Monday, May 29, 2006

A soldier's diary

NORTH -- Outlining his experiences while serving with the National Guard in Iraq, North resident James Harley has published a book, "The Trouble in Iraq," available online through some of the nation's largest booksellers.

"It's a diary," Harley said of his work. He said he kept messing up while writing a letter to a stateside friend and the younger members of his unit asked him what he was doing. Jokingly, he answered that he was writing a diary.

"The younger fellas kept encouraging me to write," the 59-year-old staff sergeant said. "There were quite a few days I didn't have time."

Following his 14-month tour, from the time he was activated in February 2003 until the time he began outprocessing in March 2004, "The Trouble in Iraq" is a vivid account of one soldier's day-to-day experiences in war and the impressions they left on him.

"It's opinionated," Harley said of his memoirs. "Everything I say is basically truthful. It's what we were involved in. It's a pretty neat book."

Had it not been for the intervention of his sister, Venetia Felder, and her friend and author, Tim Everett, both of Spartanburg, Harley's words may have remained merely his own personal account while serving with the 122nd Engineer Battalion.

"'From Paradise to Hell,' that was the name of my diary," he said. "The guys in Iraq and I came up with that."

Harley said some experiences stick out in his mind more than others, like the time he and fellow soldiers were asked by a commanding officer to build a gazebo in the middle of their camp.

He said although they had no supplies for such a project, going through garbage and straightening out used nails led to the creation of what became known among the unit as "The Ark," which he said was still standing when he left Iraq and his base camp Al-asad.

"A lot of people used that for a reference point, traveling from one place to another," Harley said. "We were constantly going different places."

Harley said the unit was able to, using batteries from run-down equipment, rig a DVD player and television to work.

"There'd be 60 or 70 people gathered around that little building, watching movies at night," he said.

Harley's war experience prior to serving in Iraq includes several months in Vietnam as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. He said there are more differences than similarities between the two.

"In Iraq, we just didn't get any rain," he said. "The conditions were a lot different." Monsoons to drought, lack of communication with family and friends to the age of computers and advanced phone service, from vegetation to desolation -- these are the contrasts that stick out most in Harley's mind.

"One of the main things I recall is kinda keeping a watch out for younger guys," he said. "Some of them, after a short while, really didn't think it was as serious as it was -- that it really wasn't a war."

But, in time, Harley said, "They realized that this was the real thing. It took a lot ... to keep their mind together."

He said communication played a large role in keeping up the morale in Iraq.

"That kind of kept the young ones at ease, where they could keep in touch with their loved ones," Harley said.

Another contrast between Vietnam and Iraq was contact with natives, until the end, that is.

"In Vietnam, I tried to stay away from the people as much as I could," he said, adding that you never knew who the enemy was -- it could be a child or a woman.

Harley said when American military personnel first arrived in Iraq, they were welcome.

"In Iraq, they thanked the U.S. for coming to the rescue," he said. "After that, they wanted us to go home.

"It got to the point that they had to do things according to the way we wanted them done. People didn't like taking orders from someone in their own homeland. It's a natural thing. I wouldn't want to take orders from someone coming into the U.S."

He said the Iraqis were on guard for the most part near the end of his deployment, wishing the Americans would leave.

"It was just like Vietnam," he said. "It didn't matter, as long as they got the job done."

Poverty was rampant in the region, Harley said, and Iraqis were in need of the most basic of necessities: shelter and food.

The children were kind to the soldiers, trying to learn English from the Americans in uniform.

"They were friendly," he said. "We'd give them candy and cookies and such. We weren't supposed to do that, but we did."

War didn't come without its moments of uncertainty for the veteran soldier, who, after serving full-time in the U.S. military for two years, joined the National Guard in 1976.

"There were a few times I got real concerned," Harley said.

"There comes a certain point when you have to make the

decision whether you're going to use that weapon, and you'd rather not. It doesn't necessarily mean that because we are going into a hostile area that your life will end. Being a soldier, you're expected to do these types of things.

"Those months at (Fort) Stewart, getting training together, really paid off. You learn to rely on the guy behind you, standing next to you."

Harley said war is a life-changing experience, as he still suffers from the mental impact it has had on his life.

His family has pointed out that he is more withdrawn, and he said even now, he would rather be by himself than in a crowd.

"The hardest thing is to get back to normal," Harley said. "I'm not there yet. I don't think it's because I was older -- I just can't seem to get back to where I was at. Something seems missing, and I can't get it back. I can't really focus the way I did on things in the past.

"You can see some things just as bad in the U.S. I really can't explain what it is that I'm missing, but I know I'm not at where I want to be."

Harley said while war is hard, serving in the military is something everyone, male and female, should experience.

"I think everyone should spend at least two or three years in the military," he said. "That should be your first job, and we probably wouldn't have half the problems we have. The military teaches you a lot, if you want to learn.

"After a short while, some people will see this is not what they want to do. If they would just hang with it, military life can be a rewarding life."

As for his personal take on the war in Iraq, Harley said he doesn't agree with the U.S. presence in the Middle Eastern country.

"I don't think it should be a war," he said. "I don't see where it's benefitting the U.S. or the people of the U.S. To those who believe there should be a war, that's their belief. Mine's different from that. I had to go because I was in uniform."

Harley plans to retire from the National Guard in 2007. When not serving his country, Harley works as a maintenance mechanic at Albemarle, where he has been employed for 26 years, and helps his 85-year-old mother, Idella Harley of North, plant and maintain vegetables to take to market or share with neighbors and friends.

The Times and Democrat


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