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Open letter from an American soldier
Freeport Journal-Standard ^ | 9 Nov 03 | Sgt. Rod Watson

Posted on 11/09/2003 11:30:58 AM PST by Mr. Silverback

Freeport native serving in Iraq contemplates the two faces of its people

By Rod Watson, For The Journal-Standard

TIKRIT, Iraq -- I imagine most people in America have seen the images of jubilant Iraqis cheering, holding bloody pieces of American soldiers' clothing and dancing on destroyed equipment. I know most people have heard Iraqis talk about their opposition to the occupation and their belief that all American soldiers deserve to die.

And if those images are hard to handle at home, you can probably imagine how those of us in Iraq take them. It's hard for me to watch them.

But one of the main reasons I find those images so difficult to understand is they completely contradict my own experiences with the Iraqi people.

As a U.S. Army reservist serving in Iraq in a water purification platoon, I have had opportunities to interact with the local people. The best such experience was a week in May I spent living on a farm near the city of Tuz Khurmatu, about 40 miles south of the northern city of Kirkuk.

Surreal experience
In the "real world," I teach high school history and geography, and in Iraq, I've often felt like I'm in one of the National Geographic features I use as teaching aids. Setting up our water site on that farmer's field felt like that.

I imagine the experience was just as surreal for the locals when we drove up - a military convoy and a lot of soldiers with big guns entering their lives. It was an immediate social event for the men of the area (the women were busy doing all of the work). Dozens of men gathered around our trucks, squatting in their shade and speaking quietly to each other in their language as we set about the daunting task of turning an irrigation well and bean field into a water point.

The water site was meant to support an Army base a few miles away. A deal had been reached with Ahmed, the man who owned the well, in which the Army would install a new pump on his well in exchange for him allowing us to operate from his field. That's a good deal on paper, but less so if you live in a place where collaborating with Americans can be a death sentence.

After setting up our site, most of our group left, leaving four reservists alone in a tent in the heart of Sunni Iraq. Now it seems like lunacy, but things were different in May. There was a real sense that the war was over, or at least sputtering to a halt.

I wasn't worried, although I should have been. Things were not as safe as they seemed.

As it turns out, we were visited by locals after dark. But they were armed only with smiles and tea.

Ahmed and his nephew, Murad, brought the tea to our tent, about 100 yards from their home. We sat in a circle looking at each other, sipping their tea (and wondering guiltily how clean their dishes and water were). I felt like I was in the movie "Dances with Wolves," introducing myself to the natives. Ahmed and Murad did not speak English so first names were all we could accomplish, but I felt like much more was communicated. Ahmed was welcoming us to his home. It was a gesture we would not forget.

Building a relationship
The next day, Ahmed introduced us to two of his friends, but they may have been cousins or nephews - everyone seems to have huge families and be related to each other. We quickly befriended Abas and Riyadh. Abas is a former Iraqi soldier, in his late 20s, now raising a family on his cousin's farm next to Ahmed's. Riyadh is younger, perhaps 23 or 24, with a warm personality and a permanent 5 o'clock shadow. Both had learned a little English in local colleges.

Working in tandem, drawing on each other's vocabulary, we are able to speak to them, and through them, to all the locals. That made an enormous difference. Without Abas and Riyadh we would always be wondering what the locals wanted or were saying.

After work was done one of our first nights, our friends came to visit again. We sat down and let the interrogation begin.

"How long are American troops going to be here?"

"I don't know. A year or two, I guess," one of us replied.

Rapid Arabic amongst the locals followed - they had thought we were here to stay.

"What are your farmhouses in America made of? What do you grow?" They were impressed with our stocks of wood and crops.

"Can American hospitals fix my legs?" Muhammed has two shrunken legs and uses a wheel chair. I told him American hospitals were very good, but I didn't think there was much they could do for him. He seemed to understand.

They also wanted to know what each of us did for a living. They were curious about American ideas on relationships, religion and government. They wanted us to tell our guys not to drive their tanks on their roads because they were tearing them up.

And they were amazed at the attention we gave their dog. That dog loved us - he ate every time we did. The Iraqis were visibly disgusted. "Dogs very dirty," Riyadh told me. We all went to bed very late that night.

Several nights of conversations followed, along with days of working together to install the new pump and hone the Frisbee and football techniques of the locals.

We met Abas' son, Kazi. He is about 4 years old with large, inquisitive blue eyes, blond hair and tan skin. He would blend more in California than he did among the Iraqis. We gave him every piece of candy we could scrounge. I will never forget the way his eyes lit up at our gifts. His favorite was a glo-stick - the kind of technology we take for granted in America. To Kazi, it was a miracle.

Our host was a simple man. He allowed us to use his well and land because he needed a new pump and he believed in what we were doing. Saddam, who he still referred to as "our leader" because they were not allowed to say his name, was a bad man by his reckoning. Muhammed and Ahmed relayed a story about a friend of theirs who had been thrown in a jail cell the size of a coffin for three years because he tore a picture of Saddam. "He give us nothing!" Ahmed said to me while gesturing at his mud home and dilapidated equipment.

