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Junior Todd Bowers displays his GW spirit while serving in Iraq.

By Jamie L. Freedman

Night after night, powerful images of the war in Iraq flash across television screens worldwide. Evening news headlines are dominated by reports of the latest clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces, interspersed with tales of roadside bombs, lethal rocket attacks, and horrific scenes of devastation and despair.

Since the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, scores of GW students and alumni have stepped behind the headlines and into the front line, playing a central role in Iraq’s liberation and march toward democracy. Representing every branch of America’s armed forces, they complete their deployments with courage and commitment, some even impassioned to sign on for second tours in Iraq after returning home.

GW alumni don many hats in Iraq—infantrymen, surgeons, JAG lawyers, Diplomatic Security Service special agents, and the list goes on. Some have lost their lives. Others keep the home fires burning while their spouses serve tours of duty. On the pages that follow, some of them candidly share their stories with GW Magazine, painting a moving portrait of the indelible mark that the GW community is leaving across Iraq.

While united by pride at what they have helped to accomplish, many told us that they are upset by the media’s one-sided coverage of events. “There’s so much more to the story than the daily body count,” many expressed. “Why doesn’t anybody report on all the good things that are going on?” Here, we do—from rebuilding schools and hospitals to connecting with Iraqi peers and teaching local children how to play “Duck, Duck, Goose,” GW students and alumni are making a difference. We are pleased to present their stories of bravery and hope.

Documenting Hussein’s Crimes

Navy Cmdr. and GW Law School student Rex Guinn, aboard a helicopter en route to Hatra, where hundreds of Kurds executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime were buried in mass graves. Guinn oversaw the mass grave exhumation program during his six-month tour in Iraq.

Navy Cmdr. Rex Guinn, a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, is driven by a strong desire to give something back to his country. “I was born to a poor Oklahoma family of Native American descent and was the first person in my family to go to college, let alone law school,” says the GW international LLM student. After earning his law degree—thanks to the help of scholarships—Guinn says that he felt compelled to return the favor, so he joined the JAG Corps 15 years ago. “My wife, a Navy physician, and I both love serving in the military, so we have stuck around all these years,” he says. Now the parents of two young sons, ages 6 and 3, they are based in Norfolk, Va., where Guinn serves as the executive officer of Trial Service Office East.

Last year, Guinn stepped forward to serve a six-month tour in Iraq with the Regime Crimes Liaison Office. The office was set up after the war to provide support to the Iraqi Special Tribunal, an independent body responsible for trying members of Saddam Hussein’s deposed regime for crimes against humanity. “I was fortunate to be chosen to go,” he says.

Guinn, who was in Iraq from September 2004 through April 2005, took over the reins of the mass grave exhumation program, completing the much-publicized investigation at Hatra, 200 miles north of Baghdad, and setting up future digs at other mass grave sites around the country to gather evidence against Hussein. At Hatra, investigators unearthed hundreds of bodies believed to be Kurds executed by Hussein’s regime in the late 1980s. One trench contained only women and children, all of whom were shot in the head, and the other contained men with their hands tied behind their backs. “Some of the women were still clutching their children, and at least one was pregnant,” Guinn says.

A particularly memorable experience for Guinn was visiting Sedar Village, the tiny, remote Kurdistan town that had been home to the people buried in the mass graves at Hatra. “It’s a two-day truck ride from Hatra, over rough terrain, which shows you the great lengths that Saddam went to to wipe people out,” he states.

While almost everybody in Iraq has stories of “near misses,” Guinn’s closest call came at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which he left just two minutes before the rocket attack of Jan. 25, 2005. “I was flung to the ground but suffered no injuries,” he says.

He speaks passionately about the professionalism and bravery of the people he worked with, Americans and Iraqis alike. “Our military over there is a true group of professionals who want to get things right and pull the country back to its feet so that it can start flowing toward democracy,” he says.

Guinn was particularly impressed by the group of Iraqi translators who worked in his Baghdad office. “Their peers were disappearing on a regular basis, but they showed up every day to do a hard, dangerous job because they wanted to make their country better,” he says, adding, “It was a real highlight for me to see the great pride that they felt when their country held its first free elections in over half a century.” He also spoke highly of the judges of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, noting that several times he was invited to visit the home of Judge Raed Juhi, chief investigative judge of the tribunal, who recently announced the first charges against Hussein. “What a gentleman and a brave man he is,” says Guinn. “He grew up under Saddam’s tyranny and is now the judge that will send him to justice.”

