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Deployment gives newfound appreciation for life

COLUMBUS AFB, Miss. -- A number of people have asked me what "hit me" as returned from my tour in Iraq. I'd have to say it included giggles from children at play, the delirious scent of magnolias and all the luscious green from lawns, shrubs and trees.

The contrast with burning trash and dusty rubble in Baghdad is pretty stark. My tour gave me a newfound appreciation for God's blessings, especially relationships with family and friends.

There's another part of me, however, that was pained to leave Iraq because of the urgency of our work there. I felt torn out of a line of levy-builders racing against a flood of anarchy and ill will.

I'm grateful to be reunited with my family and freed from the constant threat injury, but knowing that my colleagues continue the lethal struggle on the other side of the world still haunts me. So, please allow me to share a few words of appreciation for those who carry the torch today in Iraq.

My team's mission was to equip and advise officials in the Iraqi government and members of their security forces. Meeting them was often a laborious process of scheduling armored convoys or airlift, arranging for interpreters, and then hoping the intended official made it through the maze of checkpoints to our rendezvous. 

On arrival, I lumber out of my armored car in my own heavy "battle rattle" and weaponry, wave good-bye to the convoy, and cautiously move with a partner and interpreter to the meeting place.

My armor and camouflage contrasts sharply with the Iraqis, smartly dressed in business attire. I highly valued the robust measures America took to keep me safe, but I learned my Iraqi colleagues--often protected by no more than thin cotton shirts--were even more at risk than me because of their unpopular role in the fledgling government. In fact, one of my primary contacts who administered communications for police forces was fresh in the job because his predecessor was brutally assassinated.

I was struck by the enormous risks these brave Iraqi "founding fathers" took daily in hopes of building a nation that can peaceably govern itself one day. Many of them appreciated our assistance in toppling the dictator who killed, maimed, imprisoned and otherwise persecuted their families. 

One of my interpreters had been jailed and his father tortured and executed in the very building where we worked. But nothing required them to continue their sacrifices in the face of assassinations and political frustrations.

Per custom, the Iraqis offer me tea and inquire about my health and the welfare of my family. I share pictures of my wife and children, and we chat about the hope that Iraq will someday be safe enough for my family to come see their history and culture first-hand. 

I learned that some of them currently have to keep their families hidden and move them around when the neighborhood gets too prickly. Some of them don't even allow their families to know the nature of their work. 

Everyone was accustomed to gunfire and explosions that routinely rocked the buildings. When threats intensified, officials slept in their offices to avoid the dangerous trek to and from work each night. 

Despite these dangers, the concern they raised most often to me was about making "progress" in the government. The frustrations of organizing a new government that could effectively lead the nation were enormous. Many of their efforts were compromised by politics or coordination problems. When I asked them why they didn't use their impressive education and credentials to leave the country and live more securely elsewhere, they all said they felt an obligation to rebuild their homeland rather than live the good life elsewhere.

I'm impressed with the similarities between these Iraqi patriots and the signers of our own Declaration of Independence. Our founders faced death by hanging by signing their names to that paper. They put everything they had at risk for the hope of a life free from tyranny. 

I thought of the airmen and other GI's down through the centuries who fought in wars to defeat enemies and preserve our way of life. I thought about our present struggle to strengthen our country against terrorists and anarchists. I'm convinced many of our own enemies are using Iraq as their playground, trying to squash the Iraqi patriots struggling to construct an effective government. I swell with pride at the brief opportunity I had to serve with these heroes. 

I hope the Americans, British, Australians, and others who partner in Iraq today will make progress toward a peaceful and tyranny-free country. 

Back at Columbus AFB, I serve with renewed enthusiasm to produce Air Force pilots who will mount up with wings like eagles against those who prey on us and our allies. And I'll keep telling the story of my Iraqi friends who deserve our respect and our prayers.