Ahmed was quick to smile and loved shaking hands with us. The only words he knew in English were "very good" and he used them a lot. It was obvious the other locals respected him, as did we after we saw how proficient he was at working on the new pump.

Security concerns
It was Ahmed who first warned us we were not safe. Through Riyadh, he told us not to be out of our tents after 10 p.m. that night. In the Army, that's determined to be a direct threat to our safety, so more security was called in for us that night - we already had a team of soldiers with an armored personnel carrier and night vision goggles.

It turned out the threat was a problem with the translation. We were not attacked. Ahmed meant to tell us never to be out after dark. Apparently, there were threats coming from people in the village, Ba'athists who did not like us there. Ahmed was worried for our safety.

"Very bad men in village," Abas would say. "Long beards, dangerous. False men."

These people frequented the hangout spots in the village nearby, saying it wasn't right for us to be there and something should be done about us. We were no longer safe outside the perimeter of an Army base.

More locals showed up to our water site every day, many of whom we did not know. Ahmed tried to keep them away, but they kept flooding in. Several times an Iraqi would fill up a big trailer with water from our pumps, then come back an hour later to fill up again.

"They could not use that much water so fast. They are watching you," Riyadh told us.

We began to get a little nervous. Then word came the base we were supporting was moving to Kirkuk, and we had to go with it. Our time in Ahmed's field was up.

Traditional goodbye
We only knew our Iraqi friends for a little over a week, but the goodbye was still difficult for all of us. Abas and Riyadh hung out all day while we packed our gear. Riyadh gave me a lesson on the history of Islam and the Shi'ite-Sunni schism. His English had vastly improved in a week.

When everything was packed and we were ready to go, we took some final pictures together, exchanged addresses and tried to shake hands farewell.

"In my country, we kiss goodbye," Abas told us.

One of our soldiers spoke what we were all thinking. "In our country, we hug," he said, visibly uncomfortable with kissing another man on the cheek.

"You are not in your country," Abas reminded him as we all laughed, and the cheek-kissing commenced.

I was choked up as we drove away that day. I remember them all squatting in the suddenly empty field watching us leave. Ahmed with a big, sad smile on his face. Kazi, leaning on his father with a face full of Skittles. The dog didn't make it to the party - he was busy working.

It was obvious by looking at them that our visit had changed their lives as much as it had ours.

Lessons learned
So how do I fit people like that into the images of Iraqis rejoicing that another American soldier will never get to see his or her family again? The answer is that I cannot, but I don't have to.

Iraq, like every place in the world, is full of good and bad people. We, as Americans, would not like to be judged by images of the Los Angeles riots or serial killer murder trials or the sniper shootings. Just because Americans committed those acts doesn't mean all Americans are like that.

In Iraq, it is the same. The difference is that Iraqis are very heavily armed and very badly educated. Uneducated people are very easily convinced that the invading "infidel" army is evil and should be killed. They become what Abas would call "false men." And these false men have ready access to mortar rounds, RPGs, AK-47s and other tools to kill and maim Americans.

Compound that with the growing disillusionment in this country toward our troops and the expanding influence of outside terrorists, and you get jubilant Iraqis dancing on burned out humvees.

Does the escalation of violence here in Iraq mean we should back out? I don't think so. My opinion matters very little. As a soldier here, I do what I'm told, but I know this country will descend into chaos if we leave now.

And when I think about my friends back at Ahmed's field, when I think about how gentle Abas is with his son, I know that we owe it to those people to find a way to fix this situation. Without even thinking broadly enough to contemplate whether our nation's prestige abroad can handle failure here, I can make that decision.

Kazi deserves a future.

Sgt. Rod Watson is a 1997 graduate of Freeport High School and 2002 graduate of Northern Illinois University. He is currently stationed in Tikrit, Iraq and is in the seventh month of his tour of duty there.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Front Page News; Government; News/Current Events; US: Illinois; War on Terror
KEYWORDS: anamericansoldier; goodnews; iraq; letters; personalaccount; rebuildingiraq; tikrit
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OOH-RAH!! Straight from the mouth of a Pretzel City hero, y'all!

I have a son about Kazi's age. Someday they may be friends because of what we're doing in Iraq, as long as we stick with it and give the kid a future.

1 posted on 11/09/2003 11:30:59 AM PST by Mr. Silverback
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To: Ragtime Cowgirl; 68-69TonkinGulfYatchClub; Believer 1; StarsandStripesFOREVER; spinner55; ...
Hometown (Freeport, Illinois) Hero Alert! Great story about the people of Iraq and our troops!
2 posted on 11/09/2003 11:34:03 AM PST by Mr. Silverback (Pre-empt the third murder attempt-- Pray for Terry Schiavo!)
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To: Mr. Silverback
Thanks for posting this, lest we forget.
3 posted on 11/09/2003 11:37:03 AM PST by Imal (The true leader of the Democratic Party is the King of Lies.)
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To: Imal
Glad to. I'm really proud of this town, her troops and the troops in general. This nation has been our enemy since 1990, and our guys just walk in there and make friends for life. They are doing an absolutely fantastic job in every respect.
4 posted on 11/09/2003 11:40:48 AM PST by Mr. Silverback (Pre-empt the third murder attempt-- Pray for Terry Schiavo!)
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To: Mr. Silverback
I thought it was Freeport Texas. Darn.

