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What Are We Doing Here?

Some days we fight, some days we train farmers.

Courtesy Roman Skaskiw

KID-FRIENDLY: American soldiers often encounter curious Iraqi children, says Skaskiw, right, who sometimes carries a soccer ball with him.

By Roman Skaskiw

I’m always scared before a jump. Paratroopers in films never seem to have any equipment, other than their parachutes. In the 82nd Airborne Division, we have lots of it, and it’s very heavy. 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 don’t need to be here, but the green light 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 there’s too much to do to worry about the other places I could be—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 several more lines of paratroopers whom I don’t want to land on me.

Why did I join the Army? I often faced the question when old friends heard that I was deploying to Afghanistan or, more recently, to Iraq. There are too many reasons (good 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 my comfort zone.

So here I am. I don’t think about the larger political and moral implications of Operation Iraqi Freedom; I have enough to carry on my aching back. As a small number of my Stanford classmates know, I’ve debated it via e-mail in the past, but tired of it. I’m happy to concede the issue to network anchormen, scholars and coffee drinkers everywhere. They do still talk about it, don’t they? I’ve been out of the loop. The month-old newspapers I get in the mail mention us, if nowhere else, in the context of the presidential campaign.

I’m happy to settle into the reality that we are here in Iraq, and that I, an infantry officer, am here, too, and to face the smaller, more tangible issues that come my way. Mortar attacks, for example. And ambushes, and roadside bombs, which must not be confused with weddings, celebratory fire and controlled explosions of found munitions, though they may sound similar.

Here in Iraq, I’ve found great satisfaction in facing situations we aren’t trained for, like working with a town council that spent its first two-hour meeting bringing up problem after problem. They hung on my every word, although I didn’t have many, and I suspect the interpreter understood only about half the ones I mustered. After the first of my weekly meetings with the town council, one sheik who spoke a little English grabbed my elbow and pointed to my chest. “You must do this. You. I saw the news. Mr. Bush says you will rebuild Iraq.”

I’m an executive officer, or XO. I finished my stint as platoon leader six months ago, when we returned from Afghanistan. The XO is second in command of a company (usually three platoons) and coordinates operations so the company commander can focus on tactical planning. I do ammunition math, fuel math, chow math and maintenance math—though, in maintenance, faith may be as important as math. With a little divine intervention, we should be okay. I also pick up extra tasks that are assigned to Delta Company. My work as a civil-military-operation representative is one such task—a rewarding and challenging one.

It had me doing chemistry with an agricultural engineer, a soft-spoken PhD who talked about soil pH and the many simple mistakes farmers make. 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 farmers. The city council and I have organized two successful lectures to help train farmers.

The Department of the Army has armed me with a trickle of cash we’ve used to renovate schools, furnish government offices, repair the garbage trucks of the sanitation minister (whom we’ve nicknamed Tony Soprano), and hire an artist to paint rich, vivid works over the old broken murals of Saddam Hussein. It’s funny how a military mindset colors civic activity. I’m careful about letting civilians know where I’ll be at a specific time, so when an artist invites me to a local art exhibition, all I think is: baited ambush. Doesn’t everybody?

A farmer showed up at our compound trying to sell a pocketful of what he claimed were Sumerian artifacts. We had met him weeks earlier when we surrounded and searched his neighbor’s farm. At the time, he said he had been a paratrooper in the old Iraqi army, had long ago retired, and he described in troubling detail all the weapons that he and his neighbor did not possess, had never possessed, because theirs was a peaceful area and they welcomed coalition forces, etc., etc. He entrusted the handful of coins and figurines to me (they’ll go to a museum) in exchange for a photo of us together. I’m sorry I didn’t squeeze in any ancient history courses at Stanford. Government classes would also have served me well.

In a private meeting, the city council chairman, an interested and honest man, asked me about American city councils. I explained, using elaborate diagrams—the checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches; the notion of a bill. I even pulled out some American money and pointed to a few of the men to whom this “government by the people” is attributed. Unimpressed, he responded: “Can you help with the water shortage?”

More recently, he came to the gate to tell me about a flood, which was, by his description, of biblical proportion. That afternoon, the engineer platoon leader and I were knee deep in muddy water where an irrigation canal had broken 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 wherever you go, you make a big impression. You have people’s attention, and there’s a lot you can do with that. En sha ‘Allah. (God willing.)

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

I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture by implying it’s all about challenging and engaging humanitarian work. We still fight. Early on, there was the incident that 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, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say someone was trying to kill us.” We ate hamburgers that night, a rare treat, and laughed with mouths wide open.

The fighting is much less funny now, but we are not the perpetual victims my month-old newspapers seem to imply. Sometimes the enemy decides 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 paratroopers’ sense of humor survives. When one gunner’s helmet was grazed by what must have been a rocket-propelled grenade, the driver later announced: “In times like that, you have to ask yourself—what would Jessica Lynch do in this situation?” And we laughed.

Another soldier drove around for several days with “Honk if you love Jesus” written on the back of his vehicle before the First Sergeant happened upon it and nearly ripped the boy’s head off.

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

I’m most proud of what I can’t help but call 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 vote rather than by force of personality. It’s 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—and that’s not bad for a techie.

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 I’ll go home. But I do look forward to deciding what to eat for dinner and where to go on Friday night. I’ll also be making the difficult decision of whether to leave the Army and re-enter civilian life after four years and two wars. I’m always scared before a jump.

ROMAN SKASKIW, ’01, of New York City, is an Army captain in the 82nd Airborne Division. His tour of duty in Iraq ends in May.

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