Their experience with the Americans has been nothing like what Saddam had taught them all those years. Instead, Iraqis found out that most Americans are very courteous, kind, and respectful.
My new friend had already worked with the Americans here for a year or two before I got to this operating base, and he had made some very good friends of them in that time, so it wasn’t difficult for him to strike up a friendship with me. I was sad to be leaving friends behind that I had made at my previous operating base, but in retrospect, I’m glad I came here, because of a friendship I would have missed.
On one of the first days I arrived here, I went to the gym to work out. As I was sitting at one of the bench machines, I began to notice and observe a very dignified Iraqi gentleman who was working there. I felt strongly impressed to go speak to him. In nothing flat we had each made a new friend. I tried out some of my Arabic on him, and he was very impressed.
Over the next few weeks I would see him at the gym nearly every day. Part of my regimen was a half hour discussion with him of new vocabulary. We both began to look forward eagerly to these mutual education sessions. I became his English teacher and he became my Arabic teacher. It was soon clear that his English was better than my Arabic, so most of our discussion was in English, but he was very patient with me and very approving when I would understand and be able to use a new word, phrase, or concept in his native tongue.
My friend’s son is in college, and he had always wanted a computer. Being that I had stayed within my personal spending budget for several months straight, I was able to purchase a refurbished laptop for his son, for which he was profusely grateful.
We learned a lot about each others’ backgrounds, families, and religions over the next several weeks. I gave him my address, phone number, and e-mail so that he could contact me in the United States. He said that maybe his son would try to come to America to further his education, and I made it clear that he or any of his family that visited America would be always welcome in my home.
Knowing that I will soon be going back to the United States, my friend braved the somewhat dangerous roads to Baghdad in order to purchase me a dishdasha (a type of traditional robe worn by men), a yashmagh (headscarf) and khal (a sort of coil that holds the yashmagh in place). It is very nice and something that I will always treasure. Of all he gifts I have ever received, this one has perhaps the most meaning.
But what I treasure most is what he said during our discussion as he gave me my gift. He told me that Saddam had always taught the Iraqi people that Americans were mean and vicious and that they were to be feared. In Saddam’s public pronouncements, in the newspapers, and in the public schools, this became the party line. ‘So when the Americans first came to Iraq, we were afraid of what you would be like. But it was not what I had expected. We have found that you Americans are very kind and very generous and we are grateful that you are here to help us fix our country after all the problems of Saddam.’
It has not been what I had expected either. Just like anything you have never experienced is hard to imagine, Iraq has been much more than I expected. I’m glad that I have been here. I’m glad that I could serve. I’m glad that I have been able to make some very special friends.