HomeNewsCommentariesDisplay

My Iraq vacation

Lt. Col. Linda K. Bethke (right), 11th Contracting Squadron commander, and Army Sergeant 1st Class Maggie Hammonds pose with a group of Iraqi children they taught to quilt. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Linda K. Bethke (right), 11th Contracting Squadron commander, and Army Sergeant 1st Class Maggie Hammonds pose with a group of Iraqi children they taught to quilt. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Linda K. Bethke and members of her convoy hand out drinks to Iraqi children. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Linda K. Bethke and members of her convoy hand out drinks to Iraqi children. (Courtesy photo)

BOLLING AFB, D.C. -- During the summer of 2005, I was given an offer I couldn't refuse. I had the opportunity to spend a fabulous vacation guaranteed to be filled with lots of sun and sand, all on my Uncle Sam's tab. 

The down side was that the location was more than 6,000 miles from my husband and two small children. And the sun I was to enjoy would easily top 140 degrees. 

On the positive side, I was to go to south-central Iraq to help oversee reconstruction efforts in five provinces, and had the opportunity to touch hundreds, if not thousands of lives. 

I arrived in Babel province after what seemed like three days of nonstop travel. It was humbling to know that I was actually working in a city I had read about in stories from the Bible, and all around me were no-kidding historical sites of biblical proportion: the city of Babylon, the site of the Tower of Babel, the Gates of Ishtar and the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, all not more than 10 miles from me. 

I was assigned to the regional embassy office near Camp Charlie in the city of Al Hillah. I was a one-person shop and it was my responsibility to take the requirements brought to me, such as water-purification plants and hospitals, and turn them into reality by writing contracts that would not only create jobs for Iraqis, but would help the surrounding communities to recover and return back to a state of normalcy. 

The Department of State employed Iraqis from Hillah and surrounding towns. Within the embassy, I witnessed a microcosm of Iraq. Here, there were no tribal or religious sect barriers. Shia and Sunni worked together to bring about positive change in their country. It was evident that these people were not only proud of their country but were also very brave. They believed in what Coalition forces were doing there, risking their lives by coming to work at an American embassy every day. I had hopes that these people were an accurate representation of the general public. 

But it didn't take me long to get very jaded. Corruption, insurgent attacks and sectarian violence in the region and the overall poverty of the Iraqis began to chip away at my resolve. Even those moments when I felt some relief, such as when I would dispense candy and soft drinks to village children, only left me with a temporary pause from the overall situation. 

An Iraqi working as a translator in the An Najaf province explained that the presence of the United States in his country was "but a flicker of a candle in the wind." He did not say this to be rude. He was very supportive of the Coalition forces and appreciated everything we were trying to do for his country. He wanted his culture to be understood and in a way, to caution us against sky-high expectations. He went on to explain that his people "lie, they cheat and they steal." These qualities are so deeply ingrained in their culture that we were not going to change them. 

Just when I thought I would hit an emotional low, some of the women at the embassy invited the young daughters of the Iraqi homeguard, which assisted in the security of the embassy, for a quilting lesson. What these girls lacked in their inability to speak English they more than made up for in spunk. Shy they were not, though you would think they would be, with all of the anti-American demonstrations I had seen on the news. 

They were eager to learn, excited to have their nails polished and reminded me very much of my own 5-year-old daughter back home. One little girl approached me to help her with her fabric squares. As I took the threaded needle and squares from her, she crawled into my lap to watch me sew. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered my own daughter crawling into my lap, and then I realized that this was one of my purposes here -- to touch the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people as they touch mine, and that included the children. 

Words from that sappy Whitney Houston song that I sang at my high school graduation come to mind. The children are the future. 

Sounds pretty corny, I know, but Iraq did not become what it is today overnight. It is the height of American arrogance and a sign of our impatience to think that we can quickly affect change in a majority of the adult Iraqi population that was not only exposed to Saddam's warped dictatorship, but a millennia-old culture. It will take time to rebuild Iraq into a modern country and the Iraqi children are the guardians of this vision. These children may not remember our faces or our names, but my hope is that they will remember the kindness of our servicemen and women as they forge their future.