Service in Iraq brings new outlook on life

Service in Iraq brings new outlook on life by Erica Iverson I wanted to write a personal letter to the Plain Talk and all the supporting citizens from South Dakota who played a huge support role in my past deployment during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was a bit surprised with some of the personal letters I had written home that were published, as I would have done a better job editing what I had written and paid attention to my grammar! The tremendous amount of support my soldiers and I received was truly phenomenal, and I think I broke the mail record with 186 packages received over an eight month rotation!

I received letters from strangers in Alaska, Germany, from California to New York; cases of Girl Scout cookies, letters from school kids throughout South Dakota and other states, notes of support from grade school teachers, high school friends, and friends of friends.

I received one noteworthy letter from a Corporal Ryan Hough of Vermillion, whose wife sent him one of the articles that was published in the Plain Talk, and while I was stationed in Tikrit, he was south in Basra, but we shared a sentimental connection being from the same town in South Dakota. The mail call was one of the most uplifting events, and in the beginning of the war, we would get it once every other week, often with a four week delay.

By the time we left Tikrit, mail call was daily, and letters were taking a record four days to get overseas. Priority is placed on communication to and from the war front, as over the miles and with no Internet and phones that had lines miles long and a connection was never promised, it is the thought of receiving word from someone, anyone to set you apart, if even for a minute, from what is going on in that kind of war environment.

Everything I received in mail was shared and passed around, and I distributed a lot to the local Iraqi kids. Handing them a stick of gum was like giving them a hundred dollar bill, so they reaped in a lot of the care packages as well. The outlaying amount of support, and the weekly Plain Talks and Argus Leaders my grandmother sent me, has come to redefine my terms for what I know of patriotism. While we were fighting the war in Iraq, families and friends had an equally hard job of carrying on in the absence of their loved ones.

My unit crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq a week after the war started on 19 March. Operation Iraqi Freedom was underway, and it would later be called the "Engineers War" because of the significant contributions all the engineer units in the Marines and Army � Active, Reserve and National Guard � played with building and paving roads, clearing obstacles/mine fields, building bridges, demolitions, well-drilling, dive teams and providing utility/electricity to the entire theatre.

In the big convoy move to our final destination in Tikrit, Iraq, our battalion had eight different stops along the way. Living out of a ruck sack and sleeping in the back of vehicles, eating rationed food with no latrine or any kind of facilities available, we saw extreme conditions. I explained it to my friends and family as "extreme camping" with the high temperatures during the day reaching up to 156 degrees and

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nights dropping down to low 40s, and to factor in the daily sandstorms only had our "pucker factor" increase.

We went through all the major cities, to include Basra, An Najaf, An Nasiriyah, Baghdad, and Tikrit. The night the 101st Airborne took the city of Karbala, we were outside camping about 20 miles away, just my company of 180 soldiers and our 90 pieces of equipment in a circle for protection. We all sat on our cots and watched what millions back home were watching on television, with the sky lit up like fireworks.

The entire time, the words to the national anthem rang through my head: "the rocket's red glare, bombs bursting in air" which brought a new found sense of pride whenever I hear that played now. We got creative with how to just "get by," improvising showers with plastic bags and five gallon water jugs, new recipes and concoctions to eat the packaged food with, and just taking a shovel with a roll of toilet paper to the nearest pile of sand when needed were just survival. When we finally arrived in Tikrit, we weren't sure how long we'd be there, but we knew by that point, you have to just make yourself comfortable.

We stayed first in the hunting ground reserve where Saddam Hussein and his sons did their hunting and we quartered in his horse stables. Marble from floor to ceiling in each individual stall with a marble sink/trough, it was a nice change of environment to get out of the blasting sandstorms under cover. A month later, we upgraded even further and moved into one of the 36 palaces in the Tigris River valley presidential compound area and while I was a platoon leader at the time for 40 soldiers, we were lucky enough to get our own palace! Conditions improved with time, and eventually we got water (directly from the river), real latrines so we didn't have to burn the "honey buckets" in the homemade outhouses we had been using, mail became regular, greater access to telephones and Kellogg, Brown and Root moved in with hot meals two times a day!

On 28 April my unit had our biggest and most impressive bridging mission. With three active duty float bridge companies from Germany, Texas and Louisiana, a combined talent of equipment and personnel, the largest float bridge in a combat environment was constructed in 14 hours, using 90 sections of bridge to cross the Tigris River. it was built on Saddam Hussein's birthday, so it was coined "The Birthday Bridge," televised on CNN, FOX, NBC, and covered by New York Times, USA Today and in AP news.

Every night in Tikrit and still today, the sound of incoming mortars is as familiar as brushing your teeth before bed. I transitioned jobs and became the night battle captain, essentially serving as the "911 operator" for the battalion. My crew and I deciphered all the reports of incoming fire, mortar round impacts, and trip flares set off and anything that was a serious threat to our soldiers was reported up and we had standard operating procedures for how to react.

Our soldiers were involved in several cases of gun fights with the enemy on the opposite side of the river, the supposed hiding ground for the Husseins. We'd look out across the river each night and not know what was out there � of course, we did have several false alarms, when the livestock and wild dogs would set off trip flares. Everything was taken seriously, and all of our war training was put to test every night. Every time we got in a tactical vehicle during daylight hours to drive south to Balad Airfield or Baghdad was more of a threat than nightly mortar attacks.

As evident in the news, what we termed IED's (improved explosive devices) were generated using nothing more than explosives and a pop bottle but could easily take out a humvee. Dropped off of overpass bridges, set in potholes, buried in the moondust sand on the shoulder of the road � all are means that set to ambush military vehicles. It is the very real threat that soldiers face in Iraq now, and you say a little prayer every time you get in a vehicle to just make it safely to your destination.

Deployments have been termed for one year for most soldiers serving in Iraq, but my battalion got the blessing after eight months to return back to Germany to complete a merge of two companies because of all the distractions in the Iraq theatre. While our long days and nights are now in Germany to do the two months of training on the new equipment, we are all sleeping better at night. We had a fantastic reception and welcome home to Germany, and with banners and yellow ribbons decorating our camp in Hanau, Germany, there weren't many dry eyes.

Our battalion marched into the gym to awaiting family in the bleachers, and when they were released, concertina wire wouldn't have stopped anyone from rushing the floor. It was the most touching moment I've ever seen, and to even think about it today warms my heart. My parents can appreciate my new outlook on all those luxuries we didn't have, and while this feeling will eventually fade, I know now more than ever with our troops still over in Iraq, that I am so grateful for what I have.

To be able to pick up the phone at any given time and call home, to crawl into a bed with sheets and no scorpions or sand and sleep solid, to use running water facilities, or to just drink a glass of cold milk because I can � these are all things I will always appreciate. These days, there certainly isn't much complaining, and while most of us face having to go back into Iraq over the next few months, I know that even the last few weeks to be able to spend in my own apartment, driving my own car, wearing whatever I want has been an opportunity some won't ever get again.

I wanted to write a letter to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to everyone back in the U.S. who supported our troops. I would occasionally run into a fellow South Dakotan in Iraq, and it would be a small reunion, though complete strangers. No matter who I'd run into, we could always find a link of something in common � albeit a favorite restaurant, football game we'd both been to, a friend who knew a friend, and I'd always love that feeling of being from such a small state.

I promised my family I'd come visit for Christmas and if all goes as planned, I'll be able to spend the holidays in the place I will always call home: Vermillion, South Dakota

God bless you all. Please continue to support our soldiers all over the world.

Captain Erica Iverson

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