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From Iraq, Edgartown soldier talks about his job, the war and his sense of duty
Taking a short break by my vehicle at an Iraqi border castle. Photos courtesy of Major Sean Smith
After reading a Veterans Day story by reporter Janet Hefler on The Martha's Vineyard Times web site, Major Sean M. Smith e-mailed The Times to say how refreshing it was to know that Islanders remember the sacrifices of their nation's armed forces. Major Smith is an Islander himself, a 1991 graduate of Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and the son of Lucie and Mike Smith of Edgartown.
Our team departing an Iraqi border castle on the Iran-Iraq border. Vehicles are M1114 up-armored Humvees.
Major Smith and his wife Shantel, a former Kansas State Trooper, graduated from Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. They have been married for six years and have two children, Ryan, 4, and Savannah, 2.
Having lunch with our Iraqi counterparts. Lieutenant Colonel Bakir, the Iraqi battalion commander, is at the front of the table. Standard fare is poached chicken, lamb kabobs, rice, and fresh vegetables. The men are standing because there were not enough chairs
This is what I always aspired to. I guess there was an unspoken influence in my family to pursue a military career. My father was a career NCO [noncommissioned officer] in the Army and served three tours in Vietnam (1966-69), my Uncle Nelson was a Seabee in World War II, my Uncle Bill served in the Air Force in the Korean War, and my Uncle Mark was stationed in Berlin in the early 1960s when the wall went up. Additionally, my older brothers both joined the service. My brother Patrick is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and my brother Ricky served in the Air Force in the 1980s. I think I've always felt obligated to serve. My mother came to the United States in 1968 from Vietnam following the death of her first husband as a result of the war. Through her eyes I can truly appreciate the things we, as Americans, take for granted. Many of us have forgotten that we should give something back to our nation. It is a special place, a unique place, really. For all the flaws of America and Americans, I think I'm safe in saying that we have it better than most people in the world. I'd rather take some pride in knowing I've done something productive and selfless with my time, rather than go through life complaining about the state of things while sitting on my hands. As a teenager my goal was to be an NCO like my father, but my parents encouraged me to pursue a college degree and enter the military as a commissioned officer. I'm glad they pushed me in this direction because my career has been varied and very rewarding.
Going over some instructions with members of my team.
Can you think of any ways in which growing up on the Vineyard influenced your decision?
In military circles Massachusetts is regarded pretty poorly. My peers see it as nothing more than a den of liberalism and big government. Bear in mind that most military types tend to be of a conservative stripe. Still, I think the Vineyard is different because our community is pretty varied. As a kid I spent a lot of time hanging around the VFW and the American Legion with my uncles. I was always enthralled by the wartime experiences of the veterans that hung around these places. One thing I learned at an early age, and a theme that all these men shared, is that war is not something to be romanticized. I always looked at people like my father, my uncles, Ted Morgan of Edgartown, and many others with respect and reverence for their willingness to do something that isn't easy: serving. I've always been struck by the stoic nature all these people possess. I've never heard a single word of complaint from any of them. Their influence has served me well in my career.
Major Smith recommended for Bronze Star Medal
The following narrative accompanies a recommendation for the award of a Bronze Star Medal to Major Sean M. Smith.
Major Sean M. Smith, United States Army, distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service to the United States as the Team Executive Officer and Battalion Logistics Advisor, Border Transition Team 4312, 1st Infantry Division, Iraqi Assistance Group (Forward), FOB Caldwell, Iraq from 16 January 2006 to 27 February 2007 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Please tell me something about your other assignments prior to your current assignment to Iraq.
Kurdish girls in traditional dress. The photo was taken at the dedication ceremony for the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement's new brigade headquarters.
After graduating from Norwich I was branched into the Quartermaster Corps, with a two-year detail as an Armor Officer. The Army often branches new officers into support services, but assigns them to combat arms for a few years to gain experience and learn firsthand what support the actual war fighters need.
At the Newport News/Williamsburg Airport in Newport News, Va, Major Sean M. Smith gets hugs from his daughter, Savannah and son, Ryan, following a brief two-week visit home before returning to Iraq.
My next assignment was in a Forward Support Battalion at Fort Stewart, Ga., from 1998-2000, during which time I was a supply platoon leader and battalion logistics and budget officer.
Please tell me about your current job and responsibilities.
Right now I am the logistics advisor on a Border Transition Team. I also serve as second in command of the team. Our job is to train, coach, and mentor an Iraqi Border Patrol battalion that has 340 officers and men. They patrol a 54-kilometer stretch of the Iran-Iraq border. Our purpose is to mature the unit to a point where they can become self-sufficient and capable of conducting their border interdiction mission without coalition forces supporting them. As you can imagine, this is a daunting task. Their level of expertise is much lower than ours, they are poorly equipped, and most of the officers and soldiers lack the institutional training that U.S. soldiers take for granted. We've had to power down our expectations and take things one step at a time. This is also complicated by the language barrier. We do have four interpreters, but anything technical must often be explained a multitude of times to ensure proper execution.
Like Americans across the country, many Vineyarders question our country's continuing involvement in Iraq. What is your reaction to the apparent erosion of public and political support for the war?
