The Real Stories from Iraq

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I wish you could've been there. Last night Andrew Carroll and Jeff Shaara took the mic at the main branch of the St. Louis Public Library downtown and told the story of how Operation Homecoming came to be. The book, in case you haven't heard of it, is subtitled Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. It's a collection of eyewitness accounts of life in 21st-century wartime culled from the private journals, letters, e-mails and other writings of soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines.

The National Endowment for the Arts created the project. Boeing funded it. More than 10,000 pages of writing were submitted and painstakingly whittled down to just under 400. Not a single word was censored by the government or the military. Together the individual reflections tell a narrative you probably haven't heard, and probably should.

I wish you could've been there because I had every intention of note-taking in order to tell you what Carroll, best-selling editor of War Letters and creator of The Legacy Project, and Shaara, a prolific author of historical fiction, had to say about meeting the nation's military men and women -- boys and girls, some of them -- all over the globe. How surprised our troops were to learn that it's their voices -- not CNN, or FOXNews -- that the folks at home really want to hear. How writing helped many of them unload some of the emotional clutter they were packing up and storing away, perhaps to their and their loved ones' eventual detriment.

I ended up not even pulling out my pen and paper. This was not my narrative to share.

Considering Carroll read a few letters aloud last night, I don't think the National Endowment for the Arts or Random House is going to mind if we republish two of those selections (after the jump).

Both are from U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel Chris Cohoes, who left behind his wife and two sons, Cavan, eleven, and Crew, five, when he deploy to the Middle East in the summer of 2004:

13 Aug 04

Boys, I was walking outside today and made a big mistake. I grabbed a hand rail when I walked down the stairs. I have some nasty red marks from where it burned me. That's how hot it is. You just can't believe it.

Trust me, I'm not complaining. I flew a mission yesterday. A squad of Marines was in the mountains way up above 10,000 feet, and they were attacked by some bad guys. These bad guys fired six big rockets at the Marines' position. I saw the explosions. Don't worry, they can't reach me with anything they have. Some of those Marines are only seven years older than you are, Cavan. All I could think about was you two hunkering down in the mountains with rockets landing all around. I have no fear for my own safety, but I'd be petrified if you were in my shoes -- or worse yet, theirs.

Thinking about that stuff wasn't helping me or the Marines, so I had to box up that feeling and store it away for another time. Hope you guys learn how to do that because it can get you through the rough spots with a clear head. Trick is that you have to remember to find the box again later. Keep them stuffed away, and eventually you'll run out of storage space when you need it.

We helped get those guys out of their mess, and one of them got hurt. It felt great to help Americans in trouble. More than great. We did roughly the same thing three days ago, and after that one, I sent an e-mail to a Marine Major who is a friend of mine. Here's part of what he wrote back.

"...As you well know, we are a family, we're tight -- very tight, we don't ask for much: honor, courage and commitment are truly what we live by -- and when somebody gives us a hand, we consider it a pretty big honor. You've earned a place in our family as a result. I can't even describe what it means to us as a whole. Thanks brother, for all that you do, and for keeping our brothers on the point end of the spear out of harm's way. Please pass back to your crew and squadron as well, we all say thank you."

Maybe that sounds like dialogue from a mediocre movie you've seen, but it actually brought a tear to my eye. I told you in the last letter that certain experiences change you forever and cause you to see things differently. The message above might seem a little sappy for most people, but it meant a great deal to me.

Tell Mom I love her. Tell Mom you love her too.

Love you both, Dad

29 Aug 04

Boys, I flew in a pretty amazing area of the world today. Have you ever heard of Mesopotamia? Probably not, but you will. This is where civilization began on earth (the Sumerians)! Two great rivers of the world, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flow together here then empty into the Persian Gulf. Mesopotamia was the area between the two rivers (in Greek, Mesopotamia means "between the rivers"). The Bible talks a lot about it. It says that the Euphrates River flowed from the Garden of Eden. You've heard of "the Promised Land"? It's right here. Heard of Babylon? Here, about 30 miles south of Baghdad. The city was built about 3,800 years ago by King Hammurabi. King Nebuchadnezzar (I can't say it either) built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon about 2,600 years ago. It is one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. This is where many great battles took place. The Romans fought here. One of the Egyptian Pharaohs fought here. Now I'm fighting here. Doesn't seem like a "great" battle to me, and I'll bet you the Egyptians and Babylonians didn't think fighting was great then either.

It is sad to see what history has done to this area. It was the beginning of everything we have now. It was beautiful, there were forests nearby, the people were proud. Now it is a disaster. Now it is called Iraq. Lots of people from other countries are going there and setting off bombs to try to scare the Iraqi people, and it is working. I wish they would stop, but they won't. Too bad Hammurabi isn't here now -- he was amazing, and he could get his country under control once again.

It was nighttime when I was flying around thinking about these things, then every single light in my plane went out. It is a full moon tonight, but I still needed a flashlight to see in the cockpit. The first thing I thought after making sure the engines still worked was what you would've said, Cavan, had you been there. "Hey Dad. The lights went out." I started laughing. Then I got most of my lights back and came back to base.

Cavan, remember this: Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. Crew, I think that you and Mark Twain would've been great friends. Here's something he said about boys that makes me think of you: "Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates."

Love, Dad

-Kristen Hinman

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