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Back from Iraq

Oak Harbor native Brian King was supposed to be discharged from the Army in April. He had done his three-year stint, seen the world, did some good in Kosovo. He was ready to return to his fiance in Oregon and his family in Oak Harbor.

Instead he was sent to Iraq, and directly into the face of war.

A specialist, E-4, with the 101st Airborne Division, King spent the next five months “pulling security,” searching bombed out villages for remnants of resistance. His village-clearing duty took him from Kuwait in the south all the way across Iraq to the Turkish border.

The orders to deploy came so suddenly that King and his team from Fort Campbell didn’t have time to bone up on what to expect. After three weeks of training in Kuwait, King was still unprepared for what he would find in Iraq. The first shock was the scenery.

“I thought Iraq as a desert, but the first town had palm trees and rice paddies,” he said. “I wondered if this was Iraq or Vietnam.”

He was also unprepared for the devastations wrought on the southern town of An Najaf by the United States-led air and land assault in their sweep toward Baghdad.

“The first thing we saw was a stack of body bags,” he said. The bags contained the bodies of Iraqis killed in the battle, and were awaiting pick up and identification by relatives.

With the air and tank assault only hours old, the main street was lined with bombed out cars, some still on fire. King recalls seeing dead bodies hanging out of some of them, but his mind couldn’t grasp the reality of what he was seeing.

“I thought they were mannequins put there to fake us out,” he said. One whiff told him differently. “I’d never smelled a dead body before.”

King and his two team members didn’t have time to dwell on what they saw; they had a mission, and they stuck to it.

They were tasked to search every house and building for weapons and munitions stashes. Village by village, they met the natives by kicking down their doors.

“We had to knock first, and if no one answered we had to kick the doors down,” King said.

In Oak Harbor King lived for the martial art of Tae Kwon Do, and held a third-degree black belt. That training came in handy during his door-kicking march across Iraq.

The interiors of the homes were dark, with small windows to keep out the intense heat. King and his team would search the rooms with flashlights attached to their rifles, never sure of what they would find.

“We did that all day long,” he said.

Inside the homes they often found large, multi-generational families huddled together, awaiting their unknown fate, often with a smile.

“They’re so family-oriented it’s ridiculous,” he said. He also saw that the large families respected each other, and the children had a lot of responsibilities. They would cook, clean, gather water and do other chores before getting down to the childhood business of play.

King is from a large family, and he said he loves children. In Iraq, that could be a problem.

“In one village this little boy came riding up to us on a donkey,” King said. They had been told in training that anyone and anything could conceal a bomb, even children. With their rifles trained on the boy, they gestured repeatedly for him to leave. “We kept telling him to go away.” After a few tense moments the boy turned and rode away, but King said he didn’t sleep very well that night.

Nightmares plagued his sleep, maybe from the malaria medication, maybe from the stress of the mission. In one nightmare, strips of paper bearing biblical verses were shooting out of his fingertips. One in particular stood out: “I can do all thing through Christ, who strengthens me.”

While not a regular church-goer, King said he prayed constantly in Iraq.

“I prayed, ‘I need to know you are with me,’ ” he said.

Back home in Oak Harbor, his mother Tamia King was doing her share of praying as well.

Brian is her only son in four children, including his twin sister, Brynlee, older sister, Courtney, and younger sister, Kylee.

Tamia King is a civilian contractor at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and she asked her co-workers if there was some special exemption for only sons. They told her no, not in this war.

King felt horrible to imagine her son going to war when he was supposed be coming home.

“I knew he was torn, deep down he really wanted to go,” she said.

King’s unit, the “Widowmakers” of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd brigade, 101st Airborne, had an MSNBC journalist embedded with them, so Tamia King watched TV constantly, in hopes of catching a glimpse of her son.

“I tried to look at every face, but they all looked the same,” she said.

The battalion was also featured in magazines and the Army Times. From thousands of miles away the mother was able to keep a thin hold on her son.

King recalls one of the few times when a reporter let the troops use a cell phone to call home. He still chokes up with emotion remembering that moment. He tried to call his family here, but the area code wouldn’t go through. Instead he called his fiance, Lisa Hintermeyer in Forest Grove, Ore.

Emotions were a rare luxury in Iraq, but sometimes it got to be too much. King recalls one soldier who broke down after they were forced to fire on a group of teenage boys in Karbala who had weapons.

“He lost it,” King said. “He was puking all over the place.”

The northern town of Mosul marked the tensest time for King and his team. He recalls they were on the roof of the United Nations building following a supply drop, when brilliant flares lit up the sky. It was an Iraqi signal to attack, and they suddenly found themselves in the crossfire.

“There was massive gunfire,” King said. “We were on the rooftop and someone was shooting at us.”

His teammate Jose Hernandez was shot in the arm.

“He had a big bullet hole, and lots of little ones,” King said, dancing his fingertips across his bicep for emphasis. When the Quick Readiness Force arrived to take Hernandez away, King said the soldiers in the back of the Humvee just looked at them in shock. Adrenalin pumping, King picked up his teammate and swung him into the truck.

“He probably weighed 300 pounds with all his gear,” he said. Again, King’s physical training came in handy.

Even though the death toll keeps mounting in Iraq, with the bloodiest day yet on Sunday, King believes in the mission he was sent there to do: freeing the Iraqi people from a cruel and repressive dictator.

“When we got there we weren’t sure of our mission,” he said. “But people would cheer, hug us, and say thank you.”

King said reports of war protests were upsetting to the troops on the ground, and he doesn’t understand why the media “twist everything around.”

“It makes me mad when people protest,” he said. “You have to support it. People are dying over there for you.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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