Recently, Colleen Reiss ’04, cadet battalion commander with Cornell’s ROTC, contacted me to see if I was interested in talking to graduates now serving in Iraq. I jumped at the chance, and began exchanging emails with Colleen and with an array of servicemen and women who spent the past few years of their lives matriculating here upon the Hill.
So now I would like to introduce you to six men and women serving their country in the only way they know how: Alexander Ney ’01, field artillery officer 82nd airborne division; Ruthie Levy ’02, support platoon leader HHC, 10th engineer battalion (combat); First Lieutenant Amy Gorman ’02, 626th forward support battalion 101st airborne division (air assault); First Lieutenant Sarah Park ’01, Executive Officer HHC, USAG; First Lieutenant Craig Fisher ’01 (serving in Afghanistan); and First Lieutenant Jordan Steele ’01 251st Cargo Transfer Company (reserve).
They come from all over: Washington, D.C.; Hollywood, Fla.; Cherry Hill, N.J.; Wayne, N.J.; Madrid, N.Y.; and Canton, Ohio.
Their majors cross schools and fields such as biology, engineering and human development. Some of them couldn’t find time to participate in clubs outside of ROTC. Yet they were not a world apart from the rest of C.U. Some, like Levy, played varsity soccer for four years, while others, like Gorman, had time for Kappa Delta sorority life.
“ROTC is like a fraternity anyway; most of the people I knew at Cornell were in the program and I’m still in touch with most of them,” Ney said.
Most of them had already made the decision to join the army long before the September 11 terrorist attacks; Ney was already on active duty.
Levy had already signed up long before the attacks, but they nonetheless affected her.
“9/11 [made] me realize that I was not joining the military to go play Army on some post in the U.S.; I was going to war,” she said.
Many of the soldiers I spoke with took offense with how the war is portrayed in the American media, and many were unhappy with the media’s anxious comparisons to Vietnam.
“Comparisons to Vietnam are quite a bit premature,” Steele said. “Both are relatively unpopular military actions, but unlike Vietnam, we are not engaged in a war of mass casualties with no end state in sight.”
“We are much better trained, advanced technologically, and our soldiers are highly disciplined,” Ney said. “This was not always the case in Vietnam.”
Levy added, “With Vietnam, the Americans shunned service members for being in the military, even though it wasn’t always their choice or desire to go fight for the U.S. I hope that this is a sign that America learned from its mistakes.”
Some soldiers did understand the American need to look back upon Vietnam.
“It is important to contrast and compare the past to the present … it also helps establish norms throughout wars or even with significant time periods,” Gorman said.
“It was interesting to come back to our compound after a patrol and watch CNN describe a fight or an event that I or someone in my unit was just involved in. They never accurately described what happened, with facts being left out or put in a different order. Their twist on things generally put us in a negative light and it was very frustrating. Things over there are not as bad as the news here portrays it,” Ney said.
The Iraqi landscape — literally, culturally and politically — was far different from what they had been expecting.
“Outside of the large cities, [the Iraqi people] seem to be living as they did hundreds of years ago, but large cities like Baghdad are a lot more westernized than I expected,” Ney said.
Levy “saw filthy cities with sewage pouring out of the sewer systems in some places, garbage piled up on the sides of the road, buildings made of stone and clay.”
Her division was one of the first to cross into Baghdad and when she saw Saddam’s palaces, she was awestruck.
“Suddenly you see gorgeous buildings made of stone and brick with beautiful landscaping, water everywhere,” she said. “The difference between the two was shocking and a testament to the dictatorship this man run.”
“I was amazed at what one man [Saddam Hussein] could do. If I ever had doubts that we were doing the right thing before I deployed, I was sure we did by the time I came home,” Park said. They did not encounter an overwhelming number of harsh Muslim extremists.
“They are not as conservative religiously as in other countries in the area such as Saudi. I was surprised to find a large (relatively) Christian population in Baghdad (mainly Catholics and Orthodox with some beautiful churches) and even a very small Jewish population,” Ney said.
The soldiers also found the Iraqi people friendly and welcoming. “For the most part, the people were very nice to us. They are very good hosts. If you visit their house or store, they usually want to sit down and drink chai with you or have a meal. Most speak some English. They are altogether a very generous people.”
“The culture here is very hospitable and kind,” Fisher said. “The children are always running after us shouting ‘thank you’ and giving us the thumb’s up. I cannot count the times I have stopped to talk with people and been invited into their house for tea of food. They will share whatever they have with you, even if that is all that they have.”
Some of the soldiers are upset that the return of slain soldiers has been banned by the Bush administration; others however feel it is a sign of respect for the servicemen and women’s families.
“If people get indignant about this because they want to be able to pay their respects or be informed, then they’re really being selfish and inconsiderate of the soldiers, their families and a system that was put in place for a reason,” Park said.
“It removes the American citizens from the reality of the situation and seems to lessen the importance of the contribution of these fallen soldiers whom should be mourned and commemorated for their sacrifice,” Levy said.
For all the soldiers I spoke with, Iraq has been a difficult and intricately complex experience for them; filled with contradiction.
“There is a lot of horrible stuff that doesn’t make sense over there, but there are also amazing things going on as well,” Gorman said.
Archived article by Michael Margolis
Sun Senior Writer