Letters Home: From Boot Camp to Baghdad, in a Soldier’s Own Words

Galahad Dong holding a gun and in camouflage

Galahad Dong

“So as this deployment draws to a close, I have to ask myself a few questions. The type you take some time to reflect on after it all comes to a close and hope that when you find answers to them, you will become a better person in the future, whatever ‘better’ may be. So anyways, as we come to a close, I’ve been wondering to myself what have I gotten out of this deployment, what have I learned, how have I changed?

“The part that many Soldiers (and perhaps service members from other branches as well) may not tell you is that the greatest enemy is not the insurgent trying to shoot you while on patrol or kill you with a rocket or mortar attack while you are sleeping. The greatest enemy on any deployment is oneself. Your greatest challenge will be the the struggle within, in keeping your humanity and your sanity.”

— Galahad Dong, March 16, 2008, Baghdad


He wrote home often and at length. His e-mails went on for what would have been pages had they been penned on paper. From Baghdad, he wrote about Ramadan and sand storms, the Green Zone, his fellow soldiers, life on base. He wrote about patrols and IEDs, NVGs and EOD escorts. He wrote about the weather, about the heat, about the first significant precipitation of the season — wicked lightning storms early one morning, accompanied by large drops of rain and, later, hail. In an e-mail titled “Apparently Snow is rare,” he enclosed a link to a news article that began, “After weathering nearly five years of war, Baghdad residents thought they’d pretty much seen it all. But Friday morning, as muezzins were calling the faithful to prayer, the people here woke to something certifiably new. For the first time in memory, snow fell across Baghdad.”

His writings were a window into Iraq and into his world. He documented what he saw “outside of the wire,” describing, in one message, the squalor in a village where the market sat next to the trash dump. He discussed the children — those who smiled at the Americans, and those who pelted Humvees with rocks. He told stories about pulling the graveyard shift, keeping guard on quiet nights in an observation tower. He recounted how one man urinated on himself during an interrogation, and how, on one outing, his squadron discovered a leper living in exile in a wooden shack with no insulation or light. He recorded his thoughts and feelings, ruminated on how the things he had seen left him changed.

It was all new, this writing. I had known Galahad for years. As a teenager, I considered him my best friend. Even then, in the long hours we spent together, he had never been much of a communicator. In fact, when he had joined the Army in 2003, at the end of his first year of college at the University of California, San Diego, he kept his enlistment to himself, informing many close friends of his decision months after he had made it.

In the days that followed, the first letters I received came from training camp in Fort Benning, Ga. More arrived in the run-up to his deployment to Baghdad. The writing reached a crescendo while he was away in Iraq. Later, when he had returned home, Galahad told me his communications were just a way to assure loved ones that he was safe. But the dispatches from overseas, arriving weekly, seemed to be more than that. Some of the longer ones topped 1,000 words.

I had thought, many times, about writing Galahad’s story. He spent three years on active duty and three in the Reserve. He served in the infantry. His upbringing — he was a kid who grew up in Piedmont, a wealthy suburb in California’s Bay Area — made him an anomaly. He climbed quickly, earning the designation of Soldier of the Year and becoming one of the Army’s youngest Staff Sergeants. On a tour of duty in Kosovo, he developed tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that sounds, to him, like the hum of a fluorescent light, but higher-pitched. He returned from Iraq with PTSD.

While Galahad was in the military, I finished college and began a career as a newspaper reporter. Over the years, I kept all his letters, thinking I might write about him one day. I marveled at how different our lives had become. I remember meeting him at a café in Los Angeles shortly before his deployment to Baghdad. For the first time in his life, he told me he was scared. Before that, at least to me, he had always been fearless. He had learned to ride motorcycles before he knew how to drive a car, and had been a black belt in Tae Kwon Do for as long as I could recall. He was afraid, he said, of getting blown up by an IED.

I interviewed Galahad in 2009 with the intention of drafting a story chronicling his time in the military. Later, however, as I sifted through years of notes and e-mails, I concluded that the best way to do justice to his experiences would be to let him tell you about them in his own words.

So I leave you here, with Galahad’s letters.

Chapter 1 | Basic Training
Chapter 2 | Months Before Deployment to Iraq
Chapter 3 | Mississippi and Pre-Deployment Training
Chapter 4 | “I’m Here” — First Days in Iraq
Chapter 5 | News From Camp Slayer
Chapter 6 | Final Months in Iraq
Chapter 7 | “As This Deployment Draws to a Close…”
Epilogue | Final Thoughts

Chapter 1 | Basic Training

Aug. 15, 2003 — Fort Benning, Ga.

People say while at boot camp, they always miss the little things that most people take for granted. Stuff such as music, t.v., junk food, ect. However, none of that stuff has really phased me.

• • •

While I’m here, i’m apparently the calm and composed one who helps people when they’re down so I have to always act optimistic and be like shit will turn out all good in the end when in fact in many cases, that’s not true.

Aug. 16, 2003 — Fort Benning, Ga.

OSUT stands for One Station Unit Training. The only difference is basic training is 9 weeks long followed by an additional 5 weeks of non-basic job specific training. Those additional 5 weeks are called AIT and usually you get weekends off, phone and computer time. OSUT however is 15 straight weeks of training.

• • •

A typical day is as follows,

0400-0520 wake up, personal hygeine, barraks maintance
0520 first formation
0530-0630 PT (Physical training) This can be weights, running, push-ups, ect.
0630-0700 change uniform (we don’t really get 30 min)
0700-0800 chow (we have to feed over 200 privates in an hour)
0830-0900 transportation (either walk or take peopel converted cattle trucks)
0900-1200 day specific training
1200-1300 chow
1300-1600 day specific training
1200-1300 chow
1300-1600 day specific training
1600-1630 transportation
1700-1800 chow
1800-1900 Additional PT or weapons cleaning & boot polishing
2000-2100 personal hygeine
2100 lights out

That’s generally how a typical day works except transports (if taking vehicles) is always late and things always run over so personal hygeine is usually cut short.

