In country: A soldier reflects on life in Iraq

By Thomas Wilson

   Basrah, Najaf, and Baghdad.
   They are names burned into the memories of American soldiers much the same way Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima, and Khe Sahn made indelible marks to their fathers and grandfathers. U.S. Army Maj. Terrance Pearson with the 7th Corps Support Group stationed somewhere in Iraq spends his days building a communications infrastructure for U.S. military forces. Born in Elizabethton where his parents now reside, Pearson corresponded with the Star this week, talking Operation Iraqi Freedom, the hellish environment of the Iraqi desert and Natalie Maines.
   The Soldier
Pearson, 37, was born in Elizabethton and lived in Valley Forge until he was six months old when he and his parents moved to Bluff City. His parents, Bill and Lorena Pearson, hail from Gregg's Branch and Bunton Town in Butler. His grandparents, Lawrence and Ruby Pearson, still reside in Butler.
   A Sullivan East alumnus, he graduated from East Tennessee State University in 1990. He joined the Army shortly thereafter and has spent the past four years stationed at Bamberg, Germany with his wife Becky and son Timothy.
   When the U.S. military began mobilizing troops in late 2002, the 7th CSG were put on notice of their possible role in the military invasion of Iraq. Pearson said goodbye to Becky and Timothy on February 20.
   Portions of the 7th CSG received deployment orders in October, but the Group HQ and the remaining units continued to deploy well into the war.
   He is assigned to the 7th Corps Support Group, a brigade size logistics outfit that provides support to the U.S. "V" Corps (The Victory Corps). Pearson says the 7th CSG is not currently in Baghdad proper, but adds that he could not divulge the unit's exact location. The unit provides logistical support to the units of the U.S. "V" Corps. The 7th CSG has three organic battalions including two maintenance battalions, a water purification unit and a maintenance company.
   One battalion also employs a company of maintenance personnel equivalent to the 776th Maintenance Company of Elizabethton. Other units under the 7th CSG's command include a water purification battalion, a fuel battalion, a transportation battalion, and a supply and services battalion. There are over 3000 soldiers in the 7th Corps Support Group.
   Pearson serves as the Group's Communications and Signal Officer responsible for all of the telecommunications and data connectivity. Essentially, he is wiring the Army to move anything and everything from food and water to toiletries. The movement of men and machines to wage postmodern warfare on Old Testament geography fell in large part to Pearson and the 7th CSG.
   The Invasion
Pearson said the 7th CSG began their role at Camp Virginia, Kuwait roughly 90 miles south of the Iraq border. A small contingent of the group, which is called the Assault Command Post, moved north out of Kuwait into Iraq about 36 hours on the heels of the 3rd Infantry Division.
   The group traveled in a convoy of close to a thousand vehicles on a route south of Nasaryia past A-Samawa, and ultimately just south of Najaf, where the CSG established a staging area for logistical support. The convoy took nearly five days as combat units cleared the area for the group to move forward.
   "We would halt on the trail at night for several hours pulling security around our vehicles till it was time to roll again," said Pearson. When the unit arrived at Najaf, Pearson said the soldiers found Iraqi Fedayeen paramilitary forces in "Technical Vehicles" (code for Nissan pickup trucks with a machine gun mounted on them) being destroyed by the Advancing Bradley Fighting Vehicles. "It was not a pretty sight," he recalls.
   Soldiers were required to wear chemical protective clothing for roughly three weeks until the threat of a possible chemical attack subsided. Not a day went by that Pearson and his comrades were not in full protective posture for one reason or another, he says.
   False alarms and the occasional SCUD missile raining from the sky kept Pearson and his comrades in full protective posture around the clock. The group remained in the area for roughly two weeks providing area logistical support as fighting continued in the north. After the liberation of Baghdad, the group moved north of the city to set up a logistics hub to support areas west and north of the city.
   Feeding an army is not an expression for Pearson -- it is a day's work. "The biggest change has been the change of focus from pushing ammunition to pushing food and water," said Pearson.
   "The Army consumes so much so fast that it is very difficult to maintain the velocity throughout of supplies required to sustain the force at the level that we want to attain," he says. When it comes to communications and gathering data, the Army's appetite is no less insatiable. That's where Pearson and his staff come in.
   A Day of Occupation
Pearson usually rises out of his sleeping bag -- which he keeps on the hood of a Humvee vehicle, a bedstand he has shared since the unit crossed the border in Iraq -- at 6 a.m. After a morning update from the Group's commanding officer, Pearson and his staff spend the majority of his day setting up voice and data networks repairing computers, and maintaining all tactical radio equipment in the Group.
   "We are covering a distance roughly from Elizabethton to Dallas," he says. "Imagine taking the communications infrastructure supporting Johnson City and stretching it from the Gulf Coast to New York City.
   "This war would not have been won as fast and with the minimal number of casualties that occurred without our technological superiority."
   The 7th CSG spends its days sustaining all of the units in and around Baghdad and in areas north. The Group's command post operates out of the gymnasium of an abandoned airfield. Troops have no running water and our power comes from our own generation assets. Showers are provided by one of the Quartermaster Companies. The group had no shower facilities upon entering Iraq for approximately two weeks. "The longest run I had was 17 days with only baby wipes I had acquired from my wife in the mail and sock changes," he says.
