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Soldier learns fight of ideas, not weapons

Staff Sgt. Johnny Meyer

Originally published 08.04.2007

I'm not that bad with an assault rifle. Effectively using one is really quite simple - once you figure out breath control, sight picture, trigger squeeze, posture, reloading drills, controlled pairs, windage, iron sight zero, optical sight zero, infrared laser zero, laser targeting, widget adjustment and a couple other skills the Army cannot issue.

As an infantryman, I spent my first four years in the Army learning the ins and outs of weapons, tactics and small unit leadership. When I got called back in last fall, I figured I'd be sent back to what I knew best: light infantry fighting. So upon reaching Baghdad earlier this year, it took a few minutes (days, weeks) to realize that the only thing I'd be shooting at people would be " e-mails.

The Army called me in with a bunch of other infantrymen, then chopped us apart and sent us to different "civil affairs" battalions. These are the units tagged with the illogical maxim "winning hearts and minds" -but I'll attack that metaphor another day. For now, it's enough for you to know that schmoozing with Iraqis is a 180-degree turn from running and gunning.

The particular unit to which I'm assigned has been tasked to be a part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team, and the province we're "reconstructing" is Baghdad. We consist of military personnel and several brands of civilians (State Department, Justice Department, contractors, local Iraqis, etc.), and we work to build the capacity of the provincial and city government in Baghdad. It's a bit hard to do when things keep blowing up.

In Afghanistan, where I was stationed before moving to Austin, my platoon gave me a practiced fire team that I further sharpened once we hit the ground. Before we ever saw action, I knew that my automatic rifleman, "Reno" Rains, would always have my back, and I knew that my sharpshooter, Spc. Slack, could put down anyone within 800 meters. These are good things to know before you head into combat. If I fell down, they could push me back up. At 21 years old, I was the oldest guy on the team.

To exaggerate just a bit, I've crawled out of the nursery and stumbled into the geriatric center. The average age has jumped from 20 to fiftysomething. It's sort of like hanging out with my aunts and uncles, only we can talk about sex and drinking, and everyone carries a gun - but God help me, I pray they never have to use them.

You have to remember that many of the technical jobs in the Army don't require advanced weapon skills - being a nurse, for example. I'm used to everyone around me being fully capable of destroying other people with any given weapon, and it's hard to lower my standards. But here we are not being called upon to use our weapons. Our mission is to point the local government in the right direction, and many of my infantry skills simply don't apply. Yes, I'd like to choke-out a politician once in a while, but that wouldn't be very diplomatic, much less democratic.

To help us in our mission, we have security teams that escort us (herd us) to the venues and back again. These guys are wired tight and handle everything from convoy security to navigation to opening doors. Yes, opening doors. I, Staff Sgt. Johnny Meyer, Airborne Ranger, Combat Infantryman, am not allowed to open the door to the Humvee I ride in, lest I mess up and cut myself on the door handle. This is understandable though, because if any of the passengers get killed, the security forces have to answer for it. I would do the same thing if I were in their shoes.

So here's my unit, playing politics in Baghdad. Adrenaline replaced with coffee, bullets replaced with e-mails. It sounds foolish, and perhaps it is, but I miss the closeness that comes from sweating it out with a fire team, from sleeping in craters. I recall the soft green pall that nightvision optics give to the landscape, and I remember when I first realized that I am never more alive than when I'm pushing my life to the final threshold.

I know I'm not supposed to want that sort of thing, but my office is right above the military hospital, and I watch the choppers bring in the dead and wounded from all over the country, each night and every day. And that's when I want it back. More than I want to go home, more than I want the war to stop, more than I want a glass of whiskey chased with girls - I want my fire team, and my grenade launcher, and I want to break down a door not knowing what's on the other side.

Fortunately, this new job has potential, and that helps. Most of my work is with the local Iraqis. They are Ba'athists and Sadrists, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, and they are all very real people. The contrast between us strikes me as ironic; I am the Ranger; I am the one who sleeps in the Green Zone with an assault rifle; they are the civilians; they pass through the gates and into the Red Zone without any weapon at all. They are so real to me that I'm not going to summarize them - that's a discredit to them and to what they mean to me.

Instead, I want to introduce you to some of them. That's what I'll be trying to do during the next few months.

I'll not push any particular agenda on you; after all, that's my day job, and to heck if I'm going to do that during my downtime "

Staff Sgt. Johnny Meyer is a reservist called back into the Army a few weeks into his first semester as a journalism student at the University of Texas. He occasionally contributes essays to the American-Statesman on his deployment to Iraq. Staff Sgt. Meyer welcomes readers' questions and comments at