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, typically the soldiers are given a final opportunity to say good-bye to their loved ones before getting on the buses to the airport. This usually occurs in a gym, and the collective sadness can be rather overwhelming. So when it was time for me to leave, my wife and I decided that we would say our good-byes at home, to make life seem as normal as possible for our daughter. As I was getting ready to walk out the door, I sat down with my little girl and told her that it was time for me to go on the trip that we had talked about. My wife at that point was eight months pregnant with our second daughter, and my three-year-old looked at me and said, “You can’t go now, Daddy. The baby isn’t born yet.” I remember looking at my wife, tears in our eyes, and telling my little girl that she would have to help Mommy while I was away. I left with a terribly heavy feeling in my heart. It was several days later, in Kuwait, that I found out by satellite cell phone that my wife had given birth. I had never been so appreciative of modern technology.
I remember being in Baghdad for the first time. Our convoy was stopped on an out-of-the-way residential street, and as we sat there fixing one of our vehicles, we could hear gunfire in the surrounding neighborhood. It just kept getting closer. The surreal feeling of being in Baghdad and hearing the fighting around us was a true reality check. On another occasion, we had just crossed the Tigris River in Baghdad, and on the northern shore there were several burned-out Russian armored vehicles. As we moved along across the river, we saw more vehicles, intact and surrounded with Iraqi Republican Guard uniforms on the ground. A few hundred yards later, some men had set up drink stands to sell sodas and juices. Seeing those empty uniforms on the ground made me wonder if the guys trying to sell me a Coca-Cola knockoff weren’t the same men who a few days prior had been intent on killing us. Perhaps they’re the same men who joined the insurgency after the main invasion was complete.
Being in a combat zone has its effects on your behavior. When I arrived back at Fort Hood from Iraq, I’d feel antsy at the sound of the small-arms fire and artillery impacts in the training area. To this day, when I hear loud sounds, I get a little feeling inside that reminds me of being over there. When I returned, I also felt like I was surrounded by people who had an unrealistic perspective on life. Problems at work, bad traffic, and political controversies seemed like such petty trifles. When I saw people at a local restaurant angry at their waitress for slow service, I wondered what was going through their minds. Even complaints about the weather seemed silly. The day I left Kuwait for my flight home in July, it was 140 degrees in the sun at midday; we called it the “cosmic hair dryer.” So hearing people grumble about the Texas heat made me laugh. I felt as if I’d been liberated from so many small concerns. Having seen lives hanging in the balance changed my understanding of what was important; there were so many things to be grateful for. All this made coming home that much sweeter.
AT FIRST IT WAS DIFFICULT to accept the fact that I’d be leaving again. It took me most of my first two semesters at graduate school to adjust to academic life after five years in the military, so I was disappointed to be missing out on the internship I had planned for the summer and on the fall classes I was looking forward to. I won’t miss riding the bus to and from school every day or the stress of midterms and finals, but not a day will go by that I won’t miss the afternoon welcome that greets me when I get home. The little feet that come pitter-pattering down the hall and the sweet sound of “Daaaaddddyyyyy!” I’ll miss weekend pancake breakfasts with my daughters at Magnolia Cafe, cool dips at Deep Eddy and Barton Springs, evening strolls around the peaceful grounds of the Capitol.
The biggest concern during a deployment is the families and loved ones. Believe it or not, they’re the ones who bear the greatest burden. As a soldier, you know when you’re in danger, but their worry for your safety is never put to rest. They’re forced to live with constant, nagging fear in the back of their minds. My wife’s least favorite part is the waiting period before I leave, once I have my assignment. “Let’s get on with it and over with it!” could be the military wife’s motto. Fortunately, she and my mother are strong Texas women, and they’ve been through this before. They know the drill.
I know the drill too. I see now why the senior officers were so calm about it before. Already having been to Iraq changes your perspective. Before, I would let my imagination run wild with fear, but now I’ve learned to simply shut that off. It may sound clichéd, but allowing your fears to take the driver’s seat is an enormous waste of time.
This time I’ll be gone for at least twelve months. I feel a sense of gratitude about going on a second tour. One of the reasons I’m looking forward to it is the fact that I’ll be a Civil Affairs officer. Civil Affairs in the Army is the branch of officers and soldiers who help the local population rebuild infrastructure after a war. Its motto is “Secure the Victory.” I’m excited about this work because I feel that it’s more constructive than being in a pure combat unit. My main function will be to work with local sheiks and religious leaders to identify their communities’ needs and help them solve their problems. We’ll help train police officers and build bridges and water-cleaning and waste facilities. Right now the people of Iraq face an incredible opportunity, and with every opportunity, as we all know, comes a challenge and the possibility of failure. If I can go to Iraq and show just one village some hope, if I can keep the young men in that village from despairing and turning to the insurgency for answers, then I will have completed my mission.
I didn’t expect to be mobilized again, and I really don’t have a choice now that the wheels are in motion. However, I feel good about it. My younger brother, who is in the Air Force, recently asked me, “If you could choose to avoid this, what would you do?” The answer to that question is, I would still go. Even if they gave me the option of walking away, of continuing with my life as it was before, I would choose to go.
Captain Moss will chronicle his tour in Iraq for Texas Monthly over the course of the next year. This is his first installment.