I can understand the frustration that Americans have with this war, and it's easy to see how parallels can be drawn with Vietnam. I think the frustration is rooted mainly in a few things: the fact that this was a war of choice, that it seems we keep redefining success when we fail to achieve the current definition, and the lack of an exit strategy. I can't blame people for wanting to see a faster end to this war (I left home on 15 January and won't be back until 1 March 2007). Obviously we came for reasons that proved ultimately to be the wrong ones (weapons of mass destruction) and our presence spawned a robust insurgency that now has this country spiraling toward civil war. Still, I would like to see American involvement in this war end with honor and not simply by pulling out. Obviously the president realizes that "staying the course" is no longer viable and I think we'll see a response to the political pressure he's under to employ a new strategy. I think that during the next few years we'll see a reduction in the number of American combat units actively engaged in the fighting, and there will be more American troops devoted to the mission I'm on, which is advising Iraqi forces and preparing them to take charge of their own problems. You have to remember that Americans like clean, fast victories. We demand instant gratification and the concept of a protracted, counter-insurgency fight like we have on our hands right now is an alien concept to anyone that isn't old enough to remember Vietnam. My generation grew up with quick wars: Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm. That said, this is a sticky situation and a quick resolution just isn't possible. I hate to say it, but we have a lot of tough times ahead before this is over for us.
Do you think the people back home have an accurate picture of the situation?
Yes and no. I hate to put it this way, but Americans only know what they read in the newspaper or see on television. Of course, depending on what news you like to watch, you get a different point of view. This is where the media has lost its way in recent years. I don't feel they report objectively enough. CNN and MSNBC are obviously liberal and focus on the negative; FOX is too right-wing despite their "no spin" mantra. I would hope that any person watching the news employs their own judgment, is open-minded, and looks at the situation from many points of view. When I watch the news I get more scared than if I don't watch it. To hear reporters tell it, you'd think we were in a state of constant peril here in Iraq, that IEDs are blowing up every second, and the shooting never stops. This is not the case. Yes, I have been in perilous situations, yes I've experienced IEDs and mortar attacks firsthand, but it's not a constant thing. People who really want to educate themselves on the problems of this country probably need to do some serious reading. Don't rely on what you hear or see on television alone. I think that Americans should read the "Iraq Study Group Report." It's available online and only takes a few minutes to download. Of course, it's only a single point a view, so people shouldn't stop there.
As we enter 2007 what is your assessment of the future?
As I said before, I think we'll start to slowly step back from our direct combat role. Please bear in mind that this is my opinion, not U.S. government policy. My emotions on this war have run the complete gambit. I've been disillusioned and ready to throw in the towel many times. It doesn't really matter how we got here. We can ponder the what-ifs and who screwed up for the next several decades. Guess what? The what-ifs are meaningless and we've got the war we've got. The best we can do is affect the things that we can and do our best. I don't want to say this war is absolutely winnable, but I will say that I think we are capable of not losing. I'm not sure if that makes sense or not, and I realize I'm sounding very political by talking out both sides of my mouth. My point is that we simply can't decide that we're leaving here tomorrow or even next year. The fragility of Iraq could cause the entire region to spiral into worse chaos. I think we'll have a presence here for many years, albeit one that gets smaller over time. I think our government will probably start looking at the region's problems more holistically. I think it's apparent that doing so is the only course of action at this point since all these countries are undeniably symbiotic.
Would you describe a personally rewarding moment during your tour?
My most rewarding time was when the battalion I advise captured 53 landmines that were being transported on donkeys. My Iraqi colonel was ordered by his general to bring them to the general's headquarters. He wanted to keep them as trophies. This was after I'd already made the decision to destroy them and called for my Explosive Ordnance Disposal team. I just didn't feel comfortable letting these weapons out of my control since there would be no way to account for their ultimate disposition. I stood my ground with the colonel and the general and proceeded with my decision to destroy the mines. I slept well knowing that 53 potential IEDs that could be used to kill Americans were no longer a threat.
What would you say to people distressed by news reports?
I would say that they should be. Americans are going into harm's way over here every day and facing the possibility that they won't make it out of here alive. We are approaching 3,000 Americans killed in action since the invasion and the global war on terrorism has already lasted longer than World War II. That said, they should bear in mind that we are in fact succeeding in some of the things we do here in Iraq. There are many good news stories you'll never hear. For instance, my commander is in the process of arranging treatment for the daughter of one of our Iraqi counterparts. She has leukemia and care will require money. My commander has worked through his church at home to assist with this situation. All is not lost in Iraq. Are we making mistakes? Yes. It's unfortunate that this war is being won in battles of public opinion alone. If we were experiencing the same level of casualties we had in Vietnam, I'm sure this wouldn't have lasted as long as it has. The immediacy with which events in Iraq reach the airwaves really skews the overall picture. Immediacy lacks perspective.
Is there anything you would like to say to the Vineyard community?
When I came home on leave in October I was overwhelmed by the number of people that approached me in airports to simply say thanks. The men and women in our armed forces don't do this for glory or recognition. Still, hearing those words from complete strangers really made me think that I could get through this. It made me remember the reasons I chose to be in the military. So, I'd ask that Islanders remember to support our soldiers. Regardless of how you may feel about the war, remember to appreciate the sacrifices of those who have to fight it. A simple gesture like shaking the hand of a soldier, or buying him a cup of coffee while you're sitting in Logan Airport on your way to a vacation, speaks volumes. Home has become a mythical place for those of us here. Reminding a soldier that home is worth it all really matters. I could be disgruntled about being away from my wife and children for the past 11 months, but I chose to serve and I can deal with it. Believe me, it wasn't easy to hear my son tell me every day I was home on leave that he didn't want me to go back. Knowing that what my family and I have been through is appreciated makes it worthwhile.
What are you looking forward to when you return to the Vineyard?
Because of this life I've chosen I've been home probably only a half-dozen times in the past 11 years. The last time I was home during the summer was 1995. My wife and I have been married six years and she finally saw the Island in the summer this past August, without me of course. I'd really like to spend some time with her and my children on the Vineyard in the summer months. Also, I miss the peace of fishing with my father like when I was young. We had our spot where we'd always go, cast our lines, and I'd get to hear my Dad tell me the same story about the one that got away time and again. It's been a long year. I'd like to go fishing.