CAMP ANACONDA, Iraq—Ask soldiers about military hardship and they'll let you have it. Separation from families. Hard work. Dopey regulations. Deadly danger. The heat. The cold. The unknown.
But ask them how they feel, personally, to be American soldiers abroad today, and you hear about pride in their mission, confidence in their colleagues and devotion to duty in perilous work.
Those were the overwhelming responses of dozens of service members interviewed during a 10-day tour of U.S. military posts abroad, from tidy, green American bases in Germany to dusty, broiling outposts across Iraq.
From privates fresh out of boot camp to West Point-educated officers nearing retirement, the gripes came in all stripes. But, reflecting on the coming Memorial Day holiday and their view of what they do, so did the pride.
Here are the words of some of them.
Carlene Bloss, 40, of Jacksonville, N.C., was a Marine for six years and is now a staff sergeant in the North Carolina Army National Guard, based at Camp Anaconda, a sprawling U.S. base in central Iraq. Her son, Anthony, was 13 when she learned that she was up for deployment to Iraq.
"The Marine in me always wants to come over here. But I have a son, so I never volunteered. When I told him there's a 90 percent chance I was going to Iraq for a year, and this could change his life, I said, `I didn't want to hurt you.'
"He said, `Mama, I'll be the same kid a year from now that I am today.
Go serve your country.'
"I cried and cried."
In civilian life, Joe Orazen, 31, of Carlisle, Ky., is a history and world civilization teacher at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky. As a National Guard engineer, he works 10 hours a day in punishing desert heat, driving heavy construction equipment building up Camp Q West, a remote base in Iraq, near the Syrian border.
"There's a lot of great things going on here, helping people who didn't have the rights of Americans. You take it for granted and you don't realize the big event you're taking part in. I can go back and help our students understand all this."
Capt. Richard Ojeda, 34, of Logan County, W.Va., is with the HHC 20th Engineering Brigade, based at Camp Victory in Baghdad. He maintains a home-engineered boxing ring to let his men work off steam.
Of his men, he said, "Clap lightning, talk thunder, walk through graveyards and make dead men wonder, 'cause we are somebody. We can't walk on water, but it'd take us a long doggone time to sink."
Staff Sgt. John Mueller, 32, of Molalla, Ore., is a flight engineer on Army transport planes called Sherpas, which haul passengers and freight. On a recent flight to Basra, Iraq, he hung an American flag in the back of the plane, a gift for his son Matthew, who was born Jan. 23, the day after Mueller, a 14-year Army vet, departed for his yearlong Iraq tour. He has yet to meet his son, but he remains upbeat.
"I know flying high-priority people and cargo around, I'm saving lives by not having people in convoys. It's an honor to serve my country. That's the truth."
Spc. Mike Wyciechowski, 22, of Lansing, Mich., repairs vehicles at Camp Bucca, a U.S. prison camp on Iraq's border with Kuwait that has 6,000 prisoners. He works at night, when the temperature has slipped below the routine daily highs in the 100s. He likes the way the military tests his passion for motor repair.
"If they've got tools, we'll fix it."
Maj. Kirk Milhoan, from San Antonio, Texas, is an Air Force physician who serves in the forward military surgical hospital at Camp Anaconda, where wounded servicemen are gathered for transport to Germany. When casualties are heavy, a call goes out for off-duty volunteers to carry stretchers. He said he'd never been short of hands.
Of his job, he said, "I can think of no greater honor than caring for those wounded while fighting for freedom."
Army Pfc. Jason Tarboro, 19, of Allentown, Pa., works at Camp Q West, a hardscrabble outpost that's gearing up for a larger role as a military hub in northwest Iraq.
"Memorial Day, it's a heartfelt time. More lower enlisted personnel feel like they had something to do with our military success."
Maj. Eddie Blackburn, of Elkin, N.C., is a probation officer in civilian life. He's spent 28 years in the military, currently with the 30th Engineering Brigade of the North Carolina Army National Guard. Now based at Camp Victory, he has a son who's a junior at West Point.
"The more you deal with the civilians over here, the more you can tell they want change. They want to control their own destinies and not have it controlled for them. Of all the things I have done in my life, being a soldier is the greatest accomplishment. People appreciate us. In the last two years, I've seen more of it. People walk up to your table and take your breakfast ticket. They say, `Thank you. Your breakfast is on us.'"
Maj. Marybel Johnson, of Cary, N.C., a West Point grad and a former helicopter pilot, supervises an Army operation at Baghdad International Airport that gets mail to soldiers. When her 5-year-old daughter lost a tooth recently, Johnson's mother-in-law helped the girl write a note asking for an exemption from standard procedure: "Dear Tooth Fairy: Please don't take this tooth. I want to send it to my mom in Iraq." The note—and the tooth—arrived in Johnson's mail.
