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Capt. Rawlings' Tips on Serving in Iraq

Capt. Nate Rawlings (left) and Sgt. Travis Paker took some downtime at Fort Hood in Texas while they prepared to return to Iraq.
Whitney Terrell for NPR
Capt. Nate Rawlings (left) and Sgt. Travis Paker took some downtime at Fort Hood in Texas while they prepared to return to Iraq.

Capt. Nate Rawlings, 26, recently returned to Iraq for the second time. The Princeton alum had expected to spend the next few months applying for graduate film programs, but he's been stop-lossed, caught up in the Pentagon policy of extending tours of duty to bolster troop levels. Though he completed his original terms of service, he was obligated to return to Iraq — this time to Sadr City. Throughout the next few months, he will be answering questions about his experience. (Send your questions through this form.) This is his first batch of questions and responses.

Question One: Seeking Advice for a Friend

Dear Capt. Rawlings,


My best friend recently enlisted in the Air National Guard as a civil engineer to pay for college. He is like a brother to me, and a second son to my family. He said he heard that he should expect to serve at least two or three tours in Iraq or Afghanistan before he fulfills his contract. I want to know if there is anything that you wish someone had told you before you were deployed. Thank you and God bless you.

-- Nijim Dabbour

Dear Mr. Dabbour,

Thank you very much for your question and for your prayers. ... If your friend is serving a short tour (the 3-6 month kind), I would advise that he barely unpack and simply concentrate on doing his job the best he can, and before you know it, he will be home. It will be sort of like a long, very intense semester abroad. The longer tours are more difficult because of the time spent apart from family and friends, and during these tours, it's important that he keep in contact with family and friends through e-mail, MySpace, Facebook or through phone calls. ... The second thing I would recommend is that he come up with a goal, something he wants to accomplish outside of his job for the year. A year is a long time, and in the course of one's life, a year can be a chance to grow and change, even in a combat zone. Even during the days when we were conducting 12-18 hour combat patrols, I made sure to set aside as much time as I could for my soldiers to read, write home and listen to music. Several taught themselves to play the guitar. One read all of the classics from Homer to the collected Shakespeare. During this tour since I am working very closely with Iraqi troops, I am learning as much Arabic as I can (with a Southern twang of course!). Having a goal outside of the job not only passes the time, but it gives us something to look back upon so that the year spent in Iraq or Afghanistan isn't simply a lost year spent in a combat zone. Good luck to your friend, and I will pass along some of the best advice I ever received from my uncle, a retired Marine: "Keep your head up and [butt] down!"

Question Two: Filling Spare Time


Hello Capt. Rawlings,

What do you and your fellow soldiers read when you are passing time in Iraq? Aside from reading, what other activities do you all occupy your time with?

-- Maryella Walkup

Dear Ms. Walkup,

My soldiers read all kinds of magazines and books, which are the best source of entertainment because they are portable, relatively indestructible and cheap. My soldiers read everything from Guns and Ammo to Field and Stream to Newsweek and Time to keep up with current events. I tend to read several books and magazines at the same time so when I have 20 minutes or so of free time I will grab whatever my brain is in the mood for. I am currently plowing through three books: Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr., The Federalist Paper and — in an attempt to knock the dust off of my brain for grad school — Introduction to Microeconomics. My parents send me magazines, everything from Sports Illustrated to Esquire to The Economist. I was the subject of considerable friendly ridicule from my soldiers for reading The Economist by a flight line waiting for a transport helicopter.

In our downtime we write e-mails home, a couple of my soldiers play the guitar, and we work out in the small makeshift gym built here at our combat outpost. In my free time, I mostly read and listen to music, and in the past few days, I have had the pleasure to answer questions from NPR listeners. Keep 'em coming.

Question Three: Seeking Advice for a Son

Hello Capt. Rawlings,

I hope you are well. I would like to take a minute to thank you for your service to this country and to others. ... I have a 13-year-old son who since I can remember has wanted to join the military. I try and be supportive, but like many mothers worry that I will lose my son to war. ... What advice or words would you offer to help my son understand it's not the glorified job that the ads on the Internet and TV make it seem and that the money they offer to these kids comes with a price? ... Thank you for taking my question and hope you are safe and well.

--Julie Camell

Dear Ms. Camell,

First, thank you so much for your question and for your well wishes. It means a lot to the soldiers here that folks back home are thinking about us. Your question is a very interesting and difficult one, especially in the current conflict, which nearly guarantees that service members in the near future will experience a combat deployment. ... I have spoken at length with my own mother about how she felt, not only when I joined ROTC, but when she had to say goodbye to me at the Austin, Texas, airport when I left for the war the first time. I remember that both of my parents cried and my mother simply said, "You're my only baby boy," before squeezing the breath out of me and boarding a plane. I was reminded that to a mother or a father, no matter how old we get or what we do, we will always be your little ones, and this inspired me to do everything in my power to take care of my soldiers, because they are someone's children too.

I would tell your son that the military is a wonderful experience, and that he will have amazing days and horrible days; he will meet and become near brothers with some unique and incredibly fascinating people. As a platoon leader in combat I experienced some of the most exhilarating and exciting moments that life affords. I had the privilege to watch amazing young men grow up before my very eyes, shake off tragedy and step up to lead their fellow soldiers through the worst of times. During that year, I also experienced some of the deepest tragedies I could ever imagine including the loss of some dear friends. It was not until I returned home that I realized that at age 25, I had experienced the true heights and depths of the human condition.

Question Four: Soldier vs. Person

Dear Capt. Rawlings,

How do you perceive what it is you are doing in Iraq first as a soldier and second as a person? Do you see any difference in what you understand to be the U.S. government's goal in Iraq versus the military's goal in operations in Iraq? Take care and God bless!

-- Carol Walkup

Dear Ms. Walkup,

Thank you very much for your question. I think every day about what we are doing here and often I think about it as a person first and a soldier second. It is never easy to assess past actions and potential future actions when violence is a large component of the equation, and that is when I find it helpful to look at it as a person first. I do believe in what we are doing here, and there have been vast improvements since my first tour. I met Gen. Petraeus early in this tour when he spoke to a training class, and he emphasized that the gains of the past year are incredibly fragile, and that we are still needed here.

Last tour, when I was a platoon leader, I concentrated on my area and my men and how best to keep them safe while accomplishing our missions. In my role as a tactical adviser to an Iraqi battalion, I have studied the conflict in a much broader sense to identify patterns that will be helpful in my counsel to the Iraqi officers I advise. I had no idea as a young lieutenant how complicated the situation here really is, and I discover new information that blows my mind on a daily basis. From what I have seen, the goals of the military go hand-in-hand with the goals of the government, because in order to empower local leaders, we have to provide the people with security. I was on a night patrol in March 2006 when the Golden Mosque was bombed and all hell proceeded to break loose. That was the beginning of the most recent sectarian war, and the surge was designed to try and bring that situation under control.

Questions and answers edited for brevity and clarity.

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