For My Friend in Iraq

- by Pankaj Mehta

One of my best friends is in Iraq. He is a medic in the Navy Reserve. On January 2nd, he was told that he would be deploying to a stretch of desert West of Baghdad. At his request, I will refrain from using his name. I do not know how long he will be in Iraq; I am not sure that even the Pentagon knows. I do not know for how long I will have to wake up everyday and scour the web to make sure that he is not one of the really unlucky ones, killed in a helicopter crash or caught in an ambush.

I will have no way of knowing if he is seriously injured. Fearing bad publicity, the Pentagon does not release the names of those who have been seriously injured. Estimates put the number of seriously injured US soldiers at around 14,000. As a physicist, I understand the dangers of low-level radiation exposure from American depleted Uranium munitions and worry that when he does come back, he will have long-term health problems. This is especially disturbing because congress recently cut the funding for veteran's health care and benefit programs at the same time it authorized this war.

Like many other working class kids, my friend first joined the army so that he could pay for college. When he signed his contract, they enticed him with promises of education and opportunities for advancement. College seemed like a good deal when compared with a dead-end minimum wage job. They never told him that he would be part of a foreign occupation: imposing curfews, setting up roadblocks, and arresting ordinary people with no judicial system in place. They never told him that he would have to risk his life under false pretences for the profit of a handful of oil and defense executives.

My friend is opposed to this war and occupation. After the war in Afghanistan, with great trouble, he transferred from the Army reserves to a medical position in the Navy reserves. He told me that if he has to go to war, at least as a field medic he would help ordinary soldiers like himself. One of the last things we talked about before he left was how he had given his nephews and nieces a graphic novel for Christmas entitled "Addicted to War: Why the US Can't Kick Militarism." The novel is about the deadly consequences of US militarism at home and abroad.

Recently, I got a letter from my friend. He is stationed on a big military base outside of Falluja. The tone of letter was stark and emotionless. It was so different from how I remember him, full of passion and humor. It was as if his very human essence was under attack. Its hard for me to imagine what he is going through. As I read about all the fighting in Fallujah, all the killing and destruction, I cannot help but feel that there are two victims in this occupation, the Iraqi populace and the rank and file U.S soldier.

I miss my friend. I wrote this commentary because the stories of people like my friend often get lost when we talk about the war and occupation. I feel its my obligation to try to get his voice and the voices of those like him out to the public. As much as I wish otherwise, it is unlikely that I will see my friend anytime soon. So whenever you hear about the necessity of the occupation, the need to send more troops, remember that rank and file soldiers like my friend have to pay with their humanity.

For this reason, I say - and there can be no compromise on it - "Bring the troops home now!"

Pankaj Mehta, 25, is a Graduate Student in Physics, Rutgers University, and can be reached here:

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