Saluting Our Veterans - Just Back from Iraq - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

11/10/06

Saluting Our Veterans - Just Back from Iraq

Leo Rachmel Leo Rachmel
Jimmy Lee Gonzales Jimmy Lee Gonzales

It's one thing to see them on patrol... in Baghdad... or the desert around Tikrit... but something completely different to see 'em around the house.

I caught up with Leo Rachmel, playing Mister Mom with his two kids in Hinesville. His wife's the one who's out of town this week, on business.

We first met in the Iraqi desert, around Tirkit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. In the middle of our patrol, he and another soldier took a long walk down a rectangular slash, thirty or forty feet deep in the ground. A well, but also a potential hiding place for problems. In an offhand remark to his partner, he had a frightening thought. Not of war or terror, but of what he told his wife. "You know what I just realized? My wife watches this channel. She doesn't even know I'm doing this."

I visited Jimmy Lee Gonzales and his wife getting ready for dinner in their Statesboro home. Setting the table, getting used to domestic life as a couple in the same time zone. We first met back in September, 2005, as Sergeant Gonzales briefed his soldiers for a patrol through Baghdad, along the Tigris, from rich neighborhood to poor. With that ancient river in the background, he summed up his experience with a remark I'll never forget, and the sense of humor you have to have to put your life on the line in Iraq these days. "Our job is pretty much like the cops back at home. Basically what we're doing, except for we got a little bit more escalation of force, and we get blown up a little bit more than they do."

Back home in Statesboro, on the sofa, wife by his side, he remembers as well. "When I look back and think of it, I think about how crazy it was. 'Cause, you do get blown up more. A lot of people hit IED's all the time. I reflect back on it now, and it just, so many close calls, it just, it could have happened to me, it could of happened to anybody. It's amazing that it didn't. I'm thankful for that."

Iraq is never far from his mind. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about it. Stuff on the streets reminds me of Iraq. Sometimes vehicles, vehicles driving too close to me. Sometimes that bothers me. Sometimes it don't. It depends on the mood, you know, what I'm feeling at the time."

Sergeant First Class Rachmel remembers the people. In the first hours of our patrol around Tikrit we stopped at the train station. Not some big building from the movies with dozens of tracks coming and going. A small building, no bigger than office space in an American strip Mall. Rachmel's greeting to the three or four Iraqi guards had me wondering. "A salaam alakum. Shokran. Ali Baba? No Ali Baba. No Ali Baba. Where is he?"

"Ali Baba" is the shorthand they used to describe troublemakers. Terrorists. Foreign fighters, anyone the guards had trouble with and needed to warn the Americans about. "They become very good friends after a while. They would support us, we would support them. The people there are great. We talked about that before, it's just such a great mindset, the people are very supportive of the U-S, there's always the bad element, and there's always going to be the terrorist and they're mostly the people from outside the country. But within the country, the actual Iraqi people and the people in the province are just wonderful people. They're very nice, fun to be around."

Gonzales remembers the kids. Part of the patrol was looking for trouble. Graffiti on bridges and overpasses. Signs of explosives or unusual gatherings. But the other part was all about fun and friends. We pulled into a neighborhood wedged between a major, interstate style highway and a military base. Caretaker Village looked poor, but proud. Dirt paths, overgrown with trees and bushes, small houses hidden among the shrubbery. Dogs and chickens sounding the alarm as we walked. Surrounded by kids, clamoring for candy and toys and the ultimate prize, soccer balls. Gonzales looked like a soldier Santa, a bag full of soccer balls slung over his shoulder. The kids mobbed him. Soon an older child took charge, leading the way to the houses that had children, knocking on doors, making introductions, helping dole out the gifts. In another, rougher neighborhood the kids were even wilder, pushing and shoving, battling for the prizes. At one point Gonzales held the last remaining soccer ball high over his head, the crowd jumping, reaching, and squealing. He mugged for the camera, only half joking, and "You see what I gotta go through?"

But now, in his own neighborhood, he thinks about what they're going through. "I wonder how the kids that I knew over there, personally, that I knew on a one on one basis. I wonder how they're doing nowadays, and you can't really get worried about that. The kids there live in so much poverty, and they don't know any better. They don't know the life that we live over here, and I feel kind of spoiled that I was able to live here in America and be raised here in America and these kids are over there starving, and don't get to, you know, bathe daily. I just wish the American people know that when we're out there, we're actually helping them. We're not there for destruction or anything. We're there to help them. And if I had fondest memories of Iraq, that would be it, the children."

For good reason. He's about to get a promotion from sergeant... to father. I don't think his wife, Heather, could smile any broader or her eyes shine any brighter. "He's always loved kids. So when I saw the video, it was amazing, 'cause it was his side that I don't ever see, while he's in uniform. It's that softer side, so it was really great to see that, and he's just always loved kids. So now that we're having one of our own, he's ecstatic. Which is nice."

Leo Rachmel returned to his waiting family. They missed him a lot. Son Jacob, treasuring time on the couch, watching the Braves, a platter of hot wings to share with dad. The contact kept him going. "It's just kind of tough, but when you get a letter or get to talk to him, it's really happy."

His teenage daughter Hailey says the same, except for the Braves part. She missed just the quality time, and trips to Savannah. She has a pretty mature view of the situation.

"I've also realized that all the news doesn't portray Iraq as normal, like when my dad tells stories, I get like an American feel to it, like, normal families, but most of the news just shows all the bad stuff. And I like seeing all the good stuff about all the kids running around, with soccer balls and stuff. That's fun."

 Reported by: Mike Manhatton, mmanhatton@wtoc.com

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