As for himself, Guinn says that he’s not brave; he’s just doing his job. “It’s what I was trained to do,” he says. “It was a real honor to be a part of documenting Hussein’s atrocious crimes against humanity as we help prepare to bring him to justice. I can’t imagine doing anything more important than that in my career.”

‘I Knew What I Had to Do’

Once was not enough for Sgt. Todd Bowers. During the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the GW junior spent nine months in southern Iraq as a Marine civil affairs specialist, departing to hugs and thanks from appreciative Iraqis thrilled to be freed of Saddam Hussein. Returning home in September 2003, he was disheartened by daily reports of worsening conditions in Iraq. Midway through his spring 2004 semester at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs, he saw on the news that four American contractors had been killed and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. “I knew what I had to do,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to get a good night’s sleep again until I returned to Iraq and tried to patch things up.” Signing on for a second tour, Bowers spent August 2004 to March 2005 in Fallujah—one of the country’s worst hotspots. The going was tough, but he says that he never regretted his decision to go back.

“During my first tour, we were greeted by people cheering and throwing flowers at us in the streets,” he states. “We worked to rebuild schools, the sewage system, the infrastructure, and the buildings, and we spent a lot of time talking to the Iraqi civilians, explaining everything that we were doing and helping to get them whatever they needed. I left feeling fulfilled and gratified, like we’d accomplished so much and really done some good. How could their opinions of Americans change so dramatically and quickly?”

Bowers’ second tour turned out to be equally rewarding but much more violent than the first. He spent the bulk of his time in Fallujah, where his civilian affairs team was attached to a Marine infantry battalion battling insurgents. “It was our job to reduce civilian interference during military operations,” he says. Serving as liaisons between civilians and the military, Bowers and his team befriended and helped the Iraqis, providing them with medical assistance and humanitarian aid, evacuating civilians from dangerous areas, and helping recover and bury the dead. “We added a human face to the uniform,” states Bowers, who says that he made many wonderful Iraqi friends in the process. “I consider some of them to be my best friends, and really miss them terribly,” he says.

One of Bowers’ scariest moments came last October, when an enemy bullet hit his rifle scope during a firefight on the outskirts of Fallujah—leaving shrapnel lodged permanently in his face. “My scope, safety glasses, and helmet saved my life,” he says, noting that the rifle-mounted scope was given to him by his father, John Bowers, JD ’75, a former Marine, just two days before he left for Iraq. After being hit, Bowers refused to leave the battlefield for a medical evaluation, insisting on staying to fight alongside his fellow Marines.

Now, as Bowers returns to Foggy Bottom to study Middle Eastern policy, he is full of praise for GW’s help during his leave of absence. “GW’s been incredible in every way,” states Bowers, who received a generous scholarship for the 2005-06 academic year upon his return.

As happy as he is to be back at GW, he says that he would not trade his time in Iraq for anything. “The Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen are all working long hours and doing the best they can to make things better. For every one suicide bomber in Iraq, there are 10,000 Iraqis saying thanks, and we can’t let them down.”

MASH Revisited

Hawkeye and Radar were nowhere to be found, but surgeon Matthew Baker, MD ’93, experienced MASH “on a small scale” while serving in Iraq for a year with the 240th Forward Surgical Team. Deployed in March 2003, Baker was part of a highly mobile surgical unit providing immediate, resuscitative surgery close to the front line. “Our inflatable surgical tents were attached to the back of a modified Humvee,” he states. “We were designed to set up and start operating within an hour or so after stopping our truck.”

Surgeon Matthew Baker, MD ’93, (center) and colleagues debride a soldier’s penetrating extremity wound in their mobile, inflatable operating room in Tikrit, Iraq.

Baker’s unit, which supported the 4th Infantry Division during the initial push into Iraq, spent four months in Tikrit and then moved closer to Baghdad. “As a first-care surgery unit, we saw a lot of injuries from explosives, roadside bombs, and mortar attacks,” he says. “We’d stop the bleeding, take care of things that couldn’t wait, and, once the patients were stabilized, we’d send them on to larger hospitals.”

