(c) Roger Leo
Spc. Jairo M. Melgar, 31, of the Bronx, N.Y., with the Scouts of Dawg/HHC Co. 1-8 Cav. patrols a rural road in Baghdad, next to a burned-out billboard promising a new Iraq.
I am not a soldier, but I am living with soldiers, and sharing their lives. Day after day for a year, the men of 1-8 Cav have patrolled Iraq, driving through city streets and rural roads. Everytime they go off the FOB -- Forward Operating Base Falcon in Baghdad -- they are targets for attack from small arms fire, snipers, bombs, grenades, rockets and mortars. So far, seven troopers in the battalion have died in combat and scores have been wounded. They are men, doing men's work, carrying weapons in a land where they are strangers to everyone but each other. In this savage place each truly holds the lives of the others in his hands. Most of them are young -- 19, 20, 25 years old -- living together in barracks that run out of water, where the toilets never all work, where the air conditioners break in summer, where it's noisy, and from where there is no escape. For them, this is it. They talk about the things soldiers have talked about across time on campaigns far away: home, girlfriends, their weddings, the birth of their children, food and favorite restaurants, friends, school, summer jobs, dogs, cars, getting drunk at Fort Hood, sliding into second base, their grandfather's farm. They talk about their time in Iraq, how they convoyed up from Kuwait, how they were hit hard by the insurgents when they first arrived, how they learned to fight a new kind of war. And every day they go outside the wire, never knowing when a bomb will blow up underneath their truck, or when a car loaded with explosives will drive into them and go off, or when any of the other horrors of war will visit them. They come back to the FOB, and eat the same food they have eaten for a year, and live in barracks with the same people they have lived with for a year. The soldiers are family to each other in a place where there is no other. But real as this is, they have a deeper reality to which they cling. They all dream of home, of girlfriend or wife, and it becomes in a way the center of themselves. This center is what allows them to go out every day and put themselves in harm's way. Being a soldier is their job, they chose it and they do it, but when they are safe, they long for their real home back in the world, and the person who waits there. Those who have been to war will understand. And those who love them should.