• • •

Basic and OSUT is all just a mind game with some physical training to break you down mentally. I could go on forever about how good their psychological warfare is but it would be easier if I just explained it to you when I got back. Nevertheless, if you’ve figured out how OSUT and Basic work (which is pretty obvious but we’re dealing w/ grunts here), then it’s really just a walk in the park, a paid summer camp. On the whole, for being the hardest boot camp (b/c we’re infantry) and at that, 2nd Bn 58 inf Regt. supposedly being the hardest of the infantry boot camps, it’s really not all that hard. Nonetheless, there’s still a shit load of people who have broken down mentally. We’ve had a couple of AWOLs, several fights, and a suicide attempt in our company so I guess for some, it is taxing on the mind.

• • •

Umm, Georgia. I can’t really tell you how Georgia is since i’m stuck on base 24/7 but I can tell you about the weather and the critters. Basically, it’s hot as fuck here. Temps regularly break the 90’s and mid 90’s. Add to that the humidity which is insane and it gets hot as holy fucking hell. Especially when you’re wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt w/ equipment and running around all day. And when it rains, which it does almost daily, it pours w/ lightning like nothing you’ve seen in Cali. Worse, after the rain, the humidity only gets worse. So in a nutshell, Georgia sucks major ass. As for the critters… I can’t even begin to describe most of these creatures. All I know is they’re big, weird looking, a lot of them dangerous, and annoying as fuck. So you probably don’t want to come to Georgia, or at least the Ft. Benning part of it.

Chapter 2 | Months Before Deployment to Iraq

March 20, 2007 — San Diego, Calif.

The reason i’ve remained largely quiet about my deployment and my military career overall has thus far been founded on the excuse that I don’t like people to worry about me so the less they know the better. However, in all reality, I created this explanation after the fact so I never really did understand why I chose to remain so secretive, especially to my closest friends. And so I intend to set the facts straight today based on what i’ve discovered on my first deployment [to Kosovo].

While overseas, one can learn a lot about a person by the personal items that they have in their wall locker. As can be expected, pictures and letters from home dominate the walls of these personal sanctuaries be they pictures of wives, girlfriends, children, or the cover shoots from Maxim and FHM for the single guys. In general, it became clear that htese men were not fighting for the Republic, nationalism, or even pride. Rather they were sacrificing their time for their loved ones.

I of course, being the weird person that I am had pictures of none other than my motorcycle posted all over my wall locker. When I left, I was so sure that the most important thing to me and the thing that I would miss the most would be my new bike which I had sacrificed so much for. However, as the deployment progressed, I learned that my initial assumption could not have been further from the truth.

May 22, 2007 — San Diego, Calif.

Tell you what, if I make it back and if you haven’t done so, you’ll quit smoking. fair deal? My grandmother has a weak heart and lungs and is now hooked up to oxygen almost all of the time. She smoked. It’s not cool.

Chapter 3 | Mississippi and Pre-Deployment Training

July 3, 2007 — Camp Shelby, Miss.

It’s hot but it’s the humidity that absolutely blows. That and the rain comes like a ninja. And when it rains, it pours like a monsoon almost. I have no clue why anyone would want to live here unless you’re family was born here and this is all you know. That and my body armor that weighs around 42 pounds without ammo which kind of sucks too.

August 3, 2007 — Camp Shelby, Miss.

What I do depends on whether or not there is scheduled training and that seems to change on an hourly basis. On days that we actually train, my day consists of something like this;

Wake up at 5:00am, eat and hygiene until 6:15 – 6:30. Usually wait for transportation (since they’re always late) or walk to the training site which will start at anywhere from 7:00 – 8:00 depending on when the trainers get there and are set up (they’re lazy). From there, training will be either classroom or hands-on quasi-realistic battle scenarios. 30 minutes for lunch and then the same thing until about 6:00 – 6:30 where we wait for transportation or walk back to the barracks. For some reason, our detachment is always without transportation so we’re always walking which sucks hard when you’re tired, wet, and you have to carry your 45lbs body armor plus, weapon, assault pack with assorted gear and a kevlar helmet. Eat dinner before 7:00 then spend the rest of the evening cleaning weapons and gear. Personal hygiene and hopefully in bed by 10:00 to do it all over again. Throughout the day, there is a whole lot of waiting and just baking in the sun/humidity. Shade does not help at all down here.

• • •

Probably the worst thing about this training is when I sweat, because I eat the same food as white people now, I smell like them and suffice to say, it doesn’t smell nice. That was the worst part about Jiu-jitsu back in San Diego and now I smell it all the time because of those around me and myself. Especially since my body armor does not breathe at all. Febreeze only works so well.

August 11, 2007 — Camp Shelby, Miss.

We worked 24 hours on for 6 days straight from Saturday at 9:00am to Midnight Thursday. To make matters worse, August is supposedly the hottest part of the year. Even when just on standby waiting for someone to call QRF, you just sweat nonstop from about 10:00 am until 8:00 pm and then its still humid as shit at night so you can’t even really sleep while waiting to get called out. That and when you were called out, in just putting your gear on and moving out to the vehicles, you probably lost damn year a quart of water in sweat alone. In the end, I think I averaged about 3.5 hours of sleep a day. By the end of the week, my unit was the walking dead. We pretty much wore the same uniform the entire time, slept with our boots on, and looked and smelled like absolute shit. Good times all around.

On another note, the other units are comprised of 99% white people. One unit has one soldier from Guam and the other unit has exactly one black person. Other than that, about 75% of them are blue eyed and all of them white. My unit on the other hand is about 40% White, 40% Hispanic, and 20% Asian. Suffice to say, they stare at us a lot. Especially with the stress and bullshit factor of that field exercise we just went through, I’m surprised no one got into a fight. Oh, and people from the South are very liberal with the term Oriental. I had one soldier literally try to teach me as to why I was Oriental after I told him I wasn’t because I wasn’t a rug or some exotic spice.