As proud as he was to support the fight against global terrorism, Baker says that it was a tough year. “The living conditions were horrible,” he states. “We spent the first summer in 130-degree heat with no air conditioning and had frequent sandstorms.” The father of a young son and daughter, he says that it was especially difficult being away from his family. “I take my hat off to my wife, who took care of everything at home while I was away,” he says.

A special highlight for Baker was collaborating and sharing expertise with Iraqi surgeons in Tikrit on several occasions. He also values the many friendships he established while serving.

After 11 years in the military, Baker left the service shortly after returning home from Iraq. Now living in LaCrosse, Wisc., he recently completed a laparoscopic-bariatric fellowship and is now an attending surgeon at Gundersen-Lutheran Medical Center.

Baker says he’ll always look back proudly on his time in the Army. “I was pleased to serve my country and support the fight against global terrorism,” he says.

Legal Lifeline

Not many GW alumni can claim that they spend their days in a former palace of Saddam Hussein. For Capt. Adam Siple, BA ’99, a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, it’s all in a day’s work. Siple spoke to GW Magazine halfway through his one-year deployment with the 18th Airborne Corps from his office in the Al-Faw Palace. Located near Baghdad International Airport, the palace now serves as the headquarters of Multinational Corps Iraq.

Capt. Adam Siple, BA ’99, a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps., stands outside his office in the Al-Faw Palace—a former palace of Saddam Hussein’s—near Baghdad International Airport. He is halfway through a one-year deployment with the 18th Airborne Corps.

For his first four months in Baghdad, Siple oversaw legal services for soldiers and provided technical support and oversight to all U.S. foreign claims operations in Iraq. As head of a three-member foreign claims commission, he traveled to the convention center in downtown Baghdad on a number of occasions for full days of face-to-face meetings with Iraqis seeking compensation from the U.S. government for property damage and accidental injury. “We made a point of taking the time to sit down with them, listen to their stories, and, at times, hear them cry,” Siple says. “Unlike Americans, who tend to be very short and to the point, Iraqis want to connect with you on a personal level. They are extremely respectful and deferential, and spending time with them provided me with unique insight into how their lives are going.”

Siple’s weekend journeys to the convention center were often made by Black Hawk helicopter to avoid the threat of suicide bombers on the infamous airport road. “Too many spectacular attacks have been staged on the airport road,” says Siple, stating that some days, he hears the explosions from his office. The helicopter rides were a highlight for Siple. “It gave me a great perspective of the city, as we flew over the marketplaces, homes, and children playing soccer in the fields,” he says. “It helps you to see that there are a lot of ordinary people out there, who I feel will eventually prevail.”

Since May, Siple has served as a military prosecutor, as well as primary legal adviser to two brigades. “I talk to commanders on a daily basis about military justice issues, rules of engagement, administrative and regulatory issues, and investigations,” he states. His life at the moment is, more or less, confined to his base—Camp Victory—where he both works and lives. Home is a partitioned trailer shared with five other soldiers. He eats all of his meals in the base cafeteria, which he says is “pretty good, but gets old after awhile.” There are tastes of home on the base—Subway, Burger King, Cinnabon, a coffee shop, and a gym. Siple and the 20 lawyers who work with him have formed a close, supportive group. “We had a barbecue on the Fourth of July, watch movies and have meals together, joke around a lot, and just try to keep an eye out for each other,” he says.

Although Siple works long hours with almost no days off, he says the experience is worthwhile. “From a very young age, I’ve always wanted to give something back to our country, because I feel blessed to live in the United States,” he says. “I’m happy to give a year of my life over here in the hope that at the end of the day we’ll succeed in getting Iraq up and running again, bring in stability, and help them move incrementally toward a better life and society.”

A European Perspective

“One year in Iraq teaches you a few things,” says Sgt. Istvan L. Gabor, BA ’01, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom from March 2003 through March 2004 with the 41st Transportation Company. An Elliott School of International Affairs alumnus, Gabor enlisted in the Army eager to change the world, experience real life, and “pay back” the United States for taking his family in.

“My family is Hungarian, but we lived in Romania as a minority under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu,” he explains. “Those times were not the best, especially for minorities. My parents fled to Germany to escape the regime and were later granted asylum in the United States, where my siblings and I had the opportunity to attend schools of higher education and lead successful lives. As the youngest of four children, I felt it was my duty to serve the United States in the name of the entire family.”

