Children are innocent victims, joy in war zone

More dispatches from America 's war on terror

Robert Shank, dressed in desert camouflage, looks tan and fit. He's lost 49 pounds during his six-months in Iraq , as a transportation driver in a New Mexico National Guard unit.

He credits “No man's Land” beef jerky for his weight loss.

“I eat maybe one or two meals in the chow hall, and then nibble on the jerky,” Shank grinned.

But the jerky, made in Boise City , is prized by the soldiers and Marines at war.

“You have to sit on that stuff, open it and eat it where no one can see you. If you don't it just disappears. When they send me some I dump it out on the table and it just evaporates…a lot of people in Iraq know about Boise City just because of that jerky.”

“It [ Iraq ] is a dirty, (blowing sand), country,” Shank said. I was sick the first two months I was there; the doctor told me I was allergic to Iraq . It took me those two months to acclimate.”

However, in spite of war, sand and poverty, Shank has found good things about his deployment.

“Seeing a different culture is educational. They are really proud of their religion. But, the way they treat their women sickens me. My biggest hope is as they learn about freedom, and democracy, they'll treat their women better. They treat their camels better,” he said with a shake of his head.

He explained that it is expected that a man can physically strike his wife, and that the women must ride in the rear of vehicles, (back seat and bed of a truck), and if the truck is hauling animals, the women ride with the animals.

According to Shank success for a rural Iraqi is measured by how many camels he owns and sons he has sired; wives and daughters are an after-thought.

I hope that as they become more free, they'll learn how to treat their women. I haven't seen it, but I understand that in Baghdad , some women can even drive now. I can't believe that they hit their women…and the men I've talked to can't believe that we don't.”

“These people have no idea what freedom is, and I don't know if their form of democracy will be like ours,” Shank admits.

Shank, at nearly 40 and a Marine veteran, volunteered for the National Guard with the proviso that he be sent overseas. He went with the conviction that the administration had done the right thing by removing Saddam Hussein from power. He hasn't changed his mind, though he admits that the administration under-estimated what it would take to establish democracy.

“I don't think this is anything like what they expected. But, the Iraqi soldiers and police are doing great. And the support we are getting from other countries you never hear about [on newscasts]. Britain , Australia , Poland and Italy , are the biggest contributors and they do a lot of the training. Then you have the Japanese and Romanians and others. I think I've met people from 22 different countries,” Shank said.

“The soldiers and police…the about 50 percent that stay with it, are doing well. They often pay them in cash, and about half just leave when they get paid, and never come back.”

Shank also credits the military's efforts to furnish medical clinics as a way of building trust.

“The kids line up for immunizations. I've seen it first hand,” Shank said.

“The kids have hope now. They speak broken English. I ask them where they have learned and they answer that they are learning in school.”

“They don't want us feeding the kids. They are afraid they'll get between the trucks and get hit. So I put stuff in baggies, and give it a good toss off the road. I put candy inside, and combs. They need stuff for personal hygiene.

“The kids have no shoes, and its considered an insult if they show you the bottoms of their feet,” Shank said.

But still after three years, the specter of Saddam hangs over the nation.

“The Shiites, in the southern part of the country, out in the small villages where they have no power, no running water…they are convinced that Saddam is going to get free, and come back to kill them.”

When asked about the replacement of infrastructure damaged by war, Shank points out that much of it, (where it even existed), was outdated when destroyed.

“Most of their technology, in the small cities, stopped in the 1950s. It looks like they had telegraph wires on the poles,” Shank said.

As we drive through the larger cities at night, the lights are on, so I assume the infrastructure is coming back. They are paving roads everywhere, but they are rough roads. They need to learn from some of our American road crews.

“There are a lot of older Chevrolet Caprices. They like Chevrolets and older Mercedes, and their gas lines are miles long. But most of the people get around by donkey. And they don't ride in the middle of the back; they ride over the back hips,” Shank explained.

They are a happy, friendly bunch of people and content having nothing.”

“Like us, they have issues with their borders, especially with Syria . Each time there is an explosion, the men in the Haji Market tell me, ‘That's not us. We love you guys.' They think it makes the entire village look bad.”

Shank credits the prayers from the soldiers' churches for having protected his unit thus far.

“We've seen explosions from a distance, and their results. I've seen cars hauling coffins on top. But our unit has been blessed. Even the non-believers are starting to believe in prayer,” he said with a smile.

“I've asked the men in the village if they think they are going into a civil war, and they don't think so. I'm not sure how much longer we'll be there. But I've heard the governors are putting pressure on the White House to bring their men home.”

Shank, along with others in his unit has begun gathering school items to contribute.

“There are a lot of kids wrapped up in this,” (the war.)

“We need to fill a 20 foot trailer with anything a kid might like candy school supplies and even stuffed animals,” Shank said.

He has gotten several items but has been disappointed that the response has been slower than hoped.

Asked what, other than family he has missed most and Shank responded, “A steak cooked on the grill, and the personal freedom we take for granted. I have come from a place that everyone carries a gun. In fact since I've been home, a time or two I've found myself looking for my weapon…freedom.

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