Pushed, pulled in Mosul

July 30, 2004|By Frank Selden

MOSUL, Iraq -- Lonely. Exhilarating. Frustrating. Exhausting. Rewarding. Serving in Iraq during the transition from war to sovereignty exposes me to many emotional experiences every day.

Although I joined the Army National Guard several years ago, this is my first active-duty mission. I feel adequately trained, yet training emphasizes a level of safety not found in a conflict zone. A publicly acceptable training program could never fully prepare me for dealing with people intent on extinguishing my life. I volunteered because I wanted to be part of creating the first Islamic democracy. I wanted to join reconstruction and humanitarian missions. Iraq gave me more than I bargained for.

Because I'm an adventurer at heart, the realization that safety concerns and job requirements confined me to a 2-square-mile base dampened my initial enthusiasm. Soldiers in some parts of Iraq actively participate in community projects. Attacks in our area, however, forced the cancellation of trips not strictly related to military operations. I hope that terrorist attacks will decrease so that we can resume goodwill efforts throughout the country. Until they do, I will feel frustrated, surrounded by solvable problems yet lacking the opportunity to interact as I first hoped.

I feel pride in the role I am still able to play in the grand scheme of bringing democracy and freedom to a people brutalized and impoverished by their former leaders. Our advisers are helping Iraqis create a new security force, revise their court system, renovate schools, set up drinking water and sanitation systems, expand electrical service to smaller villages and build a national food distribution network. We are making an incredible difference here, and most Iraqis respond with deep appreciation.

I feel anger toward the few Iraqis waging war with those who came here to help them. When a senseless assassination takes another innocent life, I sometimes feel that we should leave Iraq to its demise.

Yet I recognize that we must remain here until Iraq is capable of ensuring national stability. The interim Iraqi government assumed administrative control of the country June 28, but it falls short of functionally creating the country outlined in the Iraqi Constitution. Iraqi police in some cities acquiesce to, if not collude with, anti-coalition forces. The interim government is determined to move Iraq away from the lawless behavior exhibited by a few lower-level leaders. Iraqis seeking a new national identity need our help. Iraqi citizens are not the enemy; they are the mission.

Serving as a soldier in Iraq occasionally means enduring overwhelming, profound sadness. I sat with a friend while our medical staff prepared him for a flight back to the United States. He was stable but unconscious, and his entire body appeared swollen. I prayed with him, stroked his arm and talked to him for a few minutes. I don't know if he heard me because there were no signs of recognition. His eyes remained closed. Only his chest moved as a tube pushed air into his lungs.

Even though the doctors told me that he would make a full recovery, I cried to see him in his current condition. The sheer volume of pain inflicted on military families as evidenced by frequent memorial services or life-changing injuries shatters the tough faM-gade many soldiers carried with them to Iraq.

Some say there are no atheists in foxholes. I found that war leads as many to doubt as it does to believe. After several weeks without injuries, one of our chaplains received severe wounds while on a mercy mission. He didn't carry a weapon. In fact, he prayed for the Iraqi people and ministered to them as much as he did for us. Some nameless coward attempted to kill him, then disappeared.

We still agonize to understand why events occur as they do. The line between those who sustain vs. those who escape injury does not equate to good vs. evil, or to those who pray for protection vs. those who ignore spiritual values. I face questions in Iraq never confronted by my peaceful life in the United States. I find that I have no answers. This is, perhaps, the most unsettling feeling of all.

Frank Selden, 42, is an Army National Guard staff sergeant from Bellevue, Wash.

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