Chapter 4 | “I’m Here” — First Days in Iraq

Sept. 1, 2007 — Kuwait

Things are well. I’m here in Kuwait just waiting for the word to fly to Iraq. Minus a few classes here and there and some time on the shooting range, my life in Kuwait consists of nothing more than eating, sleeping, and working out.

The weather here is probably just like Las Vegas. Feels like you’ve stepped out into an oven every time you go outside. That and at least this part of Kuwait is super barren. If you leave the base, you can literally look 360 degrees and see nothing but sand, sand that manages to get everywhere, even all over your shit indoors.

Sept. 2., 2007 — Kuwait

It’s hot here, hot, flat, and barren in Kuwait. In the afternoon, when you walk outside, it feels like you’re stepping into an industrial sized oven. So hot in fact that you don’t feel like you’re sweating because it evaporates off your skin before you can feel it. That and the wicked sand storms manage to get sand everywhere, even on your stuff indoors.

Anyways, sorry for the lack of communication. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I somehow find myself busy with random things throughout the day and too tired to walk across base in the heat to use the Internet (that I have to pay for) when I do have the free time. I know, lame excuse but it’ll have to do.

Regardless, I’ll be in Iraq sometime next week and I’ll have my laptop soon after that so I’ll be able to keep in far better contact than I have been for the past several weeks.

Sept. 9, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Camp Slayer”

So here I am finally in Iraq. I’m staying near Uday’s (spelling?) palace (one of Saddam’s brothers) in Baghdad. Because the camp has no room for my unit, we’re actually lodged up in Saddam’s guesthouses. My platoon is in one of them but don’t let the the guesthouse name fool you, it’s not Queen Elizabeth’s guesthouse in the least bit. Anyways, the house overlooks a man made lake about the size of Lake Merrit and my room would look right out onto the lake if it wasn’t covered up with sandbags and wood (to prevent glass and shrapnel from coming in).

Anyways, living here has both its plusses and minuses. In one respect, because we live next to all the civilian contractors and away from all the soldiers, we don’t get messed with and are not as liable to get into trouble for the little things that the senior leadership has nothing better to do than correct. On the other hand, I live over a mile away from the chow hall, Morale Welfare and Recration (MWR) buildings, gym, and shoppette which means something as simple as going to dinner has to be carefully planned as it now takes 3x as long to eat.

The weather here because there is are man made lakes and canals all over Baghdad is a little more humid than Kuwait but no where near the misery level of Mississippi. You can still see that haze of fine sand in the air (looks like smog) and there are sand storms but because this is the city, it’s not as bad as Kuawit which was just a flat barren desert. As for what else goes on, because we are so close to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), you constantly hear all sorts of planes arriving and departing not to mention the helicopters that routinely fly overhead. In addition to aerial vehicles, if you’re outside of the house, you’ll hear several Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) go off around the Baghdad area throughout the day.

Can’t report much else because I haven’t done anything yet but I’ll tell you what, there are a lot of Soldiers on Camp Victory and Camp Slayer.

Sept. 12, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Patrols”

So I finally went on my first two patrols outside of the wire today. All I can say is these people live in absolute squalor, even in Saddam’s wife’s hometown which he hooked up personally. I guess its the remnants of war. What people in Tijuana would probably consider condemned, not worth fixing, or in disrepair, these people live in, use, and make their living off of. In one village, their market is right next to their trash dump. Most of the houses are empty with groups of people lodged up in select buildings.

Minus the few kids who throw rocks at our vehicles and flip us off, most of the people are delighted to see us. Even in such terrible living conditions, the kids still manage to have smiles on their faces and are not afraid to wave and talk to us as we walk the streets. Some kids are even gutsy enough to steal water from our coolers hanging off the rear of our HMMWVs since they know we won’t shoot them. The women generally leave to themselves (a product of their culture when they’re outside of the home) and the men will sometimes greet us. Regardless, there is a clear display of respect (or fear) from the adults as they are careful to do anything that would warrant them getting shot at by us. For example, if they see us parked in the middle of the road, they’ll either patiently wait or take another route (no horns honking like in California). If they see us as oncoming traffic, they’ll pull over to the side until we pass. Even if they want to move their parked vehicle and we’re in the general vicinity, they will ask us first since they would rather not be seen as a threat.

As for our vehicles, we’re in the up armored HMMWVs with AC units in them. Inside, I reckon it’s about 95 degrees or so plus another 10 with your body armor on. However, its not so bad (I think I’ve gotten used to the 100+ degree heat now). Nonetheless, these things have so much armor on it that the suspension is pegged out so its a rough ride. That and even with the turbo diesel, taking off from an incline or if your tire is lodged up against something is a slow process.

Around the base, you still hear indirect fire (mortars and artillery from both sides) and IEDs go off on a regular basis. Apparently the towers here get shot at pretty routinely with small arms fire and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) but these insurgents are poor shots so no one has been injured in awhile.

Other than that, not much else to report.

Chapter 5 | News From Camp Slayer

Sept. 19, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Latest Update”

So Ramadan has been going on for the past couple of days and will continue for a week+ (I think when the next full moon shows, it stops). This is when they fast from sun up until sun down (which has some significance but I don’t want to misinterpret their religion so I’ll leave it to you all to figure out the purpose of Ramadan). However, for some, it also means that if you die during this time, you get a free ticket to heaven. Consequently, what this means is increased violence, both Iraqi on Iraqi and Iraqi on Coalition Forces.

Already you can hear more small arms fire but even as I pulled tower watch last night (quite possible the most boring job ever next to watching detainees), there were several fire fights and a couple of explosions all within about a mile from my tower. While only one shooting occurred in the actual area that I patrol, one village next to my sector was getting lit up off and on for about 3 hours last night once the sun went down (it may have gone on longer but my shift ended).

