By Patrick Winderl
It was a sweet homecoming for Sgt. Josh Holt, who recently spent 10 days in Havre following an 11-month tour in Iraq, where enemy attacks were common and the sun-baked desert sometimes reached temperatures of 150 degrees.
The 24-year-old Holt, an Army veteran of one campaign in Kosovo and two in the Middle East, spent most of his time in Havre catching up with friends and family, and getting ready for his wedding ceremony in July.
On his way to get fitted for a tuxedo, his helmet and camouflage discarded for sunglasses and shorts, the 1998 graduate of Havre High School described life in Iraq.
There were the tough things, he said - living out of vehicles and in hastily built camps, learning not to count the number of months since he'd last seen his fiance and knowing that his 2-year-old son was growing up without him, pulling guard duty while trying to survive the unrelenting heat and sandstorms and enemy attacks. There was the mind-numbing boredom during down times, periods of low morale and the death of three friends on Christmas Eve.
But there were the good parts, too, Holt said - helping Iraqi children by opening schools that hadn't held classes in 35 years, destroying caches of enemy munitions that might have been used to harm American soldiers, his proxy marriage in October and a sweet reunion with his new wife and son a month later during a two-week furlough in the United States.
Holt smiled as he recalled the 16-hour flight from Kuwait to Atlanta on a chartered jet filled with U.S. soldiers going home for a break midway through their tour.
"The mood is pretty good," he said. "A lot of people were excited - excited to see their families. Excited is definitely the word for it."
By the time Holt earned his mid-tour leave, he had been in Iraq for seven months. His unit, Alpha Company of the 5th Engineers Battalion, was sent to Kuwait on April 2, 2003, and deployed to central Iraq 10 days later.
"It was hot when we got there," he said. "It was quite hot and there were quite a few sandstorms."
Alpha Company jumped into action immediately, Holt said.
"We're not a construction engineer (unit), we're a combat engineer (unit)," he said. "We were doing battlefield setup, explosives, wire obstacles, land mines. We were doing a lot of various things, from the destruction of munitions to guarding the base."
It was not a 9-to-5 job, Holt said.
"You could get called pretty much anytime, and we always had to pull guard duty on the camp," he said. "In the summer, we didn't sleep much because the heat was so extreme."
Iraqi insurgents frequently shot at troops at Holt's base, further adding to the difficulties soldiers faced.
"There was times when I had soldiers call in and told us they were getting shot at. That stuff happened on a daily basis," he said.
Alpha Company spent a lot of time disposing of Iraqi weaponry, Holt said, adding that exploding enemy munitions "sounds dangerous until you actually do it."
"We would get a call and be told where it was," he said. "We had a certain amount of explosives that we carried with us at all times that was enough for any mission we did. We would get on-site and assess how much we would need and how we were going to dispose of it."
Most of the munitions were found in the desert. Holt's unit secured the area to make sure bystanders were not injured by a blast.
"We had to do it as safe as we could, considering we were blowing stuff up," he said.
The 5th Engineers did humanitarian work as well.
"We did a lot of work with the civilian people. We opened up a few schools. Some of them hadn't been open in 35 years," Holt said. "All the school supplies were donated by companies in the United States - chalk boards, dry erase boards, pencils, papers. The books were printed up in English and Arabic."
U.S. soldiers used civilian interpreters to work with the Iraqis, Holt said, adding that most of the civilians he encountered seemed to be pro-American.
The work of the 5th Engineers was hard and often dangerous, meaning soldiers had to bond together to survive, Holt said.
"Most of the guys I went over there with have been together for a year or two years. Some of us have been together for five years, and went to basic (training) together," he said.
There is little reprieve for soldiers, and morale among U.S. troops fluctuates, he said.
"Some days you're in a good mood, some days you're not. It all depends on what you did the day before," he said. "I'd say it's getting better just because the conditions for the soldiers are getting better."
Now that American troops have been in Iraq for more than a year, the military has had time to establish more amenities for soldiers when they are not working.
"You have more to do now rather than just sitting on your cot. Now you can watch TV, play video games, pingpong. When we first got there, there was nothing set up. We were living in our vehicle out of our rucksack," he said.
The Army has also set up Internet cafes, which allow troops to contact their families via e-mail, Holt said. For the first six or seven months of his tour, there was very little communication between the troops and the outside world, he added.
In March, the 5th Engineers finished its tour in Iraq, nearly one year after it was deployed.
"We had just about three weeks of reintegration in Kuwait before we actually came home - just quiet time, calm time," Holt said. "We actually got to sleep in. We readjusted a lot that way. I believe most of the units go through that."
The time Holt spent in Kuwait at the end of the tour was much different than during his first tour in the country as a private.
"When we were there in '99 and 2000, we did tours of the cities. We shopped and golfed, and went to the beach. We rented Jet Skis. We had a good time when we were there in 2000. This time it was a whole different atmosphere," he said.
During the three-week reintegration period, the soldiers spent nearly all their time on base and counted down the hours until they could board a plane for the United States, Holt said.
"You're always itching to get home, but we knew we were going to spend a little time in Kuwait before we came home, but we didn't know exactly how much time it was going to be. When we finally got the day we were going home, that's when we got really excited," he said.
For Holt, who gave 11 months of his life serving his country in Iraq, the greatest victory is making it home to his family.
"The biggest thing was getting home in one piece and getting all my soldiers home, too," he said.
Holt left Havre on Wednesday for Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where the 5th Engineers is based. He lives in a house in the town of St. Robert with his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, Andrew, who is 2 years old.
Josh and Elizabeth, a paralegal with the Judge Advocate General's Corps, were wed Oct. 6 in a proxy ceremony while Josh was in Iraq. Josh's mother, Julie Holt of Havre, stood in for him during the ceremony. The couple plans a more traditional wedding ceremony this July in Elizabeth's hometown in Ohio.
Holt joined the Army in 1999. After completing nine weeks of basic training, he was assigned to the 5th Engineers at Fort Leonard Wood. His first tour overseas was in Kuwait, followed by one in Kosovo. While working as part of a peace-keeping mission there, he was promoted to sergeant.
When asked how his duties in Iraq differed from those in Kosovo, Holt replied: "Well, we definitely weren't getting shot at in Kosovo."
"We just usually did patrols, make sure there was no fighting going on. They had a curfew imposed, so we made sure that people weren't out past curfew. If they were, we escorted them home.
"We made sure people weren't trying to come across the Serbian border and bring weapons across. We protected a lot of churches and mosques there from vandalism," he said.
Holt has spent three Christmases serving in military campaigns overseas. His unit is one that is called upon often, and the constant deployment takes its toll, he said.
"I've been deployed quite a bit. Having a kid is really hard. The year I was gone, he grew a foot," he said.
Holt said he is thrilled to be home, and looks forward to spending time with Elizabeth and Andrew. However, the readjustment to normal life may be short-lived.
"The chance of us going back there is pretty good," he said. "We heard rumors that in April of next year we're supposed to be heading back."