By Kelly Young
Army Reservist and former Cuney Mayor Oscar Birdow recently returned from an 18-month deployment to Iraq, during which time he served with distinction in a supply company.
Birdow said he has come back to America as a changed man – more appreciative of the freedoms we enjoy here, but also more aware of the threats that our nation faces.
Birdow’s reserve unit was called up in July, 2005. His unit was stationed a few hours south of Baghdad, and his post was subject to regular mortar attack.
“When the combat forces got so tight up north, the insurgents started moving south, blowing up convoys just north of us. The Italian forces started getting killed in Nasiriyah, which is a place we could see from our lookout towers,” Birdow said. “We had several mortar attacks hit our base, but my unit didn’t lose anybody. Maybe once or twice a month the mortars would hit all over the post, but they only hurt a couple people.”
It was during one such mortar attach that Birdow earned the Army Commendation Medal for “flawlessly coordinating a safe and speedy exit for his soldiers and the Iraqi workers. Birdow was flawless in his expertise and devotion to the mission.”
According to Birdow, even though most Iraqis acknowledge that their lives are better now than under Saddam, they are still very resentful of our presence.
“I ran into a lot of Iraqis who resent us. Any Iraqis that showed resentment or animosity were removed and kept away from the base,” he said. “For the most part, 99-percent of the Iraqi people kept their emotions to themselves in order to get what they could from the U.S.”
Birdow said there is no way American troops will be pulling out of the area any time soon.
“Right now in Iraq they are spending millions of dollars putting up permanent structures that they wouldn’t be building if we were planning on pulling out in the next year. There are soldiers in America that are PCSing (primary change of station) to Kuwait, so the soldiers aren’t going anywhere,” Birdow said.
The results would be disastrous, said Birdow, if American troops left the region.
“If we left the Iraqis would be at the mercy of the insurgents. In their country the basic law is that the strong survive. Whoever has the strongest rebel army will be the leader, period,” Birdow said. “If we pulled out right now, villages would be overtaken by the insurgents and people who are making several thousand dollars a month would go back to not making anything.”
According to Birdow, life in Iraqi is so different that most Americans can’t understand it.
“A lot of people in America don’t understand what we are up against. From what I have seen, everything they do is for survival. From the youngest to the oldest, it’s all about surviving. They learn that very early in life. I dealt with a seven-year-old Iraqi boy who was the most violent person I’ve ever met. When we would issue out some candy or something like that, this little boy would literally attack the other kids to make sure that he got some, he would hit them and hurt them. At seven-years-old that was his mentality because that was all he knew,” Birdow said. “He would hurt your child without even thinking about it, and that has been the basic mentality of all of them – survival. If not for the Americans being there now, and him getting an opportunity to come to the post and interact with the soldiers and the people, he would be an insurgent.”
Birdow said the Iraqi culture makes them dangerous enemies.
“I think most of our problems with the Middle Eastern people is that they live in a society of desperation. I thank God the war is on that side, because here in America we have been taught certain morals that in a wartime environment benefit the Iraqis. Here there are too many citizens that aren’t prepared for that kind of fight and I think the terrorists knew that when they attacked us,” he said. “Our country isn’t prepared for innocent people to get hurt. For them, it’s nothing to send innocent people out with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) on. That is something that is so hard to fight against. How do you fight people who are so prepared to die?”
While he would stop well short of respect, Birdow said he has developed an understanding of why the Iraqi people behave as they do.
“When a man straps a bomb to himself and blows himself up, I know that he believes in his country with everything he has. Once you go over there and see their world it gives you an understanding of their culture. I’m not going to say it gives you a respect for it – because I don’t respect a man who will send his wife to die – but I understand better why he is doing it. There are a lot of harsh things that they do that, after being there and seeing it, I can understand it better,” Birdow said.
Birdow said the worst thing about his time in Iraq was the constant sense of hopelessness.
“You are 6,000 miles from home and you know there is no way to go home. When you go there you have a dual mindset, which is so difficult. You will think about home. You’re gonna think about how helpless you are to take care of your family. You can make sure that your will kit is done and your insurance is in place, but that’s it,” he said.
“And the other part of your mind knows that you’re here and you have a mission to do. If you’re not right, if you’re not 100-percent, you’re no good to the mission. It was extremely important to me to do the best that I could while I was there.”
According to Birdow, it’s nice to be back home where the constant threat of death doesn’t hang over our heads.
“It’s a whole different world. No matter how you try, you can’t make somebody understand what it’s like to be in Iraq. Nobody gets ready to die. Nobody even thinks they are going to die, but they have the harsh reality stored in their mind that it is possible,” Birdow said.
“Over there it’s a constant possibility that you learn to live with. It’s not a passing thought, it’s a constant possibility.”
Despite all the hardships and the hopelessness, Birdow is thankful for being sent and is proud of his service. The one point he wants to stress to the public is the importance of honoring and thanking the soldiers who return from combat.
“There is no thanks for a soldier that comes back, no ticker tape parade, no public acknowledgment. All they have is the personal satisfaction that they made a difference. People don’t understand what a sacrifice serving in Iraq is. The average soldier is 18 or 19 years old. There life is just beginning and they haven’t even had time to enjoy it yet,” Birdow said. “When a soldier gets back from Iraq, go out of your way to let them know they are appreciated. Don’t act like it’s no big deal what they did, thank them and let them know how appreciative you are.”
Birdow, an avid horse lover, hopes to train and run horses now that he is back. He is subject to active duty recall and can be sent back to Iraq at any time.
By Kelly Young