A soldier's story: Missions of mercy

By ADAM ARMOUR
Staff Writer

The soldiers of the 198 Battalion's Mortar Platoon are on a mission of mercy. Every day they long for home and sweat in the heat of An-Najaf, Iraq's sun, but, according to 1st Lt. James Cox, head of the Mortars, the sense of pride within the group is overwhelming — they know the importance of what they are suffering.

They are suffering to save the Iraqi people.

** A different sort of war **

When asked about similarities between this conflict and the first Desert Storm of the '90s, Cox asserts that the two share little in common save location.

“It's different; it's a lot different,” Cox said. “This time we've gone all the way up into Iraq, and we're staying there. Last time we just ran Sadaam and his army back up into Iraq and left. This time we're trying to follow through and make sure everything's good before we get out.

“The people of Iraq and the Iraqi army are not the threat this time. There is no Iraqi army; they're on our side. We're training them. The insurgents are the ones we're having to fight. And you never know who that is. You could create a new one on accident every day and not mean to.”

Happily, for Cox, An-Najaf is a friendly city full of people who enjoy the company of the American soldiers and are not prone to conflict. The soldiers are polite to their hosts, and the people of the city return the courtesy.

** An important mission **

Of all the missions the Mortar platoon may undertake, of the greatest importance is one of mercy. The Mortars have adopted a girls primary school and frequent visits provide the children with school supplies and candy.

“We went on in and met and greeted and made our initial assessment,” Cox said. “I went to every student and made sure I gave them some candy, and I met with the headmistress, and we decided together what they needed for their school. We bought them a computer, printer and photocopier, a refrigerator, several new desks, all new teachers' desks, chairs and stuff like that.”

According to Cox, much of the credit for these good deeds goes to people half-a-world away.

“A lot of people in the family support groups around Fulton and companies that we work for send stuff over for us to deliver to the school. People are sending school supplies.”

Cox said the unit is planning on adopting several more schools around the An-Najaf area.

But the Mortars' charity reaches beyond the classroom, extending to better all of the Iraqi people.

“In civil affairs we go out and we give shoes and clothes to the children in the rural areas that might need them,” Cox said. “One young boy who was 9 or 10 years old — just a child — had never had a pair of pants or a shirt or shoes. He wore a traditional dress over there, but he had never had a set of clothes in his life.

“We're involved in building schools and clinics with the civil affairs group. We use the Iraqi nationals to do the work and the Iraqi contractors. We're trying to help the economy out as best we can.

“The attitude of the Iraqi people is very good, and everybody gets a great sense of fulfillment by being able to help. We're trying to get everybody 'outside the wire,' to be able to see what's going on outside the FOB (Forward Operating Base), especially on civil affairs missions so they can see that the people are appreciative of us giving them stuff and that we're trying to help them.”

** The 'silent ranks' **

“The support we've received from family, friends and employers has been tremendous,” Cox said smiling. He spoke with as much pride for the people at home as he did for his fellow soldiers.

“It's much needed … much needed. Anything people can do is very appreciated.

“You just don't know what it means to those guys. You just don't know how much just getting some letters, even if it's from somebody they don't know, means to them.”

Cox was thankful of the amount of support the platoon had received, and he strongly encourages people to give more. The heat is insufferable, and the longing for home aches each of their hearts constantly, but support from family, friends and even complete strangers helps them feel stronger and makes each day more bearable.

“I just want to inform people on what everybody's doing and how much support they need and how much it means to them. Everything sent over here that we give out to the Iraqi people is indirectly helping to support the cause.”

The war effort rages on, and the soldiers of the 198 Battalion settle down for another six months of heat and homesickness. But the war is not just on the streets of An-Najaf, against the insurgents and the elements; it's in the hearts and minds of each and every soldier, an inner battle that must be fought. The only weapons that can win this war come in the form of support from the people at home in Itawamba County.

“I just want to let people know how much we appreciate them. It's so important that families support their loved ones and spouses support their husbands. We recognize over here that it's hard on them. But, this is just something we have to do.”