(Host) Close to 200 members of a National Guard unit from Northern Vermont are nearing the end of their active duty tour in Iraq. One soldier in that unit who was on leave in December told VPR’s Susan Keese that the mission has taken a toll.
(Keese) For most of Vermont’s 86th Field Artillery, the geography of war is a dangerous stretch of road north and south of Baghdad. It’s a road they travel daily, escorting military convoys in armored Humvees. Close to two-hundred members of a National Guard unit from Northern Vermont are nearing the end of their active duty tour in Iraq.
One soldier in that unit who was on leave in December told VPR’s Susan Keese that the mission has taken a toll.
Sergeant first class Michael Hickory says it isn’t a friendly neighborhood.
(Hickory) “The enemy doesn’t wear a uniform so you can’t pick him out of a crowd until they actually engage you. You just really don’t know who to trust, so you’re hyper-vigilant as a result. And you can only be that way so long without having it affect you somehow.”
(Keese) In civilian life, Hickory is a maintenance technician for the state. In Iraq, he’s in a somewhat safer situation than most of his unit. He’s working as a network administrator and a liaison between his company and the military police battalion to which they’re attached. He’s in a walled encampment just north of Baghdad International Airport. Most of the 86th eat and sleep at a sort of desert truck stop south of Baghdad.
(Hickory) “On a good day they’re about two hours south of me.”
(Keese) Hickory handles their paperwork when their convoys pass through. As an officer and an older member of the unit, he makes a point of talking with them and keeping tabs on how they’re doing.
(Hickory) “Some of the younger soldiers, especially the 19 and 20 year olds who’ve been thrown right into the midst of this and who’ve had squad members die in front of them, I’ve seen a change in those guys. They look at things differently. And you can see that they look at things differently.”
(Keese) Hickory says he’s seen some soldiers withdraw.
(Hickory) “Some get very bitter. Whereas before they entered saying not all Iraqis are bad, now their attitude is, if one of them even points at me I’m going to blow them away. Or they tend to isolate themselves and not socialize with their fellow soldiers.”
(Keese) The 86th lost two Vermonters in an ambush and one to a roadside bomb. Several others have been wounded.
Hickory says most of the soldiers treat their dangerous work simply as a job that has to be done. But he wouldn’t be surprised if some soldiers needed help sorting things out and reintegrating after they get home.
(Hickory) “The Army has combat stress management teams running around, but I’m not certain that they totally fit the bill. Your average male soldier is not going to admit that he needs help and sometimes the bulk of the battle is just getting them to see somebody.”
(Keese) Hickory says the unit could return home as early as late February or early March. Everyone’s crossing their fingers that nothing happens in the upcoming elections to change that.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.