Special Reports

Moments of joy and beauty counter Iraq's despair and poverty

Statesman reporter Roger Phillips spent a month in Kirkuk, Iraq, following soldiers from the Idaho National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team. These are his thoughts upon leaving Iraq and returning home to Idaho:

There are many ways to describe Iraq: Third World, war-torn, poverty-stricken and backwards.

But that’s not what it has been for me.

Yes, there are moments of tragedy and sadness, despair and depression. When a bomb detonates in the middle of the night, you know someone probably just died.

But many moments of joy and beauty counterbalance that.

The first thing that comes to mind is the Iraqi kids, who will sprint barefoot through a garbage strewn street to stand on the corner and wave at a Humvee full of soldiers.

Next would be the bond and affection between soldiers. They’ve forged friendships tempered by sweltering Texas heat, Louisiana hurricanes, cramped tanks, dusty Humvees, bullets in Baqubah, IEDs in Kirkuk and countless other dangers and suffering. They’ve cultivated friendships that normally take a lifetime to create, and that’s probably how long they will last.

There also are subtle moments that rarely filter back home and almost never show up on international news broadcasts, such as:

* Sitting around a fire behind the barracks and staring alternately into the flames and into the night sky, seeing the same stars you would see from back home.

* Seeing a crescent moon rise over a mosque, flames from an oil well dancing on the horizon.

* Watching soldiers share their packages from home rather than hoarding them.

* Knowing that when someone says "I've got your back," they mean it literally, and would probably take a bullet to keep that promise.

* Seeing soldiers doubled over belly-laughing at jokes only they understand, like a story about sticking a Humvee in a puddle of raw sewage and gagging from the stench. It’s the funniest thing in the world two weeks later, but only if you were there.

* Driving down an Iraqi freeway and seeing a shepherd tending a flock of sheep in a scene so timeless it could have come straight from the Bible.

* Hearing the Muslim call to prayers and feeling the spirit even though you can't understand a word.

* Sharing jokes with a 19-year-old Iraqi interpreter who is getting his first taste of real freedom. Watching him blush when soldiers offer to take him back to the states and hook him up with girls.

* Seeing a spontaneous hug between a soldier and a Iraqi government official when the official announces his wife is pregnant.

* Knowing that when it's all over in Iraq, the soldiers will come home and enjoy the freedom in America that they will probably never again take for granted.

— Roger Phillips