Monday, August 04, 2003

Montana soldiers describe life in Iraq

There's the heat, the bugs, the absence of flushing toilets. But easing all those discomforts is the satisfaction that comes from helping a people long crushed under a brutal dictatorship, and the dream of, eventually, coming home. Such is the life of an American soldier in Iraq.

"My typical day is, well, in Baghdad, Iraq, there is no such thing as typical or average," Spc. Zach Routzahn, 27, of Lewistown wrote in a recent e-mail.

Routzahn and 39 other soldiers of the Bozeman-based 143rd Military Police Detachment left Bozeman in March and have been stationed in Baghdad since June 16. Their mission is restore the Iraqi Police Force, bringing law and order back to the war-torn country. The unit's soldiers haven't seen their families since leaving Montana during a late-night send off in March. But they keep in touch through e-mail, which is how the Chronicle contacted them with questions about life in Iraq.

"Every morning I am happy that I wake up," Routzahn wrote. "Every night I look at my cot like a long-lost friend that has been found. And somewhere in between I try to grab a meal, feel lucky I made it through another day and wonder when they are going to send me home."

The 143rd -- a division of the Montana National Guard -- lives in buildings that were once the palaces of Saddam Hussien's henchmen, which is far less luxurious than it sounds. The bombed-out buildings lacked electricity, running water and air conditioning when the soldiers first arrived.

"Not having the luxury of walking into a bathroom, turning on a light and using a toilet was terrible," Pfc. Chad Sichelstiel, 21, of Helena wrote. "We would have to walk down to a smelly latrine and every day we would have to burn human waste in a half-cut 50-gallon barrel."

Staff Sgt. Patrick F. Mulhill, 35, of Bozeman wrote: "Living in the building was hard in the beginning. All day long it was extremely hot. Sometimes at night it was cooler outside than inside.

"Most of the soldiers slept outside so they would at least have a breeze," Mulhill continued. "Myself, on the other hand, slept inside the building (less bugs). Before I would go to sleep, I would drink a liter of water (usually hot) and keep two more bottles next to my bed. I would sleep in two-hour blocks and wake up in a pool of sweat with a very dry mouth. I would drink half a bottle of water and try to go back to sleep."

Things eventually improved. Now the soldiers have air conditioning in their sleeping areas, refrigerators to cool water, portable showers and latrines. But they don't have privacy, with several soldiers sharing a room.

Training mission

Part of the unit's mission is to act as police in a capital that was plagued by widespread looting during first few days after major fighting ended. However, their major responsibility is to retrain Iraq's police force and resupply police officers with uniforms and weapons.

"The relationship between us and the IPS (Iraq Police Service) is a work in progress," Spc. Randy Eppinger, 26, of Billings wrote. "By this I mean we are still trying to establish trust between us, while at the same time trying to paint a more positive image of the IPS and ourselves for the public. At times I'll ask myself why are we here, but then I see an IPS officer in uniform keeping the streets safe and I know that I helped renew
that."

Staff Sgt. Larry W. Bowman, 51, of Great Falls wrote: "Iraqi Police officers, although not accustomed to a structured police system, as we know it in the U.S.A., are for the most part eager to learn law enforcement operations. ... (E)ven though a language barrier exists between many MPs and Iraqi Police officers, the use of interpreters on site at police stations seems to bridge this gap and assist with the flow of communication."

Longing for home

Days are long and hard for the soldiers, but they do have some leisure time.

"In our free time, mostly we read books, listen to CDs, play video games and watch movies," Sgt. Brian Biesemeyer, 29, of Shelby wrote. "We're a lot like a kid who's been grounded.

"We also talk about home and our families and what's in the news," he added. "I also try to go to the chapel whenever I can."

Some soldiers took issue with the media portrayal of war and subsequent military occupation.

"All you see on the news in Iraq is what went wrong or what attacks have happened to U.S. troops," Staff Sgt. Erik Pedersen, 31, of Billings wrote. "What you do not see is what we are doing to get this country back in order."

What is lost between here and there, Sgt. Michael Boller, 23, of Billlings said, "is the face of the Iraqi civilian. I'm not talking about the Regime, or the soldiers who fought against us. I'm talking about the people who drive to work everyday hoping to be paid so they can feed their families. The man who was aware of the war going on behind him and hoping that it would also set a new standard for him and his family's future. Television focuses on the wreckage of a HUMMWV (a Humvee) instead of the soldier giving a small child a handshake."

The greatest longing for soldiers is the road home. So far, there's no word on when they'll come back.

"I would have to say that being free to do as you wish is what I miss most," Sgt. Tim Wyckoff, 44, of Deer Lodge wrote. "At home, you can run to the store, go to a movie or out to dinner without worrying about being shot at. We take a lot for granted living in the United States."

Sgt. Matthew Nilan, 32, a Montana Highway Patrol officer from Livingston, agreed.

He misses "the most obvious -- my wife, my family, my friends and coworkers and my dog," he wrote. "I also miss all the little things that we take for granted. ... I miss everything about home."

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