The dog days of summer have arrived and thoughts typically turn to deep questions about vacations and gardening and barbecues. But I need to remind you that a savage, bloody, unpopular war is raging overseas and thousands of American soldiers are putting their lives on the line 24/7 so that the toughest choice many of us will have this weekend is Harry Potter versus Bruce Willis.
One of those soldiers is Staff Sergeant Christopher Garcia, San Luis Obispo High School Class of ’89. His boots hit the ground in Iraq last February and Chris has been counting the days, weeks, and months until he is scheduled to come home in August (assuming his deployment doesn’t suddenly get extended).
Chris is stationed at Kirkuk Regional Air Base in Iraq, due north of Baghdad. This is his second tour of duty in the Middle East; back in ’92, Chris served on board a ship in the region. This time, as he explained during a phone interview last week, it’s totally different. He’s on their ground. He sees what the faces of the Iraqi people look like.
“I’m sacrificing with some amazing men and women in the U.S. military,” Chris says. “We’re doing the job the military requests of us. I’m working with men and women who go out every single day and put their lives on the line for the safety of the base, the people who live here, and the people back home.”
You might think it’s been hot around here lately, but try being in Iraq in July, where daytime temps typically hit the 120-to-125-degree range. Then throw on full military gear and sit in a Humvee—the temperature is now easily over 140. It is so hot over there that Chris has found tar in his uniform from where the roads have melted.
Fortunately, Chris has drawn night duty and works in the relatively cooler 90-degree evening climate. A typical shift for him runs from 6 p.m. to 10.a.m. as he helps provide security for the base, running patrols around the perimeter, or manning one of the guard towers. Security demands that he works in pitch darkness, forcing him to develop “night eyes.” He tries to sleep during the day, but the constant heat makes it nearly impossible.
“We have an extremely important job here,” Chris told me. “The people know they’re protected, but things happen. We’ve been here through the three most deadliest months of the war. Iraq is a dangerous place, but we’re trying to keep it safe. Kirkuk hasn’t seen the major situations like in Baghdad, but we always have to be vigilant. We have a group meeting every night and that’s what we tell each other: Stay vigilant.”
The best part of his duty is giving gifts to local children and Iraqi police officers, helping change their perception of Americans. The worst part is participating in the ceremonies when the flag-draped coffins of fallen comrades are sent home.
You can’t talk to someone serving in Iraq without wanting to ask the obvious questions, but such curiosity is tempered in knowing that a military PR flack hovers around Chris, listening to his every word as we talk. So it’s not surprising to hear Chris suggest that the recent surge needs more time to succeed, or that he believes that the people back home aren’t getting the complete picture from the American media.
He declines to be dragged into the politics of the war. “We’re a professional military force,” Chris insists. “ We all have our personal views. The TVs are on during meals and we hear the news. But we have a mission to do. You go forward and get it done. We defend everyone’s views, whether in support of us, or not.”
Local groups like Military Parents of the Central Coast have been devoted in their attention to Chris and his fellow soldiers, showering them with regular packages of clean socks, Red Bull drinks, snacks and tanning lotion. Chris, who clearly has an eye on returning home soon, now prefers that everyone send over pencils and paper for Iraqi children through Operation School SuppliesDave Congalton.
Or just drop Chris a note and say hello. Thank him for his service. Hold a good thought for all our men and women in uniform overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s hope that Christopher Garcia is here next summer, safe and alive, stoking up the barbecue, wondering where to go on vacation. Somewhere cool, I’d imagine.
SLO City News (July, 2006)