One hundred and sixty days.
That’s how long the soldiers of the Keene-based 220th Transportation Company have been in Iraq.
As the unit reached the midway point of its deployment during my recent reporting trip to Contingency Operating Base Speicher outside Tikrit, I wrote about the ways the soldiers have settled into life thousands of miles from home.
But my time in Iraq totaled just over two weeks and those reports captured a mere snapshot of life there.
For most of the 160-some soldiers of the 220th, their stay will likely eclipse 300 days.
In that time, they’ll miss holidays, birthdays, first steps. Some will lose loved ones; others will gain loved ones who will know them only as a grainy image on a computer screen until they return.
I was fortunate. My brief visit was sandwiched between the summer — with its miserable, sweltering days when temperatures climb into the triple digits before the sun is even up — and the coming winter, which promises to turn the powder-dry desert into a sticky mud pit.
The closest I ever came to experiencing the choking haze of the sandstorms described to me by the soldiers of the 220th was standing in the unit’s motor pool watching a row of trucks leave for an early-morning convoy, their tires kicking up a thick blanket of dust that burned my eyes and scratched in my throat for hours.
When I asked one young soldier working on a truck on a particularly hazy day whether all the dust bothered him, he pulled a scarf hanging around his neck over his nose and mouth and shrugged.
“You get used to it, ma’am,” he told me.
And so it goes for the soldiers of the 220th.
They go to work every day in conditions that many of us will never fully know or understand. It’s a 24/7 tempo, with convoys leaving any time of any day.
While none of the unit’s vehicles has been hit by improvised explosive devices, soldiers in the 220th have reported a handful of incidents involving vehicles they’ve traveled with in convoys, including security vehicles and tractor-trailer trucks owned by private contracting companies.
No major injuries were reported, but the soldiers know it’s risky each time the trucks roll away from the relative safety of a military base and onto the open highways of Iraq.
As the unit’s commander, Capt. Adam D. Ziegner of Newfane, Vt., told me during my first day at the base:
“We have made safety our primary focus. In the beginning, you worry about inexperience. Toward the end, you have to be careful about complacency. People start to think, ‘Oh, it’s just another mission,’ and that’s dangerous.”
For many of the soldiers, camaraderie with one another is born out of the tough conditions they face together so far from home.
Sgt. Justin Morales of Latham, N.Y., put it best one day when I asked why he decided to delay a scheduled transfer from the 220th to a unit closer to his home. He’d deployed with the unit in 2005 and stuck around so he could go this time, too.
“You go on a deployment and you get a certain brotherhood,” he said. “You don’t want to leave that.”
And while the soldiers’ focus is on their day-to-day missions, on a larger scale the unit is playing a role in the transformation of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
When the 220th arrived in July, it was part of the tail end of the combat operation known as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
By September, the U.S. mission had a new name — Operation New Dawn — and the number of U.S. troops thinned to 50,000.
The fading U.S. presence was evident in many ways during my visit to Iraq.
Some bases have closed or been handed over to Iraqi security forces. The ones that remain are shrinking from installations that once boasted multiple dining halls and fast food restaurants to minimal facilities. Throughout my visit, for example, several soldiers lamented the recent closure of the Burger King at Speicher.
At Balad Airbase north of Baghdad one afternoon, a couple of tractor-trailer trucks passed by hauling away containerized housing units that soldiers had lived in, and I saw neat piles of unused concrete T-walls — the 15-foot-high protective barriers placed around buildings and base perimeters — stacked near a road.
The 220th’s job in this transition is hauling supplies and vehicles in support of the “advise and assist” work being done by U.S. troops aimed at training Iraqi security forces to take over the task of keeping their country stable and secure.
Along with moving military vehicles throughout Iraq to support the ongoing work there, a number of the unit’s convoys involve hauling vehicles bound for Kuwait and, eventually, on to wherever they’re needed next by the military.
With the unit’s workload increasing to keep up with demand, the soldiers are spending more and more time on the road.
Ask those who have been to Iraq before if they’ve noticed any changes, and most will point to a drop in violence against U.S. troops and a growing amount of rebuilding. Even soldiers in Iraq for the first time said they could sense changes in the country.
Many soldiers, like Pfc. Keith Corriveau of Peterborough, carry digital cameras on convoys and snap photos of children who stand along the roads and of the changing landscape.
“Someday I want to be able to show them to my kids or grandkids and tell them about what I saw,” said Corriveau, who is on his first deployment.
It’s a landscape dotted with new businesses and half-finished buildings. Farmers tend crops in irrigated fields, and roadside stands display impressive arrays of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Yet nothing in war is simple, and amid the signs of hope in Iraq the scars of war remain.
Roadsides are littered with trash and shoddy concrete patches cover holes in the highways from past explosions. Bombs still kill civilians almost daily and the future of the country’s government is uncertain.
So, the story continues.
And, until the soldiers head home next year, the deployment of the 220th Transportation Company does, too.
Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or firstname.lastname@example.org