Letters from Iraq: Outside the wire

CAMP BUCCA, Iraq (AFNS) -- My day began at 5 a.m. by attending the "guard mount" along with the other Airmen who would be conducting a patrol outside the wire. This morning, a salty old master sergeant was in charge and methodically discussed the concerns of the day. His manner bespeaks of a veteran who has clearly performed the mission more than once and is able to convey a sense of confidence expected of one with his experience.

Assembled for this "o-dark-early" briefing are the troops whose ages range from 20 years up to 50. No surprises that the 50-year-old guy is yours truly. A quick scan of the audience reveals not only men, but also women as well. From my vantage point, I see the faces of your sons and daughters poised and ready to accomplish their mission. I am proud to serve with them and realize these are America's finest.

My mission today was to provide emergency medical care in support of the Airmen patrolling sectors of the countryside. We would also provide security for a municipal meeting with local civic leaders where water supply concerns would be discussed. I was looking forward to this patrol, as it would be my first time interacting with Iraqi citizens in their neighborhoods.

Once the guard mount was complete, it was time to go. The convoy slowly headed out of the forward operating base ensuring the 5 mph speed limit was not broken. Yes, you can get a speeding ticket here and the troops don't want to have to see the "shirt" when that happens.

Our armored vehicles are heavy and have knobs and various pieces of structure that can really put a dent in your "nugget" if you hit your cranium while not wearing your helmet. Standing over 6 feet tall, I have to be really careful not to bang my head, especially while exiting the truck. Once strapped in, you put your headset on and make sure your "comm" is good to go. It never ceases to amaze me how a group of Airmen can so quickly turn a mundane subject into a hilarious comedy. There had been some talk about stopping at a local roadside vendor and trying out the menu. As the onboard medic, I voiced my concerns and within minutes the troops' conversation "bottomed" out, if you get my drift.

We arrived at our village and exited the truck. My first walk down an Iraqi street was not exactly what I had expected. Off to my left was a pile of debris where at least six puppies were nursing from their mother. Off to my right was a medium sized dog that apparently was having a bad day and liked to show his teeth.

After walking for less than 10 minutes, I was greeted by a crowd of school-aged boys who seemed like they had finally met up with a long-lost friend. I could scarcely believe the reception I was being given.

These children wanted to shake my hand and in broken English told me, "America No. 1!"

We conducted our business then made our way to the municipal building where, this time, we were greeted by older Iraqi gentlemen who were as courteous as your best friend's family. I walked around the area keeping a constant look out for suspicious activity when I got hit.

The object was a soccer ball and the perpetrator was a 6-year-old boy with a passionate love of soccer. Within minutes, this child and I were kicking his soccer ball back and forth and having a good old time. Another boy whom I would have guessed to be about 14 approached me and in broken English began discussing professional wrestling. I somehow got the impression he thought I looked like some wrestler named the "Undertaker" whom he had seen on TV. My first up close and personal interaction with the people of Iraq was definitely a genuinely friendly exchange.

Iraq is a sovereign country as of Jan. 1, 2009. This is of enormous significance because the Iraqi government is clearly driving the bus now. American servicemen and women serving here appreciate that fact because it demonstrates how far we have come in creating stability and security in this country.

The citizens of Iraq are definitely on the road to progress and are enthusiastic about an upcoming election only days away. Our role here is to defend the progress and protect against any insurgency that might attempt to disrupt that progress.

Before we departed the municipal compound, I noticed something worth mentioning in closing. Standing to my left was an African-American Airman and to my right was a Filipino-American Airman. Here were three ethnically diverse American servicemen united as one force protecting the rights of the Iraqi people who were also on the eve of a historic election. I think that's kind of cool!