Special to washingtonpost.com
Sunday, March 19, 2006 12:00 AM
Michael Gillis joined the National Guard about a year after graduating from high school in Everett, Wash. He was deployed to Iraq in March 2004 directly out of basic training. "My family always wanted me to join the military. My goal was to do something with my life, so I could look back and say I had done something."
Though Gillis said he was hoping he would be deployed to Iraq, his family had mixed feelings about it. "When I was in basic training, the war was a big deal. I was kind of hoping to go. My mom, she was shocked when she found out. My dad was proud. At the time, my girlfriend, before I left her, we got married. My family took it the best they could."
Once in Iraq, Gillis was unsure what to think of the Iraqis he encountered. "A lot of them seemed to be motivated to learn our language. They were very interested. I didn't know what to think of them. I had heard a lot about how they were all undercover Saddam people. But they're willing to learn. They wanted their country to be like ours. They want their country to be free. To have what they want, the freedom to exercise their own religion. To walk around their own town without worrying that someone will tell them they're doing something wrong. They wanted to have their farms and feed their wife and kids."
Being able to do his part in defending the country meant a lot to Gillis, he said. "Not everyone who is for the war gets to go over there and help. A lot of people want to help, but they don't all get the chance to do it. I got the chance to go over and do my piece of history."
However, knowing that he was doing an important job didn't keep him from missing his family. "That's the hardest part. Missing birthdays. Missing Christmas, missing Thanksgiving. That's the hardest part."
That and the heat, Gillis said. "I think the hottest day we recorded at the gate area was 140. That day actually boosted my morale because I knew that was the worst it was going to get. I can't do nothing about it. It's hot here, but [afterward] I get to go home and see my family and tell them I worked in 140 degree weather. People were home getting tans. I didn't have to try to do that. I just got one."
His experience in Iraq taught him to be more patient, Gillis said. "I don't get mad as easily. I used to get ticked off at things. I'm a happier person. I know my life over there is much harder than things here. There are a lot of people over there who have to worry about big things. Here, if a bill is going to be late, I can't get mad at it."
-- As told to Washington Post reporter Rosalind Helderman