In Iraq, Gabor says that his duties were simple: “stay alive and keep my fellow soldiers alive.” His unit transported ammunition and supplies to camps all over Iraq and Kuwait, and was, therefore, constantly on the move. “The vehicles that we drove were 120 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit inside, and there was no air conditioning anywhere that we went. Communication with our families was scarce at best. Still, seeing the good that we were doing inspired us to go on with the mission.”

Gabor viewed the historic events in Iraq with an eye of experience. “It was interesting for me to see the fall of the regime from the outside as a foreigner and not a national, as was the case during the revolution of 1989 in Romania. I could not help but see the parallels between the two.”

In analyzing the events, Gabor says he particularly enjoyed putting his Elliott School education to practical use. “It was a privilege to be on the ground seeing the democratic process firsthand and viewing the hardships of new government with my own eyes, rather than reading interpretations offered by someone else.”

Building Schools and Cultural Bridges

Hopscotch and “Duck, Duck, Goose” are hardly prerequisite skills for U.S. soldiers, but they came in handy for 1st Lt. Chris Kucharski, BA, ’02, and his platoon. A member of the 101st Airborne Division, Kucharski was an infantry platoon leader in Mosul from September 2003 to February 2004.

First Lt. Chris Kucharski, BA ’02, who served as an infantry platoon leader in Mosul from Sept. 2003 to Feb. 2004, was heading back to Iraq at press time for a second tour of duty.

While most of his time was taken up “making sure all 40 of my guys came home safe and alive,” one of his most memorable moments was playing with local kids while staffing the opening ceremony for a new school in the village of Abu Fischke, a suburb of Mosul.

“We donated $30,000 from our brigade to build a new school in the 500-person village, where children attended class in an ancient mud and straw building with no desks,” he explains. “We built them a two-story school with nice, large classrooms and furniture. The whole village came to the grand opening, where the kids were fascinated by us and our gear. A bunch of soldiers taught them how to play Duck, Duck, Goose and gave them Skittles, which they had never seen. To thank us for the school, the townspeople painted a mural of a school with an eagle—our division’s symbol.”

Throughout his time in Iraq, Kucharski did his best to help bridge the vast cultural divide that exists between Iraqis and Americans. “They’ve been fed information their entire lives through the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein that all Americans are huge and evil,” he says. “Through contact, we broke down some cultural barriers and showed them that we’re just regular people.”

Kucharski says that he’s frustrated by the media’s one-sided coverage of the war. “It’s just ridiculous that they’re not showing all the construction that we’re doing over there—the roads, bridges, and schools,” he states. “We’re doing so much more than just being shot at and killed.”

At press time, Kucharski was heading back to Iraq to serve for another year. “It’s a taste of insanity, if you’ve never had it, over there, but it’s rewarding.”

An Election Day to Remember

While studying for his Master of Public Administration degree at GW, Lee Swietlikowski, MPA ’02, never dreamed that he’d soon have a front-row seat to the birth of a democracy. Deployed to Iraq for 13 months beginning in January 2004 with his unit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division, the fire team leader was captivated by the events of Election Day in the Northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where he was based.

Infantry Fire Team Leader Lee Swietlikowski, MPA ’02, who served in Iraq for 13 months, stands in an up-armor Humvee before going on a raid in May 2004. He is now back at his home base in Hawaii, training for another tour in Iraq next year.

“We were anticipating large-scale, coordinated attacks throughout the day,” he reflects. “The morning began with firefights, improvised explosive devices, and numerous other intimidation tactics at locations throughout the city. They continued en masse up to approximately 8:30 a.m. At that point, it was as if someone flipped a light switch and the large-scale violence ceased. With polls opening, the insurgency tacitly conceded that there was little more they could do to dissuade the voters from turning out at polling sites. The people turned out in record numbers and celebrated in the streets. The city of Kirkuk celebrated Election Day like a national holiday. The sectors of the city where we were usually harassed and heckled came out to shake our hands and thank us. For a student of government, it was a truly unique experience.”

Due to return to Iraq for another tour in the middle of 2006, Swietlikowski reflected from his home base in Hawaii that he’s happy to answer the call. “When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the nation answered,” he says, “and that’s why I signed on to serve our country after the attacks of Sept. 11th. The ‘greatest generation’ collectively dropped what they were doing to serve a cause higher than their own self-interest, and I feel that we need to respond in kind.”