Oct. 6, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Latest Update from the Country Club”

With Ramadan goingon, tensions have been rising and more stuff has been going down behind the scenes on the insurgent side. As a result, we’ve been getting called out on a lot more missions. Most of these mission have involved patrols finding weapons and explosives in homes and on the side of roads thus forcing us to escort Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) to the site to pick them up. While this means less sleep for us since we get called during all hours of the day, it also means one less weapon/explosive to be used against us as well so it’s all for the better.

Oct. 7, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Last Night, This Morning”

Well apparently, the towers and neighboring sectors got lit up all last night and into the morning and it wasn’t just sporadic gunfire. You could hear 240B and .50cal machine guns (US Forces) as well as AK fire going on throughout the night. I guess everyone was just waiting since it was pretty quiet for the past couple of nights.

Just goes to show that no matter how many weapons we find and confiscate, there is an almost astronomical number of weapons that insurgents still have access to.

Oct. 8, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad

There are positive perceptions that one can see here in Iraq depending on how you look at things. For example, the smile on the kids’ faces despite all their hardships, the simple pleasures that they take in life that any kid in America would take for granted. That’s priceless and I smile every time I see it, no matter how annoying the buggers get. The look on the elders’ faces and their show of gratitude when you see through to solving some sort of village problem. And perhaps one of the most positive experiences; the knowledge that each time someone comes up to you with information about an IED, an insurgent, or some arms cache, that slowly, the war in Iraq is turning in our favor and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. While the light may be dim and I don’t presume to know when we’ll reach the light, each person we help means their entire family helps us which in the long run means there may not be a need for as many Soldiers to follow in my stead and if that’s not something positive to take home, I don’t know what is.

Oct. 9, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “The Never-ending Day”

Just as EOD announced over the radio “Calling to confirm it is an IED…” BOOM! Next on the radio, EOD, in their oddly nonchalant manner responded “yeah, our robot just blew up.” With us being the lead vehicle in the escort, we were the closest HMMWV to the IED next to the EOD truck. Suffice to say, our gunner damn near had a heart attack as debris flew towards the vehicle. Good times to say the least. While EOD gets special pay because of their dangerous job, we do not and so were fortunate that it was a small IED and thus were uninjured. Not that the incentive pay is all that much more but I don’t think we’ll be a likely to pull security so close to EOD next time they ask. Shortly thereafter, they deployed another robot (as if these expensive pieces of machinery were worth nothing) to finish up the job. Eventually, we rolled to two more spots to and came up empty so we can home, with one less EOD robot.

Oct. 17, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “And I Get Paid to Do This”

So, have you ever watched asphalt dry? It’s pretty similar to watching trees grow. It’s every bit as thrilling as it sounds.

I ask because I got paid by Uncle Sam to watch asphalt dry last night. In an attempt to stop insurgents from placing IEDs in the same pot holes along this one road, our platoon was tasked out to provide security and cordon off the road while the engineers repaved the road. However, once the job was done, the engineers got to go home while we sat/stood out there all night waiting for the asphalt to dry. You pretty much spend all night staring into a green screen (your night vision). I suppose the only highlights of our exciting mission was watching people pop flares (for some reason or another) and listening to a series of explosions in the distance. Luckily, we were relived by the other platoon seven hours later but our Platoon still had to go out this morning and relieve them for the remainder of the drying process. Good time all around.

Oct. 21, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “The Fear of God”

We decided to search a couple of homes in order to look for unauthorized weapons. Each household is allowed to have on AK-47 and that is it. Anyways, after searching a couple of homes, we were informed by some of the Iraqi’s that there were some new neighbours a couple of houses down.

With time still left on our patrol and nothing better to do, we knocked on their door in the middle of the night and asked for the family to come out. When asked if this small family of three had any weapons, the man of the house replied that he had just sold his AK but still had rounds for them. Upon clearing the home, the search began. Shortly thereafter, one of the Soldiers stumbled upon the loose AK rounds. However, to his surprise, there was also a 9mm round (used in pistols) in the drawer as well.

When asked what he was doing with this round, he said that he did not know it was there and that it was not his. Because he was found with an unauthorized round, I was tasked with logging and scanning his information into a portable system for future reference and tracking (like a mobile FBI or Police database thing). Shortly after finding the loose rounds, hidden in a heater vent above the refrigerator, the same Soldier stumbled upon the pistol with rounds in the magazine.

At this point, our Lieutenant was heated to say the least that the man appeared to be lying. Be it because the man did not know what I was doing with his information, he thought he was going to be detained, the Lieutenant’s tone of voice, or some combination of the aforementioned, the man pissed himself while standing in front of us.

In the end, all we did was take the pistol and rounds and left the man to explain to his wife and young child why he needed a new set of trousers. One hell of a way to be welcomed into the neighbourhood.

Oct. 30, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Snipers”

If you think being a sniper is cool, well it’s exhilarating for about the first 5 minutes after you set up your hide site. After that, at least for me, it’s quite possibly the most boring thing ever. You sit on a rooftop in the dead heat sweating profusely just waiting for someone to pop out onto a rooftop with a weapon. I’d much rather be throwing flash bangs (more on that later) into windows and kicking doors down. Suffice to say, nothing happened that day other than losing some water weight.

• • •

EOD let us use their flash bangs and an incendiary grenade. This is what happens when you’re bored, Soldiers like to make things go boom. The incendiary grenade burns phosphorus so it’s incredibly hot (and bright as I’m sure Mrs. Phillips taught us back in HS), so much so that it turned the sand around it into a solid piece with glass shards in it. The flash bangs, well let me tell you, throw it close enough to you and they work just fine. I had a nice black spot in the middle of my vision and my ears were ringing for a little bit after throwing one of those maybe 20 meters away from me. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us wrap some detonation cord around a tree and blow it up since they thought it might scare the base.

Nov. 8, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “The Latest”

Our battalion finally suffered its first casualty about a week ago. One of the guys working the tower got shot in the arm (at the exact time when he was reporting shots fired on the radio at that). As with most rounds fired at the base towards that tower, the shots came from across the canal in an area that is not our sector thus we cannot patrol.

