Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflections from Iraq, and America, on the Fourth of July July 3, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:54 PM
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WHEN YOU’RE GATHERED with family or friends at a Fourth of July barbecue, just kicking back at home with a beer or taking in a fireworks display, I want you to think of guys like my brother-in-law Neil. He’s on his second tour of duty in Iraq, serving with the United States Air Force.

Back here in the States, unless you’re a veteran or an immediate family member of a military man or woman, it’s all too easy to take this day—and freedom—for granted.

Take me. I’ve been more concerned about the potatoes I’m bringing to my sister’s picnic than considering how I might show my patriotism. And then, just this morning as I thought about the Fourth and its meaning, I couldn’t remember the words to The Star Spangled Banner. Repeatedly in my head, I sang, like a stuck record, “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light.” Shame on me for forgetting the words to our national anthem.

It’s not that I don’t care about freedom and independence and patriotism. But because I’ve always been free, I likely don’t care with the depth that I should.

To those like Neil, stationed at Joint Base Balad, the central logistical hub for American forces in Iraq, the Fourth seems more meaningful. (I’ve e-mailed asking him to share his thoughts on patriotism.) “I think that the military folks have a better appreciation for our freedoms than most Americans as we’ve faced the possibility of laying down our lives for it,” Neil says.

And then he includes some information that surprises me, even though it really shouldn’t given he’s now living in a war zone. He sends me photos of the base and tells me about the mortar-mitigating roofs that cover sections of the Air Force Theater Hospital (he’s a lab manager), the gym, the dining facilities and the theater.

Whoa, wait a minute. I never really thought much about mortars hitting his base, which lies near the center of Iraq about 40 miles north of Baghdad. But why wouldn’t the Iraqis target this key military base with some 24,000 residents?

Neil writes: “You’re probably wondering, do we get a lot of attacks from outside the fence? They used to be quite frequent. These days, only occasionally. Most of the mortars fall harmlessly near the fence line, because the enemy (wisely) doesn’t want to get too close to our defenses. They seldom fall anywhere near the housing areas. I do not know of anyone getting wounded by a mortar attack when I was here last time, and so far, it hasn’t happened yet since I arrived here this time. When an attack comes, there’s usually a warning that goes off so that you have at least a few seconds to react appropriately.”

OK, then. I naively thought that since Neil isn’t on a truck convoy or a foot soldier, he is safe. But as the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I should know better. Whenever you’re in a war-torn country, you’re always in danger.

Of all the photos and information Neil e-mails, I am especially moved by the images of Hero’s Highway. The highway is not really a roadway, but rather a tented structure through which wounded soldiers enter the Air Force Theater Hospital trauma bay. A huge American flag forms the “ceiling” of this tent. You can only imagine the psychological impact this has upon those arriving here.

A large American flag decorates the tent structure, known as Hero's Highway, at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.

“The flag allows the patients to know that they’ve arrived at a US hospital,” my brother-in-law writes. “We have a record of saving lives – 98% of the patients who have arrived here alive have also left here alive. A statistic like that provides reassurance to those that are out on the battlefield.” Indeed.

Wanting to lighten the mood a bit, I ask Neil how he’ll celebrate the Fourth. Mostly he will work, pulling the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. But he’ll also have barbequed ribs and chicken. The USO is putting on a concert featuring Uncle Kracker. There’s a 5K run, which is part of every holiday at the base.

Finally, my brother-in-law wanted to assure I didn’t overlook the sacrifices made by those back home—like the spouses fulfilling duo parenting roles, the kids without a parent. I knew he was missing his wife, Jamie, and their son, Christian.

“Even after the deployment, the families often have to deal with a lot of aftermath, as you yourself can attest to,” Neil explains. (He’s referring to the challenges my dad faced upon returning from Korea and how that affected my immediate family.) “In many ways, they’re the unsung heroes in all of this.”

Yes, Neil gives us much to ponder.

And tomorrow, as we celebrate our freedom, consider these words from my brother-in-law, written shortly after he arrived in Balad: “Every time I travel outside our borders, I gain a renewed appreciation for just how wonderful life is in the US! With the exception of Canada, I haven’t been anywhere where the living standards are so good. The things we take for granted are not available to people in other nations. Living in the US is like living in paradise! It’s no wonder so many people in the world want to live there! Well, enough of that… I’m feeling a bit more passionate than usual about my homeland right now since I’m not there.”

Did you notice all of the exclamation marks in Neil’s e-mail? I did.

Text © Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo e-mailed by my brother-in-law Neil as sourced from a shared drive at his military base.