A New Perspective

It’s a long way from finance class at GW to the heat of the battle for 2nd Lt. Daniel Wise, BA ’05.

Wise entered GW as a business major in fall 2000, after signing up for Army ROTC and the Reserve. As tensions continued building after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he began preparing himself for the inevitable call to active duty. It came in January 2003, when his reserve unit was activated, and culminated in six months of service in Iraq beginning in March 2003. “I was there for the invasion and the initial major combat operations,” says Wise, whose 21st birthday coincided with the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Second Lt. Daniel Wise, BA ’05, (top row, second from left) and his Psychological Operations detachment, known as the “Wild Deuces,” pose at a captured Iraqi military installation in Al Kut on April 21, 2003, just after liberating the town.

A member of the psychological operations team, Wise entered Iraqi towns before the troops, attempting via loudspeaker to get militants to surrender and families to leave before the fighting began. “The first major mission I was involved in was the pacification of Nasariyah, which, before Fallujah, was the most dangerous city in Iraq,” he says. “When we got there, they were blowing the place up. It was pretty crazy, but we did what we had to do. Then, along with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, we liberated all the towns between Nasariyah and Al Kut, 90 miles to the north.”

Resuming his studies at GW in January 2004, he experienced reverse culture shock. “Your view of the world is so much larger after you’ve gone to war,” he explains. “Sitting in my voice and diction class listening to my classmates give speeches on life experiences like playing field hockey in high school and scooping ice cream in the summer frustrated me, to say the least.”

Shortly after his GW graduation this past May, Wise was commissioned as an Army second lieutenant. He is now in Fort Benning, Ga., for five months of officer training and will then lead a platoon of 33 infantry soldiers. “Given current troop levels, I anticipate returning to Iraq with my platoon within the next 12 months,” he says.

Wise says he is ready for the challenge and eager to serve his country. “One thing I took away with me from Iraq is an appreciation for how great Americans have it compared to many places,” he says. “We’re very fortunate people.”

The First to Go

Jeffrey Reider, BA ’05 (left), served in Iraq for six months during the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom. An infantry platoon sergeant with a light armored reconnaissance company, he was called up to serve midway through his junior year at GW and later returned home to graduate.

When Jeffrey Reider, BA ’05, enrolled at GW to study political science, he thought that his days of active military service were behind him. After six years in the Marine Corps, he’d decided to pursue a civilian life. Midway through his junior year, Reider’s reserve unit was called up to serve in Iraq.

“We went in as part of the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 and stayed for six months,” says Reider, an infantry platoon sergeant with a light armored reconnaissance company. “Fortunately, GW made it very easy for me to take a leave of absence and even gave me a full refund of the tuition that I’d paid for the semester.”

Once in Iraq, his unit worked 18 hour days providing convoy security for Army units in the Sunni Triangle. “When we first got there, we were seen as liberators,” he says. “As we went through towns, the entire population would come out with big signs saying ‘Thank you, America.’ It felt good that they wanted our help getting rid of Saddam Hussein and we were giving it to them.”

Jeffrey Reider, BA ’05, patrols the streets of Iraq.

After the heavy fighting subsided, Reider’s unit expanded their focus to include humanitarian work. They rebuilt schools, founded and trained the police department on the Iran/Iraq border, and provided medical care to entire towns. “It’s sad how the media portrays things,” says Reider. “You never see the reconstruction and humanitarian side of things reported on television. You only see the daily death toll. It makes it seem like these young soldiers are dying in vain, when they are really doing great work over there.”

Returning home in October 2003, Reider transitioned seamlessly back to GW, graduated in January 2005, and landed a civilian job with Virginia-based A-T Solutions Inc., which provides anti-terrorism training and consulting services. Of the experience, he notes, “The University was extremely supportive, even giving me preferential registration when I returned to make sure that I could get back on track as quickly as possible.”

Heart of the Action

Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent H. Albert Wittliff, BA ’96, signed on to help protect U.S.
diplomats in Iraq. He’s currently serving a one-year tour as a regional security officer based in Kirkuk.

H. Albert Wittliff, BA ’96, knows what it means to be in the heart of the action. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was working as a strategist for the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff War Games Division when the plane struck. “I stayed and helped rescue people for around six hours,” he says. “It was then that I decided I needed to get closer to the front line.”

