By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It is, in fact, the people that have stayed with the young Marine, the faces of waving children peering from behind a mother's dress or hefted onto a father's shoulders as the American motorcade passed. Strange enjoyed handing out the small gifts he and his fellow soldiers carried with them. "You realize pretty quickly that all kids, regardless of their language or the country in which they live, love candy. And soccer is the main sport over there, so when we'd pitch a new soccer ball into a crowd of little boys, eyes just lit up."
His mother, he remembers, had sent him a small stuffed turtle with a request that he pass it along to one of the Iraqi children. "I wish she could have seen the smile on the face of the little girl I gave it to," he reflects.
Those, he says, were the good times. "The little things like that were what made me feel good about what we were doing. At first, I was a little surprised at the welcome we were receiving. But, quickly, it became obvious that the vast majority of the Iraqis were glad we were there, glad we were helping them."
Strange was not in Baghdad when the Saddam statue was toppled and the capital city was taken over by coalition troops. "By the time we got there," he recalls, "Baghdad was pretty well secured, so we were sent east into the Karbala-Babylon region." There they quickly quelled minor uprisings as the main combat wound down.
It was in the ancient and historic city of Babylon that the young corporal got a firsthand look at Saddam's greed. "There were all these beautiful historic ruins dating back to the days of Alexander the Great that had obviously meant a great deal to the people," he says, "and Saddam had built one of his palaces right in the middle of them. The place was absolutely amazing, so huge and unbelievably ornate. As I wandered through it, I found myself wondering how anyone could feel the need for such an elaborate place."
Only after the Saddam regime had fallen did Strange get to know some of the people he had helped liberate. Assigned to a unit that provided security for a colonel who toured various cities to determine conditions and safety, he was routinely invited into homes to share meals with the natives. "The Iraqis are great people. I ate a lot of lamb and fish during the last months of my tour," he says. There were also a lot of memorable and feel-good embraces and handshakes.
And, of course, the isolated and ongoing battles with small pockets of enemy soldiers still loyal to the Saddam regime continued. "Every unit has experienced some of that," he admits. And, in his absence, it is still ongoing. Continuing danger and death, he acknowledges, remain a part of the Iraq landscape.
Yet for every sniper encountered, there were also friends made. "There was this Iraqi interpreter who traveled with us," he says, "and we became good friends. He could speak excellent English and wanted to know everything about America, the music, the food, the nightclubs, things like that. He badly wants to come here for a visit."
And lessons learned. "Being over there opened my eyes to things I'd never really thought that much about; the freedom we have here to do what we want and go wherever we please. And when you're that far away, you gain a new appreciation of family and friends."
Then, there were the occasional wistful moments: In the early days of the conflict, when there was grave concern that the enemy would use chemical weapons against American troops, Trina, a carrier pigeon, sat perched in a small cage anchored to the hood of the Humvee that Strange drove. "Actually," he explains with a laugh, "we had a male name for the bird until one day it laid an egg." The pigeon's purpose, however, was deadly serious. If it suddenly died, it was a signal for the soldiers to put on the gas masks they kept at arm's reach.
"Fortunately, Trina lived, and we never had to use the masks." She did, however, eventually escape. "During a routine cage-cleaning, she got out and flew away. I think she'd had enough of the war."