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A Soldier Returns

After a long day of work in the Service Learning Center, Carlos Fuentes returned home to find the letter he had been waiting for. Unsealing an envelope sent from the National Guard, under which he earned his education, worked for 16 years and served as a soldier in Iraq for most of 2005, he finally received the news he had wanted to hear. He was officially released from the possibility of deployment. He was home to stay.
“I was so excited,” said Fuentes. “My wife and children didn’t know why I kept jumping up and down around the house.”
Fuentes, a 50-year-old husband and father of two young children, returned home in December after serving in a military logistical support area an hour’s drive north of Baghdad known as “Anaconda.” The letter Fuentes recently received confirmed his 20 years of service to the National Guard, and he now plans to retire. \”I put in my 20 years, and now I can get retirement out of that,\” Fuentes said. \”Now it\’s time to let the young ones step up to the plate.\” [carlos2]
While Fuentes said he is thankful that he no longer has the chance of being deployed again, he still took the time to acknowledge his role as a soldier and to reflect on what it means for those around him. March 23rd marks the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Fuentes is still closely connected with the war he served in but many Americans might not be. Although the streets of East Lansing have not been flooded with recent demonstrations or other overt signs of public opposition or support for the war, most people have their own criticisms about the invasion and the aftermath. But behind the political and social objections, there are the people like Fuentes, the rest of the military and Iraqi civilians, that are affected most by the stench of war.
Fuentes’ family, coworkers and friends are thankful that at least he has returned home safely. An altruistic and dedicated man, Fuentes has returned to the basement office of the Student Service Building where he works to connect students with volunteer opportunities at local-area non-profit organizations. In Iraq, Fuentes worked as an Aircraft Maintenance Supervisor and serviced such aircraft as the Chinook transport and Apache gunship helicopters. Carrying on with his sense of community service and participation in Iraq, Fuentes organized Bible studies for those stationed far from their churches back in the United States. He spent his free time visiting the injured, both American solders and Iraqi civilians in hospitals, and remembers holding an Iraqi baby injured by shrapnel. Despite his dedication to community in Iraq, he still managed to find time to e-mail his family and friends back home throughout his entire service.
\”When he was gone, it was great for communication,\” said Service Learning Center Director Karen Casey. \”It was also affirmation of how invested he was in Service Learning. He could\’ve called so many people, and he chose to call us. At the same time, it reinforced worry- a ‘good today, hope he\’s good tomorrow’ kind of thing.\” [computer]
While Fuentes was happy to talk about his time spent in Iraq at Anaconda, he was not so eager to discuss politics or the Bush administration’s publicly expressed justifications for the war. “We vote for the politicians and they tell [the military] where to go,” said Fuentes. “I can’t speak about [politics], I’m still enlisted.”
While Fuentes’ opinion was somewhat stifled, recent polls have shown that Americans’ support for the war is waning. Director of the Public Opinion and Political Participation program and political science professor Darren Davis cites a recent Pew Center for the People and the Press Survey showing that 51 percent of Americans believe that the United States made the right decision in using military force against Iraq. While this is a majority, albeit slight, “This is a 20 percent decline since the question was first asked in March 2003,” Davis said. In response to another question, “How well is the U.S. military effort in Iraq going,” only 51 percent of those polls said “well.” At the start of the war in March 2003, 85 percent said “well.”
What accounts for this change in enthusiasm? Davis sees the Vietnam War as the appropriate historical context to analyze the change. “If you recall,” he said, “at the beginning of the Vietnam War there was a great deal of support for going to war. But Americans don’t like protracted wars. Thus, as the war lingers with more deaths of American solders, I think we can expect the war in Iraq to become more of a polarizing and divisive issue.”
Muhammed Alomari is the deputy director of Life for Relief and Development and an Iraqi-American, a non-governmental organization based in Southfield, Mich. Founded in 1992 by Iraqi Americans in response to what they saw as a humanitarian crisis resulting from the first Gulf War, Life conducts human development, health and training programs in Iraq. The current staff in Iraq also provides emergency relief to civilians in the form of food, blankets and safe drinking water.
