- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I am Spc. Dominic Mlinar. I am a vehicle mechanic for an Army transportation company that operates throughout Iraq and Kuwait.

I have been in theater for two months. Americans may be surprised to learn I have been enjoying my stay here in the Middle East, especially because I spend most of my time outside our base and get to see the real Iraq.

I often feel safer here than I do in my home city of Cleveland. The Iraqi people, of course, want us to let them get on with their lives, but they cooperate with us when we are out doing our jobs. They move over or stop to allow our convoys to get where they need to go.

Imagine how angry you would be if you had to pull over on the freeway so a convoy could roll past you. But the Iraqis let us get our job done. If we are stopped at night and they drive past, the Iraqis turn on their interior lights as they roll by so we can see what everyone in the car is doing. It makes us feel safer, and them as well.

We work with civilians of many nationalities; Iraqi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Georgian and Indian, among others. There is a great sense of team spirit, and when hard work is to be done, we all work together and complete it faster than you would believe.

The language barrier is always difficult, but I’m used to it, and it is has become part of the fun for both parties. When we have a task and our international colleagues offer their help, there is a lot of pointing and hand gestures, and somehow we manage to communicate and get it done. I’ve met a lot of people I hope to see again.

The Army has done a great job of cultural sensitivity training, though we still have an issue with the immaturity of some of the younger soldiers. The American sense of humor does not always translate. Sometimes the younger troops do things when joking that come across as insults. The nationals take it in stride and love the opportunity to show us they are smarter than we think.

The learning experience has been incredible. I was very knowledgeable about the region when I came here, but I am amazed by how much I have learned. I have an even more positive opinion about Iraq than I did when I was playing armchair quarterback at home.

The Iraqi police are everywhere, and we feel safe when we roll into an area patrolled by the Iraqi police and army. These days, they rarely wear bulletproof vests, and we never see the black masks that used to be standard issue, which tells us they feel more secure as well.

We drive through their checkpoints with a wave, and they go back to doing their jobs. We increasingly find it easier to smooth over relations and avoid potential problems with the locals by calling the police or local tribal officials to mediate. They work with us as partners now, seeking a common goal.

The Iraqi kids are my favorite part of my time here, but they also can scare us. When you get here, you hear about rock-throwing and get a picture in your head of the violent protests across the world. But the reality is, most of the time it’s kids being mischievous. We do have to protect our convoys, but I won’t lie; when I was a kid, I got in trouble for the same kind of stuff. There was plenty I didn’t get caught for, too. We have found that when it comes to dealing with the kids, call the parents. You would be surprised how parenting is a universal language.

The kids more often look for handouts from the trucks, like at a parade in our country when candy is thrown. It’s great to see their creativity when getting things from the soldiers; what they do to get your attention or when they try to play the sympathy card. It’s never really begging.

But this is the scary part. It’s not that we are in danger but that they are. Rolling through town too slowly invites trouble from the few remaining insurgents, but more often than not, it encourages kids to hop on the trucks looking for a handout or for anything loose to grab. If one kid makes it, the rest will try. Then we get worried that one might fall off and get hurt or stray in front of a moving vehicle.

I hate to seem cold, but the safety of the convoy is our top priority, and these kids are placing themselves at great risk. We may be annoyed by it, but we know it’s just how kids are.

Baghdad is an incredible city. In Baghdad, you see the desert give way to the trees and plants nourished by the river. The freeways are very typical except for the occasional van with people riding on the roof. As you move into the city, you see the open-air shops filled with anything the vendors think can be sold. I really appreciate the brand of capitalism I see in Iraqi and the innate spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship.

Most shops are just block buildings with some streamers and a string of lights with Arabic writing across the front. But there are also incredible monuments and mosques you would expect to see only in the movies. Some take up an entire city block with lighting that is amazing by itself.

The nicer neighborhoods remind you of West Los Angeles, tightly packed with gated garages and walkways, but with all the Arab flair. And there is always the coating of dust reminding you the desert is at the door.

I know the gravity of my job. I know it is dangerous. But cities in the United States have their gangs, too, and their perils. The troops all are professional, but what we do goes beyond a sense of duty. I came here to do my job and get home safely, but every day I look forward getting back out on the road.

U.S. Army Spec. Dominic Mlinar is serving in Iraq.

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