Army Reserve Maj. Jennifer Snyder is counting the days until she returns home to Alexandria after a trying year with "boots on the ground" in Iraq. She spends her evenings packing boxes and dreaming about returning to a normal life -- one without combat boots, desert camouflage fatigues and the occasional boom of an exploding car bomb.
But unlike so many of the thousands of U.S. troops who have deployed to Baghdad since the war started nearly two years ago -- who have been out in the desert battling insurgents, securing polling sites and living in danger of the unexpected roadside explosion or suicide bomber -- Snyder's war has not been a shooting war.
She commands a public affairs detachment. Her war has been about words, images and selling the "command message," what President Bush calls the "good news" in Iraq that he has complained that the media don't cover.
And yet, with more than 2,000 Americans and an estimated 10 times as many Iraqis dead, constant assertions of faulty intelligence and criticism of U.S. postwar planning, a persistent insurgency and political rifts among the three ethnic groups that are to govern the country, putting the best face on the war in Iraq has been a difficult, if not near impossible, mission to fulfill.
Snyder has tried to remain positive. It's her job.
"I have friends here in other locations; one is infantry. Sometimes he asks me, 'Jennifer, is anything good happening, because my Humvees are attacked every day. Can you tell me anything good?' " she said in a cell phone interview from Baghdad. "I tell him yes. In eight months, we've gone through the elections, written a constitution. Ministers that we trained are actually doing their job."
Snyder, 37, commands the 214th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, based in Richmond. Her group's job in Baghdad is to help get reporters credentialed and "embedded" with the troops, work with the Arabic press, run news conferences, issue press releases, publish the internal newspaper the Scimitar and do photography, video and writing about what the troops are doing in the field.
"I see our mission as facilitating the media, ensuring we get [journalists] out to the story and hopefully not just the bad stories," she said. "It's harder to do, of course, and I don't think we're always the best at it. But we're getting more and more media out to Iraq and units that are doing good things. And, hopefully, we're getting the Iraqi Army and police to a point where [journalists] can have more interaction."
On the Web site her detachment runs (www.mnf-iraq.com), among press releases about the destruction of an al Qaeda meeting site and terrorists killed in Ramadi or detained in Tikrit are plugs for the 600 feet of PVC pipe that the 10th Mountain Division delivered to an Abu Ghraib neighborhood "to replace the rusted and leaking steel pipe in their current dilapidated water supply system."
Snyder herself is particularly interested in an Iraqi landfill that has just met U.S. EPA guidelines. "That's pretty incredible," she said. "But are [journalists] going to want it? Probably not, unless it's a really boring news day."
Her colleague Maj. Timothy Keefe, a Marine spokesman, admits to being more cynical about the focus of the media.
"I'm of the opinion that there is a lot of positive activity happening here that doesn't get out," he said. "We have 18 provinces in Iraq. Only four of those are really problematic. But the American public doesn't really hear about the 14 others.
"Maybe the stories aren't as exciting," he added. A story about an improvised explosive device "is certainly more exciting visually for a TV news program than a hospital opening up or revamping the sewage system," Keefe said.
The troops may indeed be carrying out their mission ably. But most polls show that the majority of Americans do not support that mission. In a recent CBS News poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed said the result of the war with Iraq wasn't worth the loss of American life. And more than half now think the United States should have stayed out of Iraq -- the highest number since the war began.
Anyone whose work is public affairs wants to see a positive story, said Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. But in Iraq, the overarching story now is about rebuilding Iraq, and insofar as the insurgency disrupts that process, the disruption is an important part of the story.
"With the Iraq story, there comes a point where I think good news is a story," Hess said. "But it's a story for the same reason that in most cases bad news is a story -- that it's exceptional."
On this subject, Snyder deferred. Commenting would mean not "staying in her lane" -- or talking only about her background and her mission -- which, as part of her job, she instructs other soldiers to do.
"You know, why we went in and the mistakes . . . I'd rather not talk about that," she said. "I don't think it was necessarily thought through. And I think it's silly when people say we're not going to be here for a long time. I think we will be. And that's Jennifer Snyder's opinion.
"I think we need to be honest and say, until we do the job and leave people in a secure environment, with a secure democracy, I don't think we should leave," she continued.
"Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Are we fighting an insurgency that will never go away? I'm a positive person. I've made a difference here. We've made a difference here."
An 'Obligation to Go'
Snyder joined the Army Reserve 20 years ago for the same reason that many others have joined the military -- it paid for a college education.
