As Desert Storm fermented in Middle Eastern sands in 1991, Keith Simpson got an itch to become a soldier. He never got around to scratching it. More than a dozen years later, he dug his nails in. In the summer of 2002, Simpson chucked his job as an IBM computer technician and went from maintaining networks and blocking viruses in Dallas to sniffing out roadside bombs and disrupting ambushes in Iraq. Simpson, 33, is an Army specialist with the "Wolfhounds" infantry regiment, 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. He was due back in Dallas by New Year's Day and had hoped to re-up with IBM. Instead, his brigade's tour was extended because of Iraqi elections scheduled for January 30. He hopes to return home in mid-March--conditions permitting. This interview was conducted with Simpson via e-mail. He responded from an undisclosed location near the Sunni Triangle.
What prompted you to join the armed forces?
I remember distinctly the day I decided to join the military. It was during the summer of 2002, and I was out with some friends at a bar for some happy hour drinks and food. 9/11 was still pretty fresh in everyone's thoughts, and we always got together to discuss it, and politics, world events and so on. During these get-togethers there would always be one or two people in the group [who] would always bitch and moan about "well, if I were in this position, I'd do things this way" or "if I were in charge, terrorism wouldn't be as big a problem for the United States." You get the picture. Well, one day I just got fed up with hearing it all, and I remember saying something to the affect of "why don't ya shut the hell up and actually DO something to help out instead of complaining about what should be?" Figured I should take my own advice.
When and where were you sent to Iraq?
My unit was sent to Iraq during the last two weeks of January 2004. Our forward operations base is located somewhere between Tikrit and Kirkuk. Most of my time has been spent at base here, helping patrol the surrounding area. I've also been to Kirkuk quite a few times, have been through Tikrit, Baghdad, Balad, and so many lil' villages and towns I can't count 'em all.
What went through your mind when you were sent there?
All sorts of things. We were originally set to deploy to Afghanistan for 6-9 months, and then later in the year (2003) we were told, "Oh, sorry, it's been changed to a year long tour in Iraq." I suppose you could say a bit anxious, excited, and concerned all at the same time.
What did you expect to find and what have you actually found?
What we expected were a bunch of people who would be glad to have us around, seeing as how we liberated their country from Saddam Hussein. What we found was something different. It's true that there are some locals who genuinely want us here to help rebuild their country and create a more stable and fair government, and we've been trying to do that. But most all of them would just rather see us go home, [or wish] that we had never showed up in the first place. Not too surprised really. Imagine if the Iraqi Republican Guard decided to land on our soil uninvited to "liberate" us from our own president.
How do you find the Iraqi people?
The kids are nice. Sometimes they bug ya too much (mister, mister, gimmie!) but they're nice and look up to us. The adults? It's a mixed bag. Some are friendly and will come up to talk to us, others you can tell that they'd just as soon shoot ya if they knew they could get away with it. Overall most of 'em would rather just be left alone. The ING [Iraqi National Guard] soldiers we work with when we set up joint checkpoints with are pretty friendly. We've had all sorts of discussions with them about family life, their feelings and thoughts about their country's situation, religious differences between us and them, etc. You can't trust any of them.
What is your typical day like?
Well, for starters I'm an infantry soldier. So some of my days consist of going out on patrols with my platoon, either looking for IEDs--improvised explosive devices, the PC term for road-side bomb--providing convoy security, manning checkpoints with ING personnel, securing various zones/villages, basically just lookin' for trouble. We also spend time going to various villages and towns in our local AO (area of operations) to talk with locals, make our presence known--that kinda thing. The kids are friendly and like to talk with us most times. We'll give 'em things like Beanie Babies, soccer balls, MRE's [meals ready to eat], etc. Just whatever we have on hand to give out. Back in June of this year myself and two other soldiers in my battalion were sent down to Kuwait for 10 days to train on how to fly and operate UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicle). So some days I spend time flying recon missions with it as well now. It's pretty cool, small enough you can hand-launch it. I can't go into too much detail on its capabilities for obvious reasons, but let's just say it's been a big help on certain missions.
