(Gary McKenzie is an assistant attorney general in the office of AG Randy York, serving the 13th Judicial Circuit. He is also a member of the Tennessee National Guard and is on a one-year deployment to Iraq. During that time of service, Capt. McKenzie will be sharing his observations and thoughts about his experience in the Middle East.)
I received my orders this past May telling me I would be deployed in June in support of OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). I went through most emotions that any member of the military does in such a situation. I was excited, nervous, but sad to leave my family behind. My family and I gathered together in Jackson at the end of June and I kissed my beautiful wife and three kids goodbye. I then jumped on a plane and away I went.
My unit, the 194th, is an engineering brigade commanded by Gen. Robert Harris. Our mission was to arrive in theater and be a brigade headquarters for all engineering assets in Iraq. This mission says a lot about the faith the Army has in our unit as this is an important job to be tasked to a National Guard unit. Our state should be proud of the job that our soldiers are doing over here.
When we arrived in Kuwait and got off the plane, the first thing that I noticed was the heat. I do not know how to describe it, but a friend best described it as sticking your head in an oven that is set around 500 degrees. Once you have done that, get a fan pointed at you and throw sand in it. If you do these steps you will recreate the living conditions of Kuwait in July. The wind feels like a hot hair dryer being held on you. It is a very unforgiving environment.
I have come to have a real respect for the people who live in the Middle East. All of the things we take for granted each day, they go without. Each day for these people is a struggle to survive. Water, grass and blue skies are a rare commodity over here. The sky is cloudless and feels so much bigger here. When you look up it feels like you are peering out of a glass snow globe, just replace the snow with sand.
I have told my wife on many occasions that she should step out on the back porch and breathe in the fresh air. She should look at the beautiful green grass or, when the time comes, the turning leaves. You see, the people over here are dealing with all the problems of establishing a country as well as the day-to-day challenge to survive in this environment. This is not an easy challenge.
Every day our unit helps in the effort to build bridges, roads and schools for these people. It is important for the people back home to realize what great strides this country has made based on the hard work of the U.S. Military. So many Iraqi families now have power, water and security because of the sacrifices of all those who have served. Too many times we Americans get caught up in the nightly news and forget the most important thing about the people of this region; they are human. They wake up every day wanting to work and provide for their family. They wake up every day wanting a better life for their kids. They wake up every day wanting a country they can be proud of. The one truth I have found on my adventure in the Middle East is this. They are not that much different than us.
On a recent trip outside the wire to Bagdad, I got see the old city. I was impressed with the size of the capital of Iraq. From the air on a Black Hawk helicopter the city seemed to stretch out forever. It was a very contrasting city. I was struck by the poverty in one particular section. There were garbage dumps that appeared to have people walking around in them. When I got a closer look I realized that there were homes inside the dump made from the trash. Kids played in heaps of trash. I could not help but feel sorry for their situation.
In another section I was able to see very nice homes with nice green yards. It was interesting to see the two extremes that co-existed in this city.
One of the things that our unit is working on is helping the Iraqi people develop some sort of sanitation plan. Imagine if you will a city the size of Nashville that has no sewage or sanitation system. Sometimes we take for granted some of the basic services that our local government provides. We often do not realize just how vital basic services such as water, sewage and garbage collection are to a functioning city or town.
As a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer I handle a wide variety of issues. I help our commander deal with many legal issues such as Rule of Law, Rules of Engagement and UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) Issues. One of the big issues we deal with in a counter insurgency environment is Rule of Law.
For the new Iraq government to be effective it must be seen as legitimate by the people. Rule of Law deals with having the ability to enforce existing law and creating a court system that can address any wrongs that occur to its citizens.
Imagine if our country did not have a system set up to address criminal acts or civil wrongs. Imagine if there was no system set up to recognize and enforce your right to own property. I use my experience as a prosecutor in civilian life to help address these issues in Iraq.
Another issue that I deal with is making sure our soldiers are trained on the proper Rules of Engagement. The ROE are the rules that govern how our military acts within an armed conflict. These rules will change from time to time to reflect the type of threat situation our troops are operating in. These rules also govern how we treat any prisoners or detainees that our forces capture.
My job requires me to be well versed in the ROE to make sure our troops are fully aware of all of their options when they come in contact with any hostel threat. This gives you an idea of some of the issues that I have a chance to deal with while deployed.
I look forward to continuing my service over the next year. I hope to learn more of the Iraqi culture and be able to share it with family and friends. I hope to have more interaction with the local population of Iraq. This deployment has been an eye opening experience that has made me realize, that even with all of our faults, how truly great our county is. I look forward to many things, but most of all I look forward to putting my feet back on American soil and my arms around my wife and kids.
CPT Gary McKenzie
194th EN BDE
JAG Trial Counsel