By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Spc. Allan Carlos Sutherland has a lot to enjoy on his two-week leave of absence from Camp Ridgeway, an Army post near the town of Fallujah in central Iraq.
There are his family, home-cooked meals and civilian clothes; there's relief from the scorching heat and the unpleasant smell he says permeates life on a desert Army base. There's his fiance, who was scheduled to arrive in Great Falls this morning on a flight from Fort Benning, Ga. And there's the simple pleasure of safety.
"I don't have to worry about getting bombed," Sutherland said. The soft-spoken 22-year-old Rocky Boy native, who has spent the last seven months repairing vehicles at the U.S. Army camp near Fallujah, said he hears the big explosions of Iraqi mortars in the distance every day.
It has been three years since Sutherland graduated from Rocky Boy High School. Some might say he still looks young enough to be a recent high school graduate, but he said he is a different person from the one who headed to boot camp in South Carolina three years ago.
"It makes you grow up a lot faster," Sutherland said.
"The things you see out there, it makes you into a man," he said, recalling the day about four months ago when he was riding in a convoy delivering mail to a nearby post. A bomb exploded on the side of the road two vehicles in front of him, taking off a major's arm and costing a soldier in Sutherland's company his hearing.
"I try not to think about it," he said. "(You) pray it doesn't happen to you."
Soldiers usually only get attacked when they leave the post, Sutherland said, so he tries to stay put, only going on convoys when he has to. The vehicles he fixes during the day are used to transport the Iraqi bombs and other ammunition U.S. troops find.
"It's all over out there," he said. "Buried in the sand," holding his hands more than shoulder width apart to indicate the size of many of the bombs found there.
A different kind of bomb is often attached to guard rails alongside the road to ambush American convoys, he said, and other weapons like rocket-propelled grenades are commonly found.
The attacks on U.S. troops seem to be carried out by Iraqi civilians, many of whom are ex-military, he said.
"They really don't have an army. It's really the civilians that's been attacking us here."
Sutherland's experience with Iraqis has been mostly limited to the occasional civilians along the road, including children begging for food.
"They're mostly trying to sell you stuff," Sutherland said, describing Iraqis selling sodas on the side of the road to Americans. "They're real poor."
Some are lucky enough to have jobs at the post.
"They have Iraqi people that come on the base and clean port-a-johns," he said. There is also an Iraqi-run restaurant, where many of the soldiers spend their money.
"The younger (Iraqi) kids, they all admire you, but the older guys, they don't like you," he said, "probably because of all they've been through over the years."
"When you're over there, you know they've been treated bad," Sutherland said, adding that he is there to try to make it better. He said he believes the hardships he is going through, along with about 7,000 other Americans at his base, are worth it - "worth every bit of it."
"When you see people, it makes you know why you're out there and what you're doing," he said.
That some Iraqis seem to disagree - violently - is not important, he said.
As the the country changes, and American soldiers with it, they push on from day to day trying to patch together a semblance of normalcy.
For all the unpleasantness and the heat - the temperature still climbs above 100 degrees during the day and drops to a cool 80 degrees at night - Sutherland said it's bearable.
"You get used to it," he said. "I've been living on a cot for seven months, but I don't have a problem with it."
He said there is a lot of camaraderie out there in the desert and a few modern comforts, too. He plays video games on his PlayStation and talks to his fiance across the ocean when he can get a phone connection - anything to get his mind off being away from home. Mail takes a month to get through.
On his 22nd birthday in September, Sutherland experienced a birthday tradition, Army style. Instead of being presented with burning candles, he was assigned latrine detail, and burned his company's waste.
Little wonder that when it came time for his two-week break, Sutherland did not, like some soldiers, decide to stay, either for the money or because leaving home to come back to Iraq would be too hard.
The two-day journey home took him through Kuwait, Germany, Baltimore, and finally into the sky above Montana, where he looked down and saw snowy peaks and evergreens.
"You realize why everybody calls it God's country," he said.
His older brother and a cousin picked him up in Great Falls.
"It made me cry as soon as I got inside (the terminal)," he said. "It felt so good to be home."
From there he came back to Rocky Boy, where his parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles were waiting for him.
"I broke down and started crying," he said. "My mom had a big old 'Welcome Home Carlos' sign. ... She hugged me for about 10 minutes and wouldn't let me go."
Since returning, he has eaten tacos and crab legs. He has come to town with his brother and had a couple beers.
"Once you get back, you know you're home," he said. "It's a good feeling."
Sutherland will fly back to Iraq on Nov. 23.
"I'm not dreading it," he said. "I mean I know it's my job. But I'm going to miss them when I go back."
He is scheduled to finish his stint there in April, and has asked to be stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., for the remainder of his second three-year term.
Sutherland said he is proud to be a soldier in the Army. But for at least a short time, his job is simple: "Just try to relax and get your mind off the war."