He passed through the dark and empty Iraqi desert knowing that he might never be able to return to his homeland. The soldier, known as Spec. Joseph in Iraq, asked that his full name not be used to protect his mother, father and brothers in Baghdad.
His tumultuous journey from Iraq to the United States and then back to Iraq traces the story of America’s long, difficult and largely unresolved involvement in the country. Before Joseph became a soldier in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, he spent six years working as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the bloodiest days of the Iraq war.
His close association with the Army put his life in danger and forced him to start over again in the United States in 2009. He returned to Iraq as an American soldier in early 2011 because he missed being part of the struggle for his country’s future.
Today Joseph views the conflict through both an American and Iraqi perspective that mixes pride in what has been accomplished with deep worry about the future. “As far as heavy combat, this war was over a long time ago for the U.S. Army,” said Joseph as he packed up his final belongings. “But the conflict is still happening for Iraqis and will continue for a very long time.”
Joseph’s parents know that he moved to the United States in May 2009, but he never told them that he joined the U.S. Army. They have no idea that he was recently in Iraq. “I lie to my family a lot,” Joseph said. “I have no choice. There are things that my family doesn’t need to know. If anything happened to them, I would never forgive myself.”
Except for a slight Iraqi accent, Joseph is almost indistinguishable from the other American soldiers. He has the same closely cropped hair, the same bulging biceps and the same youthful confidence.
On the morning of his last day in Iraq, he hauled his duffel bags out to the armored vehicle that would ferry him the final 200 or so miles out of Iraq.
Pfc. Matt Vargas, 22, of San Diego was singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” as he stood at the vehicle’s back door.
“You ready to go home, Joseph?” he asked.
“Hell, yeah!” Joseph replied.
A few hours later, Joseph was exchanging text messages via cellphone with his older brother in Baghdad. Joseph asked how their mother was doing and mentioned that he had tried to call him a few days earlier but that his brother had not answered the phone. Joseph said that he missed everyone.
He gave no hint that he was in Iraq at Contingency Operating Base Adder, only a few hours’ drive south of Baghdad.
An intense curiosity
When Baghdad fell in April 2003, Joseph was a university student learning computer science. He was delighted that Saddam Hussein had been toppled. “I thought college would be so good and fun,” he said. “There were rumors that the Americans were going to turn Saddam’s palaces into universities.”