Nearly every day, there is the evidence of war lurking in my e-mail box. An old friend from college forwards dispatches from her husband, Robert Jorgensen, who is serving his second tour in Iraq as a helicopter pilot. Some of them are heartfelt messages to his wife and two kids back home. Others express the frustration of the situation in the country.
Our families got together last summer in South Tahoe, where I had some time to get a better perspective on the war while our young daughters got to know each other. It was hard for Bob to be gone for a year away from his little girl, missing almost half of her young life. My daughter was just away at her grandmother's house for five days, and she seems so different, talking more, laughing, telling knock-knock jokes. I can't imagine missing a whole year.
He laments that he's not around to be a role model for his 7-year-old son. Instead of soccer, baseball and karate, he spends his days trying to keep all his helicopters flying and their crews safe.
Many dispatches are revealing. Bob could never be described as anti-war, but he certainly has questions about how the war is being fought, and the perception we have back here of what it going on. A message talking about a sandstorm evolved into a full accounting of the hell of war.
"Nothing here is fun as a matter of fact. It's not fun hearing gunfire daily. It's no fun hearing artillery going daily. It's no fun aircraft coming back with gunshot holes. It's no fun the phone and Internet getting shut down when someone dies. Needless to say it is down more than it's up. It's not fun being away from your family when you are supposed to retire and you are not allowed to. It's no fun being in a country where you are not wanted and your chances of being shot are pretty good."
And there are were lots of messages announcing the deaths of his fellow soldiers. Way too many.
But for all of these insights, I wasn't prepared for what happened on his birthday last month. Neither was he.
He started the message quoting an Associated Press story about a helicopter getting shot down near Tal Afar, killing one and wounding another.
Bob then quoted his official report as part of the Downed Aircraft Recovery Team, sent in to bring back the OH58D Kiowa. He detailed how they checked out the systems, noted the bullet holes through the cockpit windows, and how the helicopter was damaged but flyable.
After the report, he added this, labeled "Other Thoughts":
"I read a book many years ago called 'Chickenhawk', it was about UH-1 pilots in Vietnam. I never thought I would encounter anything like they did in my life. However, I can now say I have. There was one section of the book that describes a pilot trying to fly an aircraft after his co-pilot was shot and there was blood everywhere. Well, after last night I know what he meant.
"There is no complete set of words that describes the feelings of trying to fly, after someone has bled all over a cockpit. When you're trying to inspect the aircraft for damage and you're having to touch, smell and see blood all over the floor, the seats, the instruments. The smell and sight are something you will never forget.
"When you have to strap into the aircraft and you are sitting on a wet seat from blood and water in an attempt to clean some of it off, it's indescribable. When you strap on shoulder harnesses that are blood soaked, and your feet are sticking to the blood on the floor, it's unforgettable. When the power is turned on in the aircraft and the instruments light up, but are hard to read due to the blood spatters, it's a sight that is burned into your mind. These things are smells, sights, and feelings I pray my children never have to experience."
The pilot who died in that seat, Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Hay, left behind a wife, a 5-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter.
One thing Bob didn't mention in his message that puts it into perspective is that another unit was stationed in Tal Afar a year ago, then moved out and turned it over to local Iraqi forces. Since then, it reverted back to enemy hands. And now, his unit has had to retake Tal Afar. I'm sure he's seeing those parallels with Vietnam, where U.S. forces would engage in costly battles to secure an area, then abandon it afterwards. It's a clear sign that the "stay the course" strategy isn't working.
I haven't written about Bob in the past for a number of reasons, first and foremost his messages weren't sent to me with the intention that they be published. They often reflected his frustrations with what was happening, the lack of progress in the war, the harsh conditions, the fear of not coming home to his family.
Those frustrations boiled over recently. "... take everything I've written and post it, print it or comment on it," he wrote. "I've had enough. Frustrated is an excellent word to describe it all."
Bob and I see things from different political perspectives, but this goes beyond ideology. Either this government needs to make a full effort to win the war now, or get out before we send more dead American fathers (and mothers) back to grieving families.
n Kirk Caraway is the Nevada Appeal's Internet editor. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.