Soldiers' Stories Statement
Former Specialist Andrew Gaghagen, B Troop, 1-167 Cavalry Regiment, Nebraska Army National Guard, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with father, Mark and friend, Jason; Lincoln, NE, October 2010
48”x 48” Chromogenic Color Print

We did convoys and patrolled the villages around our base, LSA Anaconda near Balad, and through Baghdad. A lot of it was just presence patrols to let the locals know we were available to help them. I enjoyed the CMO [civil military operations] missions because you actually got to interact with people.

When you first get there though, you've been trained to distrust the locals, so soldiers would often treat them badly. I never did that. In an effort to learn more about their culture and customs, I started talking to the interpreters on base, and out on patrols, I would talk to the locals–they’re just regular people, like you and me. The deployment was a chance to see a new country and it is actually a very cool country.

I also liked interacting with the children. Since I was a gunner, I was on top of the Humvee. They would run up to the vehicle and beg. I always had a bag of candy as a means of crowd control. It felt like we were on parade when we would roll through the towns and I would throw candy to the kids. I loved that.

At the end of our tour, our mission changed to one of base security. We were assigned to guard the south gate of the base, where locals would come seeking medical attention. A lot of times it was nothing, but sometimes we received wounded kids and they always seemed to be burned. It was terrible.

One night, a father brought his son to the gate. The boy was already dead, but we didn’t know it. I was at the checkpoint, we opened the gate, let them in, and called the medics. We rushed them to the hospital and didn’t think we’d hear anything of it again. Later that night, they brought the kid’s body back to the gate and told us that we were going to have to escort the body back to the village. This kid had been killed in what they said was a U.S. mortar attack, in a notoriously unfriendly village. At this point in our tour, we had already handed most of our gear in and what we were left with was second-rate hand-me- downs. We had Humvees with insufficient armor and limited night vision equipment. We didn’t think we’d be going outside the wire again.

The way the Humvee is set up, there are two seats in the front, two seats in the back and I stand in the middle. Standing in the turret, I watched two soldiers carry a body bag toward my vehicle, open the back door, and slide it in right under my legs. I had to straddle the body while we were going out. It wasn't easy to have a child's corpse between my legs and do my job. When we pulled into the village, they told us to drop the body off at the sheik’s house. Everybody in the village was yelling and crying–they were mad, they blamed us for the death of the child. We got the body unloaded and handed off without incident but it was still tense.

I think about the kids a lot, both the injured kids and all the kids who would come out to see us. I always wondered what they were thinking of us, and years from now, how they will remember us.

My buddy had a kid while I was over there and she’s about three years old now. I go with them to the park occasionally and I see how the kids here play and I remember how the kids over there played. Nobody here would let their kids go anywhere near the stuff that the Iraqi kids play with. If I was in uniform at the park here, none of the kids would give me a second glance. In Iraq, though, it was a big deal to see American soldiers–they all came running up to me, mostly for candy.

At the time of the photograph, Andrew Gaghagen was earning a degree in non-destructive technology at Southeast Community College.

This text was transcribed and edited from interviews conducted by Jennifer Karady in July and October 2010.

© Jennifer Karady 2016, all rights reserved.