Since my return to Iraq, I’ve been working to rebuild a war-torn country. Here’s what life as a captain with the 451st Civil Affairs Battalion looks like.

We celebrated Christmas by heading to an M240 machine-gun firing range outside Najaf (from left, me, Major Greg Scott, Corporal Mike Darling, and Sergeant Sterling Oyadomari). It was a good time. I’d never fired an M240B machine gun before, but I got the hang of it with the help of some very experienced noncommissioned officers.

Top Left: Our chow-hall cooks are mostly from India, and the American food they prepare tastes like, well, like it was cooked by people who don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like. My most recent (and happy) discovery is that they also prepare Indian food, so I’ve started to opt for that.

Bottom Left: The M240B fires several hundred rounds per minute, and you try to walk the rounds right up to the target. It’s more difficult than you’d think, because the Humvee is moving and bouncing around. We practiced in an area called the Najaf Sea. The sand is mixed with tiny seashells everywhere you walk, and there’s water ten meters underground.

Top Right: In Najaf there are vendors who sell decorative strands of flowers. I’ve seen the flowers on cars, and some soldiers have bought them to decorate with. They’re a strange sight in a city where the ground outside every home is a place to dump trash.

Bottom Right: There’s always an Iraqi interpreter with us wherever we go (from left, Major Scott, me, and our interpreter at a construction project in the village of Suq Shalan). Interpreters are critical to our success in Iraq. They and their families endure continual threats against their lives, But many of them feel that by helping us they are serving their country.

Top Left: I was on the roof of Najaf’s newly constructed Al Tabary Primary School, checking its tiles and drainage quality, when I heard kids yelling. I asked the contractor what they were yelling, and he said, “Thank you! Thank you!”

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