Back Home From Iraq

Back Home From Iraq

When college student Mark Rosenberg joined the National Guard, he never thought it would lead to Iraq.

A typical day consisted of rising at 6:30 a.m. and working till about 5 o'clock, with a lunch break, then rushing to take a shower. It sounds like a typical day for many McLean residents, but not when there is a limited amount of water, and the color of that water is brown. The temperature outside determines the water temperature. Mark Rosenberg, a 22-year-old Iraq veteran from McLean, spent over 10 months in those circumstances. “At night we'd sit outside, smoke Cubans, and talk about home,” said Rosenberg.

He joined the West Virginia National Guard while at West Virginia University. The decision to do so came during the Thanksgiving break in 2001 and was influenced by a high-school and college friend, James Dewdney. The two attended McLean High School together before heading to WVU, but little did they know at that time that the road from McLean to Morgantown, W.Va., would lead to Kuwait and Iraq 16 months later.

Rosenberg said that most of his battalion was surprised that the National Guard was activated. On Feb. 3, 2003, the Charlie Company 1092nd Engineering Battalion received orders to go to Fort Bragg, N.C., for training. “We had absolutely no idea what we were going to be doing, or how long we were going to be there,” said Rosenberg.

On April 7, Rosenberg arrived in Kuwait with his battalion. “I have never been so scared in my entire life,” he said. He did not know what to anticipate, but it was not comforting to know that he was wearing armor and that his gun was loaded. The armor Rosenberg was wearing was not supplied by the government but was paid for by his father. “I was immensely upset that they sent the guys in like that,” said Ron Rosenberg, Mark's father, “and that the Congress voted down extra funding for the war.” Mark Rosenberg did not have a problem at the time with the fact that he was being sent in harm's way without the proper equipment, but looking back on it, he said that he was disappointed with the government.

HOWEVER, ONCE IN KUWAIT, Mark Rosenberg was comforted by one thought. “I looked next to me and was so happy to see that Dewby was sitting there,” said Rosenberg, referring to Dewdney by his nickname. Dewdney did not have to go to Iraq but volunteered to do so in part because he felt responsible for Rosenberg's deployment. Dewdney said that he, too, was comforted by Rosenberg's presence, because it made him realize that everyone in the platoon was going through the same experience he was. The two spent the next four months building a compound for ammunition supplies in Kuwait.

“I was devastated, scared, and didn't want him to go,” said Nancy Rosenberg, Mark's mother. She said that she communicated with Mark quite often by e-mail or by phone, but that the communication did not ease her fears of what might be happening in his part of the world. The conversations were never about what was happening there. “I did not want to know, and he did not want to talk about it,” said Nancy Rosenberg. Her fears were most heightened at night, when she was not distracted by work.

Rosenberg bought a satellite cell phone when he was in Kuwait. “I just wanted contact with people,” he said. “I just needed to hear about some America stuff.” He spent nights calling his family and friends who were at home, but once he crossed into Iraq, the phones stopped working.

After that, he relied on telephones and computers provided by the Army. The friends and family did get a chance to see Rosenberg when he came home for a three-week rest and relaxation period. Not having told anyone about his homecoming, he chose to surprise his mother by waiting for her in her office. “I can't explain it,” said Nancy Rosenberg, “It was the most wonderful feeling to see him there, laughing with his friends.” He then did the same at his father's office. “It was just terrific relief to be able to see him,” said Ron Rosenberg.

MARK ROSENBERG SAID that during his stay in the states, he would talk of Iraq as his home. He said that most of the stories he told about his experiences in Iraq started with the phrase “back home.” He was ready to get back to his duties and said that most of his battalion felt the same during their rest. The battalion was made up mostly of college students, eager to get back to their duties, while the older members, those with wives and children, were more reluctant to do so.

On July 31 Rosenberg stepped onto Iraqi soil for the first time, to embark on a journey that would take him and his battalion through nights that would reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and nights in bunkers in 20-degree weather. They worked on four bases, traveled the length of the country and interacted with local Iraqis. The best part of the deployment, according to Rosenberg, is the time spent in Scandia. The battalion spent four months in this area of Iraq, building a compound for a thousand soldiers, and when there was no work to be done on the compound, the battalion was sent out to help the local population, usually running water pipes to the local houses and fields. Rosenberg's platoon pitched in money to buy their 15-year-old translator a bicycle, to make his commute to the base easier and quicker.

