A Soldier Speaks: Joseph R. Newbrough

Editor's Note: As of August 10, 2005, 1,838 American troops and between 22,500 to 100,00 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war in Iraq. Domestically, the bill for the war has reached $204.6 billion.

This is the second in a continued series of profiles of some of the tens of thousands of Iraq War veterans who have come home bearing the scars of battle -- emotional and physical wounds that may never heal unless the nation pays them the attention and care that they deserve. We at AlterNet believe it is the one issue that can and must bring us all together as Americans.

Senior Topographic Analyst in the Army, Staff Sergeant (SSG) Joseph R. Newbrough, Jr., 26, was deployed with the 555th Engineering Group on January 7, 2003 and has been back home with his family since December 17, 2004.

AlterNet: Tell us about yourself

I am originally from San Jose, California. In 1997, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. After my four-year tour, I got out and moved to Chicago with my wife. While in Chicago, both my wife and I worked, but to no avail -- we were barely able to make our car and insurance payments. Therefore, in just under four months, I re-enlisted into the Army.

Having three children and no college education -- even with my specialized training -- I find it very difficult to find a job that makes enough money to support my family without utilizing the various welfare programs. And the military life is very hard on my wife and my children. It hurts me every time I think about leaving them alone. I fear that their emotional well-being suffers greatly from the loss, and yet I simply cannot "take care" of them any other way.

Initially, I joined up because of an unstable home life and a general lack of direction. The reason I chose the Marine Corps in the first place was due to my experience with the Marine Corps JROTC in high school.

What were you told were the reasons for the war in Iraq when you first began your duty?

Told about Iraq? That isn't how the military works. Each individual completes the tasks to which their company is assigned. There are no formal discussions of the 'bigger picture' or the implications of your actions.

For example, I am an 81T (Topographic analyst). It is my job to create products with information about river crossings, cross-country mobility, lines of communication, and in general, anything that involves terrain intelligence. At no point in time did it become essential for my chain of command to 'care' about the reasons for the war.

We were there to complete the missions essential to carrying out combat operations. Although, the command did make sure to dehumanize the "hajis" (Iraqis) every chance they got, it was not that they ordered us to be uncompassionate. The dehumanization was more along the lines of good ole' fashioned American racism -- comments such as "They smell like dogs!" or "Man, I can't wait to get out on that road and kill me a sand nigger!" -- were not uncommon during chow and formations.

Did you ever express dissent?

My wife would send me all the debate transcripts and any pertinent news pieces. Those I would share with the other soldiers, but beyond that -- no, not really. I am an NCO [Noncommissioned Officer], a leader. Not to sound hackneyed, but it isn't really my place to "rabble rouse" and get the soldiers agitated. It is my job to make sure that the mission is accomplished and everyone gets home safe.

How did you maintain your strength to finish your service when you found yourself questioning the war?

You are trained to do your job, so you do it. Not to mention, everything is compartmentalized. No one is really seeing things the way they are seen at home. Your focus is on the mission, which is essentially any direct order you are given. That can be anything from "haji" guard and convoy security to CQ (Charge of Quarters).

Besides the side comments and banter with coworkers, there is not real discussion of events. Most of my information came from the numerous emails and letters that [my wife] Stacey sent. Plus, I tried to call her almost every day. She did all she could to keep me abreast of the political nightmare that was unfolding here at home.

Did any soldiers express dissent or not agree with the reasons for the war once they were actively participating in the war?

We all bitched. The only ones who didn't were the Neocons.

Were you ever informed of an exit strategy while you were on active duty?

No. I am not sure my command is aware of the meaning behind the words "exit strategy"! Kidding, obviously.

How do you feel about the need for an exit strategy?

It is obvious that this situation is not progressing as the administration had planned, and I respect the fact that we cannot, once again, abandon the Iraqi people. But I am not entirely sure that our continued presence serves much positive purpose. Were we to take Iraqis out of the country and train them, in the same fashion as we train Marines or Soldiers, I believe that would be a more effective use of our capabilities.

As far as a timetable goes, we'd need a plan to make a timetable -- moving men is no small feat. There are tons of logistical issues involved. Not to mention the piles of paperwork these undertakings require.

Did your beliefs change once you were participating in the war?

One very upsetting incident was when a PBO (Property Book Office) trailer had an electrical short circuit, which set it ablaze. The fire in and of itself was upsetting, but the real sense of chagrin came when I discovered that all the nearby fire extinguishers (I tried three different ones) were less effective than a stream of urine. At this point, I grabbed an axe and hacked open the side. And as a soldier (PFC Jones) handed me water bottles, I proceeded to pour them on the fire. It took about five minutes to extinguish it. Due to my close proximity to the fire, I was forced to seek medical attention and utilize an inhaler for the better part of a month. I would be curious to know where exactly the army purchased those fire extinguishers!

Did you face a shortage of equipment or weapons?

No. We worked on the same post as General Casey (Commander of Iraq) -- we never ran out of anything.

Did you interact with any local Iraqis while you were there? How was that experience?

Because of their prevalence in manual labor jobs on post (cutting grass, cleaning, minor construction) I was able to meet many Iraqis -- men and women. Most of the Iraqi women I encountered did not wear the traditional Muslim garb. [They wore] more an out of fashion Western style, almost as if our early nineties thrift store donations were being flown in to all the local markets.

One Iraqi woman, after seeing a picture of my wife, brought me a glass candleholder to send to her as a gift. And on several occasions they would bring me local dishes for lunch.

I also noticed that the Iraqi people seemed very flamboyant in conversation. Watching two Iraqis have a conversation about the weather looks like one of them is going to get decked -- they always appeared to be arguing.

Their work tasks were also divided up in a very sexist way (exceedingly gender specific). For example, the women were expected to wash the floors while the men would carry the buckets. However, if there was no work except for floor washing, the men did nothing. Not even an American with a loaded M16 could make em' do it!

What do you think about Secretary Rumsfeld's projection that we could be in Iraq for another 12 years?

Obviously that sucks for me, especially given the fact that they are beginning to extend tours to 18 months instead of 12. I guess they figure since we have more MWR [Morale, Welfare, Recreation] comforts, we can handle longer tours.

My biggest fear is holding my family together. My wife and I have been married for eight years and we have overcome many obstacles to get here. It would be a shame to have it all go down the tubes now. You've got to understand what it is like for her. The army always comes number one, her and the kids are a permanent number two. Not because I want it that way, but because that is the way is has to be in order to be successful in the military.

Is there something that you'd like to add -- something that is not being covered by the media?

The effects this is going to have on the kids.

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