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An American Boy

A soldier comes home from Iraq with plenty to say.

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Memorial Day has come and gone. The wreaths have been placed, the speeches made. The fireworks have faded away. The country has observed its annual tribute to the men and women who've died in America's wars.

Those who were honored paid the ultimate price, but nobody gets out of a war without leaving something behind.

Steve Michanowicz says he's been confused lately. He has trouble concentrating. Skinny, blond, and boyish, he's 23 but could easily pass for 19. He still gets carded in bars. But something changes when he talks about Iraq, about working 20-hour days, seven days a week in the stupefying desert heat, crushed by paranoia, fear, and doubt. Gravity starts to tug a little harder on him. He starts to look his age and then some. He rubs his eyes, and his voice drops to a whisper.

"I question myself all the time," he says.

"When we're driving I have to tell him where to turn three or four times," says Steve's friend Josh Smith. "It's like his memory is shot. One of the only things he can do without some kind of help is get up in the morning. An alarm goes off, or you say, 'Wake up,' and boom, he's standing straight up."

When Smith heard Michanowicz was getting out of the Army, he left Central Lake, Michigan, where both men grew up, and headed for Clarksville, Tennessee. Clarksville shares a border with Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the unofficial hometown of the 101st Airborne Division. Smith had been worried about his buddy for a while. He wanted to be there for him when he got out. They want to start a band together. They want to play the blues.

Michanowicz's girlfriend also moved to Clarksville, but she didn't stick around. After a stint hopping tables at a downtown deli, she returned to northern Michigan. Michanowicz says she didn't like the climate in the South.

He may follow her back home. He may ramble around and play the blues.

"They messed you up," Smith says.

"Yeah," Michanowicz answers. "They messed me up."

Depending how you measure good fortune, Michanowicz is lucky. He made it back alive, arms and legs intact. But something's missing. Something isn't the same.

"I knew after the first three days of basic training the Army wasn't for me," he adds. "But there is a long history of military service in my family. I felt a strong sense of duty and obligation. And I wanted the free college education. It's as simple as that.

"There's one thing I would like for you to print, if you can," Michanowicz says. "I want people to know that nobody knows what 'winning the hearts and minds [of the Iraqi people]' means. When I first got [to Iraq] I was optimistic, probably one of the most optimistic guys you'd meet. But my perspective changed totally. Now I think things are hopeless."

Michanowicz really thinks the Iraqi people are hopeless. He blames them for almost everything that's gone wrong. He's confident America did the right thing, even if we've botched things, even if we did it for the wrong reasons. He's a mass of contradictions and admits it. One minute he wonders why he was sent to Iraq, and then he makes a fairly reasonable argument for going to war. He's seen combat, and he's seen peacekeeping operations that look an awful lot like combat. He's seen civilians die, and he knows how one's view of the world changes when bullets start carving your profile in the sand. He doesn't think his story is remarkable or unique.

"I'm sorry I don't have anything juicy to tell you," he says repeatedly.

Michanowicz asks that I not include some disrespectful remarks he made about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He's not disrespectful by nature, but he's got some anger issues to work out.

"There's one situation that sticks out in my mind," Michanowicz says of his time in Iraq. "We were in Baghdad. This was pretty early on, and there was a group of Iraqis who were helping us find some mines, and one of the Iraqis set one off. A couple of the Iraqis got blown up, and there were some American soldiers who were hurt as well. We treated the American soldiers first, and we could hear the Iraqis screaming the whole time. They were screaming, 'Help me,' in English. They were screaming whatever words they knew in English.

"At that point, we assumed that the Iraqis had deliberately set us up. But later we discovered from wounded soldiers in the compound that it was all accidental. Two of the Iraqis died. We saved one, and I got an award for doing first aid and tying a tourniquet to stop the bleeding on one Iraqi. It's tough for a soldier to have to make that decision -- whether or not the Iraqis deserve to live or die."

His story seems a metaphor for America's experience in Iraq: Rushed decisions made on erroneous assumptions, followed by sobering revelations -- heroic acts of kindness reduced to white noise by an initial blunder. Michanowicz might not agree with such a liberal reading of his story. From the beginning, he was all for liberating Iraq. In theory, he still is.

"All the [American] soldiers feel a real sense of pride, like they've accomplished their task," he says. "They captured Saddam and arrested his whole regime. Uday and Qusay are finished. But the soldiers, I think, feel like the Iraqis have no hope. We've tried everything we can for the people. We've rebuilt their oil wells to try to get the economy started. We've rebuilt schools. And then they blow everything up again. There are people who will do anything to discourage the intent of the United States.

"I've looked into the mass graves," Michanowicz says, referencing the ultimate proof of Saddam's brutality. He lets his words hang in silence.

