Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson was with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Lightning Troop near Baghdad two weeks ago when the Humvee he was riding in was struck by a roadside bomb.
It is good to be home. It is even better to be home in one piece.
There is, I will admit, a little bit of guilt associated with both of these feelings. I am sitting where so many men and women I’ve come to know over the past month would like to be. And I know some of them, regrettably, will not be as lucky in returning home in the same shape.
Close friends, family and readers have asked many times in recent days about my assignment to Iraq, of surviving in one piece a roadside-bomb attack. This is what I tell them:
I got lucky. And I got to come home. Yet the soldiers I came to know, of whom I am now quite fond, are still there. And way too many have already had their luck tested.
The assignment was never for a second about me. It was about the men of 1st Platoon, Lightning Troop, Thunder Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry.
To this day, none of them really understands why I left. “So you got blown up. You’re still living. What’s the big deal?” they all said in the days before our departure. “We got big stuff coming up!”
Leaving them, not being able to tell their story for their wives, families and friends, is where the guilt comes in. The war shouldn’t, in a perfect world, happen with no one knowing of it.
I am still struck, these many days later, by what I heard almost every day from the men and women fighting this war.
Lt. Col. Ross Brown, Thunder Squadron commander _ a man I greatly admired for his openness, honesty and deep, abiding concern for the men serving under him _ said it first over dinner one evening.
“You know what gets me,” he said, engaging me eye-to-eye, as he is prone to do, “is very few people back home even know we are at war.”
It first struck him, he said, in his everyday experiences as he prepared to head to Iraq. He’d go to, say, the supermarket and forget for a moment that America was at war. Only when a soldier dies, he said, does a headline appear.
I figured this was, well, just soldier-talk. And then Tuesday morning, I went to the Internet pages of the newspapers I read every morning: The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and both local newspapers.
Not a single story on the Iraq war made the front page of any of them. Amazing.
I realize now, what I hadn’t before, why I keep volunteering in my job to go to Iraq.
I have wanted to understand, firsthand, since that first bomb intended for Saddam Hussein went off more than two years ago, why we truly are there.
I also wanted to understand, up close and personal, the sacrifice so many Americans charged with prosecuting this war are making, why so many are so willingly giving up their lives and body parts.
And here is the thing: The reason America invaded Iraq changes like the leaves of trees in fall. We are first told of weapons of mass destruction and imminent danger to the homeland. Somewhere down the line comes this fostering the spread of democracy and freedom in the Middle East.
What is immutable has been the considerable cost of it all in American blood and treasure.
“How come no one reports on the good things America is doing in Iraq _ the building of schools and infrastructure?” I have heard this question more times than I want to count.
The simple answer, certainly in the patches of Iraq where I have trod, is it isn’t happening. I have wondered, too, walking those patches, why it isn’t happening. I have witnessed desperate, sickening poverty, the likes of which you, it is to be hoped, will never know.
I have weighed that against Congress’ approving the administration’s latest request for $80 billion more to continue this fight.
I read of such large sums and now wonder at night _ again thanking my lucky stars _ whether any Iraqi along Route Bug, where the Humvee carrying Rocky Mountain News photographer Todd Heisler and me was attacked, would have gone through with it had America spent an infinitesimal fraction of that amount to deliver them a new farm well or, say, a few head of cattle.
What is inescapable is that Iraq is a much more dangerous place than it was when Todd and I were there 1 1/2 years ago.
We had read the newspapers, of the strides the Iraqis had made since they elected, in January, a new government. We thought it would be a cakewalk, that Iraqis in the capital would welcome us even more warmly than they had two Christmases ago when we weren’t even threatened.
It was hardly the Baghdad we had known.
In my prayers every day is a sergeant major we first met at Fort Carson, who on the day we departed from Iraq, shook our hands and congratulated us as we boarded a helicopter in Baghdad _ for surviving the roadside bomb.
He’d been in the Army almost 30 years, so it really meant something to us. Todd and I, he told us, were one of them now.
One day later, a roadside bomb hit his Humvee. The gunner in the turret was killed. The sergeant major was airlifted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Some things, I will never fully understand.
(E-mail Bill Johnson at johnsonw(at)RockyMountainNews.com.)