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Welcome to the Middle East

Santa Barbara's 425th Civil Affairs Battalion - an Army reserve unit based out of the center on the corner of Las Positas Road and State Street - began a year-long deployment to Iraq late last summer. Now that they have been there a while, I decided that it would be good to go there to see how their efforts to rebuild the war torn country are going. Rumor is that Iraq has improved vastly since the war began in 2003, but how does it look from the soldiers' perspectives?

Having left Santa Barbara earlier this week, I am in Kuwait attempting to get a flight into Baghdad, and have begun to see firsthand what the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces go through in order to get out here. After taking a commercial flight into Dallas, where the Army's main depot for incoming and outgoing soldiers is located, I was lucky enough to score a flight on a plane chartered by the Army for people coming back to the Middle East after rest and recuperation (R&R) leave. As we prepared to depart Dallas - Ft. Worth International Airport to leave for Atlanta, Germany, and finally Kuwait, I found myself subject to a flurry of thoughts and emotions - excitement, anxiety, and curiosity, among others. This particular flight was for a group of soldiers and Marines who, having just completed an 18-day leave in the middle of what is for most a year-long tour, were headed back into the Iraq Theater of Operations. While people weren't exactly bummed out about having to go back, I observed no shortage of sullen faces sitting in the waiting area at the airport.

The air was a bit heavy, as leaving families and loved ones behind for another several months loomed ahead of these folks, but the volunteers at the USO club located in the airport really bent over backwards to make sure they felt appreciated and got whatever they needed. The USO club at Dallas - Ft. Worth is reputed to be one of the best, and the plethora of food and entertainment options available, as well as the friendly southern hospitality of the community volunteers who staff the place, really made this accolade an easy one to believe. The airport donated the space for the USO, and foodstuffs, clothing, and other goodies are constantly given by community groups in the area. They even had a lavish childrens' library and reading rooms set up near terminal B33, replete with cameras and DVDs donated by Best Buy, and books donated - again - by members of the local community. When military personnel are getting ready to leave - and, as I will recount, this can take a while - they can read childrens' books on camera, and send the DVD and the book to their kids. Shipping is paid for by FedEx.

As I hinted, there is usually plenty of time to do things of this nature, and as anyone who is familiar with the military's "hurry up and wait" modus operandi knows, a lot of waiting is involved whenever travel is required. In this case, it was an all day affair, with a very long 15 or so hours of flight time to follow. That's not even the end of it. Once you get to Kuwait, you have to wait for a bus that then takes you to a base an hour away. Once there, you wait some more. You may or may not get a flight out to Iraq that day - probably not - but there is plenty of food and entertainment at the desert base to keep soldiers from losing their minds to boredom. Well, sort of. I'm in Kuwait now and have been waiting for a flight out of here for nearly 24 hours. Like many others here, I haven't slept since I got off the plane from Germany. This is standard fare in the military, and one of the many sacrifices made by its members. There are waiting rooms full of people in rumpled camouflage uniforms who have been wearily waiting for some kind of transportation for more hours than those of us in the civilian world would usually consider acceptable.

Talking to some of the soldiers coming home from R&R has been interesting, although I maintained a respectful distance from most of them during that somber flight back to work. Peter Dancy, a Warrant Officer in charge of food service and logistics, was returning to his third tour in Iraq, and seemed neither happy nor upset to be going back. He could understand my excitement as a newbie to the Middle East, but to him, it was old hat. "I don't get a thrill from it anymore. It's just part of life now," he said. Considering what he would be doing after his tour, he said that he would have to give serious thought about whether or not to stay in the Army. While he said he doesn't dislike serving, its unique and conforming culture is very different from anything else, and he might be ready for a change to something that allows more individuality. I asked if he had any opportunities to do more of his own thing, but he maintained that Army life is pervasive. "You have to conform," he said, looking around at all of the camouflage-clad, crew-cut-bedecked young men milling around the airport. "You eat, sleep, breathe, and shit it. That's the only way it works."

Different people face different challenges, though, and many soldiers have families. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Crumpton, stationed in Kuwait, has a wife and four girls waiting for him at home, something he said is especially difficult for his youngest daughters. He took his family on vacation to Gatlinsburg, Tennessee while he was home, and spent time helping his wife around the house. "I was ready to stay home, but a lot of things are being done in Kuwait," he said. "It's a hub for both theaters - Iraq and Afghanistan. It's exciting to be there and be part of the history."

Indeed, throughout history, militaries have had distinct ways of doing things that seem always to have caused things to function more or less the way they are supposed to in that very unique context. On one hand, there are a number of young people in the military who probably have many of the same interests as students at UCSB. They are, however, tasked with something most UCSB students would not necessarily understand. My escort, a friendly, middle-aged man named Lieutenant Colonel Jay Shiffler, said that a chaplain had put it best to him on one occasion. "A commander is more powerful than God," the chaplain had said. When asked how he, a member of the clergy, could say such a thing, he replied, "God lets you make your own decisions. The commander makes them for you."

Here in Kuwait, many soldiers, a few Marines and Navy personnel, and a contingent of Australians are getting lined up in group after group, going to places determined by a commander far away. Some go to Mosul, some to al-Tikrit, and others yet to Afghanistan. As far as I can tell, everyone goes willingly, and Wright Thompson, an ESPN Magazine reporter interviewing soldiers about the upcoming Super Bowl, said that most of the infantry troops he had talked to in Iraq were sick of running humanitarian missions and ready to get to what they were trained for - to fight.

In the meantime, Santa Barbara's Civil Affairs soldiers are engaged in their specialized task of, as they say, winning the peace. With national elections mere days away and a Status of Forces Agreement with the US military in the works, they no doubt have their hands full. I will find out in the coming days, but for now, I will be patient, and wait for my ride like all of the other travel weary soldiers here.

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