Nonetheless, after this mishap, our unit was finally given the go ahead to roll into the village and try and find out the buildings where the insurgents were firing from, weapons, and any insurgents hiding in those aforementioned buildings. As a result, once our sniper element found a couple of likely buildings from which the enemy could get a clear line of sight at our towers, we decided to search two homes.

• • •

After cutting a couple of locks (the LT wouldn’t let me breach with the shotgun) and several Leonidas kicks into locked doors later, we found an old Mauser rifle (unauthorized weapon), some 7.62mm sniper rounds (longer than a standard 7.62mm AK round thus also not authorized), and some spent casings pushed off the roof of one of the buildings into the back yard. When searching these top floors and roofs, it became apparent that from these buildings, insurgents had the perfect opportunity to shoot at our base and the tower where the Soldier got shot days earlier.

When the young men in the home with the Mauser were questioned about the rifle, they said it was their fathers, a family heirloom passed on through the generations. I don’t doubt this as there were markings on the rifle indicating it came from the Ottoman Empire and thus would have fetched quite the pretty penny here in the States, a beautiful collectors item. However, because we found the spent sniper round casings and the remnants of shooting platforms in their home as well as the one next door, we weren’t about to give it back. I almost felt sorry for their family to take such a nice rifle but take it we did.

In the end, we all made it back just fine with the addition of a beautifully maintained Mauser bolt action rifle.

Nov. 15, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Staff Sergeant”

We’ve been doing a lot of I guess you could say charity/community service type missions where we bring out the big wigs to our sector. There, while they talk to the heads of the villages and eat lunch in their homes, we stand outside for 3 hours pulling security and starving because our mission spans into and past the time lunch is served on base. Either that or the big wigs go around to the different schools asking what supplies they need (to be brought at a future date) while we chauffeur them around the sector and pull security outside. That and we get to contend with the horde of kids asking, no, dare I say demanding candy, pens, paper, your watch, and sunglasses among other things. If they see anything in your pocket, doesn’t matter if it’s just trash, they want it and if you don’t give them anything, you might as well be Satan. And if you only give one thing, you’re still Satan because they always want more. Lose lose situation. At least the kids in the boondocks are a little more respectful because Soldiers don’t visit those areas as much. However, in the bigger villages, nothing but unappreciative bastards.

Galahad Dong in Iraq, holding a gun and in camouflage, with a helmet on

Galahad Dong

• • •

Today, we had our combat patch ceremony (we are now authorized to wear a patch on the right sleeve signifying we have served at least 30 days in a combat zone). Since I don’t really consider this combat since the one time they shot at our patrol wasn’t in the least bit scary and didn’t feel at all like combat, I don’t plan on wearing it.

In addition, I also had my Staff Sergeant promotion ceremony today as well. It just so happened that the Major General (2 star) for California, MG Wade, was visiting (highest ranking Soldier in California) our base. He was visiting our unit and another unit from California so he ended up pinning me (putting my new rank on).

I guess this makes me one of the youngest Staff Sergeants, probably the youngest combat arms Staff Sergeant, and most definitely the youngest looking Staff Sergeant in the military. I got all kinds of crazy looks at me today in the chow hall, no doubt wondering how I was a Staff Sergeant when it looked like I shouldn’t even be allowed in the Army. Even the Iraqi who sewed on my new rank had to ask how old I was because he couldn’t believe someone so young could make Staff Sergeant.

Dec. 1, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Tower Week”

This week was the first week we assumed the new high observation tower. As the name implies, it’s pretty high up in the air, something like 6 stories (about 100 steps). Suffice to say, just walking up the tower is a chore. Add all your gear on and no matter how in shape you are, it will leave you absolutely knackered when you get up to the top.

The shifts were 7 hours each (one shift does only 3 but has other duties) and one of my guys and myself just so happened to get stuck on the graveyard shift, midnight to 7:00 am. In one respect it sucked because when you get back, you’re trying to sleep while 20 something other guys are up and about working and generally just being loud. On the other side, with those hours, no one tries to sneak up on you to see if you’re doing your job (ie command element trying to put people on blast since they have nothing better to do). Suffice to say, minus some random gun fire each night (not directed at the base but rather Iraqi on Iraqi violence) every night was dark (no power for most of the evening), uneventful, and cold.

Yes, it is getting cold here as of late. Mid 60’s, Mid 50’s at night which I guess for you Bay Area folks isn’t all that cold but when just a month ago it was high 90’s, low 100’s, it’s bloody cold when you’re just standing/sitting idle in a tower not moving around.

Dec. 2, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Weather”

So I went on patrol early this morning and there were some wicked lightning storms accompanied by rain, large drops of rain. This isn’t the first time it has rained this season but it is the first significant shower (the last time was a light drizzle). Later on when we got back, it hailed small balls of ice. So even in the desert there is a possibility for adverse weather conditions other than hot and ridiculous hot.

Dec. 9, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Squad Leader”

As the second youngest man in the squad (the youngest guy is 21) but the senior ranking guy, I have tread a fine line in how best to command those who are not only older than me but have been in the military for far longer than me (I think one of my Team Leaders joined the military when I was 1 years old). So I guess it’s a little more stress involved but on the other hand, I am now in the position I have always wanted to be in. I am in what I belive to be the greatest position to both directly influence my men and still be able to fight for their needs against an unforgiving and uncaring command.

Dec. 17, 2007 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “International Zone”

My platoon had to escort a detainee to the International Zone (aka The Green Zone) to the courthouse there to be tried for crimes I do not know of. Anyways, this involves taking the freeway there which is pretty cool because you can pretty much do whatever you want on the highway. Entire rows of cars pull over to the shoulder as you take up the entire side of the freeway going down the road as fast as those heavy HMMWVs can. Kind of makes you feel important but in reality, these locals would just rather not get shot up by us so they move.