Responding to critics of his decision to leave Saddam in power after the Gulf War, the first President Bush claimed that removing the dictator would create a power vacuum and lead to civil war among Iraqi religious and ethnic factions. Civil war in Iraq meant instability in the Middle East with attendant violence and bloodshed. The elder Bush's "prudence" seems prescient now.

Michanowicz says he can't imagine a peaceful democracy springing up in Iraq anytime soon.

"We went up to northern Iraq shortly after we secured Baghdad," he says. "We went into Mosul with the Kurds. In 1991, they [the Kurds] were counting on us to come in there and liberate their country. And they had taken measures counting on us to come in there. They had created their own alliance to fight against Saddam. So when we first went in they were ready to work with us. They were always doing what they could to help us. But in the end, and I think a lot of soldiers felt the same way, the Kurds want complete control of the government just like the different groups in southern Iraq. In the end, they are willing to do whatever it takes to get control.

"It's hard on the soldiers," Michanowicz says. "We heard thousands of people cheering us as we rolled into Baghdad. And it's hard to see them change their minds two months later. It's like they weren't very patient. There is a sense among the soldiers that the whole Arab world -- everybody in the Middle East -- is ignorant, uneducated, and hopeless. I can guarantee that all the soldiers feel that way. I'm a firm believer that all the Iraqis would suicide-bomb. They will do whatever it takes to get what they want. All the soldiers just hope that we get out of Iraq soon and that we never have to go back and that the Iraqi people can find a way to govern and protect themselves. The peacekeeping operations are over.

"We had no business conducting peacekeeping operations, because the war was never won," Michanowicz says. "The enemy just dispersed, disguised themselves, and regrouped. We needed a different strategy to hunt down the enemy. Instead, we were just walking around the cities like ducks. We became a police force. When you are a peacekeeping force, everything changes. The rules of engagement change. You can't shoot at somebody until you are shot at. It's harder to see who the enemy is. The rules of engagement were, if we saw anybody with a weapon in the street, we had to take them out. We had to shoot them. There was a situation where a soldier saw a weapon and he shot. It ended up being like a 12-year-old boy with a B.B. gun.

"There was another situation where we had received fire from the enemy so we turned and shot. We had grenade launchers and all kinds of seriously devastating equipment. We hit a group of [civilian] houses. That's what looking at the carnage of war means. The rules of engagement continued to change throughout the deployment to the point where soldiers were confused as to what they were supposed to do. It felt to most of us that the rules were so specific that the only time we could shoot was if we were shot at first and had taken casualties."

It wasn't just the changing rules of engagement that kept soldiers confused. There were blazing temperatures, bad food, and a schedule that didn't allow for much down-time. Michanowicz lost 30 pounds in Iraq.

"We were pretty seriously over-tasked," Michanowicz says."We'd work 20-hour days, seven days a week, with nothing to eat but MRE's [meals ready to eat] that taste like dirt and stop you up bad."

"Over-tasked" is a word Michanowicz uses often. "Tilafar is a city of something like 300,000," he says. "We had one battalion to secure Tilafar." (Tilafar's population is actually somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000. A battalion is 480 soldiers.)

Michanowicz was a part of a single platoon -- 30 soldiers -- sent to secure Zumar, a city of 7,000. "Maybe that is enough people to do the job," Michanowicz says with a shrug. "I don't know. But I do know that if the whole town had rioted, we'd all have been dead. We could call in helicopters, but by the time they got there, we'd be dead. It was only the grace of God that kept us alive. I mean you'd have 10 guys walking through town on patrol, surrounded by Iraqis. And they all wear robes. It's an armed population, and anyone could be disguising a weapon. Every time you search a vehicle you think, This is going to be the one that explodes.

"We really tried to work with the people [of Iraq]," Michanowicz says. "Some of our guys were learning the language. We didn't just go in and blow everything up. Since we've gotten back to America, we've heard how the war has escalated. And we've heard about the prisoner abuse scandal and so forth. It feels like we [the 101st] put all this effort into this thing, and everything that we did right has gone right down the drain.

" I can't help but blame it on the Iraqis," Michanowicz adds unexpectedly. "I feel as though they are hopeless. I wasn't in charge of the prisons. But I was in the 3rd Brigade infantry of the 101st, so we did a lot of raids. We were in charge of arresting lots and lots of people and detaining them for a few days at the most. And we always conducted ourselves completely according to the Geneva Conventions. We never tortured or beat anybody. We didn't give anybody eight hours of sleep, I can say that. But they did get three meals a day and water.

