in a huge bearhug.
The goat was squealing and kicking. Bartnick broke out the front door, his goat held securely to his chest. The guys stood there with the flashlight, shining it on him and the goat, perplexed.
I heard this story when I heard the guys talking about Bartnick’s Iraqi girlfriend: the goat.
On a more serious note, this past week his unit went into an area to perform a mission when they found a home with a sick baby in it. Bartnick adores children, and one of his big regrets is that he’s missed out on much of his own children’s growing up by being in the Army for 20 years. This little Iraqi girl was about 1 or 2 years old. She had third degree burns all over her body, and the family just had her staying in the house, in a totally unclean environment, suffering, dying.
Bartnick asked them how it happened and why she wasn’t in a hospital. They couldn’t say how it happened (a homemade bomb gone bad, most likely), but they could say that they didn’t have the money to get her medical treatment. He handed them money out of his pocket and said he wanted them to take her to the doctor and he would be back the next day. He came back the next day with a military doctor and more money. They had gotten her medication, but it wasn’t going to be enough.
Bartnick is currently trying to get the little girl into an American hospital, but generally our hospitals only treat the Iraqis that we hurt, not the ones who hurt themselves. But she's such a small child, and Bartnick is great at pooling his “social capital,” so if anyone can make that happen, he can.
I finished another stained glass window this past week. Everyone says they are a great addition. It’s too bad that we can’t take them with us. Then again, there’s a rumor that we’re going to get extended for another 90 days, so we may just get to enjoy them for a while longer! We’ve braced ourselves for September as a return date, but it’s difficult not to get excited at the prospect of coming home sooner than that.
I’m sure there are plenty who almost dread going home. We recently heard that approximately 75 percent of the marriages would end in divorce over the next year. I’m not sure how you can predict that, however, and I’m skeptical. When we find out for sure that it’s going to be another 18 months in Iraq starting next summer, I expect that there will be a lot of spousal quitters.
I don’t know if I can blame them: 33 out of 45 months separated. Not many people get married to live alone like that.
[Sgt.] Stone was working under one of the five-tons and he noticed two bats perched on the axle. Not wanting to be disturbed by them once he got into his project, he got creative, as mechanics do, and went and cut a plastic water bottle in half for a makeshift trap. He planned on gently swooping the bats into the bottle and covering the top with a cloth until he could toss them into one of the bushes outside. He was able to get one of them. He showed us what he had found, then walked over to the bush and removed the cloth.
Well, that bat was mad as hell and had no intention of going anywhere at all but directly into Sgt. Stone. The bat flew up about 12 feet and then made a dive for Sgt. Stone’s head, slapping him in the face with his wingspan of about 8 inches.
Sgt. Stone screamed like a little girl, and all the people in the office and shop bay stuck their heads out to see what the commotion was. The bat had made another dive and hit Sgt. Stone in the back of the neck, causing him to scream again and hit the dirt, flopping all over the place to swat it away. Everyone of course started laughing and went back into the shop to talk about him.
Sgt. Stone was quickly behind them, trying to redeem his dignity. As he came into the office, who do you think swooped in behind him but the BAT!? The little dive bomber started flying all over the room, but got stuck in the mosquito netting at the door. What happened next sort of defies time. Everyone simultaneously freaked out, screaming and running in circles. As I came out of the other office, I saw some people standing outside and the rest of them scrambling to get out through the windows. They were too terrified to exit past the killer bat, which was still stuck and just waiting for someone to get within biting distance. Ah, what a hilarious thing to see . . . a 4-inch bat that turned men into little boys.
P.S.: Sgt. Stone has left comments on The Roanoke Times bulletin board and he would like for people to respond. He checks it three times a day.
Today, I headed down to Division HQ to meet and greet a congresswoman from Virginia. Her name is Jo Ann Davis, [R-Yorktown] and she had requested that soldiers from the 1st Armored Division meet her for an informal chat session. . . . I asked if she was against the draft and if she believed that the Army should increase its numbers. She said yes to both. Republican. What I should have told her is that elected officials who want to find other Republicans should be spending more time trying to get the military to vote.
We have the numbers to make a big dent in the end result. Considering what a direct impact Congress makes on our lives on a daily basis, you’d think more soldiers would vote — but they don’t. Virginia was one of four states that sent their representatives into harm’s way to visit the soldiers, and I was glad to have waited two hours to visit with her. To be a VIP (cannon fodder) and travel in Baghdad is brave.
It's Friday again! A case of beer has been wagered on how many more Fridays we are going to have here. I'm betting that we'll have five more. If I am correct, then I am owed two jugs of monk-made beer originating from the mountains of Germany. If I am incorrect, I must pay up a case of Becks near beer. I said earlier that if we get extended again, it's because the near beer lobbyists are protesting our return. We are truly keeping those folks in business.
Before I head out, I want to thank [family, friends and several Roanoke Times readers] who have sent care packages to us. I put quite a lot of the stuff to use this week when [division support command] allowed the Iraqi contractors to have a "controlled burn" of some of old gutted and dilapidated buildings. I don't know why no one thought to have the fire department there, but I'm sure they will in the future. The fire [also] burned a dining facility, gym, Internet cafe, a [Morale, Welfare, and Recreation] building and 30 or so soldiers' rooms.
