Documenting the Guard: Embedded In Iraq

[caps]T[/caps]hree months after graduating from the University of Oregon journalism school, I received a phone call from a friend. He was the commander of an Oregon National Guard Medevac unit. He asked if I wanted to work as an embedded journalist in Iraq with his unit scheduled to deploy in the spring.

After several months of deliberating, I signed the necessary papers, got my hands on an armored vest, and boarded a plane to Iraq. I had high hopes of starting my career and bridging the gap between Oregon citizen-soldiers and the community left behind.

In my ten months in Iraq, I watched soldiers log more than 3,000 flight hours on UH-60 Blackhawks, perform 375 life-saving missions and transport 890 patients. I watched pilots, medics, and crew chiefs attend to and transport patients ranging from Iraqi civilians to injured Ugandan contractors to U.S. soldiers. Over and over again I asked soldiers: Why were they in the service?

“You just go and do what your job is to do,” answered crew chief Sgt. James Tournay, on his fourth deployment. “A lot of people don’t think about it, but when you’re doing Medevac, you don’t just save the one person you’re going out to save, you save their family and friends and everyone that knows them. You’re actually saving hundreds of people with just one person’s life.”

Oregon National Guard

But not every mission ended with survival. On his first mission, medic Sgt. Jason Westlund, 27, from Corvallis, cared for a dying Iraqi girl who had severe burns. “It didn’t have the best outcome, “ said Westlund, after he learned of the girl’s death. “We did everything we could, the hospital did everything they could, but in the end the injuries were just too severe.”

There were also days when not a single helicopter engine roared and soldiers were left bored and without a sense of purpose.

Some days I woke up wanting nothing more than to go home and escape the heat, concrete, and dust. There were moments of darkness and loneliness, but my job was to experience a deployment. I saw first-hand the men and women separated from spouses, children and all the other freedoms of home.

“I’m pretty tired of war, and I’m pretty tired of making that sacrifice every couple of years it seems,” crew chief Sgt. Tracy Braeme, 37, of Sublimity, on her third deployment, told me. “You can’t buy back that time with your children no matter how hard you’d like to. You just can’t and it’s frustrating.”

Many National Guard soldiers signed up to perform missions stateside and serve as a soldier one weekend a month. And yet they, too, ended up being sent to a war zone.

“Little did I know it was going to turn into a major life change for me,” said iron-worker-turned-soldier Sgt. Rob Boyce, 45, of Keizer. “Now I’m suddenly a UH-60 crew chief doing Medevac flights and making huge impacts on people’s lives.”

Despite his sacrifices, Boyce told me that joining the military is one of his proudest accomplishments.

After nearly a year with this unit, I realize the difficulty inherent within a soldier’s duty. It’s not an easy task to support a cause unconditionally and without complaint. It is not easy spending a year of your life in a place that many compare to prison. As one soldier put it, yeah, it pretty much sucks sometimes.

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