She was born in Detroit, the fifth of six children, but spent most of her childhood in southwestern Michigan.
She studied international relations at Michigan State University and drilled with a reserve unit there. During the summers, she went to whatever training was offered. She was enlisted for a time. When the Gulf War broke out in 1991, she was at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., training in military intelligence.
Most of her assignments since have been in civil affairs. She took over her current command in 2003, just a few months before war broke out.
"I knew when I took command of this unit that I would deploy; it was just a matter of when," she said. "So that was a hard decision to make."
It was her first deployment.
She came to Washington after college, she said, simply because it was the place she knew she always wanted to be. And after stints working in national health care and at the Chemical Manufacturers Association, she moved into her current position as a lobbyist on regulatory affairs for the Corn Refiners Association, finding time to get a master's degree in environmental management at the University of Maryland.
Unlike a number of other guard and reserve stories of stateside jobs and income lost while the service members are overseas, Snyder's employer has been "very supportive."
Her replacement signed a contract that he would leave once she returned. Bosses and co-workers have sent care packages. "The board of directors even signed the annual report and sent it to me in Iraq," she said.
In March 2003, she and her former husband, a civil affairs officer and engineer also in the military, took a vacation to Hawaii. They were glued to the TVs in the airport, watching the news with unease. They had both escaped deployment to Bosnia and Kosovo. This time, they knew one, maybe both would go.
"We drank a lot of margaritas that day," she said.
She remembers the day the war started. She went out and bought herself a gift: a gold toe ring, a really fancy one with silver bands and a little fish. "It was the most non-military thing I could think of. I've worn it ever since," she said. "I can't wear it with my heels, but it works fine with combat boots."
Over the next several months, Snyder juggled both her job -- organizing her troops for deployment -- and a heartbreaking divorce. She left for Baghdad in December.
"I have really bad knees. I could probably have gotten out of it, but I just felt the obligation to go," she said. "I felt I needed to do my duty. Everyone else has gone. It was my last year in the military, and I needed to do this."
Her ex-husband, who has not been deployed, has their cats. "Thankfully, we don't have children," she said. "I think leaving small children behind would be terrible."
Now, after nearly a year, she can hardly wait to get back to her family, scattered in Florida, Michigan and Alexandria. She sends them breezy e-mails about the flies, the sandstorms or of how Baghdad and its palm trees and clear winter skies at first reminded her of Florida.
"You kind of feel like you've been ripped out of your life for a year," she said.
When she had a break, she couldn't go home, she said. She had said goodbye to her family once, and that was hard enough.
When she returned to Iraq, her family wrote: "Now we have to start worrying about you again."
"I'm not a person who fears much. I feel if I thought I was going to die, I'd know it," she said. "I know that sounds strange and maybe things affect us more than we realize. When I get home, who knows how I'll react?"
With 20 years in the reserve now, she'll be retiring once she's home next month. Her war will be over.
Life in 'The Zone'
As she packs, she gives thanks that she did not lose any of the 20 soldiers under her command and that the only injuries any of them suffered were in a game of extreme kickball.
Snyder said she is most proud of the work she and her team did with Iraqi government ministries and their counterparts in the Iraqi army -- training them in public affairs to set up press conferences and to be more open to dealing with the media.
Snyder lives and works in the heavily fortified Baghdad bubble called the International Zone -- also known as the Green Zone. Every morning, she works out on the elliptical trainer, the bicycle and the free weights in the house she shares with other soldiers. Nights, she says, are like the movie "Groundhog Day," always the same. She watches movies, TV or reads light books -- anything to take her mind off where she is.
She became hooked on the television dramas "The OC" and "Desperate Housewives."
In the year she has been in Iraq, only a handful of times has Snyder ventured out of the secure International Zone -- a roughly three-square-mile area across the Tigris River from downtown Baghdad. And most of her information about life on the ground in Iraq has come from the local translators who risk their lives simply by coming to work each day.
"For us, we go home at night, we listen to music and read and watch movies and it's boring," she said. "We have a light at the end of the tunnel, we know we're only here for a year. But for them, they can't speak English on cell phones or live a normal life. That is very sad. I talk to people who don't have a lot of hope."
She caught herself and quickly switched to a positive mode, talking about one translator who had had no hope but was changed after the referendum. "He was so excited," she said.
"There is a lot of hope," she said, reversing herself. "It's going to take a while. You can't go from the Saddam age to a democracy overnight."
And then Maj. Jennifer Snyder, staying in her lane, hung up the phone and returned to packing her bags to come home.