Monday, April 10, 2006

The Last Statesman Article

The Idaho Statesman asked me to write one more story about my experience in Iraq and it is below.

If you missed any, most are still posted (it looks like after a year, some are being deleted now) at:
Under the title “Letters from Iraq”.

Collect ‘em all!

Boise, Idaho

Idaho soldier welcomes the comforts of homeAbout Christopher Chesak and the letters

Officer Candidate [note from Chris: FINALLY I’m in OCS!] Christopher Chesak, 36, of Boise joined the Idaho National Guard in August 2003. When he reported for boot camp in March 2004, he was the oldest recruit in a company of 150. Chesak works as an independent consultant in the outdoor industry.During the 116th's more than 10 months in Iraq, Chesak wrote a number of "Letters from Iraq" columns for The Idaho Statesman. Readers will remember the story of Chesak experiencing the birth of his first child, daughter Lillian, by telephone as soldiers moved from Kuwait into Iraq in December 2004. Or his story about one soldier who taught Iraqi children to read English by the light of a night-vision scope. [note from Chris: It was actually by the light of some chem. sticks.]About 2,000 Idaho soldiers served in northern Iraq with the 116th Brigade Combat Team. The 116th, based at Boise's Gowen Field, had about 4,000 soldiers from 20 states. The 116th was deployed for of 18 months, including training in Texas and Louisiana before leaving for the Persian Gulf.

Editor's note: Christopher Chesak wrote for The Idaho Statesman about the 116th Brigade Combat Team's experiences in Iraq. We asked him to reflect on life back home, several months after he and the 116th returned in November.

Returning to Boise from a yearlong deployment to Iraq, I quickly slipped back into the comforts, safety and familiarity of home. For days I was numb, almost unable to comprehend it all. Simply lying on my couch, drinking beer and watching football made me feel like some sort of royalty.
The once-mundane was now opulent and luxurious.

But while the physical transition was immediate, the mental and emotional transition took a little more effort.

The first thing I did to help my transition was something many other soldiers won't do: I told Sally, my wife, partner and best friend, all the stories that I couldn't tell her (or you) before.

I described to Sally the distant boom of insurgents' rockets launching, the sound of them flying overhead, and the concussive BOOM! when they hit the U.S. base across the highway from our own.

I explained about the sniper who took potshots at a comrade while I was nearby, talking to her on an Iraqi cell phone. As his squad mobilized to counter-snipe, they informed me of what was happening. I sought cover while still nonchalantly talking to her on the phone.

I expressed the gut-wrenching worry I felt for a friend wounded in the face and hand by a car bomb. I described to Sally what it felt like to clean his warm, sticky blood off the ammo boxes from his Humvee.

I also told my wife what charred body parts look like and what it's like to see a piece of meat lying in the street or wedged into the grill of your Humvee and realize that moments before it was a living, breathing Iraqi person.

We lived in that environment for a year, our senses constantly attuned to so many otherwise minor details and our mettle constantly steeled for whatever might happen next. After a year, it's difficult to let go of that hyper-aware, always-ready, expect-the-worst mind-set.

One day back home, I drove up 28th street and my mind wandered. Suddenly I noticed a pothole in the middle of my lane and instinctively gripped the wheel, readying to swerve the vehicle hard left to avoid the bomb that insurgents might have hidden inside. Luckily, before swerving into oncoming traffic, I remembered that I was now 10 time zones away from those insurgents.

Another night, I spotted a truck trespassing on a neighbor's property. Instead of calling the police, my first thought was to grab my machine gun and train my sights on them. Luckily (especially for the trespassers), I'd turned in that machine gun long ago.Still, and perhaps forever, when a car backfires, I will instinctively assume it's a gunshot and immediately scan for bad guys.

There are other physical reminders. I'm having continuing problems with my hip. I had a pre-cancerous blemish (caused by the intense Iraq sun) burned off. And my body just never quite adjusted to winter's chill this year. I guess that's to be expected since, physiologically, I had to get used to 120-degree days. It must be hard for your body to accept a 100-degree change within just a few months.

For me, those physical problems and mental reactions are slowly fading away. For those who experienced worse than I, the memories won't fade quite so quickly.

One friend from my unit confessed that he was often haunted by the image of an Iraqi man. The (presumably innocent) man was caught between my friend's Humvee and an exploding car bomb. The man was blown across the hood and windshield of the Humvee, giving my friend a firsthand and up-close view of the man's final moments.I hope that time will help him deal with that image, as it has with my own mental snapshots of the violence we witnessed. But dealing with it doesn't mean those images will ever be forgotten.

I actually do what I can to share those experiences, showing my photos (the non-graphic ones) to friends and family, our church (twice), Kiwanis, Rotarians, nurses, grammar and middle schools and whoever else will listen.

A lot of veterans prefer to never speak about these things, but I want all the people back here to know what we went through, what our lives where like, what we missed back home — and to never forget what amazing freedoms, comforts and safety we have in this country.

I know I will never forget that. Nor will I ever forget just how good my own couch feels. Or how a beer fresh out of my refrigerator tastes when I drink it in the confines of a peaceful nation, a quiet hometown and the serenity and protection of home.

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