War has taken soldier from misery and despair to pride and purpose
BY CHRIS VAUGHN
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
Capt. Jay McGee is on the tail end of his third deployment in Iraq.
But it feels more like his third war in what seems like his third country.
He had a firsthand look at the strike on Baghdad in spring 2003 when so many Americans and Iraqis thought the triumph would last, and he served two years later during the rise of the insurgency, when casualties passed 2,000 and there was a growing perception that Iraq was falling into chaos.
And now McGee, having matured from a fresh-out-of-West Point second lieutenant to a 29-year-old seasoned captain, has been a witness to the remarkable turnaround in Ramadi from an infamous, violence-racked hellhole to one of Iraq's most peaceful cities.
"The difference between 2005 and 2007, it's a complete 180," said McGee, of Fort Worth. "What I've seen is that morale during this deployment has been high. The soldiers realize what is happening here. It's a big deal. This, by far, is the most fulfilling of the three."
McGee and Iraq are more linked than either might have foreseen five years ago when the United States invaded. For many soldiers who have been repeatedly deployed, it is a complex relationship forged over several years and involving a psychological cocktail of fear, discouragement, optimism, shared misery and devotion.
Iraq nearly ended McGee's Army career, but in the end, Iraq convinced him to stay.
"He's been much better this deployment; I can tell when I talk to him," his mother, June McGee, said. "The first one, I think he was in shock. The second time, it was the worst. His whole attitude this time is different. Iraq has helped him to become a realist. He used to be too idealistic."
Men like McGee didn't start the war in Iraq, the wisdom of which is still not a settled topic in most American homes, nor do they have much of a say in how it is conducted.
But it is they who bear the burdens most personally.
McGee is scheduled to finish up his current tour in a month or so, having knocked down 15 consecutive months on this deployment. Since early 2003, he has lived 34 months in Kuwait or Iraq. In other words, a healthy chunk of his 20s.
But you'll get no second thoughts from him on that score. He extended his time in the Army last year, taking a big cash bonus that the Army hoped would entice captains to stick around despite the hardships.
McGee said the money was not his motivation.
"What would I really have been doing if I hadn't been here?" he asked. "I would have had a lot more fun, without a doubt. But where would that leave me? I'm a lot prouder of what has gone on here. I understand that it's pain upfront, and I missed those years, and I'll never get them back. So be it. I signed up for it."
Peace and quiet
It is well past 11 p.m. in Iraq, and McGee is still talking rapidly, essentially providing an intelligence brief over the phone, minus the Power Point slides so essential for commanders.
His job, as the intelligence officer for Lt. Col. Michael Silverman, commander of 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, is to know everything happening in the area of Ramadi, a Sunni city and Baathist stronghold about 70 miles west of Baghdad.
"I have the responsibility to interpret the battlefield and to understand our enemy at every level," he said. "I read hundreds of reports and assessments daily, and I frame all of that to my commander so that he can make an informed decision on what we need to do. In short, I try to make sense of what is happening."
That responsibility, which can be as frustrating as it is exhilarating in a socially and historically complex environment like Iraq, keeps him up until 3 a.m. most days.
"After midnight, it's quieter, and I can get a lot of thought done," he said.
It is that quiet that McGee feels most acutely and responds to most proudly.
Ramadi, for the past year, is what was once thought impossible by any soldier or Marine who ever served in that shooting gallery -- peaceful.
It is the first time that McGee has seen that success is possible, tangible, maybe long-lasting.
When he earned his commission in 2002, five years after graduating as valedictorian of Southwest High School, McGee got fast-tracked to war.
He was ready. He wanted to attend West Point in large part because of his grandfather, an Army officer who lost an arm and earned a Silver Star for valor in the Philippines during World War II.
He reported for duty with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., and within two weeks was bound for the Middle East and the impending invasion of Iraq. Because of a shortage of intelligence officers, McGee was forced into the role of providing intelligence to the commanding general during the strike toward Baghdad.
"He was doing things that it normally takes an officer years to understand," Maj. Mike Ramirez said back in 2003.
McGee returned to Iraq in January 2005 and spent 12 months in the Tikrit and Samarra area as the insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq became more active, U.S. casualties escalated and the country started to descend into what appeared to be a hellish chaos.
He describes it delicately as "not a remarkable year" and hugely unfulfilling.
"We were very enemy-focused in 2005," he said. "We were very big on tactics. We weren't paying a lot of attention to operations and strategy. We had kind of a brute understanding of the types of insurgency groups, and we did not have the same understanding of cause and effect. Nor did we have a strong grasp of understanding the Iraqi people.
"Where we started and where we ended felt like the same place. We didn't seem to have a strategic impact."
McGee even told his family he was done with the Army. As soon as his five-year commitment was up, he would be gone. "It was pretty miserable for him," his mother said. "He likes to feel like he's accomplishing something."
'The turning point'
When McGee's battalion arrived in Ramadi in January 2007 for his third deployment, U.S. and Iraqi troops faced 20 to 40 attacks a day, car and roadside bombs went off daily and snipers made patrols mortally hazardous -- a consistent level of attacks that only a well-funded and organized enemy could sustain.
Ramadi was, McGee said, a "cesspool of insurgents," almost all of them associated with al Qaeda in Iraq. There was virtually no commerce, no markets open, no one willing to cooperate with the Americans out of fear of al Qaeda.
But the Americans' change in strategy to "clear and hold" neighborhoods came at the same time that the Iraqis' hatred for al Qaeda in Iraq peaked.
As McGee tells it, the Baathist nationalists fought and killed U.S. troops in the early years of the war, only to turn on al Qaeda in Iraq because of the killing, extortion and persecution of hugely influential tribal leaders.
Together, they started to make a difference in moving out al Qaeda's fighters -- the Americans and Iraqi police by staying in the neighborhoods and the Iraqi citizens by cooperating with them.
"We went from 20 to 40 attacks a day to now zero to one attack a week," McGee said. "It's truly amazing."
He keeps going, emboldened in his assessment.
"Ramadi is going to be in years to come seen as the turning point in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq," he said. "Certainly there are a lot of variables, but one thing is clear: [Al Qaeda in Iraq] will never achieve its strategic objective of imparting an Islamic state of Iraq. It cannot do that."
Whether the peace will last even McGee cannot know. His brigade commander, Col. John Charlton, was quoted recently as saying that al Qaeda has consistently amazed him "at their ability to adapt and find new vulnerabilities."
When McGee returns to the U.S. in April, he will take some time off to attend the wedding of his younger sister, Tara, at the family's longtime church, University Christian.
He hasn't been to Fort Worth since Thanksgiving 2006.
He will, at least for a while, probably get out of the Iraq rotation. He has to take an advanced course to get promoted, and he would like to attend graduate school.
The business world holds no interest for him, even if it might bring stability. (He's still single and at one point asked whether anyone knew of any "single, attractive, smart women.")
"This is very rewarding in the deepest sense," he said. "Forty years from now, I can say: 'Wow, I was really part of something. My life has not been in vain. I did not sell prescription medicine or sell a bunch of widgets so my company makes more money.' That just doesn't do it for me.
"But right now I'm still focused on what's going on here. I don't know what the future holds."
He has served in Iraq long enough now that when he speaks of what is next for him, where he hopes to go, what he hopes to do, he ends with something else Iraq taught him.
"Inshallah," he says. "God willing."