Like Fuentes, Alomari, who has family remaining in Iraq, is apprehensive about discussing the political landscape or the war because Life is a humanitarian organization, not a political advocacy group, and because of concern for the safety of its staff working in Iraq. Nonetheless, Alomari believes that the American public needs to understand certain things before they form a firm opinion about the circumstances in Iraq. “Iraqis are suffering from a lot of things – instability, security and violence, in addition to [a lack of] basic services,” Alomari said. Where Fuentes believes that positive news from Iraq is scarcely conveyed, Alomari argued that Iraqi civilian misery is being downplayed. He said he believes that the struggles of the average Iraqi are not being accurately reported, including “rampant unemployment,” and shortages of water, gas and diesel fuel to run generators. [quote2]
While Life takes a practical view of the war in Iraq in terms of immediate human needs, Canadian and philosophy graduate student, Bill Hannah, takes a holistic view and sees the steps taken by the Bush administration leading up to the war as “irrational.” Following the events of September 11, Hannah said that most Canadians were shocked. However, he said the subsequent measures taken by the U.S. Administration left many Canadians confused. “[Canadians] saw this as an opportunity to ramp up military efforts in the Middle East. That put people off in Canada,” said Hannah. “[It became] a bulrush, bounty-hunter situation.”
Hannah doesn’t see the connection between the Bush administration’s stated goals of fighting terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. “[The administration supposedly] adopted means for the end, that is, defeating terrorism, but now [it seemed to become] a means to carry out Bush’s vendetta against Saddam. After September 11, every country was on [America’s] side, and [America] could have adopted the means to ask other countries, ‘how can we stop this?’” Hannah said he did not see the Bush Administration stress diplomacy, and he was disappointed that the United States did not harness the power of the international community. Hannah suggested that one immediate goal be to work toward, “A safe ending of the conflict, followed by a robust international presence to deal with terrorism,” he said. “Democracy cannot be parachuted in a box.”
Jeremy Pickens, a third-year law student and member of MSU’s international moot court team who describes himself as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” said, “The formula I use is money spent. The justifications given and the precepts we went to war don’t justify the removal of Saddam Hussein. It is not our job to enforce [United Nations] Security Council Resolutions.” Legally-minded Pickens argued that this is the job of the UN Security Council. “If they can’t do it through economic and political means it shouldn’t be done. The UN is a peace-loving body. The role of the UN is not to provide an offensive military; therefore, U.S. actions cloaked by UN Resolutions are improper.” Pickens also takes issue with the Bush Administration’s justification that Iraq is a key to winning the “War on Terror.” “[The administration] spoon-fed the U.S. public that Iraq was connected, with [no evidence] pointing to Iraq,” said Pickens. “I, therefore, question who benefits, the politics involved and the corporations who the supply the military.”
As for immediate goals, the United States has opened this conflict up so now must we must resolve it. Pickens, like most Americans, does not claim to be a military strategist. Yet, he argues that there should be a nation wide vote asking the Iraqi’s whether the United States should stay or go and the United States should respect the outcome of the vote.
Pickens recently learned his 21-year-old cousin decided to join the Army after being laid off his job as a security guard. “I was surprised because he never appeared to be a patriotic person,” said Pickens. “I wish I would have talked to him before he went in. I’m pretty confident that he will be in Afghanistan or Iraq within a year.” Pickens said he himself has tried to get enlisted in the Navy but was denied for medical reasons. Now with his cousin’s enlistment, Pickens fears for his well-being. “First thing they do in the Army is give you a gun and show you how to shoot straight,” he said. “His safety is now compromised.”
While the safety of thousands of soldiers continues to be compromised, Fuentes and friends are thankful that he is safely back in the United States and said that the most common question he has received from Americans inevitably concerns soldier morale. He said, in his experience, most soldiers believe in what they are doing-carrying out the democratic process. Using the example of the reconstruction of a school near Anaconda, Fuentes argued that “Good things are not being reported in the media.”
Casey said that personal biases matter less when people are directly connected to it. \”Whenever there\’s a personal connection, you think about it on a different level,\” Casey said. \”It doesn\’t matter how you feel about the war, you have got to support the people accepting the duty to serve.\” [Carlos1]
When asked about U.S. progress in Iraq, Fuentes said he remains largely positive, however, does not believe that the U.S. should be there indefinitely. “We shouldn’t be there a long time, maybe three to four years and dovetail our way out,” he said. Concerned about the United State’s international stature, Fuentes said that if the United States. leaves immediately, as some argue, it will leave a “black mark on the United States and be a big mess.” Fuentes said the United States should stay in Iraq to show sustained commitment to its allies.
As Fuentes reflected on his time in Iraq and the life he hopes to continue to lead, it seems that his duty as a soldier may not be finished after all. \”If I really believe in what I do here [at MSU], I don\’t want this to be just a job,\” he said. \”I had to carry it through. It made me feel good that I could do service wherever I am. If you\’re going to be a leader, you\’ve got to lead from the front.\”

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