Wal-Mart, Iraq & the Oklahoma Panhandle
After four months of being on the road, I still find myself saying, "I can't believe there's a Wal-Mart here." As we drive through small towns, we immediately notice dilapidated downtown buildings and empty storefronts. Many downtowns are literally turning into ghost towns. Just when you think a town is too small for a Wal-Mart, it practically hits you in the face. I've found that Wal-Mart parking lots are great places to do interviews because they attract such diverse groups of people and are often the only option in town for affordable one-stop shopping. A lot of people making $6-7/hour have told me while they miss mom and pop shops, they wouldn't be able to afford the basics if it weren't for Wal-Mart. At first, I steered clear of the store itself. I'm now making it a point to go in to look for differences, but have yet to find any. The store in Oklahoma City sells the same exact items as the store in Alva, Oklahoma.
A few minutes after finding a parking spot in the Alva (poulation 5,288) Wal-Mart, we met Eli, a 24-year-old who served in Iraq for four months in 2003. Eli was stationed in Camp Doha in Kuwait before the war started and was 10 miles south of Baghdad after the bombing began. Eli was discharged after he blew out his knee while playing basketball. During our conversation, Eli said hello to several people coming and going, including a man he served with overseas.
Tell me about your experience in Iraq.
We had 40 days with no shower, five severe sand storms and a month without ammunition. Everybody else had tents. We didn't. Everybody else had air conditioners. We didn't. The only thing I had to eat for three days was crackers. We ran out of water for a full day. We went through a lot.
A month without ammunition?
Thirty-eight guys and the only thing we had was 210 rounds. And 210 rounds is supposed to be for one person.
I've been interviewing vets on this trip and often hear about the lack of armor and the lack of overall preparation.
The major thing with the military is, when you go through basics, the first thing you learn is how to become a soldier and how to shoot. The second thing you do is to learn your job. A lot of people over there are thinking more about their job and not what they were trained to do. To shoot. To become a soldier. That's what happened with Jessica Lynch. They were trying to do their job instead of being a soldier and shoot first. That's something that Bush needs to get through everybody's head.
A little over 1800 people have died. That's $250,000 per person that we have given out. In October, that's going up to $400,000 in life insurance. I lost a friend in Colorado. He was over there one week shy of a year. He had an affair with a colonel. He brought it home with him. The day before he was supposed to be court martialed, he went down to the local park and blew his brains out. $250,000 life insurance was supposed to go to his family. His family only gets 25 percent since it was a self-inflicted wound.
How has all of this affected you?
I have war syndromes just like everybody else. I have nightmares every single day. An eight-year-old girl holding a four-month-old baby came to my position begging for food and water. The little baby was so hungry, she was trying to nurse off of the girl. What really happened is she pulled a gun on me and I had to shoot her and the little child. When I saw my nephew for the first time, he was sleeping and my sister said, 'Hold him, I need to go to the restroom.' With him just laying there motionless, I started crying and gave him to my aunt. She said, 'What's wrong?' And I said, 'I can't do this.' I walked outside. I didn't hold my nephew for another two hours. It took so many people to try to calm me down. I thought I killed him. That's what happens in my nightmares.
I've lost several friends over there. For some reason, Bush is still keeping us over there. We've got a mission. We have to disarm everybody and find what we need to get and get the hell out of there.
After going through all of this, have your opinions about the war changed?
Yes they have. We were in Kuwait the day the war happened. We were supposed to go to Turkey to follow the Marines down to take the whole state of Iraq. Five hours later, they called us back and said, 'You're not going. Turkey won't let us in. No American troops can touch their soil.' A hundred and forty was the high and 25 was the low. Bush could have done a lot of things differently, but he's kept his head. He sent us over there to do a mission. A lot of people have died doing that mission. It's about time they finish it up and come home.
So you think it's time to pull out and bring the troops home?