"We had interrogators, and I personally couldn't say what they did. It wasn't a walk in the park for the Iraqis. And there were unnecessary things that happened during raids, but you can't mix peacekeeping activities with a war atmosphere. If you find out that Joe Iraqi bombed your house and you figure out where he lives, you're not just going to go knock on the door and ask him to come out. You're going to smash in the door and charge in there. And if anybody tries to run away, you're going to shoot. And if they resist, you're going to hit them. But for the most part, I think the 101st -- and I can say, definitely, the 3rd Brigade -- conducted themselves with the utmost respect for the Geneva Conventions."

It's hard to be critical of the war in Iraq without being accused of having a political agenda. For the record, Michanowicz didn't support President Bush in the 2000 election; Bush wasn't conservative enough. Michanowicz was a Pat Buchanan man. He respected Buchanan's flat-tax plan and his strong commitment to end legalized abortion. He admires Bush's faith and respects his Christian values. He won't vote for Kerry because Kerry voted against an omnibus bill that included $87 billion for the military.

A week after my first interview with him, I spent a wild night with Michanowicz over Memorial Day weekend. We terrorized the bars of Nashville's Lower Broadway, taking in some bad blues, worse rockabilly, and a little bit of glorious country music. He seemed more confident, less depressed than when I'd first interviewed him a week before. He seemed to be putting things together.

"If you want to make the angle of your story about how we were over-tasked and about how we can't do peacekeeping in a combat situation, I'd agree with that criticism," he says. He's afraid that as support for the war wanes, so too will support for the troops. He wants people to understand that war is hard. And when you're sleep-deprived for a year, judgment sometimes fails. Hope fails. Everything fails. And if the nail's not big enough, there is no point in blaming the hammer.

"I think that's a good angle," he says, and then he apologizes. "I'm sorry all my stories are lame. I wish I had something interesting to tell you." n

Last Train to Clarksville

Clarksville, Tennessee, is a military town. When the soldiers are deployed, businesses feel the loss. Along Route 41-A, heading toward the base, are numerous businesses, ranging from restaurants to barbershops to hoochie-coochie clubs, sporting signs welcoming back the 101st Airborne Division.

It's an odd drive. The way is strewn with architectural throwbacks to the 1950s, and many businesses draw attention to themselves by displaying giant mascots: an eagle, a buffalo, a pink elephant with glasses. There is a pawnshop with a giant statue of Uncle Sam out front. It displays a banner reading, "Go 101 We Support You." But the relationship between Clarksville and Fort Campbell, nearby in Kentucky, isn't entirely economic. Everyone in town has a friend or family member in the military, or so it seems. That said, it's not easy for a reporter looking to collect stories from Iraq.

I contacted the Public Affairs Office at Fort Campbell and told them what I was looking for. They didn't offer to arrange interviews. Or anything else. They did tell me that there are always soldiers at Bo's Barber Shop and at the Chevron station across from Gate 4.

"Hello, I'm somebody you don't know from a publication you've never heard of. How's your war going?" That's what my introduction must have sounded like to the soldiers I met. Most were nice enough to take my phone number and chat for a bit. Some said they would like to talk but wanted to clear it with their superiors first.

According to the PAO, soldiers are encouraged to talk to the media, but everyone seemed cautious.

"Shit runs downhill." That was the standard excuse for not telling their war stories. It was almost surreal how many soldiers ended their conversations with this scatological observation.

I posted messages all over the Internet, mostly on veteran sites for the 101st. I was hoping for introductions. The responses I got ranged from "Isn't this how the guys at the Toledo Blade got started?" to "You want to know about Iraq? Go there!"

I met Steve Michanowicz one evening at Brunies, a little German pub in Clarksville's historic downtown district. We'd both participated in open-mic night, and we talked about vintage guitars, bluegrass, and beer. He didn't know I was a reporter, and I didn't know he was a soldier.

"I try to hide my military-ness," he joked.

"I try to hide my reporterliness," I replied.

Michanowicz agreed to tell me anything I wanted to know. I told him I didn't have many questions. "How's your war going?" was pretty much it.

Michanowicz and his friend Josh Smith played a set of blues and Southern rock standards. Given the tiny crowd, it was something of a triumph. Rolling in their glory, the boys went out looking for girls. I stayed behind to see whom I might meet.

At the end of the night, a 50-something woman who had been singing Janis Joplin songs said she didn't think it was right for the media to show images of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. Not when you consider the beheadings and the hangings and not when you consider what the Iraqi resistance has done to our men and women. She remembers seeing a Vietnam vet take a wad of spit in the eye when he returned home. She was working as a bartender, and she said she'd never forget how sick that made her feel. She said the media is doing everything it can to recreate the circumstances that provided her with that memory.

Clarksville is a military town. For better, worse, or both, it takes very good care of the 101st. n

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