Reconciled In Iraq

Spring: Fragmented Thoughts of Fear & Change

In approaching the half year mark, I have noticed many changes have taken place within and around me. Spring traditionally marks birth, renewal, hope, and it enlivens a person's spirit naturally. Doves have taken over the FOB. I watch them during my breaks protecting their territory, forming bonds, and preparing a nest for their young. At the same time, the hawks linger close by. On more than one occasion, I've witnessed her swoop down and capture a feast. The dove, stifled, does not die right away. The feeling of being in the claws of death urges the other birds to fly all at once from their perches. Many times a day, I watch dozens of birds jump off their limbs and scatter: a possible shadow, glimpse of a predator, or nothing at all. This absence is brief and they soon come back to the same place. They are not living in fear, even though it lingers aily. They are simply accustomed to their surroundings. It is a natural occurring event.

Unlike America in most places, there are people who walk the streets with AK47s. Rounds are shot from time to time for all sorts of reasons;many times, they shoot for no apparent reason. There are gun trucks, many different types with various types of light machine guns mounted in the bed; they move down the city's streets at all times of the day. Another sight we in America do not get to see. They'll flip on their sirens and basically drive anywhere they want. Warning shots are fired continuously to move people back away from buildings et cetera (NOT BY AMERICANS, BY IRAQIs).

IEDs can be heard from time to time blowing up in various parts of the city. When they are close, the people scatter, but they come back soon enough and continue as if nothing happened. They don't live in fear so much as one might think. The complaints I have heard from the locals are not about IEDs or terrorists, but instead they mostly want running water and electricity.

But, I keep thinking about the IEDs. I think about the whole situation and can't help but wonder, "How in the world do these people get away with it?"

In my neighborhood, I'll stop someone if they are driving too fast! I cannot imagine what I would do if I were to catch someone planting an IED. I cannot even fathom being around one blowing up and then just going about my business like nothing happened. I cannot even consider being so unresponsive. With the number of weapons in the city, I cannot figure out why they still walk the streets, alive. Perhaps it is because, unlike the doves, they do live in fear. Perhaps for similar reasons, gangs impose themselves freely on people in parts of the United States.

I think fear does more harm to humanity than the acts themselves. The older I get, the more I realize fear drives many people's lives. Fear of losing a job, fear of not being able to make a payment, fear of not being liked, fear of dying, fear of missing out on something. I've also noticed soldiers think differently as well. There are very few American soldiers who walk around in fear. I speak with many different soldiers who carry out many different missions, some exceedingly dangerous, but there is very little fear in their eyes, expressions, and actions. There may have been fear there when they came, but it lingers no longer. It's not about complacency or the famous line, "It won't happen to me." It's more along the line, "There's nothing I can do if it does happen to me." This mentality is very real. This mentality, in my opinion, keeps people alive because they react with clear heads instead of ones filled with fear.

After a while, the environment accepts a person, and vice versa. After a while, when something happens daily or weekly, it doesn't have the same impact anymore. It's only a matter of time before a person changes; he/she almost has to change. Like the weather, the streets can change quickly, and not always for the bad. For example the other day, I saw a donkey cart tooling around the streets. So, I went over and waved to the driver. I would guess he was around nine or so. In any case, I felt the need to get my picture taken next to this nifty contraption and young man. I knew what I was getting into. Afterwards, the kid begged for money. "Give me dollar. Mister. Mister. Give me a dollar."

I dug through my pockets and found that I had no dollar bills, but I did have a five dollar bill. The kid continued, "I love America. Mister. Give me money. America, I love you. I love soldiers."

Well, by now, I had three kids around me. I looked down and handed the bill to one of them. The other kid looked like he was about to cry. I noticed my mistake right away. I grabbed the bill back and placed it into the cart owner's hand. The empty handed kid was about to cry, but I think he must have read my face well because it lasted but a second. I held my right hand up and said, "That's it. Now go." One got mad and left. And the other ran away happily.

