Danville Express

Living - December 21, 2007

Christmas in Iraq

Danville reservist tells about life near the Green Zone

by Natalie O'Neill

From a gravel parking lot five miles outside Baghdad's precarious Green Zone, Lt. Col. Felix Boston is losing reception on his cell phone.

He walks a few feet.

"Can you hear me now?" he asks.

It's 10 p.m. at Camp Liberty and the 50-degree evening is winding down as Boston explains a day in the life of soldiers in north western Iraq.

"Most people will never fire their weapons, but they could die any minute," he says. "We're just trying to make things better over here, so we can go home."

On this Tuesday, exactly two weeks before Christmas, Boston is finishing up administrative work. He's handling paperwork, not ammo. But this is just one Tuesday - 24 hours - in a place where even the most mundane hour could be his last.

Up until last spring, the 57-year-old Danville Army reservist sold insurance on Front Street. Now he's at the forefront of "provincial reconstruction" - a fancy name for rebuilding schools, businesses, power plants and sewers.

In nine months, Boston has gone from insurance agent to international diplomat, complete with a translator, body armor and rifle.

To the locals he works with, he's the face of the American military. He's side by side Iraqi community leaders and businessmen, and he knows firsthand the attitudes of those Iraqi civilians.

"The guys that used to shoot at us, now they're on our side. They're tired of the war," he says.

Last week the American military death toll reached 3,888. According to Iraqi Body Count, an independent organization tracking the country's death toll, more than 78,500 Iraqi civilians have died in war-related incidents since 2003.

The numbers are grim, but Boston says he's hopeful.

"It's getting better. You have to be honest with them and try to help them," he explains.

November marked the lowest death tolls for both military service members and Iraqis since February 2006, when the bombing of a Shiite shrine set off a violent retaliation, according to the Associated Press.

In the past three months, Boston says he's seen about 250 businesses open in his area. Previously there were only about 50, he says.

When it comes to rebuilding Iraq, nothing much changes on Christmas Day - or Thanksgiving, or Hanukkah for that matter.

"It's pretty much a normal workday, maybe with a little more decorations... You're not around your relatives and neighbors, but you're around military members and that's your family. Everything you do is for the guy next to you," Boston says.

In Iraq, military holidays are generally defined by more food and more time to sleep. On Thanksgiving, he says the most notable change on base was that the cafeteria was open longer.

A lot of people don't know how much great food is at the base, he says, including "the best pecan pie you've ever had."

Sending holiday food packages to soldiers isn't the best choice if they are at Camp Liberty, he says, although he adds that homemade brownies are an exception to the rule.

"We don't need more candy. Someone sent a daily newspaper and people were more interested in that," he says.

His friends joke there is so much food at Camp Liberty, they should be sending it home to civilians.

The level of comfort that service members have on base is one thing that's unique about the war, he says. At his base there's a food court, big screen TVs, new release (albeit bootleg) DVDs, cold drinks, work-out facilities and air conditioning.

But outside, where the front line is essentially invisible, every person and object must be thought of as a potential explosive device. In the summer months, temperatures climb into the mid 130s - and they nonetheless keep wearing their 60 pounds of gear.

"It's not like the John Wayne movies, we only shoot people when they are shooting at us," he says.

Many of the men and women who work with Boston on provincial reconstruction have to learn how to be engineers and diplomats on the spot, he said.

"The way it's been working is someone will say, 'I need a sewer guy,' and, well, he majored in English but he's gonna learn," Boston says.

Provincial readiness teams consist of a senior State Department officer as the team leader, a civil affairs officer as the deputy team leader, and up to nine other members with a variety of skill sets.

One common misconception is that most Americans in and near Baghdad are young men ages 18-21. While that demographic is generally outside "the wire" and involved in combat, the bulk of Americans that Boston comes in contact with are middle-aged civilian contractors on base.

Boston is part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division and agreed to come out of a command assignment in civil affairs to be the deputy of the team.

He moved from Texas in 1990 and had been in the Air Force for 12 years before he joined the Army 13 years ago. He is scheduled to arrive back in the States in late March.

Boston had to relinquish his insurance business of 17 years when he was deployed, and he has nothing set up for the spring.

"He's got a good heart," Steve Luehe, a friend who is concerned that Army reservists aren't protected enough by their employers after they are activated.

Boston said he'd rather not comment on the issue.

American reserve soldiers perform part-time but can be called upon at any time to do full-time duty. When they are activated in times of war they must sometimes abruptly uproot their lives, including jobs and personal relationships. Often after serving duty, employers have filled their positions and can't or won't hire them back.

In March, Boston plans to fly into North Carolina and take a cross-county motorcycle trip back home in order to unwind. He's says he's most looking forward to visiting his old friends and seeing his black Labrador, Mabel.

"It's getting safer over here - but there is still a long way to go," he says.


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