Soldier returns home briefly
But for Willis S. Conklin Jr. of Sunderland, disorienting doesn't even begin to describe his return to the quiet community he calls home after serving over a year with the U.S. Army in Baghdad.
Conklin, a 2001 graduate of Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, is currently an Army Private First Class with the 66th Artillery Brigade attached to the 4th Infantry Division in Ft. Hood, Texas. He enlisted in January of 2005 and, after months of basic and specialized training at Ft. Sill, Okla. and Ft. Hood, he was deployed to Baghdad in November 2005. He served in a battalion of over 1,000 U.S. troops and a small number of Macedonian special forces soldiers.
"It's an adjustment to be back home, for sure," Conklin said in an interview at his home on Wednesday. "They always say that you can come home again, but home isn't always waiting for you when you come back. The magnitude of change at home is crazy. When you're over there, it feels like the world has stopped. Then you come back home, and so much is different."
As a case in point, Conklin described his experience conversing with two of his best friends the day after he returned to Vermont.
"It was good, but ... I felt as if I'd aged beyond them, that I'd had experiences that made me feel older."
Relating to others regardless of their age has also proven challenging. "It's difficult to make people understand your experience ... unless you were there, there's no way you can know," he said.
Conklin's battalion was stationed in Baghdad, but they undertook a number of missions in the northern part of Iraq as well. According to Conklin, the bulk of their time was spent training Iraqi troops, an experience Conklin called "unique" because of the amount of time he spent working with English-speaking Iraqi interpreters.
"We learned as much Arabic as we could," said Conklin, "but there was still a language barrier." Conklin and his battalion worked with nearly 50 interpreters who helped them bridge that gap.
"What surprised me was that (the interpreters) were really split politically," said Conklin. He found that just because the interpreters were all Iraqi did not mean that they were unified in their sentiments about the U.S. and the war itself. "It was really interesting to see those differences," he said.
However, Conklin acknowledged, "they all are the intelligencia of their country ... they're well-educated with degrees from the University of Baghdad," unlike much of Iraq's population.
Conklin said that his battalion's reception in many poor communities was less than welcoming.
"I remember on one mission, our gunner in our Humvee threw candy out to kids in the street, and they all threw it back," he said.
Some adults were more threatening. "They would just shoot at you," he said. But most people, he recalled, "are more focused on where their next meal is coming from. There's too much going on in their lives for them to worry about shouting anti-American things."
While Conklin says that some of the comparisons of the situation in Iraq to the Vietnam war are well-founded, he sees Iraq as having the potential to last far longer.
"Vietnam was a politically-based war, and the sectarian violence in Iraq is religion-based and goes back thousands of years," he said. "The way I see it, this could all go on for thousands of years beyond now. Our country was founded on the premise of the separation of church and state, and (the Iraqi) society puts so much emphasis on religion that politics (without religion) is a joke." This is one reason that Conklin sees cooperation for the U.S. and Iraq as being problematic.
As for U.S. involvement in the conflict, Conklin's prognosis was grim.
"Depending on who's elected in '08 ... I could see us being there for a decade or more."
He was undecided on how long the U.S. should stay the course in what increasingly looks to be an unwinnable war.
"I feel karmically that we should solve some of the problems we created there ... on the other hand, you'd have to do a number of things that are impossible to do without crippling our country financially and morally."
When first asked about his opinion on the war, Conklin laughed and said, "No comment." However, as the conversation progressed and he delved more deeply into the issues raised by his time in Baghdad, Conklin's tone changed.
"What it really boils down to is that the sooner we get out of there, the less money and human life will be wasted," he said. He added that his battalion alone had lost 15 to 20 men in the year he served with them.
Initially, Conklin was told that he would be serving just one tour of duty in Bagdhad. However, in what has become a common story for soldiers, Conklin received an involuntary extension, meaning that he will return to Iraq in October of next year.
First, though, he must return to Ft. Hood next month. "That's just the way the Army works."
Conklin's experiences in Iraq have inspired him to begin writing a novel, which he describes as, "about me, but not about me." Elaborating, he said that he is writing a mostly autobiographical account of his time in Iraq, but is using a fictional character instead of himself as the protagonist. Conklin has been working on this project for several months, and hopes to continue it while back in training at Ft. Hood.
There is only one thing Conklin hopes everyone in the U.S. will do to make a statement about the war: "You don't have to support the war, but support your troops. They go through a lot."
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