It was a fair trade. Perhaps he figures he got the best of me, but I see it like this: How many times does a guy get a picture taken with an Iraqi nine year old entrepreneur with a donkey cart?

SGT Jopp


A glance into Mosul

A teenager and two of his buddies ride bikes towards me. They stop four meters from where I stand. I recognize one of them from a couple days ago; he unzips his jacket and pulls out a cigarette. He lights it. He speaks English. After a couple minutes, four more teenagers begin to approach from a couple blocks away. They are all wearing nice clothes; one has his hair slicked back. When they get about a half block away, the kid I remember says, "Hey Sergeant Jopp!"

I ignore at first, even though I'm surprised he knows my name and rank. I guess he can read as well. After two or three more times, I look into his direction, rather than watching him out of the corner of my eye. When I look, he seems very apt to tell me something. I motion him closer with my left hand. He makes sure I want him to move closer and after confirmation comes to about 6 feet.

"Those boys are bad. Bad." He shows me the thumbs down sign. He repeats it and looks he wants me to do something. I acknowledge his statement; I look back up at the four boys. Now I realized why--one of the teenagers beat him up about a week ago; so, of course he doesn't like them. In any case, the 7 boys sit around and socialize and smoke cigarettes. Eventually, the four leave and the one I know looks more relaxed. Life in Mosul is not always much different than elsewhere: Teenagers smoking, talking tough, scrapping with one another, and hanging out.

However, five times a day (Morning, mid-morning, noon, afternoon, and dusk) prayers are sung and amplified through a speaker system on top of many of the mosques. It can be heard throughout the camp. This verse is very odd, but it brings back a reality of being in the Middle East. It tells me that I am a foreigner.

Coming towards us are two shepherds with canes; they both have red and white checkered head covers (have been on the pilgrimage); they have full beards. Daily, three sheep dogs push thirty or so sheep and two donkeys through the city streets from their nearby farm. They graze on the grass between the roads and the fences. Anything they can eat, they do. They pose for a picture directly in front of our gun truck; they are not the least bit bothered by our weapons or presence. They know we are on their side or at least not a threat, as long as they stick to herding.

A couple of sheep decide to chase somebody's chickens. The dogs notice and nudge them back into the herd. It's a display of ancient Bedouin heritage in a city that was once called Nineveh, mentioned in Genesis (meaning Great City). Yet, it is no longer great. When I first came, I saw mountains in the distance, but now and for at least a month, they have been covered by pollution. Small black swirls spring up everywhere. The locals burn whatever they can find to stay warm. Sometimes the temperature at this time of the year drops into the 30's. At first, the black swirls and strange amplified verse seem bizarre, but now it's just part of the scenery.

Many of the houses in one particular neighborhood have no windows because they were either shot out, blown out, or broke out. One of the kids from this paneless part of the city flexes his muscles for us. They say he is seven, but he looks about the size of a four-year old. His shirt lifted up while he was demonstrating his masculinity, and I noticed something very strange. His belly button had a tube growing out of it!

Every day or two a group of women and children move through the streets to gather burnables. The not-so-poor-ones who have trees place out branches from day-to-day for the less fortunate to pick up. The women generally are wearing bright colors like lavender and are fully covered. The children are less covered and move about having fun as they fill their plastic bags. Most of these people have limited electricity, water, and certainly no heat. AK-47s can be heard from time to time.

I look down at my hands and notice they are cracking due to the colder, dryer weather, sand, and constant washing of my hands. Black sooty fragments are left behind on Kleenex due to the pollution I breath in. I look up and see where a mortar most likely hit. I think about mortars... How can anyone use mortars in a city where people, for the most part, are merely trying to gather the basic elements of survival? Inside, I wrestle with both my human and logical side over those who send mortars in the city--hitting their own people without even a hint of shame. They have no idea where these rounds will explode and can only adjust and guess at where they will land on further rounds. This action is not just criminalistic, inhumane, and terroristic; it is absolute apathy.