Oh well, still proud of the boy. Good Job.

5 posted on 11/09/2003 11:43:15 AM PST by PokeyJoe (The Holy Koran teaches us how to properly BBQ pork spare ribs.)
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To: Mr. Silverback; Kathy in Alaska; MoJo2001; LindaSOG; LaDivaLoca; bentfeather; Bethbg79; Fawnn; ...
Open letter from an American soldier PING

Yet another example of what all the TV networks refuse to tell us.

Mr. Silverback : Thanks for posting this!
6 posted on 11/09/2003 12:23:02 PM PST by 68-69TonkinGulfYachtClub (THANK YOU TROOPS, PAST and PRESENT)
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To: 68-69TonkinGulfYachtClub; Mr. Silverback
Thank you for the post and the ping. I love to celebrate good news, and Sgt. Rod Watson's first person account certainly falls in that category! (Telling that the newspaper omitted his rank from his byline, don't you think?)

7 posted on 11/09/2003 12:27:29 PM PST by Fawnn (Official Canteen wOOhOO Consultant ... and person)
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To: 68-69TonkinGulfYachtClub
I thank Sgt Watson,soldier and Ambassador.Thanks for the ping..great letter!
8 posted on 11/09/2003 12:35:30 PM PST by MEG33
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To: Mr. Silverback
Mr. Silverback,Thanks for the post,I enjoyed reading it,fatima
9 posted on 11/09/2003 12:36:08 PM PST by fatima (Prayers for all our troops,also Karen,4ID,stay safe.)
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To: Mr. Silverback; 68-69TonkinGulfYatchClub
BUMP from the Mom of another water purification soldier, who holds a similar view of the Iraqi people.....

Thanks for a great article, Mr. Silverback, and for the ping, Tonk!

(I LOVED the Dances with Wolves image!)

10 posted on 11/09/2003 12:37:44 PM PST by ohioWfan (Have you prayed for your President today?)
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To: 68-69TonkinGulfYachtClub; Mr. Silverback
What a wonderful, uplifting article.

I've heard similar things from other sources. Just about everywhere but the mainstream media.

God bless and protect these heroes.

11 posted on 11/09/2003 12:38:15 PM PST by Allegra (CBS has canceled this tagline. It was "not due to controversy." Tom Daschle is disappointed.)
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To: Ragtime Cowgirl
Here is an excellent article which you should add to your collection.
12 posted on 11/09/2003 12:38:34 PM PST by Miss Marple
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To: Mr. Silverback
Local boy doin' good bump!

I'm next door in Rockford and was pullin' for Freeport to thump Boylan yesterday. Can't stand Boylan.

13 posted on 11/09/2003 12:41:43 PM PST by open mind-closed fist
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To: Mr. Silverback
Great read! The writer really painted a picture. We're trying our hardest to do a good thing over there, but boy, in this world that's hard to do.

14 posted on 11/09/2003 12:52:26 PM PST by Yardstick
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To: 68-69TonkinGulfYachtClub; Mr. Silverback
Thanks for the ping, saved.
15 posted on 11/09/2003 1:05:26 PM PST by Indy Pendance
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To: Mr. Silverback; Miss Marple; archy; MJY1288; Calpernia; Grampa Dave; anniegetyourgun; ...
((Hugs)) for the post and pings. *g*
"In my country, we kiss goodbye," Abas told us.

One of our soldiers spoke what we were all thinking. "In our country, we hug," he said, visibly uncomfortable with kissing another man on the cheek.

"You are not in your country," Abas reminded him as we all laughed, and the cheek-kissing commenced.

A really good one for sharing with neighbors who get their news from the mainstream media, and the troops who then know we're getting news beyond the news.

If you want on or off my Pro-Coalition ping list, please Freepmail me. Warning: it is a high volume ping list on good days. (Most days are good days).

16 posted on 11/09/2003 1:12:51 PM PST by Ragtime Cowgirl ("Today we did what we had to do. They counted on America to be passive. They counted wrong" ~RReagan)
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To: MEG33
Our American soldiers are America's GREATEST ambassadors! God Bless them and keep them safe.
17 posted on 11/09/2003 1:13:29 PM PST by maxwellp (Throw the U.N. in the garbage where it belongs.)
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To: Ragtime Cowgirl
Brought tears to my eyes.

Praying blessings on our people, and on all Iraqis who love freedom.
18 posted on 11/09/2003 1:22:59 PM PST by EternalVigilance
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To: Ragtime Cowgirl
Thank you! That kiss goodbye probably cemented the goodwill between the simple Iraqi man and the American soldier.

19 posted on 11/09/2003 1:28:57 PM PST by Pan_Yans Wife (You may forget the one with whom you have laughed, but never the one with whom you have wept.)
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To: 68-69TonkinGulfYachtClub
20 posted on 11/09/2003 1:35:49 PM PST by Alamo-Girl
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