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The war's human side

The blood and burns. The families and fears. The honor and pride. Five MacDill-based airmen wanted you to know how they feel about their time in Iraq. "They really want to get out their perspective."

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published March 19, 2006


TAMPA - With blond hair, good looks and an engaging speaking style, Senior Airman Harry Corkill is a walking poster boy for the military.

Corkill, 25, professes love of country and the uniform. Last month he re-enlisted in the Air Force for four more years.

After an eight-month tour in Iraq last year, the self-described country boy from Nevada is ready to go back. "I just feel that I'm contributing in what I believe in, and what is right for this country."

As the war reaches the three-year mark today, Iraq teeters on the brink of civil war.

At home, mounting U.S. casualties and daily television images of bombings and widespread killings have taken a toll on President Bush, with his popularity numbers plummeting.

At MacDill Air Force Base, which is playing a central role in the war in Iraq, Corkill and others who have served there continue to rally behind the war effort. Their mantra: The fight is just and democracy is taking root.

But they admit it's no cakewalk.

"You go over there and you're at the top of your game," says Master Sgt. Nancy Peck, 45, a medic. "But there's a human side. The blood, the burns - you can't train for that."

* * *

Corkill and Peck and three other members of the Air Force recently sat down with the St. Petersburg Times at MacDill to talk about the war in Iraq and the global war on terror.

Even in that small group, they mirrored a cross-section of America. Corkill is single, and Peck is married with two teenage girls.

One airman narrowly escaped death. Another shuttled terrorist suspects and delivered mail to the far corners of Iraq. And another helped run humanitarian missions in the Horn of Africa.

Over lunch in a private conference room, base commander Col. Maggie Woodward said she coordinated the interviews with the airmen because reporters always ask to talk to her.

"They really want to get out their perspective," said Woodward, who sat directly across from her charges. "There is no party line here."

Indeed, even with her there, the airmen spoke frankly about the fear of going to war and the difficulty of coming home.

Senior Airman Clifton Taylor, who is married with two young daughters, provided security for air cargo across Iraq. Sometimes they landed in places with no air base, just a barren landing strip.

Taylor, 28, of Tunica, Miss., said they ran missions to keep convoys off the road in places "where security was not so great."

"My first mission was at night," Taylor said.

"It was extreme fear."

The nearly two-hour conversation produced laughter and the occasional tear.

At one point a reporter teased that Woodward must have paid them because of their answers. ("I love the Air Force," Corkill said.)

But Corkill choked up when he recounted how fellow Senior Airman Joseph Mitchner, 25, took a direct hit from an improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb. The two men sat next to each other during the interview.

"When it happens to your best buddy," Corkill said, "it puts you in check."

Mitchner was not hurt.

* * *

With national polls showing waning support for the war, the White House and the Pentagon have launched a public relations offensive.

In recent speeches, President Bush has acknowledged grim developments in Iraq. He also has pointed to "real progress" in standing up Iraqi forces capable of defending their nation.

Last week the president for the first time vowed to turn over most of the country to newly trained Iraqi troops by December. He made no commitments about withdrawing U.S. troops, but repeated that Americans could come home as Iraqis take over the fight.

At MacDill-based Central Command, Col. Glen Gullekson, chief of current operations, also cited progress. CentCom runs the war in Iraq.

Gullekson, who has served in the region on and off since the Gulf War in 1991, pointed to free elections in Iraq and the return of commerce. He also echoed the president, saying Iraqi security forces are taking over larger areas of Iraq.

"You're starting to see a country that's starting to come back to life," he said.

How does he explain the violence, such as the discovery last week of scores of bodies in Iraq, and the threat of civil war?

"The situation is very tense, very tense," Gullekson said. "The key here is for Iraqis to take over security."

Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, agreed. He thinks the United States needs international support to successfully train Iraqi forces and bridge the gap between disparate interests in Iraq.

