A Christmas Blessing 21DEC2007
I have shared a bit about the recall process and starting the journey, let me now take you forward in time to the end of my tour. This week marks the one year anniversary of my return from Iraq. It was be far the greatest Christmas gift that I have ever received.
When the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade (CAB) formed during the spring of 2006, the Army had planned to rotate us home the following April. Shortly after arriving in Baghdad, the Army started to talk about sending the 354th home in December or January with the Battalions to follow during the spring. As the summer progressed, this idea coalesced into a two piece plan, the HQ Company of the 354th CAB would be relieved on the 15th of December 2006 and twenty-five Soldiers attached from the 352nd CAB to the 354th HQ would stay until April. During the August, a call went out for volunteers from the 354th to switch with the 352nd personnel that needed to go home. I had prepared myself, my family, and my employer for a one year tour in Iraq. I liked my assignments and felt that I was uniquely placed to make a great difference to the people of Iraq. When folks asked me what I did, I truthfully told them that I had the best job in Iraq (I lead the Army’s Humanitarian Assistance mission and worked on restarting Iraqi industry). I also knew that the team I worked with was a bit war-weary and would welcome the opportunity to go home early. After much thought and prayer, with the support of my wife I volunteered to extend through the spring. The Army agreed and cut orders transferring me from the 354th to the 352nd with an effective date of December 15th 2006.
The summer ended and I went on leave, with s return to Baghdad in early October during Ramadan. The mood at the 354th was elation as the command prepared to go home. For me this was a challenge, I tried to stay aloof, happy for me friends, but unaffected by their imminent departure. By this point in our tour, we had all faced the challenges of war and it had begun to wear upon us all. Unfortunately, by the fall the insurgents had gathered a bitter harvest with seven Civil Affairs soldiers killed in action and dozens wounded, we had grown used to rockets falling in the evening and firefights stretching into the night. I had been particularly affected by the loss of two translators that I worked with in Taji. The atrocities committed by Al Qaeda included killing dozens of civilians that I was trying to help and to whom I had talked and offered hope. It was also clear that the insurgency was on the offensive and casualties continued to mount. . I had been brushed by death many times as bullets whizzed by and explosions rattled my marrow. Continuing the battle required perseverance and courage, each time I went on a mission I now knew that I may not come back. With grim determination I planned the rest of my tour and wondered at the wisdom of my decision to volunteer. The solace I felt came from satisfaction that my mission was vital and that by my sacrifice at least one Soldier would be home for Christmas.
Against this back-drop I prepared to tell my friends good-bye and assume my new duties. The 356th CAB HQ Company arrived to relieve the 354th. I completed my turn-over and moved to the 1st Cavalry Division to relieve a fellow CA qualified Naval Officer as the Officer in Charge of the CA Special Function Team. The personnel from the 354th and 352nd begin to fly home and then the Army suddenly changed course. The decision took five agonizing days to reach solidity. On Friday December 8th, a message came down that the Army planned to cancel the transfer of personnel from the 354th to the 352nd – this would affect about 50 Soldiers. Suddenly, twenty-five who were on their way home had to stay and twenty-five had to leave. This affected Navy and Army personnel differently and reviews of the decision were conducted through-out both the Army and Navy chains of command. The Brigade appealed the decision. Rumors flew and speculation bubbled. For five uncomfortable days, it was unclear who was staying and who was leaving. I tried not to think about it and focus on my new assignments. Thinking about it would not change the circumstances and would only distract me. I went on missions and started laying the ground work for my new assignment. Suddenly, on December 13th, the word came down that the Army and Navy high command had finally decided exactly who was staying and who was going.
I will never forget the words from the 354th S1 officer, “You are going home.” Those words stunned me to my core; I could not believe what they meant. I would survive, I could put down my rifle, I would soon be home with my friends, and for me the immediate stress of war would soon end. I was also distraught for my friends who must suddenly stay. In particular, the officer I was to relieve could not yet go home. I knew that this would wreak havoc and heart-break with their families and friends. I could feel the emotional stress that suddenly stretched from Baghdad to thousands of families back home. I never questioned why the Army and Navy changed the plan, the chaos a Soldier experiences is part of war and I had faith that the decision was based on sound military needs, but I did understand its impact and the sacrifice it required.
I suddenly felt like a man plucked from the sea into a lifeboat. I did not realize until those words, how much I longed for home. I was almost giddy as I raced around trying to catch up with my Brigade. I probably looked a bit like Scrooge on Christmas morning as I scurried pell-mell to pack my gear, buy mementos, and say good-bye to Baghdad. The Army moves quickly when it makes a decision and it took me almost every minute of the next two hurried days to change direction again. Planning that had been accomplished over six months for the rest of the Brigade was accomplished in hours. The Air Force made room for us on the Freedom bird. I managed to get my gear all packed, cleared customs, say good-bye to all my friends left behind, and headed to tent city for my last day in Baghdad.
This last day was no different than any other that December. A vehicle-borne IED caused havoc at one of the bases check points making me late for the bus to the airbase, but I finally made it to the staging area for Soldiers going home. I spent the day listening to the firefight raging along the walls and watched a last glorious sunset. I contemplated all that had happened, the good and horrific. I was thankful that the Lord had watched over me and that I would soon be home for Christmas. I thought about the dead – both my friends and those I would never meet. I could feel some of the emptiness that would haunt their families that holiday. With both a glad and burdened heart, I put on my armor for the last time; I boarded that C-130 freedom bird and flew home to peace and freedom.
It is my dearest wish this Christmas that the citizens of Baghdad will lay down their arms and embrace the spirit of this season.
Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men.
The picture shows the 354th CAB Humanitarian Assistance Team on the first Sunday of Advent 2006 – from right to left HTCS Tony Le Pine, CDR Jeff “Macalac” Maclanahan, and me. Missing from the pictures is MAJ Bob “Boof” Booth whom the USAF sent home in September. Needless to say, these war-buddies will be my friends for life.