"I miss my kids tremendously. When I call them and they cry, I cry. ... My daughter says, `You love the Army more than you love us.' How do you explain it to a 5-year-old? I can't explain it to an adult. It's just what you do."
Sgt. Alex Rabre, 31, of Fort Bragg, N.C., a native of Guatemala, became a U.S. citizen and serves in the 30th Engineering Brigade at Camp Victory.
"To me it's an honor to be an American soldier. What the U.S. stands for is great for all people—that means, freedom. I'm here today so my children and my children's children can have freedom."
Spc. Sydney Stuart, 19, of Charlotte, N.C., is an MP with the 105th MP Battalion and serves as a guard at Camp Bucca.
"Sometimes it is hard to see a big picture because I am such a small piece. But in years to come, I will look back and know in some way I did make a difference."
Spc. Stacy Strayhorn, 29, of Asheville, N.C., is an intelligence specialist at Camp Anaconda. "It's hard being over here on holidays. You're away from family and friends.
But it's an honorable time. We're serving our country on Memorial Day—and that's special because it's a holiday for soldiers."
Capt. Alex Mendaloff, 51, of Statesville, N.C., a lawyer in civilian life and a military lawyer in the North Carolina Army National Guard at Camp Anaconda, sees his service as part of a tradition.
"It's a big deal for me to be here because my dad is still alive; he was a Pearl Harbor survivor. We're in a small clan: father and son who served in a war zone. He's proud of me."
Spc. Shayla Johnson, 23, of Brookhaven, Miss., is assigned to the 814 Engineer Company of Fort Polk, La., now at Camp Anaconda. "It's hard being away from family, my daughter who's 1. It's hard for a single parent. But the unit is my family for now."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas Parker, 25, of Trinity, N.C., an aircraft technician at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, said U.S. service members were treated with respect in Europe.
"People appreciate you here, particularly the older generations. They know what we did in World War II. I hear `The Star-Spangled Banner' and I get goose bumps."
Air Force Sgt. Wes Smith, 36, of Dillon, S.C., is postmaster of the biggest Air Force post office in the world, at Ramstein, Germany. He's served four tours of duty in the Mideast, and he said U.S. military personnel were well regarded abroad.
"Our intentions are good, to help people. We always get treated with respect where we go."
Sgt. Floyd Swofford, 46, of Polkville, N.C., a long-haul trucker in civilian life, serves in the 30th Engineering Brigade of the North Carolina Army National Guard at Camp Anaconda. He signed up because "I wanted to be like my dad."
"My dad served in the Korean War. I admired him for that." Of the military: "It's been a life-changing series of events for me. I want to thank him for that, putting me on the right path."
Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel McNamara, 20, of Long Beach, Miss., near Biloxi, was a heavy-machine gunner at a Marine outpost on the Syrian border. He's recovering at Ramstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany from a leg injury he sustained when he lost his footing stepping down from a guard tower.
"No civilian will ever understand what you will do for fellow Marines and soldiers. We love the camaraderie in the Marine Corps."
Spec. John Comito, 24, of Plano, Texas, is an Army reservist recovering at Ramstuhl Regional Medical Center from a car-bomb injury in Mosul. After nearly a year in Iraq, he said his sense was that many Iraqis were grateful for U.S. protection.
"Most people are happy to have us. They want us to leave but to get rid of the terrorists first. There's a lot of good that happens, but it doesn't get out."
Maj. Kendra Whyatt of Greenwood, Miss., a veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, is the head nurse on a unit at Ramstuhl Regional Medical Center, where she follows the news in Iraq. It helps her predict the flow of patients in coming days.
"When it comes to what we do here, it is the front line. ... We are a living, true testament that our soldiers are still in harm's way."
Sgt. Fred Bishop, 35, of Pageland, S.C., stands guard in 12-hour shifts in 100-degree heat at Camp Bucca. He has no doubts about why he's there.
"After Sept. 11, I had a strong sense of duty. It means you're fulfilling your nation's call. It means we're providing a service to the Iraqi people for freedom we feel they deserve."
Master Sgt. Jimmy James, of College Park, Ga., had just submitted his retirement papers after 19 years in the Army when he was asked to provide technical advice at the detention facility for suspected insurgents at Camp Bucca because of his long experience in the military corrections system at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He agreed to serve two more years.
"I know it sounds repetitive: I'm proud to be an American. That's one of my main reasons to pull my retirement. I'm proud—and lucky—to be scheduled to come and do this mission."
Spc. David Stewart, 19, of Mineral Wells, Texas, serves as a gunner defending convoys in the desert heat at Camp Bucca. "If my unit hadn't been deployed, I'd probably volunteer. Being here, some people don't like you. But it's like being a part of history."
(Oza is a photographer for The Macon Telegraph. Washburn reports for The Charlotte Observer.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MEMORIALDAY