Maryland soldier finds hospitality amid hostility

Troops: Anthony Wright and his comrades have been well-treated by Iraqis, but occasional AK-47 fire lets them know they are not out of danger.

War In Iraq

April 19, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - This war has taught Anthony Wright two things. He hates being shot at, and he loves Iraqi people.

Neither outcome is one he would necessarily have predicted before journeying deep into Iraq as a soldier with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

But it all makes perfect sense to him now that he passes his days in and around an empty elementary school in southern Baghdad, the farthest this tall 20-year-old with caterpillar eyebrows has gone from his old neighborhood in Essex.

The people he expected to be wary, even hostile, have largely opened their arms and cupboards to U.S. troops. Many bring soldiers food, hot tea, cold water. They pass along warnings about bad guys plotting attacks on the school compound. They teach them Arabic phrases. The girls, some of them, flirt from the safety of balconies.

It even amuses Wright that the little kids who swarm everywhere call him Michael Jackson because he is African-American, just as all blond soldiers are, to them, Jean Claude Van Damme.

But the pop-pop of an AK-47 rifle, a sound that gives some soldiers a high, is something Wright has decided he can do without. To him this is not cowardly, just life-affirming.

"My new plan," he said in his usual reserved but relaxed manner, "is that I' m done getting shot at the rest of my life."

He said this casually while using powdered graphite to clean his rifle. He was sitting at a tiny desk in his temporary bedroom, a classroom with Arabic writing on the chalkboard and a dozen grimy soldiers sprawled around.

But it was a major statement. For much of his life, Wright planned to join the Army so he could be like his father, Frank, a command sergeant major in the Maryland Army National Guard.

As a boy growing up in the Middlesex area of Essex, Anthony played war games with the sons of his father's Guard buddies.

It was a happy childhood, he said. His father's day job involved moving heavy equipment and supplies for a contractor. His mother, Elaine, still works in data systems for Lockheed-Martin in Middle River. He has one sister, Latoya, who is now 25 and does social work.

His parents were strict but not taskmasters. As a teen-ager he had limits on where he could go and how late he could stay out. By his own account he was a well-behaved son who steered clear of trouble and earned his parents' trust as he got older.

After high school at Eastern Technical in Essex, he briefly considered going to college but enlisted instead. He signed on for four years, and has less than one to go. He is not doing it for the money - someone at his rank, a specialist, makes just $1,630 a month, plus about $200 a month in combat pay.

If Wright does leave the Army to chase another dream - to fly helicopters - it won't be for lack of success. He has risen steadily in three years.

Commanders with the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, call him a solid leader who will soon get his sergeant's stripes, a step that can take four years.

"He's always got his game face on," said Capt. Shane Dentinger, a 31-year-old Cumberland native who commands Charlie Company. "I've never seen him get angry. He's calm, level-headed." Wright is now a team leader who supervises three soldiers, all of whom find different qualities to praise.

Spc. Brian Dangerfield, 23, of Grand Forks, N.D.: "He knows what he's doing and is fair with all of us. No favoritism at all." Spc. Amari Hopkins, 20, of San Diego: "He's a good guy. You can talk to him. He's like one of us, a regular soldier. He hangs with us, jokes with us."

Pfc. Michael Haran, 19, of Chicago: "For a guy who hasn't been in the Army as long as some guys, he knows his stuff. He knows how to maintain control. Really squared away."

When gunfire erupted outside the compound one night this week, Haran said, a sergeant seemed to overreact. Not Wright. "He just said, `Stay low, try to get your gear, let's go.'"

That firefight reminded everyone that, while the war may be over, people roaming about still want to kill them. At least one person opened fire with an AK-47 and then tried to flee. When he got caught in concertina wire set up by Charlie Company, two soldiers manning machine guns mowed him down.

Next night came another reminder. Staff Sgt. Damian Mackie had just finished sipping hot tea prepared by a neighbor. He was standing on the man' s roof pulling guard duty when a bullet from an SKS rifle whizzed by his head. It made a loud crack as it passed, and his ears rang for minutes.

"It was a life-changing experience," Mackie said. "Reminds you you're here."

On Thursday, soldiers in the area found a small arsenal with deadly potential buried in a farmer's yard: 12 small Iraqi rockets, 29 rocket-propelled grenade rounds and 14,000 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition.

Wright has not seen that kind of action, but the other day he helped break up a civil disturbance. A landlord came to evict a tenant who had not paid rent in months and began dumping the deadbeat's possessions in the street.

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