So once we arrived, the Green Zone is huge to say the least. It’s like a mini walled off city within Baghdad with certain areas having their own checkpoints even within the Green Zone walls. So after we dropped off the detainee, we had time to kill before we could escort the guy back (had to wait for his trial to finish) so we did some sightseeing. First we went to the Al Rasheed Hotel (I think that’s the name). Anyways, another way to make you feel important is to walk right through a metal detector carrying your weapon and watch the guards say nothing as the machine beeps because well they can’t. Anyways, although my sector is a complete hole, this area of Baghdad (where Saddam’s palace is as well as the US Embassy) is decently modern. Lots of marble and hardened structures, roads, and statues. I even saw a crotch rocket, late 80’s early 90’s model. A lot of what you would see in a normal metropolitan city in say a old Soviet State (think the Jason Bourne series type locales but not as gloomy). It’s amazing how huge the gap is from those who were in Saddam’s loop and those were were not in it.

Chapter 6 | Final Months in Iraq

Jan. 10, 2008 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “So it’s Cold”

The only new thing is that it’s blood cold. 37 degree fahrenheit right now. But that’s not the surprising thing. I know it gets cold in the desert but I would have never imagined snow. Yes, right now it is snowing in Baghdad. Granted this isn’t Tahoe so the snow is melting the second it touches the ground but there are snow flakes nonetheless.

Jan. 10, 2008 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Snow”

So now it’s snowing enough to where it’s staying on the ground. According to our interpreter (so this is all hearsay), it hasn’t snowed here in 35 years. And it’s still hella cold.

Jan. 18, 2008 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Bad Guys”

Iraqis generally are fair weather fighters so that could explain the reduced amount of gunfire heard out in sector as of late because it has been quite cold. However, within the past week, the temperatures have risen into the 50’s, now approaching the 60’s in the upcoming days. As a result, the amount of overall gunfights has risen.

Feb. 6, 2008 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “It’s Not My Place To Judge”

The sheik of one of the villages in our battle space was snatched up in a raid by another unit from outside of our Battalion. This Sheik, although he did many good things for the village, was also on watch as it were for some shady dealings.

• • •

What this has prompted is one, word of demonstrations in protest and two, signs all over the village asking the Americans to free their village leader. However, the hardest part about it all is not the fear of a riot but having the kids ask you (after they’ve asked you for pens, candy, chocolate, gloves, glasses, shoes, ect) to free their leader. To them, there is no concept of rank or hierarchy. In their eyes, so as long as you’re an American Soldier, as long as you wield the rifle, to them, you can just walk into wherever their leader is being held and say “I’m taking him with me back to his village” and just like that, he’s free. It’s hard to explain to the children that it’s not quite that simple. To them, he’s a role model and in all honesty, by us taking him away instead of letting the Iraqis do it, we went about it all wrong, imposing our military might once again instead of letting the Iraqis handle their own affairs.

Feb. 6, 2008 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “It’s Not My Place To Judge”

Yesterday, we got word that a home had their “retarded” child chained to a tree and he just slept outside in the yard like an animal. With that intelligence, we decided to check the home out to see what the situation was. Anyways, turns out that there was no child sleeping in the front chained to a tree.

The reality was just as bad however. Turns out the family had a 25 year old son/brother who was a leper. While not chained (maybe he was at an earlier age), he was left in a wooden shack attached to the outside of the house with no insulation and no light. The shack was about the size of two outhouses put together and had nothing but some blankets on the ground and a big bin. When one of the Soldiers looked inside, he said that the young man could not speak and could only hiss and that his arms and legs were “messed up”. While I don’t presume to know the exact answer to why his situation was as such, he was probably cast as a pariah from the very beginning, ignored for the most part thus could not speak Arabic since he never learned. That and due to his deteriorating condition at 25 years old, it was probably no longer necessary for him to be chained (to prevent further spread of disease as one would fear in a society with limited medical knowledge) thus he was just left in the shack to eat, sleep, and eventually die. Anyways, while the situation was messed up to say the least, it was out of my pay grade to comment on how a family should treat their own. More importantly however, not everyone is raised with American ideals of celebrating diversity and all that trash thus in their home country, how could I comment on their way of life, on their culture which is so much older than our own? A tough call to say the least.

Feb. 17, 2008 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “Latest and Greatest”

Although this deployment is coming to a close, that is not to say that events in Iraq are coming to a close. A couple of days ago, we received a tip that a high profile target was in one of the villages that we patrol and that we were to conduct a snatch mission. While most Quick Reaction Force (QRF) missions usually end up being something boring like EOD escort where we provide security for EOD to look at and blow up used ordinance or IEDs, this was actually a QRF mission that we were excited for. It was something new, something refreshing in a deployment where any sort of potential risk has been unfairly mitigated by our Battalion Headquarters unit at the expense of the Iraqi people for reasons that I cannot say for certain (politics, looking at own careers vs. the better good, ect.

March 5, 2008 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad

I’m not going to reenlist.

Chapter 7 | “As This Deployment Draws to a Close…”

March 16, 2008 — Camp Slayer, Baghdad — “In Closing”

So as this deployment draws to a close, I have to ask myself a few questions. The type you take some time to reflect on after it all comes to a close and hope that when you find answers to them, you will become a better person in the future, whatever “better” may be. So anyways, as we come to a close, I’ve been wondering to myself what have I gotten out of this deployment, what have I learned, how have I changed?

The part that many Soldiers (and perhaps service members from other branches as well) may not tell you is that the greatest enemy is not the insurgent trying to shoot you while on patrol or kill you with a rocket or mortar attack while you are sleeping. The greatest enemy on any deployment is oneself. Your greatest challenge will be the the struggle within, in keeping your humanity and your sanity.

