Mike Tharp: Why am I going back to Iraq?

June 13, 2009 

Mike Tharp

Time to head to war again.

Yeah -- why would a member of AARP qualified for Social Security grab the same olive-drab duffel bag -- one that's been to five other wars -- pack it full and fly back to Iraq?

Good question.

Sir Edmund Hillary's answer about climbing Everest? Because it's there?

Partly true.

Because McClatchy's foreign editor Roy Gutman asked again, after a rotation last summer?

For sure.

Because Corinne Reilly, our county reporter, has now been to Baghdad twice and done a stellar job both times?

You bet. An editor's got to lead from the front.

To bear witness for Mercedians about a war they're paying for, especially the six KIAs from our county and the 12,000 to 14,000 Mercedian veterans?

Right on.

Old War Dog friends offered advice, some of it serious. Joe Galloway, a McClatchy columnist and author of two classic books on the Vietnam War ("We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young;" "We Are Soldiers Still") reminded "to watch your arse -- you and I are getting a little long in the tooth to go chasing after 19-year-old Marines."

Matthew Fisher spent three days again in Merced last week before moving to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he'll spend the next two-and-a-half years in a tent covering that war for Canadian newspapers.

He brought an OD ball cap with a cloth neck protector hanging down, French Foreign Legion style -- "like 'Beau Geste,' Mike!"

Quang Pham, a Marine chopper pilot in the Persian Gulf War and Somalia, repeated his 2008 advice: hydrate and "be fit enough to drag any wounded to safety."

Mike Hedges, who provided last summer's "battle rattle" (body armor, Kevlar helmet, goggles) wished he was going along in what would be a fourth time together in a war zone.

Richard Pyle, AP's Saigon bureau chief for three years during that war, wrote that "Eye-Rack is far from over."

Doc Egeler, winner of a Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman's Badge in 'Nam, advised to "keep your head down, young man!"

Brad Handley, who spent three years in Laos fighting with the Hmong a generation ago, provided a gold pen made from a 50-caliber machine gun round.

This time feels different.

Last summer, it was all gung-ho and ready, fire, aim! But then six weeks in Iraq, including 10 days embedded with the 10th Mountain Division in Kirkuk, became part of conscience and consciousness as no other war -- except Vietnam as a soldier -- had become. And the war is still going on.

Last year, Merced had been a place of residence for less than a year. This time Merced is home.

Last year, family and friends were worried. This time, not so much.

Brother Steve's wife Paula, in Sacramento, warned to "never, never, never volunteer." Marlene Bien, wife of best friend Greg in Kansas, passed along a mantra from Buddha, via Father Edward Hays, our high school and college guru: "With our thoughts we make our world. Think pleasant thoughts."

This time three or four weeks of the six-week deployment, Inshallah, will be spent embedded with U.S. Army or Marine units withdrawing from Iraqi cities to their FOBs (forward operating bases). An important political move, but one that leaves them tactically at their most vulnerable.

Embedded, Inshallah, with a mostly Iraqi unit and a Baghdad McClatchy bureau reporter who speaks Arabic so it can be learned how well the two supposed allies are working together.

Embedded, Inshallah, with a completely Iraqi unit, and a McClatchy interpreter, to see if Iraq can step up while America stands down.

Sandstorms, Iraqi political news, balky American and Iraqi public affairs officers and other forces could conspire to dash the plan.

But that's the plan.

This time Mission No. 1 will be to find out if American troops remain hoo-ah and ooo-rah about their mission -- even though that mission has changed as often as the Iraqi "shamaal" winds since they were first sent to The Sandbox in March 2003.

Even though the promotions and medals will now come from Afghanistan where the Obama administration is sending 30,000 more troops to fight on that front.

One question for the grunts, which came from Randy Riggins, a major in the Persian Gulf War (who let a reporter sleep in a body bag next to his Humvee during Operation Desert Storm), is the same one asked by John Kerry in 1971. Whatever you think of Kerry, then or now, his question bears repeating: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Mission No. 2: Try to get a handle on what will happen there once Americans leave the cities and, eventually, the country. Civil war? Failed state? A mostly stable Arab nation with the only elected Muslim government in the region? An oil-producing ally of the west? A client of Iran? More questions than answers.

This time feels different.

Son Nao provided three CDs and DVDs of his Zen reggae funk sound, photos of Yosemite and other national parks and video of natural wonders. Daughter Dylann handed over three wristbands she got in South America early this year. They've been a fashion statement for her dad since a 1970 visit to Vietnam's Central Highlands, where a Montagnard slipped a brass bracelet on his wrist.

They'll fit well with the brown leather one engraved with a green peace symbol Nao gave last year. Young soldiers thought it was cool. Old soldiers and officers never said one way or another.

On the way to Nao's apartment in Torrance from the hotel, another wristband lay lost on the sidewalk. White letters spelled out "BELIEVER."

Turn it inside out, and it's just a black rubber wristband.

This time feels different.

Time to saddle up.

Think pleasant thoughts.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com

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