Sunday, July 09, 2006

My Soldier

Last month, I wrote about a wrenching Washington Post article about the appalling lack of basic supplies for American troops in Iraq and the tragic consequences. In addition to this lengthy feature article, the journalist and the father she profiled participated in an online chat at the Post. Brian Hart, the father of a soldier who died after being shot riding in an unarmored Humvee, emphasized that American soldiers still needed support, and not just slapping a yellow "Support the troops!" magnet on your SUV bumper either. He recommended several blogs that gave information on how you really could support the troops.

Anyone who knows me or who has followed my blog for any length of time knows that I am utterly opposed to the Iraq war, that I think it is an appalling waste of lives, American and Iraqi, and quite possibly the biggest strategic blunder in the history of American foreign policy. It is a moral travesty, one of many committed by an Administration whose corruption and lust for power seem to have no limits.

But I was touched by this father's plea. I started exploring the blogs he mentioned. In some ways, it was a disturbing trip. This was just a day or so after the two kidnapped US soldiers had been found, tortured and killed, their bodies booby-trapped with explosives. The front-page poster on one of the blogs, a woman (a soldier's wife? a soldier's mother? I don't know), began her post, "Now can we kill them?" or words along those lines. The level of violent anger, of hatred she expressed was so white-hot that I couldn't get through the post. I wanted to respond, to say something about how sorry I was, but didn't she get it yet? That sentiments like hers were a big part of what was fueling this wretched situation? Now, in light of revelations that those soldiers' horrific deaths may have been to avenge the rape and murder of an Iraqi teen and her family, it's all too easy to discern the pattern, the vicious cycle of hatred, barbarism and revenge.

But. And yet. The soldiers who are fighting this war are fighting in my name as an American, whether I want them to or not. They are frequently living in miserable conditions, under constant threat, in a war with no boundaries, no battle-lines, no clear-cut enemies and few certain friends.

So I found a website called Soldiers' Angels, where you can "adopt" a soldier who may not have a good support system at home and could use letters and care packages and the like.

I signed up. Committed to writing a letter a week and sending a care package every month or so. Shortly after filling out the forms, I received an email back from the organization with a message from "my" soldier. I won't tell you his name or where he is; we are supposed to keep that information private. But here's a part of what he wrote:
I don’t really need much but we don’t really have a lot of food and hygiene products. I have lost almost 30 pounds because of not eating that much. We have mre's but you can only take so much before you get sick of eating them."
The heat, he added, is almost unbearable.

I got a letter out right away and the first care package two days later. Of course it's hard to know what the reality is of a situation that I can't verify. I could be getting a line of b.s., who knows? But I assume he's telling the truth. And I wonder, how can the wealthiest country in the world have soldiers in a war zone who do not have enough to eat? We are not talking about the days of trench warfare here, with people cut off from supply lines and having to live out of cans because there's no way to get them other food. Particularly when KBR and friends have constructed permanent bases, small towns with Pizza Huts and ice cream stands and taco bars, how is it that guys elsewhere are only getting MREs?

I may never know. I'm told not to expect to hear back from my soldier. I may, I may not.

It was an odd feeling, packing up a box of stuff for a guy I've never met and know virtually nothing about. I sent a tub of cookies, packages of beef jerkey and trail mix, some sunscreen, toothpaste, dried fruit, paperbacks, a Sudoko book. I've got another half-full bag for the next package. I mean, how can you not want to send food to a guy who's lost thirty pounds, who's trying to survive getting shot at in 140 degree heat?

Writing letters to a person you don't know is odd as well. The organization asks that you keep the letters positive, "light" - the last thing these guys need is bad news from someone who is supposed to help support them. I would never write about my own feelings regarding this war. He doesn't need to hear that from me, I figure. But I'm not going to indulge in a bunch of "hero" rhetoric either. I can't. I just can't. Instead I talk about, well, pretty trivial stuff. The weather. The San Diego Padres winning season. Stuff like that. I wish him and his buddies well, and tell him I'll be writing again soon.

I went to mail my second card the other day. There's a post office station in a sundries store close to where I work. It's run by Korean ladies. The older one is generally pretty brusque; the younger, sort of softer and shy. She doesn't speak much English. The younger woman was there the day I went to mail the letter. I had to buy a book of stamps too, and I figured, I'd just use one of those. But the clerk, seeing that this was going overseas, to a military post office box, selected a stamp for me. A Purple Heart stamp.

Seeing this, I just wanted to cry. Thinking about this young man, a stranger, over there, the appalling, horrific waste of it all, it fills me with despair.

Tomorrow or Tuesday, I will buy a couple of things for the second care package, to supplement the crackers and beef jerky and trailmix I already have. Some razors and deodorant, maybe, and toothbrushes. And another tub of cookies. The troops really like cookies, I'm told.

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