No one doubts that deployments are physically draining. There is no such thing as a day off. Monday feels the same as hump-day which is exactly like Friday. There are no early bird specials at the pub, you cannot even drink to begin with. You pull an overwhelming amount of hours on the job, but even when you are “done for the day,” there is nothing stopping you from having to jump out of your bed, put all your gear on again and head back outside to try to find the insurgents who just launched a rocket attack at your base only to do it all again the next day. Even in your free time, you may have to load sand bags and pile them up against your window. Why would you want to take away your one view of the outside world, your only outlet for sun to shine though? So you do not get plastered with metal and glass shrapnel if indirect fire lands just outside your window. You sweat all day putting sand into 25 lb. bags and then pile them to a depth of three wide and as tall as the window itself. When all is said and done, you are blessed with going on patrol in the summer heat with 70+ lb. of body armour and equipment, all for your own protection. You are a walking tank but you are not powered by a turbine engine so suffice to say, it sucks. When you get back from it all, your shoulders sting from the weight, you are sweating profusely, and all you want to do is take a shower but you decide to sleep for maybe an hour or two. After that, you have to get up to pull radio watch for an hour, maybe more. Once your shift is complete, you try to go back to sleep for three hours or so only to do it all over again the next day. Or perhaps you are Sergeant of the Guard that week and you have to deliver four meals a day to the towers as well as the platoon on QRF. In addition to that, you pick up and drop off interpreters as their work week ends, run documents back and forth from Headquarters and the platoon areas, and address any issues your Soldiers in the towers might have. You get to lay in your bed maybe five hours if you are lucky as you have to deliver midnight chow at go figure midnight only to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to deliver breakfast. You never leave the wire but the wear takes its toll on your body nonetheless. No one doubts that deployments are physically draining.

Nonetheless, the majority of the deployment is spent doing absolutely nothing, hoping for something to go down so you can actually do your job for once. Despite all the physical hardships and the wear on your body from physical fatigue and lack of sleep, it is the battle from within that makes or breaks a Soldier. While there are very physically demanding days, very tiring weeks which blend into months, a lot of the time you are not doing anything. You are just sitting in the house on standby waiting for a call to go to respond to some sort of attack, anything that will get you the authorization to put rounds downrange. You take pride as an Infantryman, secretly wanting just to shoot someone or at least something, to experience the thrill of being in a fire fight, to earn that coveted Combat Infantry Badge which you can proudly wear on your uniform letting everyone else know that you are an Infantryman who has been in some shit and have finally earned your right to be in the Infantry just as your Father in Vietnam and Grandfather in WWII earned theirs. But that is not the case. You have finally made it to Iraq only to sit around all day waiting for a fire fight that seems like it will never happen. You can only look at your myspace page so many times before you start to get pissed. Pissed at what? Not even you are sure but you are a finely tuned killing machine and you are not being utilized as you were designed. No one goes through all the trouble of being a Doctor only to be relegated to janitorial duties, not to take away from those in the custodial industry. On top of it all, Headquarters, in all their infinite wisdom takes it upon themselves to constantly use the platoons to aid them with their details and work. Why? Granted some of the decisions come from above them but in many cases, it is a clear case of too many Chiefs and not enough Indians as the term goes so they come up with creative bullshit to preoccupy the men’s time. So now not only are you not doing what you hoped to be doing, engaging the enemy, kicking ass and chewing bubble gum; instead you are guarding the PX, you are setting up entry control points throughout the base checking for IDs (even though this is the sole purpose of the Ugandans on base whom already do this), you are being forced to teach classes on stuff that we do every day, get up even earlier and conduct physical training tests even though you are not required to even do physical training in Iraq let alone take the Army Physical Fitness test for the very reasons mentioned in the paragraph prior. Nonetheless, the majority of the deployment is spent doing absolutely nothing, hoping for something to go down so you can actually do your job for once.

So what does all this mean? It all adds up to one angry Soldier and so begins the battle against oneself and how to cope with it all. For many Soldiers, they just end up blaming everything on everyone else. They become bitter shells of their former selves, surrounded with nothing by hatred for their command, the Army, Iraq, and the people of Iraq. Any opportunity you get to vent some anger and you end up going overboard because you have not figured out how to cope with it all. One case in point, so an Iraqi is laughing at you for some reason. Who cares why, you are pissed and irritated for reasons beyond your control but it does not matter. He is there and so he will pay the price. You grab him and throw him on the ground, plant his face into the pavement with your knee and yell at him asking what he is laughing about. Then two other Soldiers, equally upset at the lack of excitement over the course of the deployment decide to further escalate the situation by kicking the Iraqi who is already on the floor. Why? Because these men have since lost the struggle from within. In as simple as I can put it, the bullshit got to them. They could not take it anymore. Somewhere down the road, they lost track of who they were and what they were here for. They met their breaking point and so these men just became walking time bombs waiting for the one chance to let out all their frustration. For these men, their humanity and sanity were left somewhere in Iraq and one can only hope that it returns when they return stateside or else you end up with one more troubled Veteran who cannot cope with the civilian world.

So let me digress back to my original questions as it applies to me. What have I gotten out of this deployment, what have I learned, how have I changed? On one hand, in light of seeing so many selfish and poor leaders (i.e. those Chiefs in Headquarters), I have attained a better grasp of what a good leader is, the attributes he should posses, the example he should set, and how to set those examples. With this, I have learned how to lead your men through understanding and compassion, not tyranny and fear. Furthermore, I have attained a better understanding of the consequences of ones actions and how even one small decision can have grave consequences further down the line for not just oneself but others as well. I have learned perseverance and an ability to remain calm under distress. I have definitely matured some, as both an individual and as a leader as I have had to quickly learn to deal with the drama involved in being one of the youngest in the detachment but in a position of leadership. Most importantly however, I have learned patience and compassion. Patience because I know now that no matter how long the days get, when it seems the stupidity will never cease, tomorrow is a new day and with a new day brings new possibilities. As for compassion, when I see these young college students just about ready tear their hair out because they have two finals the next day, a term paper, and have not started any studying, I will understand the stress that they feel. I will not pity them, but I will feel their pain as I have learned to feel the pain that my men have gone though, that the Iraqis have to go through every day.