This is so beyond my American, Westernized mindset that I truly believe they (who use mortars and IEDs) are not human. It conflicts with all survival instinct and anything good. I do not see how any god(s), God, Allah, or whatever, in any form, would be the approving "creator," "father," "great," or anything but evil. It is not anarchy but rather a human genocidal schism. In other words, I cannot see how they can be anything but both 1)evil 2)insane.

A gate opens up perhaps half a block down. I see a little girl and mother appear. The little girl is wearing a red sweater and red matching gloves.

They look like they were knit together (it reminds me of the ones I used to get from my grandma). She looks to be 3-4 years old. She's helping her mom put the branches on the street. As I watch her intermittently, I cannot help but think about my own daughter who is roughly the same age. I believe she would be helping in the same way if the roles were reversed.

A little stick gets thrown on the pile. It was a good throw. I smile and laugh a little bit. She notices me. She skirmishes inside. A half minute later, a little bigger branch goes out and up on top again. She stares up at it. I think she's proud of herself. She did well.

I notice a car entering the background three blocks away. I shift focus....

SGT Jopp

Just behind the front lines of Iraq in Kuwait

Before jumping on the plane at Biggs Airfield (Ft. Bliss), El Paso, Texas, my daughter Annika wanted one last hug, so I stepped out of column formation and held her tight one last time. "Good Bye Dad," she said with her little voice." "Good Bye Sweetheart. I love you." I replied. My daughter knows that I'm not going to the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California. She knows I'll be gone longer than 40 days this time, but she still asks mom, "When's Dad coming home."

In Kuwait I don't see, hear, smell, feel, or taste war, but I know it's lurking just a flight away. We train and prepare here to a much higher level, but the most noticeable difference besides the leel of training is an indifference, a sway from center to a stage off center, saturated with denial, seasoned with unknowns, and filled with memories from the past. Life's luminosity here went from a couple hundred candles to tens of thousands. The little things and BIG THINGS in my life are far away. I feel it. I have no choice but to change.

During this metamorphosis, the atmosphere is not grim and serious but comic and light. Everyone seems to get along much better--with a few extreme events that break a handful of individuals down. During the course
of the next year, I will have to face a different side of myself and then be expected to be the same upon my return. Conflict and stress within me turns over. I'm glad that I, "Young Jopp" as they call me, am 35 years old and have practice controlling my emotions. I am impressed with the younger soldiers who resiliently shoulder the responsibility that is now coming down upon them.

I pick up the paper daily and read it from front to back. I see death of soldiers, massive deaths of Iraqis. I watch Fox News when I can (that is what is on in the DEFAC, dining facility). Rumsfeld is gone. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers appear to becoming apart at the seams. I see and read almost nothing that sparks any positive suggestions about the war. Then, I read one article:

"The Iraq Army and Iraq Police are taking control of a 23 square mile chunk of land that includes Dora, a neighborhood dominated by hard line Sunni supporters of former leader Saddam Hussein, and parts of the so-called Triangle of Death, a volatile Sunni district spreading from the capital toward predominantly Shiite south." --Stars and Stripes, Volume 4, No. 219, 15 November 2006

All of this is media information. The military does not in any way use politics to gain the soldiers' opinions. It is nearly vacant. We concentrate on battle drills, team work, and crucially "paying attention to detail." To me, (for those of you who don't know me I'm a little bit political), it is astonishing that the typical demeanor of a human being serving in America's Army primarily does not concern him/herself with politics at all! Regardless of political opinions, the truth or the matter is....we suck it up and drive on. I'm impressed.

This callous exterior does not come easy...

On the jet, there were more than a couple full grown men shedding tears.  A lot of wives, husbands, daughters, sons, dads, and mothers wil not see each other until the mid tour (close to 6 months) and then not again for another 6 months. It is not just the soldiers who deploy that pay for the cost of freedom! If dad or husband is in the military, then so is the family.

SGT Jopp

  © Brian Jopp. All rights reserved.
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