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    Posted December 13, 2011 by
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Stories from the Iraq war

    The Early Days


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     ET413 joined the U.S. Army in 2000, learned Arabic, and went to the 101st Airborne Division, working in intelligence collection. They arrived in Iraq in late March 2003 and left in February 2004.
    - dsashin, CNN iReport producer

    I don’t think that the gravity of what we were doing ever really hit me. I was just a silly 23-year-old, excited to be a part of something big with one of the best-known units in the United States Army. I never had any sense of personal danger; the question of whether that was because I was never actually in danger, or whether I was just incredibly naïve, wouldn’t make much of a debate. I was like a little kid on a family trip with my nose pressed against the window, not wanting to miss anything on this grand adventure.
    I remember being surprised by the flashes of color in the arid countryside as we moved north in our convoy: the small irrigated patches of vivid emerald green that belonged to what I imagine were subsistence farmers; the colorful clothes hanging on a clothesline that formed an incongruous contrast to the dusty brown that seemed to stretch to infinity all around. There was the palm grove somewhat south of Baghdad where we stopped for a day or two to rest before continuing the push northwards. I made friends with a couple of shepherds and had a friend take pictures of me holding one of their lambs. Just another part of the adventure. I saw myself as an ambassador of goodwill, making the locals like us and think well of Americans. Yes, I ran an excellent PR campaign.
    The final destination of our unit was in the north of the country. Division HQ was in Mosul, but my brigade was located a little south and east of there, in a small town that had formerly been the home of an Iraqi air force unit and had a large runway – big enough to handle C-130’s after the engineers fixed the bomb craters in it. The air base had long since been abandoned to the elements and flocks of sheep and goats roamed freely through it. One particularly vivid memory of those first few weeks concerns us weeding the cracks in a bunker so that it would look good as the background of a re-enlistment/promotion ceremony photo. At that time, we slept in makeshift tents that we made out of poncho liners, rigged up with extra antenna poles and anchored to the vehicles. The brigade commander put a stop to that after a couple of weeks, saying that he didn’t want us living like vagabonds.
    After that order came down, we moved into old barracks that we fixed up and settled down into a routine that lasted until it was time for us to go home. We got to have a lot of interaction with the locals, and they took quite a liking to the two all-girl teams from my platoon. We received so many offers of marriage that after a while, I quit trying to keep count. When we set up outside of the wire for missions, groups of Iraqis would come to our site to visit, bringing dinner more often than not.
    When I contrast this, my experience, with what happened later on in the war, it makes me feel guilty that my time there was so easy. Sure, we took some mortar fire, but never small arms fire; I never fired my weapon but at the range. Every time I heard about a soldier from my old unit who was hurt or killed, I felt a tremendous anger but was unsure of where to direct it. I find it embarrassing when someone thanks me for my service, because I feel like I didn’t really do anything, compared to some. But I have the memories of my time there, which I treasure.
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