"It is very difficult for the United States now because there is the potential for Iraqi civil war," he said. "What makes it more difficult is that the United States has pursued the war alone, without insisting on this being the world's responsibility."

* * *

For American forces on the ground, serving in Iraq is a badge of honor.

Corkill says it's his way of giving back. He owes his life to the Air Force because it has given him discipline and a work ethic - "everything I didn't have before I joined the military."

In Iraq, Corkill served at Balad Air Base, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, helping to secure convoys of as many as 30 to 40 trailers transporting equipment, food and water. It would take 12 hours to drive 55 miles because of the danger of improvised explosive devices he said.

"The road is so hot," is the way he put it.

The military says insurgents keep making stronger roadside bombs, considered the biggest threat to coalition forces.

On the road, Corkill said: "You get a little nervous. You get that feeling inside."

Mitchner, who also worked convoy security out of Balad, knows the same feeling.

One night, on the way back to base, his unit was about 8 miles out when the armored Humvee Mitchner was driving ran over a roadside bomb.

"I just remember seeing a flash of red - and then just, boom!" he said.

Oil was everywhere, he said. The bomb blew the tires off the vehicle.

Mitchner, who is married and is a native of Washington, D.C., was disoriented but said his training kicked in. He checked himself to make sure he was all right, and then he checked on his buddies.

Remarkably, nobody was injured.

Mitchner found it especially rewarding when U.S. forces conducted humanitarian missions and out of nowhere, children appeared for books and water.

"It's not all bad like you see in the news," he said.

* * *

Peck, of Sarasota, has served in the military more than 20 years. In late 2004, she got tapped to lead a team of 42 medics at Balad.

Her first reaction to her deployment was fear, followed by excitement. "It doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat," she said. "You just do it because it's the right thing to do."

From the beginning, her deployment was dicey.

"We were fired upon right as we were landing," Peck said. "That was our welcome to Balad."

They worked 16-hour days, Peck said.

At Balad, they picked up patients who were dropped off by helicopter, stabilized them at a makeshift hospital and shipped them to Germany.

Peck said soldiers with missing limbs and other injuries were grateful to be offered a shower and a pillow. Even then she said their dedication to the mission was astounding. "They can't wait to get back to the fight," she said.

Capt. Danny Cooper, 30, a base spokesman, also served abroad, but in the Horn of Africa. The deployment was part of the overall global war on terror.

MacDill says the mission in the Horn of Africa "is focused on detecting, disrupting and ultimately defeating transnational terrorist groups operating in the region - denying safe havens, external support and material assistance for terrorist activity."

One way to do that is through good will.

"You're fighting a war by winning the hearts and minds of the people in the area," Cooper said, and by letting "people know that terrorism is a bad thing, not only for America, but for the world."

The same strategy is in full swing in Iraq.

While deployed at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, Cooper, who is married, participated in seven school dedications and three water projects.

He also took part in a countrywide childhood polio vaccination program conducted by the World Health Organization and U.S., German, French and Djiboutian officials.

Cooper said he learned in Africa that human beings are human beings no matter the country, with parents seeking to protect their children. "A man is a man is a man. A woman is a woman is a woman," he said. "They want to be happy in life."

* * *

Sometimes the hardest part is simply coming home.

The military and the Department of Veterans Affairs offer several programs to help soldiers cope upon returning from Iraq, including counseling and support groups.

Peck said her homecoming was bittersweet. While she wanted to come back to her family, to see her husband and two teenage daughters, she felt torn leaving the injured behind.

Serving in Iraq, Peck says, has been the most rewarding thing she has done in her life - despite the fear, the gunfire, and the helicopters coming and going all day long.

Here, she oversees operations at the Primary Care Flight in Brandon, where they serve more than 9,300 retirees.

It is a bit of a letdown.

"You deal with blood and guts over there," Peck said, "and here you're taking a retiree's blood pressure."

She, like Corkill, would go back in a heartbeat.

Paul de la Garza can be reached at delagarza@sptimes.com or 813 226-3432.