   The elements wreak havoc on men and machines in the Iraq desert. Violent sandstorms of biblical proportion lay siege to command posts.
   "The sun can turn to blood and then the sky to black in a moment's notice," he says.
   When not dodging sandstorms or Scuds, soldiers fight the desert's dreaded sand flies or "no-seeums." "Their bites are extraordinarily itchy and turn into sores that -- at the size of a pencil eraser -- have left scars," Pearson says.
   Mosquitoes pose a threat for malaria, which requires soldiers to take prescription anti-biotics daily.
   Like everyone else, CSG staff chows down on a ration cycle of breakfast, lunch and dinner as MREs with the occasional Heat and Serve. For entertainment, Pearson jokes that soldiers watch the bugs fly into the bug-zapper. "Actually, we have an Armed Forces Network satellite decoder that we are able to watch television," he says. Soldiers also keep a selection of DVDs to watch on our laptops when time permits.
   The camaraderie among the 7th CSG servicemen and women make the unbearable conditions bearable, Pearson says.
   The most agonizing experience of his tour occurred only a few days ago. He had just said goodbye to one of his Battalion Commanders, Lt. Col. Rocky Baragona, who departed to redeploy to Fort Still, Okla. The news came later Baragona had been killed in a vehicle accident on the road to Kuwait. A cruel irony of the war has been the number of soldiers killed in accidents compared to the number lost in combat. "Motor-vehicle accidents are currently our worst enemy," Pearson says.
   Despite the hardships, the unit stays upbeat by focusing on the positives. "We are happy to be alive," says Pearson.
   After a day of wiring, connecting, talking to HQ brass, and generally avoiding the trappings of danger, Pearson ends his day around midnight when he goes off to battle the no-seeums and capture five hours of sleep.
   The People
Pearson says he has very little contact with Iraqi citizens. However, he characterized the hundreds of the local nationals working to restore infrastructure and utility services as "very friendly" and "incredibly thankful" to servicemen and women they meet. With no shortage of workers, Iraqi citizens are taking an active part in rebuilding their country, Pearson says.
   "The children line the side of the road and wave and give the thumbs up. They continually beg for food and water," Pearson describes. "We are not allowed to give them anything directly. All humanitarian assistance must come from the non-governmental organizations."
   Pearson says Iraqis were very receptive to U.S. military in the days after their liberation, but as with all things, time breeds complacency. "They grow tired of being held up by slow moving convoys and the continual military presence which, in the end, is the only thing that gives their nation any kind of stability right now," he says.
   G.I. Joe
The night before Pearson left Bamberg, his 12-year-old son Timothy gave me a gift to carry into battle -- an action figure resembling either G.I. Joe or an Ultimate Soldier. The 12-inch action figure is outfitted with dessert camouflage uniform, boots, kevlar helmet, pistol, and an M-16.
   After crossing the border into Iraq, Pearson began taking photos of "Joe" as he has taken to calling him in various settings including photos with destroyed enemy equipment and in front of the former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein.
   Joe has become something of a celebrity in military circles. He even got his photo taken with Gen. Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pearson and "Joe" caught the attention of Stars and Stripes, which did a feature story on the two last week.
   "I have had a lot of folks suggest that he should go on E-Bay after the war with all documentation," Pearson says. "But this will be my memory of the war and you can't put a price on that."
   Pearson has carried an American flag throughout the war and says he has acquired an Iraqi flag along with all of the photos along the way -- gifts to his son for this period of separation.
   Dixie Chicks
Operation Iraqi Freedom has come with its share of critics from senators to celebrities. Perhaps the most notable coming from Natalie Maines, lead singer of the country group "Dixie Chicks", who endured a torrent of criticism after making a disparaging remark about President Bush at a concert in London shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq.
   Pearson doesn't begrudge Maines, and points out the freedom of speech -- be it popular or unpopular -- is the crux of what the military fights to protect at home and abroad.
   "I fight for Natalie's right to say what she wants; I applaud her in expressing her freedom of speech," Pearson states. "I will gladly die for her, or anyone's freedom of speech. Some folks give her a hard time, but those individuals miss the true reason we fight."
   Coming Home
When the Group will be rotated out of Iraq remains unknown, Pearson says. "We hope for Christmas," he says. During the war, Pearson has had little contact with his family in Bamberg. The communications infrastructure has gotten better allowing almost daily conversations through chat or e-mail, and the occasional phone call. "I am fortunate to be at a command post that has access to phones and e-mail."
   Beyond the shifting sands and daily routine, Pearson calls on his religious faith, Becky, Timothy, his parents, "and all of the other folks back in the real free world" as that which keeps him sane. He harkens back to "the land of Dino's Restaurant, and Lon and Theresa's (boat dock)" in Hampton and when a G.I. can return to his people and his life in rural Southern Appalachia.
   "I think of home daily," Pearson writes, "and dream of sitting on my Aunt Deborah's pontoon boat up on Watauga Lake fishing and sleeping or out on my motorcycle riding Highway 91 from Stoney Creek to Shady with no worries other than am I going to make it home in time for supper."