BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, I’ll have only a couple months before I leave for Iraq. On May 26 I was called back to active duty after a year in the Reserves. This will be my second trip in this war; my first was with the Fourth Infantry Division in 2003. This time I’ve been assigned to a Civil Affairs unit in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I served four years in an artillery unit at Fort Hood before my first trip to Iraq. When the conflict began, I spent about three months overseas, leaving my wife, who was pregnant at the time, and our three-year-old daughter behind. After I returned home, in July 2003, I stayed on active duty for another year and then joined a reserve unit that coordinated command and staff training for senior officers in the National Guard and Reserve. I also enrolled in the graduate business school at the University of Texas at Austin. I started classes last fall, and I was excited about attending a great university and learning about the business world. I’d thought that joining the Reserves was a good way for me to still experience the Army and yet most likely avoid the risk of another deployment.
That hope came to an end when one day I walked in the door after a long bus ride home from school and my wife greeted me with an envelope whose return address began with “Commander.” Inside were my official orders to be transferred to a new unit going to Iraq.
On June 16 I left for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where I’m now doing mobilization prep. Just recently, President Bush came to visit, which was exciting; soldiers are always glad to hear from their commander in chief. So far I’ve undergone medical examinations and received vaccinations. I’m preparing my will and giving over power of attorney to my wife. And once I finish some weapons and convoy live-fire training, I’ll begin a nine-week Civil Affairs course to prepare for my new role. Then I’ll head to the Middle East.
I GREW UP IN THE EAST TEXAS TOWN OF PARIS. In 1994 I left home for the University of Dallas, in Irving, with the goal of being the first person in my family to get a college degree. My mom was a single mother, and at times she worked two jobs to help me with my expenses. I was still stretched pretty thin, though, even with her help, and I waited tables thirty to forty hours a week to pay for my room and board, living expenses, and books. After a couple years at school, I heard from an old high school buddy about scholarships available through the Army’s ROTC program at the University of Texas at Arlington, and I decided to check it out. I was told that if I completed a six-week summer basic camp, I would be eligible for a full-tuition scholarship at UD.
Within a few weeks I found myself standing in the rain and getting yelled at by drill sergeants at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I remember thinking, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” But after a while, the training became less like boot camp and more like leadership school. The other cadets and I were introduced to fundamentals like the importance of technical competence in a modern army and leading by example. I made several friends while I was there, and we had a good time developing our skills together. I still value those friendships today.
Coming home, I felt like a different person. I left camp with a newfound confidence in myself and a sense of pride in my accomplishments. I was hooked, and I couldn’t wait to be in the real Army. At graduation, in May 1999, I received my commission as a second lieutenant. Two days later I reported to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for its five-month-long Field Artillery Officer Basic Course.
It was during college that I also met my wife. She and I were in the same Italian class, and we started dating in the spring of 1997, just before I left for the summer basic camp. That would be the first of many separations for us, but she was a great support, sending me letters and little gifts. When I got home, we were right back together, and we got married two years later, the summer I was at Fort Sill. The following October, when my field artillery course was over, we moved to Fort Hood, where I began work with my unit.
At Fort Hood I was in the Third Battalion, Sixteenth Field Artillery Regiment. I progressed through all the typical jobs for a young lieutenant: fire support officer, fire direction officer, and howitzer platoon leader. Our unit had several small deployments that ranged from fighting fires one summer in the forests of Idaho to going to the National Training Center, at Fort Irwin, in the desert of California. Eventually I was given the job of deputy operations officer in my battalion. This job was usually reserved for captains who were at least a couple years more senior than I, but my boss and my commander felt that I was up to the challenge and granted me the position. This was exciting for me, and this is the job I held when we left for Iraq.
September 11 changed everything, of course. When the terrorists attacked, we knew it was only a matter of time before we’d be sent to face our new enemy. But things moved much slower than we expected, and it wasn’t until January 2003 that we got the order to deploy. Due to a slight delay outside Turkey, our division didn’t arrive in Kuwait and begin moving into Iraq until late April. Needless to say, the months before that were an emotional roller coaster. It was no longer “Same shit, different day.” We were going to war, and we knew it.
When a unit leaves,