Soldier recalls Iraq

Publicized attacks tough for family

Near the end of the summer, when school and fall and football were just getting started in Moffat County, Sgt. Chris Craig of the Army's Third Armored Cavalry Regiment manned the controls of a 120 millimeter smooth-bore cannon while he and his tank crew rolled across the sands of Iraq, coming to the rescue of U.S. troops caught in ambushes west of Baghdad.

The attacks were well publicized.

Craig's family saw his tank on their computer screen while they watched a report on the Internet. They noticed a tank with markings on the side that could only mean it was Chris'. And they saw the fireball from a gutted personnel carrier, a victim in the act that prompted the U.S.'s retaliation.

The response was swift, Craig remembers.

"Two tanks were in front of me. We rolled by the burning vehicle, and the next thing I know, I hear 'RPG' coming over the net. Then they opened up with small arms fire from both sides of the street," Craig said.

After firing several rounds from his main gun, Craig and the others who responded had the situation under control. But throughout August and September, Craig recalls a series of battles.

"August and September were the main, I guess key, firefights," Craig said.

And while the "western corridor" of Iraq had been quiet during the war, urban warfare became common in the cities of Khaldiya and Fallujah, where Craig was stationed. The cities lie about 30 miles west of Baghdad. Craig and his platoon guarded an airfield between the two cities. They were called to help engineering units or reservists who came under fire while they established supply lines.

The danger came from rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank mines, "improvised explosive devices," and machine-gun fire.

In one of the most frightening moments, Craig's tank was heading into another firefight only days after fighting insurgents in the same place. Only 150 meters from the fighting, Craig's tank stopped moving. Another tank came to its assistance, but the soldiers had to leave the safety of the tank to hook up the towing mechanism. Those moments outside the tank were terrifying, Craig recalled.

Fortunately, no shots were fired in his direction. And since the guns still worked, Craig's tank was towed into the fight to help with firepower.

When he wasn't sitting as a tank gunner, he helped guard ammunition stocks, a chemical plant and an airfield. He slept in tents, bombed-out airport towers, damaged barracks and hangars.

Writing letters and sleeping were top activities for the soldiers. Portable DVD players also were popular during the downtime.

But the soldiers weren't aware of developments in other areas of Iraq. Sometimes, Craig heard news three days after key events. Sometimes he didn't hear anything. The soldiers don't really discuss politics, he said, because they have a job to do.

"Those people that say they don't support the war but they support the troops aren't supporting us in my opinion," Craig said. "Whether they like it or not, we're still protecting, in my eyes, the ground a lot of these people so freely walk on and take for granted."

His mother, Patti, has trouble hearing the criticism because her son was in the middle of it.

"People say we shouldn't be over there, and maybe we shouldn't. But when you've got one over there, you have to support what they're doing," Patti Craig said.

Patti Craig said she avoided the news during the war because it was too upsetting.

"You'd hear things via friends, but I wasn't watching (the news). And you'd be okay. You could go day to day. And the days that he called were the best days you ever had. You cried afterwards, but at least you knew that he was okay," Patti Craig said.

He was in Iraq for nearly a month before he made his first phone call. Then in August, his platoon got access to a satellite phone, which was expensive. But it allowed him to make weekly calls home. He said he had to rotate between calling his mother and his wife, Hilary.

After spending seven months in Iraq, the news still is difficult to watch for Chris Craig. He said he feels helpless now that he's so far from his comrades and their cause.

"I hate watching the news now. I really do," Chris Craig said. "I don't know which is harder, being here or being over there. I think it's harder being here. At least when you're over there you feel like you're doing something. At times I wish I was still there. Sometimes I want to go back."

He still finds himself waiting for the army to release the names of the latest casualties after hearing of battles his friends have fought.

But Chris Craig's days in combat appear to be over. In October he reenlisted for the third time. He was assured a non-deployable post at Fort Knox, Ky., where he hopes to train the army's newest recruits everything he knows about the Abrams tank.

And he wants to start a family. His more than five years in the army as part of a combat regiment left him little time at home. The "uptempo" of training and constantly being ready for battle required him to travel considerably.

Soon after basic training, he went to South Korea for a year. After two months at home, he was called to Bosnia for a six-month rotation.

With a growing reserve of cash for college and the hope of a non-deployable post, Chris Craig talks of settling down. He said he's not a career army man.

"I'm tired of being gone -- tired of being away from my family," Chris Craig said. "The first year me and my wife were married, I spent two months with her. It's been hard on both of us."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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