Our main objective was to get Saddam Hussein. We got him. We're still looking for bin Laden. We just need to go over there, question every single person and take prisoners like we always have. A couple weeks ago, about 40 Marines were killed.
I was over there for two weeks wearing mop sweeps in 120 degree weather. I was wearing a tee-shirt with a jacket over it and coveralls for two weeks straight. I have the option to go back over, but I'm not going to because I have the option this time. My grandpa's health is real bad so I'm going to stay back and help with the family. I've been there and I've done it. I know how bad it is. I've lost several friends over there. My cousin was over there. He just had shoulder surgery. He's my age and is disabled.
Are people around here still joining the military?
Our numbers are so low. I'm with the Kansas National Guard now and they said we're down 2700 compared to this time last year. That's bad. Recruiters are losing their jobs because they can't get people in.
Are your friends' opinions about the war changing?
Kinda yes, kinda no. Some people are a little bit more gung ho than I am. They want to go back over there and shoot somebody. I tried to go deer hunting since being over there. I can't do it. It's not a challenge to me. There's a lifeless animal with no gun. I can't do it. We had machine guns over there. You name it, we had it. If somebody came up to us, you better be bringing lunch 'cause we're US; we're gonna tear you up.
But a lot of people's opinions have changed. Several guys from here in Alva and the surrounding areas went ahead and quit. They were thinking about staying in for the whole 20 years and after they got back, they said, 'My time is up. I'm through.' One guy was in for 22 years and he's 62-years-old. He resigned to go over there with us and he got gallstones. When he got back, he was gonna stay in for another year, but he quit because of so much crap that happened. Some people go treated good; some got treated bad. Like I said, 40 days without a shower. Hand wipes. Baby wipes. Toilet paper. That's what you can send the troops. Prayers. We always ask for prayers. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Shaving cream. Razors and a picture or two.
When you look at how much we're spending on this war, you would think there would be an abundance of those goods.
There's not. I celebrated my 22nd birthday over there and the barracks were named after me because I got so much mail. I had eight boxes come full of you name it, I had it. What they first told us when we went over there was, 'We're not going to have bacon. No pork allowed. It's against their religion.' As soon as we set base up, guess what we get? We get pork because we're on US soil. We're on the Army base.
I've been home since the end of '03. I've talked to over 1,000 people and maybe 300 have actually shook my hand and said, 'Thank you.' I'm Army National Guard. Everybody says we're weekend warriors. We only serve one weekend a month, but we make commitments like everybody else. I've got several friends in the Marines, Navy, you name it. We all sacrifice our lives. We sacrifice our marriages and our kids. I haven't been the same since we got home. I know a friend who, as soon as he got home, told his wife, 'No more. I'm getting a divorce.' Women are treated like crap over there. Women are the backbone of the family. Women do all the work. The men are the bosses. Men tell the women what to do. Women will do everything.
You mean the Iraqi women?
Did you have many interactions with Iraqi families?
Yes we did. Several came up to us and started to learn our language. We had several English interpreters over there. We learned a little bit of their language. We went through a three-hour class to see how they speak: no, yes, here's some food, here's some water. We really couldn't give them that stuff because it was just like throwing a piece of candy to a bunch of kids. You give one, you have to give to every single one of 'em. I remember several people would come up and say, 'I want food. I want water.' I had to say, 'I can't give you nothin'. It's against regulations.'
Some of them loved us being there because they knew what we were doing. We were trying to get rid of Saddam and give them power so they're not in war every single day. So some were grateful that we were there and others said, 'US, just go ahead and leave. We don't need you.'
I do thank god for bringing me home safe. I hope he brings home everybody else. They're fighting for their country and dying.
Have opinions about the war in this area changed?
Yes, a lot of people who were with Bush have turned against him because it's gone on too long. What are we doing there now? At this very moment, what are we doing? We're still trying to help them gain control of their country. We have problems here in the US. People are dying everyday. It's time to come home. Let people spend the rest of their lives with their families. It's gone on too long. It's gonna be like this for several more years.