The trip home from Al Udeid was more comfortable than the C-130 heated-tin-can run through Iraq, but no less tiring. We stopped 3 times during the 26 hours from Al Udeid to BWI, and I slept for 6 hours at a local hotel prior to the flight home to San Antonio the next morning. [Here's a shout-out to American Airlines which put me in First Class on both connections from BWI to San Antonio. That was an unexpected and much appreciated treat]. Alas, I arrived to a smiling family, and have enjoyed the reunion with them since.
The day after coming home, I was at the pool with my kids and ran into an older gentleman who works there. He welcomed me home, and then commented on the "mess over there" and "how screwed up those people are." I took that as a queue: "Yes," I said, baiting, "after we bombed there water purification systems and power plants, they have become a bit surly." This is not what he was intimating, and as he looked away, and his expression changed from an approximation of admiration to a suggestion of disgust, he then pointedly asked me if they weren't surly before we got there. Ever since the crusades, there has been a mutual, generalized mistrust between muslims and christians, so I guess I couldn't find this surprising.
Whether or not it was a mistake to go into Iraq as we did - this is a much more difficult query than most people tend to make of it, given modern history in this area of the world - it is undeniable that our tactics for the invasion were imprecise and not pristine. As has been said many times, we overplanned for the warriors, and underplanned for the civilians. And worse, we were ill prepared for interloping Jihadis who, cleverly, and obviously in retrospect, ensnared our focus and drew us to unavoidable civilian casualties (ie. al qaeda mortar rounds launched from schoolyards, mosques and markets toward American troops), and the societal costs of the destruction to the infrastructure. Whereas a bunker may have served as one of Saddam's hiding places, it was not on the night dozens of women and children were inside of it taking refuge from fighting in the streets, when heavy ordinance came down upon them. These are the casualties of war, but in an offensive, these deaths appear reckless to residents who lose a child, wife, or sister, and then join a terrorist insurgency, which became the great thorn in the heel of OIF. I talked to many Iraqi who did not become insurgents, but who became disillusioned with us after these types of things occurred, and after the years of frustration with inconsistent basic services due to the lingering insecurity generated by the terrorists. They wanted us to leave. But as the security has improved, inroads (albeit, just inroads at this point) have been made for repair of much of what they were accustomed to in Iraq: first-world medical care, a vibrant economy, an admirable secular educational system, and reliable utilities.
I always knew that caring for wounded American and coalition troops would be fulfilling, but this is where my experience taking care of HNs became the pleasant surprise of my time in Iraq. We saved countless Iraqi civilians and many children who would otherwise be dead, and each husband, wife or parent returns home with their child with a new view of Americans. A bilingual Iraqi physician told me that prior to meeting us, these Iraqis know only George H. Bush, who they perceive as abandoning them, George W. Bush, who they perceive as destroying Iraqi society in the quest to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, and US Marines, the tip of our spear, and the deadly edge of our sword. According to this physician, we change the way they view us: the real Americans, a representation of the compassion and industry present in our general populace. People are people. These people suffer the same human frailties and greatness, and they got to see this from us - fighting sleep on call in the middle of the night, losing patience and yelling at a nurse, life saving surgeries and medicines. I am contented to have helped to save a few, and improve a few of these lives, and in the process provided more glue for these folks to put their country back together. I hope that the person who hasn't been over there and prone to make poolside comments about those people keeps these things in mind.
It has been a uniquely flattering to hear nice things from so many strangers who read this blog; I guess they are all within 2-3 degrees of Kevin Bacon, but friends of friends of friends are people I don't know, and bearing witness to power of the internet in this fashion, and knowing the anecdotes reached people has been a special experience for me. The blog became a chore on occasion, and I often lacked the inspiration I needed to deftly pluck out a captivating story. Thank you for allowing me some elbow room in this regard. My goals were accomplished: 1) to tell the story to non-military Americans of the day to day life for Americans deployed in the AOR - not the glory or gratuitousness draped across the marines in the HBO specials, but rather the basic sustenance for those most resembling regular folks back home; 2) to remind folks back home that despite the news, that the war is still on (even now - with withdrawal of the last of combat troops - our military members are not in a safe place); 3) to pass the time - I learned a few things about myself in this process, and found it a fine catharsis and release valve for banalities of daily deployed life for a dust-stomping oncologist.
So, thank you for reading, thank you for your encouragement, and thank you for remembering our military in a time when it is easy to forget what they are out there doing for you.