I thought a small nuclear warhead must have gone off, as the mushroom cloud was about 50 stories tall. That's about when the fire department showed up. It's not like in the States, where they can reach everyone in two minutes.
No one was hurt. I thought, well, they'll probably just send those soldiers home, the ones who lost their stuff in the fire. But nope. If you can't get out of here with a broken leg, you're certainly not getting out over clothes or toiletries!
I went to church today and led the group in two different songs. I am really glad that our unit was able to get such a good chaplain, Maj. Ralston. He's a reservist out of North Carolina, and if he had not been activated, we would not have had a chaplain for the past 14 months. That’s an important role in a combat zone. Whenever a soldier has to kill, has family problems, witnesses some traumatic event or just wants to talk to a father figure who has no real place in the rank structure, Chaplain Ralston is the approachable person to see.
This week’s message was one that I found I could relate to, because it was about handling conflict, which has been a big focus for me the past few days.
Part of it is purely Army professional development, and part of it is learning how to make different types of personalities work. And of course, there are always the gender differences. Those are the weirdest ones to work through, because we all are trying to deny that there are differences in the first place. Although people say I do a good job of doing a “man’s job” while maintaining my femininity, I still catch myself feeling ashamed sometimes of the womanly traits that I can’t and don’t exactly want to lose.
I am a pretty level-headed problem solver and can be very detached emotionally from others. People can come and go from my life and I don’t let it dictate any change in my future. I think that makes me cold at times. I get so used to saying hello, making the most of the allocated time, and then saying goodbye. I find I am unwilling to throw my career/stability/personal security away for anyone because so many friendships with others end up as long-distance ones.
Oh, speaking of returning to Germany: We have an option to either take block leave when we get back or take leave at Christmas. I’ve opted to take leave at Christmas so I can visit you guys. Just the thought of being home right now makes me smile. I want to stretch out in front of the fireplace and sleep like I can only sleep when I’m home. Peace of mind is what home brings to me. I can’t wait to see you all again. I know that at 31 years old, I shouldn’t still get homesick, but you all are my entire foundation.
Our exodus is so tightly scheduled with the 30 June Iraqi changeover that many of us have questioned the likelihood that we are going to be released to Germany. It seems like such a dangerous time to move. We're staying focused on redeployment tasks. Some of these more personal tasks are mailing or giving away all of our creature comforts, cleaning everything, tearing down our makeshift sheds and sunshades, throwing away junk, and making tentative plans/fantasies for when we arrive in Germany.
There are certain basic things that everyone wants. Then there are some specifically individual hopes like mine: traveling to somewhere and maybe nowhere, buying something expensive, sleeping in satin sheets, using an indoor latrine that doesn’t require me to change into a uniform and go outside to use it, having a bathtub and good water pressure in the shower, getting dressed up and going out with the girls, listening to music on my home stereo system, wearing makeup and looking pretty again, wearing a tank top to jog in instead of this stuffy Army uniform, and most importantly, the freedom to do or not do anything I want!
For now, though, I have worries about getting out of here safely. The highway that is directly behind our living area is currently under coalition control, but after 30 June, the highway opens up . . . and becomes our new line in the sand.
I felt safer before, protected by our buffer zone. It doesn’t help seeing the haste to establish new casualty control points around the airport. Better safe than sorry. Or perhaps it’s better sorry than safe in the case of trying to show confidence in the fledgling Iraqi government.
I want to remain positive, and I do most of the time. Do you remember when I told you about the widow whom I questioned after her husband was murdered? Well, her husband was the head of the Iraqi Council, and after his death, another man took the position — and was promptly murdered. Another brave Iraqi optimist is taking the position again. It’s hard to gripe when there are men out there who are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of their country, such that it is.
He can’t be volunteering for power or money, because he’s probably not going to live long enough to reap the benefits of it. He’s just giving himself away in hopes that he might be able to build something. It’s impressive, but the crabs are everywhere in this country, just trying to pull every do-gooder back into the pot with them. (Sigh.) I’m glad we aren’t fighting this war in America, because I’m afraid we’d be providing the martyrs. At least all of the Americans here are volunteers. I wouldn't want to see my family in a situation like this, that's for sure.
For the Fourth of July, we’re going to have a battalion party with a monstrous cookout, tournaments, lounging by the swimming pool, organized and unorganized sports and, of course, a patriotic ceremony. We do not want any fireworks, but just in case (because of the temptation that 4th of July must bring to terrorists) we’ll have our gear ready and right! Even though we’re all looking forward to getting home, I’m going to miss these guys when we separate. But we’ll always have Baghdad.
Well, I just heard there is a gecko battle outside on the wall, so I’m going to witness it with my digital camera. It’s not quite as entertaining as our redneck orchestra, but it’s different. If you don’t remember the “redneck orchestra,” I’m talking about the $35 bug zapper that we can all watch for 15 minutes and be completely mesmerized.