It is in Scandia that Rosenberg found the Cuban cigars he would smoke with his friends while talking about home. The local Haji mart, a flea market, is where they would buy cases of soda, and even pizza from Baghdad if ordered a day ahead. “You could find anything you wanted at the Haji mart, “he said.

THE HAJI MART would not be his only encounter with Iraqi people off the base. While working on an Air Force Base outside of Nasiriyah, in the southern part of Iraq and under British control, Rosenberg and Dewdney spent most of their nights sleeping outside. The temperature would not go below 115 degrees Fahrenheit, even on a desert night, and during the day it would reach as high as 160 degrees. The two soldiers met Ali, an Iraqi man who offered to provide them with a window air-conditioning unit. Paying Ali $250 in advance meant that he would go to Baghdad and get the unit, and another $250 after Ali's return from Baghdad provided the soldiers with the unit. “It was the best buying decision I made in Iraq,” said Rosenberg.

Dec. 21 was a special night for the soldiers. They were stationed at Camp Pacesetter, outside of Samarra, when they were attacked for the first time during their deployment. “I was the only one awake in the tent when I noticed it was shaking,” said Rosenberg. He said that the battalion was used to hearing outgoing artillery fire, but this time the shaking was different. The attackers leaned a bunch of rockets against an embankment near the base, then lit them and ran away. The explosions were closing in on the base, and even though the soldiers had practiced getting into the bunker repeatedly, the confusion was overwhelming and everyone scattered. “It is too cold for this to be happening” was Rosenberg's first thought when he began shouting into the tent for everyone to wake up. It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit on the base. Samarra, north of Baghdad, was the most dangerous part of the deployment, according to Rosenberg. His stay there lasted a month, and then he moved on to Mosul in the northern part of the country.

THE STAY IN MOSUL was the easier part of the deployment, as it was nearing its end. However, Rosenberg's deployment came to an end early, as he required medical attention due to a kidney problem. He was transported by helicopter to a tent hospital in Iraq, before being flown out to Germany. “I didn't want to leave early,” he said. Rosenberg landed at Andrew's Air Force Base on Feb. 29, 2004, once again not notifying his family that he was coming home. After 10 months and 17 days in Iraq, Rosenberg was ready to get back to his life in McLean.

Nowadays Rosenberg is a student at George Mason University in Fairfax. He keeps in touch with the soldiers and nurses in Iraq, but he has reservations about watching the news. He said that the media coverage of the war in Iraq deals a crushing blow to the morale of the soldiers, making them feel like their work there is pointless. The media rarely report on the good deeds done by the military, such as the water-pipe installation, or sponsorship of youth soccer teams in Iraq by individual platoons and battalions. However, every day it reports on the number of soldiers killed over there. “Whether the war is just or not,” said Rosenberg, “we do what we are supposed to do.” He added that he would not be surprised to be reactivated, because the numbers are getting stretched. “I would answer the call in a heartbeat,” he said, “I wouldn't go out of the way to get sent over but wouldn't shy away.”

Ron and Nancy Rosenberg are both very proud of their son's service to the country. They both watched the news from Iraq with apprehension during Mark's deployment. They wanted to know what was going on but were afraid that their son's name might be mentioned during the broadcasts. Ron Rosenberg added that Mark's experience was a turning point in his life, because he appreciated what the United States was doing over there. He said that he learned a lot from his son's experience, comparing the Iraq war to Vietnam, this war being a reversal for him, as he was a child during Vietnam. He considers this war to be a lot lighter than what happened in Vietnam, and he cannot imagine what the parents of that time period went through after what he went through during his son's deployment in Iraq.

James Dewdney feels that his experience in Iraq made him grow up a considerable amount. Before the deployment he was not sure whether he wanted to attend college, but now he is a full-time student at West Virginia University. He also values the small things in life a lot more, after being away from them for a year. He has no regrets about volunteering to go to Iraq. “It is probably one of the best things that happened to me,” he said.