Back from the front

CN&R’s soldier-correspondent returns from Iraq

HOME AT LAST<br>Sgt. Garth Talbott is back in Chico after spending a year in Iraq with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division..

Sgt. Garth Talbott is back in Chico after spending a year in Iraq with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division..

Photo By Tom Angel

On with the body count:
Out of a total troop strength of about 200,000, coalition casualties since the beginning of the Iraq war now stand at 544. There is no official count of the wounded. Iraqi fatalities are unknown, but according to some aid groups could number as high as 10,000.

When the Chico News & Review last heard from Sgt. Garth Talbott, an engineer in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne, he was busy blowing up unexploded munitions, searching Baghdad homes for security risks and writing letters home that openly questioned his country’s rationale for invading Iraq.

Talbott, whose dispatches from the front were printed in a CN&R cover story last August, is now home from Iraq on 30 days’ leave. While he said it feels good to be back in the States, the questions Talbott found himself debating in Iraq—why the U.S. is there, what kind of treatment the Iraqis deserve from our soldiers, and what his own presence there meant—remain unanswered. Iraq is such a strange and complicated place that trying to sort it all it is next to impossible, he said.

“For the most part, [Iraqis] are just people who want to live, but at the same time they’re really difficult,” he said. “I mean, we try to give them opportunities for us to help them out, and they expect us to do everything for them. They don’t want to do anything for themselves.”

When U.S. forces were called upon to provide security for Iraqi council meetings, for example, “half of them didn’t show up, and the ones that did showed up late,” he said. “It’s like, come on, we’re here putting ourselves on the line for you guys.”

Being a U.S. soldier in Iraq is not really as dangerous as it looks on TV news—mostly it’s just boring, he said. Even staying in one of Saddam’s palaces gets old after a while. That’s not to say, however, that Talbott always felt assured of making it home alive.

“There’s enough that happens that you have to worry about it, but at the same time almost nothing ever happens. [Resistance fighters] are not competent, they’re not organized. It’s really sporadic.”

Talbott, at far left, jokes with Specialist David Hare, center, of the 307th Engineer Battalion, Bravo Company, at a base camp in Mishkab, near the Euphrates River

Courtesy Of The Oregonian

Talbott recalls one incident when a roadside bomb—the weapon of choice among embittered Iraqis—went off near a truck he was riding in.

“We were going to check out this area, and all of a sudden, boom! There was dust everywhere. Somebody had set up two 120mm mortars and blew ’em right next to our truck,” he said. “Nobody got hit or anything, but you know, you’re just chillin’ in the back of a truck smoking a cigarette and just, wham!”

Those kinds of incidents are frustrating for our troops, Talbott said, because they highlight the lopsidedness of the conflict.

“There was a huge crowd of people just standing there, and we were waiting for one of them to run. Pretty much everyone wanted to kill someone right then, but they all just stood there, you know, goddamn. There isn’t really an enemy. If they get into a straight fight with us, they know they’re going to die, because they can’t win. We’re a conventional force trying to fight an unconventional [enemy].”

Still, Talbott’s battalion lost between eight and 10 soldiers in the past seven months, and “I don’t think we even killed any of them,” he says.

Combat taught Talbott not to take anything for granted and to spend his time on Earth as wisely as he knows how.

“It gave me direction about the immediacy of things. I just don’t have a lot of time, and life is mostly just luck. Hell, most of the reason most people are alive is just luck. You’ve got a million chances to die whenever—it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s made me think that I need to do what I want to do with my life to be happy and not really do anything else.”

Being home is comforting but strange because so many of his friends have gotten new jobs or changed in other ways. He doubts he will re-enlist, and if he does it will probably be as a special-operations soldier. When asked if he has changed his opinion on whether the war was worth fighting, Talbott laughs. He was reprimanded for writing to us in the first place and doesn’t get out of the Army for another six months, so he asked that we not print his reply. Suffice to say, his opinion hasn’t changed much. As to whether he would do it all again, it’s an open question.

“Out of four years in the Army, that’s probably the best year I’ve spent. I mean there were bad times, but … the Army for the most part is just tons of bullshit."