I’ll be honest though, there were times when it seemed like the lack of stupidity never ceased to amaze and so you were forced to do ever more ridiculous tasks on top of your normal job. However throughout, I tried to look at the bigger picture which I understand now more than I did on my first deployment. I try to always keep in mind that we are here to win hearts and minds, not kill just to kill despite the fact that we are Infantryman and that is what many of is signed up for, why many of us wanted to go to Iraq to do. We are here to aid in the building of a government, to create a stable and self sustaining police and military force so that Iraq can stand on its own one day. All that shit about we should have never attacked in the first place is irrelevant. What is done is done and we are here now so we have to make due with the cards given to us. All we can do is look forward. I try to remind myself that venting ones anger on the Iraqis or your subordinates is counter productive. Sure it may feel good for you at the time but what does that do to garner trust and support for Americans, can you really expect your Soldier to fight for you as faithfully after you just punished him for something trivial rather than talking to him and treating like a human? In the end, anger is counter productive to earning trust and so what kind of leader would I be, what kind of man would I be to create a worse situation than when I left. What kind of human would that make me to force more young men and women to have to serve in Iraq in the future because I did not do my part? Again, I remind myself that the consequences of our actions are never ours alone to face, I remind myself of the bigger picture. That is what I will value most about this deployment. Even though us as individuals are inconsequential when looking at the bigger picture, it only takes one small gust of wind to topple a meticulously placed stack of cards on a table and ruin everything that your predecessors have fought, bled, and died for. I owe it to those before me and those who will have to serve after me to do the right thing, no matter what personal afflictions I may face. For me, I will always remind myself that the battle within cannot nor will it not spill over into the real world where others will have to pay for my sins.

March 24, 2008 — Fort Lewis, Wash. — “Back”

Well after several days of waiting and sitting on aeroplanes (they sure take their time getting you back home), I made it to Ft. Lewis in Washington. I’ll be here for the next 30 days or so while I demobilize and attend an Army school here. I should be back home the last week in April.


We were talking over a couple beers — Pacíficos or Modelos, I can’t remember which — with shrimp stuffed in the bottlenecks. It was September 2009, and Galahad and I were at a Mexican eatery down the street from the Corinthian Events Center in San Jose, Calif. killing time before the wedding of a friend of mine. Galahad was wearing a suit, black with a pink button-up shirt and no tie. I had on a satin dress, fuchsia with one shoulder, and gold flats. The restaurant was the type that felt like a cafeteria — a blue awning with red stripes outside, chairs and tables that looked cheap inside. You made orders at a window looking in on the kitchen.

“Do you have PTSD?” I asked. I don’t know what prompted the question. The words sounded rude as soon as they flew out. I was always asking Galahad about his time in the Army. He had been back in the States for more than a year now and seemed fine. He had finished his studies at UCSD, purchased a home in Hayward, Calif. and married a long-time friend named Kiku, a stunning young woman who seemed to care for him deeply. At the debt collection firm where he worked, he had earned a promotion quickly. I was almost certain he did not have PTSD.

He replied, though, that yes, he did. He had brought the problem to the V.A. some months after returning from Iraq. He had unexplained outbursts of anger. Sometimes, he took it out on Kiku, yelling at her for no reason. While riding on BART, a commuter train in California’s Bay Area, he would become furious at passengers who blocked the aisle or took up too much space. On the road, he would tell me later, he had trouble controlling his rage when he saw bad drivers: “There are marks on my steering wheel from grabbing the steering wheel so hard…I’d want to get out of the car and jump out and smash their windshield in just to let them know they’re being stupid.”

“They originally gave me medicine to relax in my dreams,” Galahad said. In his sleep, he saw himself getting shot, getting stabbed — always situations, he said, “where I’m about to die.”

• • •

I asked Galahad the question that friends in the military told me you aren’t supposed to ask a soldier.

“Did you shoot anyone?” I queried. “Kill anyone?”

It was October 2009. We were talking on the phone.

The answer came back jumbled. “I couldn’t tell you,” Galahad replied. Then he continued. “Not in the sense…I don’t think I killed anyone, but what they’ll do is fire off shots…If you do return fire — I probably didn’t hit’em.”

The next day, he e-mailed me a more coherent response: “I was thinking last night,” he wrote, “about when you asked if I killed anyone and I said I wasn’t sure. I think I made it sound like we returned fire with wanton disregard for what/where we were shooting at but that was not the case. There are strict rules of engagement and even though we may not have always been sure if we actually hit someone, we were still acutely aware of our background and the implications of what and where we were shooting and who we could hit as a consequence. That is why at lot of the times we simply couldn’t shoot back.”

In the same message, he discussed his letters. He explained why he had chronicled his time in Iraq in such detail. The words he chose weren’t the most eloquent, but, like his last e-mail from Baghdad, they spoke a certain truth about war, about what it means to be a soldier. Television cameras show us bombed-out buildings and cratered roads. Newspapers carry stories about gunfights and suicide attacks. War, as I saw it, from a distance, was a physical thing, corporeal. But, as Galahad reminded me, many of the most important battles are mental and emotional.

“Although it was written to everyone, I think it was more for myself,” he wrote of his letters. “To try to understand and make something out of my experience there in Iraq other than war stories…The way I see it, you can go around the world, see all sorts of exciting and exotic places and still learn nothing, add nothing to who you are as a person. But for me, I would rather take something more than just it sucked, it was hot, and I got shot at. I wanted to bring something back from Iraq that was greater than war stories to share at the local VFW.”

Galahad Dong and his wife, Kiku Nitta, dressed up and sitting at a dining table

Galahad, right, with his wife, Kiku | Kiku Nitta

This story includes letters published in full, as well as portions of letters. In sections that include multiple excerpts from the same letter, the symbol “• • •” separates the different excerpts. The letters have not been edited for spelling or grammar, though [words in brackets] were added at the end of one sentence to clarify which of two overseas deployments Galahad was writing about.

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