July 15, 2019

Answers sought as journey ends

Editor’s Note: NEWS staff writer Alicia Anstead left Iraq late last week and filed her final dispatch from Amman, Jordan. She has been traveling with fellow journalist Peter Davis of Castine, who is on assignment for The Nation magazine.

AMMAN, Jordan – The farewell to Baghdad came early, at 4:30 a.m. in the dark just as the curfew ended. Only the dogs wandering the streets and soldiers on patrol had been up earlier. The hour was right to zip unnoticed through the Ramadi-Fallujah area in western Iraq – now called Ambush Alley by U.S. soldiers – where dangers are rife.

I spent the last days in Baghdad trying to track down Maine soldiers. But, too often, it wasn’t meant to be. At least that’s what I heard from one Maine soldier by e-mail. Throughout my visit, when the U.S. Army’s Public Affairs Office could not locate the soldiers I sought, they sent me out on foot to knock at the doors of American military bases. Doors, indeed.

We’re talking a pile of sandbags or a crude wooden hut with graffiti that would make your mother blanch. Your father, too.

More than once, I stood in laserlike sunlight shooting directly at me and at the checkpoints where the men (and they were all men) in uniform were kind enough to offer me water while they radioed for information. They even produced an MRE, the “meals ready to eat” issued three times a day. But I was not in the mood for pasta Alfredo, which a soldier jokingly placed on the tailgate of a pickup truck and said: “That’s how you cook it.”

One day, I forgot my hat. Another day, I forgot sunscreen. That time, I waited an hour. The only shade was a small sliver of darkness created on the dusty ground by a car, and I quickly put my sandaled feet in the shadow.

Three guards, who lifted their guns to greet me at a barricade near Baghdad’s Olympic Stadium, asked my Iraqi translator and me to stand just inside the gate, behind a metal barrier that would protect us from bullets. They had, after all, seen a suspicious car driving slowly around the area. I think it was mine.

Even on my last day in Baghdad, I spent more than two hours trying to get to Spc. Benjamin Gray of Castine. But he couldn’t be found at the Baghdad airport where he is stationed. He was there all right, but Gray’s job is driver for a sergeant major, and this was the day the bodies of Odai and Qusai Hussein had arrived. The troops were busy and security was elevated.

But, again, as Maine National Guardsman Richard DePaola of Old Town wrote in one of his e-mails to me: It wasn’t meant to be.

“Please try to get to see him,” DePaola’s sister, Val Klenowski, had told me before I left Maine. “It would really make his day.”

I had a seriously large hug to deliver to him from his wife, his children, his sister.

You cannot imagine the sense of failure one feels not showing up when you’ve told American soldiers you will see them in Iraq, where the same uniform they wear with pride also makes them a target of hostility.

Many of the soldiers I spoke to – soldiers from Ohio, Louisiana, Florida, Delaware, California and, yes, Maine – do not even know why they are there. It may be weapons of mass destruction, one soldier said. But he was not sure.

Actually, I am not completely sure, either. But I am sure of this: The troops want to come home.

I want them to come home, too. All of them, including the last soldier I saw as I pulled away from the Iraqi border at sunrise.

We chatted as the driver stopped at the final checkpoint before entering Jordan. I reached out and shook his hand, which was still soft with the suppleness of youth. “Come home soon,” I said. “Yes, ma’am,” he answered.

But I will be home long before he is, or Spc. Gray or Guardsman DePaola.

Now that I am “out” – away from the Iraqi war zone – I have a keener sense of home. Someone told me once that home is the last place you felt safe. For now, that is Amman. I wonder where it is for the Americans and Iraqis still in this war.

I’ll be back to Bangor in time to enjoy the finest month of summer and those crisp days that are so entirely opposite from the ones Mainers and other Americans are having in Iraq.

I do not know – no one seems to – when the men and women of the foreign military forces will be home. Or if they can responsibly come home now, before there is security, stability, and a government in Iraq that is representative of the needs and desires, rather than the terrors and demons, of the Iraqis.

And, to put a less defeated ending on Guardsman DePaola’s statement, let’s hope it’s meant to be.

Alicia Anstead’s “Notes” and articles she plans to write after her return from Iraq will be based on conversations with Mainers and Iraqis with common ties and her perceptions of daily life in that troubled and volatile region.

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