To Grow

by Roman Skaskiw

 

Iím always scared before a jump.Paratroopers in films never seem to have any equipment, other than their parachutes.Here in the 82nd Airborne Division, we have lots of it, and itís very heavy on my aching back.It feels even heavier because we jump tired, in the dead of night, because of the heat in the aircraft, the crowding, the wait for the green light, the plane swaying to align itself with the drop zone, and because the guy next to me is always airsick.Just before the jump, my mind often wanders back to the farm, to the difficult nights I spent massaging lines of code in Sweet Hall, or struggling through the Physics 60 series.I totally donít need to be here, but the green light always comes on before I take that line of thought to its logical conclusion, and I stumble out the door.

After a few moments in the calm, cool North Carolina sky, I land, and thereís too much to do to worry about the other places I could be Ė too much to do because the jump is not the epiphany, but simply a means of getting to where we need to be.There is still a mission, and usually, for those of us without that sense of duty, several more lines of paratroopers whom I donít want to land on me.

As old friends heard that I was deploying to Afghanistan, or more recently, to Iraq, I often faced the question: Why did I join the Army?The short answer is: for too many reasons (good ones and bad) to mention here, but there is a single piece of advice, a justification, to which I cling as if it were my parachute: to grow, get out of your comfort zone.

 

I donít think about the larger political and moral implications of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the issue is too heavy for my aching back.As a small number of my Stanford classmates know, Iíve debated it via email in the past, but tired of it.Iím happy to concede the issue to network anchormen, scholars, and coffee drinkers everywhere Ė people braver than me.They do still talk about it, donít they?Iíve been out of the loop.The month-old newspapers I get in the mail mention us, if nowhere else, then in the context of the upcoming election.

Iím happy to settle into the reality that we are here, and that I, an infantry officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, am here, in Iraq, and to face the smaller, more tangible issues that come my way.There are many.

There are mortar attacks, roadside bombs, and ambushes, which must not to be confused with weddings, celebratory fire, and controlled explosions of found munitions, though they may sound similar.The boys are trained for these more tangible issues, and the noncommissioned officers who did the lion-share of the training deserve praise.

Here in Iraq, Iíve found great satisfaction in facing the issues we arenít trained for, like a town council that spent our first two-hour meeting bringing up problem after problem.They hung on my every word.I didnít have many and suspect the interpreter only understood about half the ones I did muster.After the first of my weekly meeting with the town council, one sheik, who spoke a little English grabbed my elbow and pointed to my chest.ďYou must do this.You.I saw the news.Mr. Bush says you will rebuild Iraq.Ē

In the army, Iím an executive officer, an XO.I finished my platoon leader time six months ago, when we returned from Afghanistan the previous winter.The XO is second in command of a company (usually three platoons).Day to day, an XO makes coordinations so the company commander is free to focus on tactical planning.I do ammunition math, fuel math, chow math, and maintenance math Ė though maintenance feels more like religion than math.I also pick up extra tasks that come here to Delta Company.My work as a Civil-Military-Operation representative is one such task Ė a rewarding and challenging one.

It had me doing chemistry with an agricultural engineer, an soft-spoken PHD, who talked about soil PH, and the many simple mistakes farmers are making.He explained that under the old regime, only the poorest performing secondary school students were chosen to pursue agriculture (the best were reserved for medicine and engineering), and that overwhelming government subsidies removed any need for innovation from Iraqi farms.The city council and I have since organized two smashingly successful lectures.

††††††††††† The Department of the Army has armed me with a trickle of cash Iíve used to renovate schools, furnish government offices, repair the garbage trucks of the sanitation minister (whom weíve nicknamed Tony Soprano), and hire an artist to paint rich, vivid works over the old broken murals of Sadaam Hussein.Itís funny how civics issues fit into the military mindset.Iím careful about letting civilians know where Iíll be at a specific time, so when an artist invites me to a local art exhibition, all I think is: baited ambush, but then again, doesnít everybody?

