Iraq War veteran Michael J. Whitehead shares some of the lessons he learned on the battlefield in Iraq, about the strength of the Iraqi people, and the importance of leaving the country in better shape than he found it.
From the moment that I left Iraq on February 28, 2004, and unloaded my weapons at the Kuwaiti border, I have struggled to communicate what I learned there and how the experience of being there has changed my life. For this reason I have hesitated to speak my mind, but I made a promise when I was in Iraq and I want to come forward now and speak what I believe.
I believe in the Iraqi people. I did not believe in them when I arrived in Iraq but I believed in them when I left. I had few occasions to meet the sullen and suspicious Sunnis of Ramadi. I spent most of my time among the majority Shia in towns like Hilla, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala, and Kut. The more that I came into contact with these people the more I was impressed with their industriousness, piety, courtesy, and sense of family. The most enduring memory for me is not of an Iraqi with his fist held high in anger, but of an Iraqi family, the mother in full-length abaya carrying a baby and the father, walking ahead in a white dishdasha, and holding a small child.
I cannot forget the Iraqi woman who came forward despite great personal danger to lead the women’s rights center that we created in Karbala. I shared with her a picture of my family that I carried in my helmet. She gave me a postcard of Karbala to give to my daughter. I think of this woman often, and I do not even know her name. When I think of the sacrifices that I made, and the sacrifices that my family made, I believe that they were made for this woman.
I believe in the Iraqi people. I believe in the message of the Iraqi woman that I saw in the streets of Hillah. She looked at me, an American soldier wearing a helmet and body armor, and carrying a loaded weapon, and wasn’t afraid. If she had been, she would not have lifted her baby’s arm to wave at me.
Many times when I was in Iraq I was thanked, often by grown men in tears, for helping to remove the terror and the horror that had beset these men’s lives for over 30 years. And I promised them, each one, that this time we would see the job through, that after awakening them from their nightmare we would lead them to the democracy that they deserve. When I made that promise, I believed what I said. And I continue to believe it today.
Michael J. Whitehead served in the Army and Army Reserves for 30 years. He has written a novel about his Iraq War experiences titled “The Lion of Babylon.” Now an emergency manager for the state of Florida, Whitehead has helped direct relief efforts for 18 hurricanes.
Independently produced by John Gregory and Dan Gediman. This essay is part of our collection Stories from the Military Family.
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