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Aftermath of a Soldier
Contrary to popular belief, it rains in Iraq. When it rains in Iraq, it floods. This was the atmospheric condition Specialist Cruz experienced when he spent most of his 21st birthday on guard duty while Port-a-Potties floated by. Overall, he remembers the blistering heat more than the heavy rainfall that falls annually between November and April. “It was f---ing hot,” he said recalling the 117-degree temperatures he endured while deployed with the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The Iraqi climate is like an extreme southwestern state of the U.S.A. with hot, dry summers, cold winters, and a pleasant spring and fall.
Aside from not being able to celebrate his birthday the way a typical American would on this momentous occasion, there were a lot of other unique situations Cruz found himself in while living in Balad. He remembers carrying his weapon, an M4 rifle, at all times. It was left in the care of a fellow soldier while he showered. If no one was available at the time, the rifle would hang within arms-reach by his towel. A soldier and their weapon are never far apart during wartime.
Cruz is originally from Brooklyn, NY and enlisted in the Army in the September of 2004 shortly after marrying his high school sweetheart at age 19. A year later his unit was deployed to Iraq in October 2005 to September 2006. When he joined the military he was trained to become a Water Treatment Specialist after learning basic soldier skills in Fort Lee, Virginia. While in Iraq he performed his water treatment duties for only a month alongside the Guam National Guard. Cruz soon traded in repairing water hoses with providing security and performing guard duty. This consisted of 4-hour shifts in 24-hour intervals with 4 other soldiers. The next 24 hours he would have personal time.
During Cruz’s personal time, he had several options of how he could spend it. Aside from catching up on his sleep, he could visit one of the M.W.R. facilities. M.W.R. is the acronym for Morale, Welfare and Recreation. Started in the beginning of the twentieth century, this organization’s mission is to serve the needs, interests and responsibilities of each individual in the Army community for as long as they are affiliated with the Army (currently serving in an active or non-active duty status), no matter where they are. One of the facilities is called the P.X. (Post Exchange), which sells a wide range of merchandise. Soldiers can buy electronics, microwaveable food, and non-alcoholic beer. Here Cruz purchased CDs and magazines to not only pass the time but to also remain in contact with the world he once lived in. He listened to his music daily and even wrote his own lyrics when he was in his room, which was a trailer that he shared with another soldier. The trailers were nicknamed Pods and each soldier had a full-sized bed, nightstand and closet.
If he wished to communicate with his loved ones Cruz would visit the M.W.R. trailers that housed telephones and computers. There were usually 12 telephones and 8-20 computers available for the soldiers to share. The time restriction for computer usage was a half-hour while the phones had a 15-minute limit. Most soldiers went online to purchase virtual phone cards and $50 bought you 10 hours of talk-time. Cruz had to keep in mind the 7-hour time difference between New York and Iraq when calling his family and friends back home.
Other recreational activities were available in the big M.W.R. building, which included working out in the gym, playing pool and ping-pong, and watching movies. Every night a different movie played for who ever wanted to attend the showing. They were usually older movies but newer ones were made available by local Iraqi vendors who were allowed on the installation. Besides selling bootleg movies, these vendors sold blankets, keepsakes and souvenirs. Soldiers would also view films on mini DVD players they purchased in the P.X.
Despite the camaraderie of his unit, Cruz still longed to be “back in the states.” Holidays were especially depressing and consisted of him going to sleep early. One thing he found comfort in besides his daily workout, was food. The “Dfac” (dining facility) had a vast selection to choose from. They even had themed dinners such as “Mediterranean Night” and “Soul Food Night.” Cruz’s favorite was “Surf n Turf Night” when the Dfac workers served steak and lobster. Besides dishing up breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a fourth meal was also provided. “Midnight Chow” was available from midnight until 1:30 am.
There was very little Cruz had control over. This included which uniform he would be wearing each day. There were three categories of uniform: U1, U2 and U3. U1 consisted of the ACUs (Army Combat Uniform) and M4 rifle. U2 incorporated the ACUs, weapon and a bulletproof vest with ammo pouches and canteens. U3 was all of the above, along with the soldiers’ Kevlar helmet. A note was posted on Cruz’s door daily telling him what to wear.
Cruz did not leave the security of the base often. He completed about five missions that took him off base but he was mostly confined to the inside of the perimeter. He did not, however, escape from danger by being confined. Mortars attacked his unit regularly. (Cruz recalls that there was always a burning smell in the air). Because of these attacks, loud sounds made him uncomfortable when he redeployed back to Ft. Campbell. When he returned he felt like a new person with newfound courage. Although he is afraid of heights, Cruz attended and successfully completed Air Assault School. There he learned to rappel (roping down) off not only 50-foot towers, but also out of helicopters.
While his military career continued to flourish, his personal life suffered. The long separation that he and his wife had to endure because of Iraq, as well as the time the Army continued to demand, took a toll on their marriage. As a result they separated and divorced. He was honorably discharged in March, 2008 and returned to New York to serve part time in the National Guard. He disliked the more easygoing atmosphere of his reserve unit and debated on going back to active duty.
Cruz is now a civilian and goes by his first name. He has dreams of working as an artist in the music industry. In spite of some of his hardening experiences in Iraq, he embraced his role as a soldier. He now embraces his title as a combat veteran.