††††††††††† There was a farmer attempting to sell a pocket full of what he claimed were Sumerian artifacts.We met him when we surrounded and searched his neighborís farm.He claimed to have been a paratrooper in the old Iraqi army, long since retired, and told us in troubling detail about all the weapons that he and his neighbor did not posses, nor had they ever, because theirsí was a peaceful area, they welcome coalition forces, etc. etc. etc.Iím sorry I didnít squeeze in any ancient history classes at Stanford.Government classes would also have served me well.

In a private meeting, the city council chairman asked me about American city councils.I am very fortunate to have a city council chairman who is both interested and honest, but he seemed unimpressed with my version of government 101, asking, in response to my preachings:ďCan you help with the water shortage?Ē

More recently, he came to the gate to tell me about a flood, which was, by his description, of biblical proportion.(The flood was itself somewhat of a success.)That afternoon, the engineer platoon leader and I were knee deep in muddy water where an irrigation canal broke through its bank and flooded a few homes, complaining to one another about the helplessness and indifference of the locals.The next day I was delighted to hear that the sight of us getting dirty over their problem stirred enough people to do the work themselves.Success.

You learn quickly that where ever you go, you make a big impression.This was even more true eighteen months ago in Eastern Afghanistan, where, except for a rare vehicle crawling up a dried river bed (there were no roads), and fire arms and munitions all over the place, people live as they had for centuries, but it pertains here in Iraq as well. You have peoplesí attention, and thereís a lot you can do with that.En sha ĎAllah. (God willing.)

Iíve walked through Iraqi towns like the pied piper, my helmet off, and a soccer ball under my arm, children beside themselves with curiosity.

 

I donít mean to paint too rosy a picture by implying itís all about challenging and engaging humanitarian work.We still fight.Early on, there was the incident which would have changed everything were it not for a faulty stretch of detonation cord that failed to set off four 155mm rounds (the big ones) buried on the side of the road.It was funny back then.We had a great laugh during dinner when our silence was broken by ďIf I didnít know any better, Iíd say someone was trying to kill us.ĒWe ate hamburgers that night, a rare treat, and laughed with mouths wide open.

More recently, there was the incident, that did change everything.

The fighting is much less funny now, but, I feel the need to clarify, we are not the perpetual victims my month-old newspapers seem to imply, not us.Sometimes they decide when and where to fight and sometimes we do.When the fighting happens at all however, it feels like failure.When I spend my time worrying about school contractors and the business plans of artists, it feels like success.

Despite the somber moments, which can stretch for days, the paratroopersí sense of humor survives.When one gunnerís helmet was grazed by what must have been an RPG the driver later announced: ďIn times like that, you have to ask yourself: what would Jessica Lynch do in this situation?Ē and we laughed.Another soldier drove around for several days with ďHonk if you love JesusĒ written on back of his vehicle before the First Sergeant happened upon it and nearly ripped the boyís head off.

Our work continues.Despite setbacks, there is progress.The appreciation and gratefulness I encounter from Iraqiís is sincere, and the friends Iíve made, American and Iraqi, will be friends for life.

Iím most proud of my city council, which is now confronting black-market propane dealers, building a relationship with all the ministries and the local judge, touring local schools, and beginning to make important decisions by voting rather than by force of personality.Itís selfish of me to compare my feelings to those of a parent whose child is taking its first wobbly steps.I had little to do with it, but at the same time, I had a little to do with it Ė and thatís not bad for a techy.

I worry more about what issues I can still address, and how much more I can still witness, even take part in, in the time left, than about when Iíll go home Ė but I do look forward to deciding what to eat for dinner and where to go on Friday night.Iíll also be making the difficult decision of whether or not to get out of the army and jump back into civilian life after four years, two wars, and one relationship Ė I wasnít there for her, but thatís another story.Iím always scared before a jump.