What have been some of your most harrowing experiences?
I've had a few--IED attacks, ambushes, small arms fire, being shelled, and so on...our base has been shelled a lot. That can wear on ya a bit. Or feeling a bullet wiz right by your head. Or watching an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] fired at ya skip under your humvee and slam into the hill behind ya, or watching another RPG hit the back of your buddies' humvee and bounce off into the street because it was a dud. I guess you could call some of that harrowing. One that stands out at the moment was the second IED attack our platoon took earlier this year. We were driving out to a meeting between our platoon leader and one of the sheikhs that ran one of the villages in our AO. We had just crossed a bridge and were driving up a steep hill. I was in the back of a cargo humvee pulling security with two other men in my squad. I remember passing what looked like a large hole that had been covered up on the passenger side of the road, and one of the guys with me said, "Ya know, that would be a good spot for an IED." About 5 seconds later a rather large IED just happened to go off from that very spot and scored a direct hit on the humvee behind us. It disabled the humvee, and the concussion from the blast knocked out the driver and the front seat passenger. By some miracle my friends in the back of that humvee (and keep in mind they had virtually no protection or armor plating at all to hide behind) suffered no more than a few scratches and popped eardrums. The way the bomb was buried, the majority of blast had gone straight up instead of out and that probably saved their lives. When it went off I remember saying, "Ah shit, we got another one" and then thinking that all of my friends in that humvee were just killed and that there was no way they coulda survived that blast. The crater was big enough you could drop a full-sized humvee into it.
What most surprised you about how the war is covered in the news?
There wasn't too much surprise really. Everyone here knows that the news doesn't cover shit as far as the war goes (grin). For every story you hear on the news about everything that goes on over here in Iraq, there's 100 more ya don't know about. All the big networks, they only go to Baghdad or Fallujah it seems, so of course that's all ya hear about. It's rough there, no doubt about it, and I got a lot of respect for the soldiers and Marines stuck in that hellhole, and there's a lot of action there that the networks are gonna want to cover. But you never hear about the smaller battles and skirmishes that go on in at least some spot in this country every single day. And what they do report is never 100 percent accurate, either facts are left out on purpose because it's considered classified, or the details have been twisted to fit the story. Or it's just flat-out misinformation. I was skeptical about the news before being deployed here, now I'm of the mindset that you're getting a generalization at best. Better off getting the details from someone who was actually there and involved, ya know?
How is Baghdad like Dallas? How is it different?
From what I've seen it's not too different from every other shit-hole in this country. It's just bigger and there's more of it.
What is your impression of your mission?
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Let's put it this way: Officially we were sent here to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam's rule, and then to establish the peace and to secure and rebuild this country, and to get their government back on its feet, in such a way that will benefit the people who live here...What we have to do to ensure that that happens isn't what I'd say would leave a good "impression" on the soldiers having to do it. However, it's what we do, because our country needs us to do it, and I sure as hell didn't sign up to not serve my country. So there ya go.
What has surprised you the most over the course of your tour?
I think what's surprised me the most is the resilience that I see in the men that I work with day in and day out. Everyone here has been in at least one or two close calls, has had friends killed or hurt bad enough to be sent home. But none of that seems to have fazed anybody. Yeah, we have our bad days just like anybody else would, but no one here has cracked under the pressure, or have tried to kill themselves or has folded when things get bad. We've come back from missions where you KNOW we were lucky to have come back alive or unhurt, but at the end of the day we all just joke and smoke around like it was no big deal. I guess it's not after awhile. I dunno for sure. All I know is that the men here have been through some hard times and will go back being stronger for having been through it all. --Mark Stuertz
Letter Home A grunt's-eye view from near the Sunni Triangle