Probing his options, Wittliff considered the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service.” He explains: “I’ve always wanted to be a special agent, and after 9/11, I felt that I could help protect Americans the most if I was posted overseas, where we have the chance to intercept terrorists before they get to our homes. DSS provided that opportunity.”

Soon after landing a job with the DSS, he volunteered for a one-year tour in Iraq. “I signed on to help protect our diplomats there,” he says. This past February, he began his stint as a regional security officer, based in the U.S. regional embassy in Kirkuk. “We coordinate security for the northeastern quadrant of the country—everywhere from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit to Kurdistan,” he says.
In addition to helping create a secure physical environment for diplomats, Wittliff coordinates with military and intelligence officers on security threats, conducts counterintelligence and criminal investigations in the area, and organizes armored motorcades to transport embassy staff safely to meetings throughout the region.

To prepare for his position, Wittliff completed seven months of basic agent training, followed by a domestic assignment in Washington and a regional security officer’s course. He also completed a seven-week high threat protection training course, mastering feats like running with 50 pounds of armor and rigorous driving maneuvers. He is skilled in a wide variety of weapon systems—from five-shot revolvers to 50-caliber machine guns and everything in between. Wittliff is quick to state, however, that he does everything he can to avoid gunfire. “The goal of our job is to avoid danger,” he says.

Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent H. Albert Wittliff, BA ’96, (right) takes aim at target practice.

One of the most memorable moments for Wittliff was working collaboratively with Iraqi security forces to solve a recent incident involving a local politician whose vehicle was shot at. “He claimed that an American protection detail had done the shooting, so I was asked to investigate. We initiated a joint investigation and concluded that shots had been fired from behind the vehicle, not in front of it, where the American motorcade had been,” Wittliff says. “By working side-by-side with an Iraqi security detail, we began to see each other more as partners in trying to keep people safe in this country. We made some real breakthroughs as far as building rapport and working together in a positive way. The trust level is growing, and that’s a huge success.”

The most difficult part of his service in Iraq is being away from his infant son, Travis, who was born in November. “Missing him is the worst part, hands down,” he says. “There are days that are so bad that I don’t know how I’m going to get through them without getting on a plane and going home.”
But Wittliff always stays, because he believes in his mission. “I’m proud to be here protecting diplomats from danger so that they can do good work.”

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Cassie (BA ’94) and Doug O’Brien on the deck of their Laguna Beach, Calif., home last August, the night before Doug departed for reserve duty. He is serving in southern Baghdad with the Army National Guard.

Cassie (Fleig) L. O’Brien, BA ’94, has never been anywhere near Iraq, but the faraway land nevertheless dominates her thoughts. Her husband of five years, Doug, has been serving in southern Baghdad with the Army National Guard since February and will likely remain there until December or January. When we e-mailed the GW community searching for servicemen and women to interview for this article, O’Brien immediately fired back a reply, rightfully pointing out that family members of those serving should also be recognized in the story. “Staying home and worrying, sending packages, and taking over all the commitments at home is a lot of work, as well, and emotionally draining at times,” she stated.

It’s been a long year for O’Brien since Doug departed for reserve duty last August. “He felt that it was his obligation to serve his country at this time since he’d had Special Forces training,” she says. “I’m really proud of him for acting on something that he feels so strongly about, but it’s not easy. We e-mail each other every day, and if I don’t hear from him for a few days, I panic. You’re always on guard and have to mentally prepare yourself for the worst. That’s the hardest part.”

Still, e-mail is a blessing, she says. “It really helps us to feel connected and less lonely. During our daily conversations, we talk a lot about everyday life, which makes Doug feel closer to home and helps take his mind off of things in Iraq.” She also sends him frequent packages containing tastes of home, like magazines, books, and candy. She even sent him his bike, so that he could cycle around the base. “He’s a big cyclist here in the states and really missed it,” she says.

O’Brien stays busy round the clock, studying days for her doctorate in psychology at Argosy University in Costa Mesa, Calif., and working nights in a restaurant. “I’m thankful that I’m so busy and that I have a lot of support from friends and family.”

In April, Doug came home from Iraq for two weeks leave. “It was amazing, but, at the same time, he felt a little guilty being home while his unit was back in Iraq capturing terrorists,” she says. “It takes awhile to get out of the mindset of war. Still, I wouldn’t have traded our time together for anything.”