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First Weekend Home

Surreal Comforts of Home in Iraq

Nate DiMeo

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Inside Camp Anaconda
(Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)
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Navy Petty Officer Leonard Neely is one of a growing number of sailors who are now being ordered to do tours of duty on the ground in Iraq. At his mother's house, squarely in the landing path of Los Angeles International Airport, Neely describes how he lost 14 months of his life.

He'd gotten back from Iraq a week before, and flew down from his home outside of Seattle to see his family. His brother suggested a trip to Disneyland.

"I figured it'd be a good place to take my son, even though I knew he was going to be young and not realize who Mickey Mouse is," Neely says. "I thought it would be good to have some pictures."

The sailor has become acutely aware of how time can slip away. Neeley didn't expect to have to lose a year -- that's part of why he joined the Navy, instead of another service, to stay away from places like Iraq.

Neeley joined up after graduating high school seven years ago. The first six of those years in the service went according to expectations: He was on a ship for four, and then got stationed on a base, all far from harm's way. The U.S. Navy, excluding the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, is usually parked somewhere offshore and out of the line of fire. When there's a war on, that's the kind of thing that gives a man, and his mother, and the mother of his own baby comfort.

"They told me Thanksgiving of 2006 you gotta leave January, going to Iraq for a year -- and when they told me, I had just had my son. He was barely six months. So that's not something you really want to hear," Neeley says.

In January of 2007 his girlfriend was unpacking boxes in a new -- and suddenly emptier apartment -- that the couple and their baby had just moved into. Neeley was on his first-ever 22-hour flight, sweating under 70 pounds of gear -- a helmet, a flak jacket... the sort of stuff you never wear on a Navy frigate.

"Before you even get to Iraq, you're already hating life, pretty much. You get there, you learn to drive Humvee, you're weapons training, that stuff... Basically, they send you to your room. The next day, you're out there doing what you're supposed to do."

For Neeley, that meant doing what he'd done at sea: He made sure a massive anti-rocket machine gun was ready to fire at incoming missiles or mortars. Now he had to do it in the sand, as one of a dozen sailors in a sea of soldiers at Camp Anaconda. The Army base has earned the nickname "Mortaritaville," and as soon as Neeley arrived it was clear why: Three or four times a day, a voice over a loudspeaker would send him to the floor.

"'Incoming, incoming! All hands take cover.' You don't see where the mortar's at, they're going so fast, they're so high. So you're just on the ground, you're thinking you hope it doesn't land on you, because our guns are there to shoot those things down," Neeley says. "So you're hoping that they don't land on you. You're also hoping that the guns work."

Because if the guns don't work, not only could people die, but Neeley could face a double or a triple or quadruple shift getting them back up. But those were the exception. "Working hours wasn't long for us, you know? It was only four days a week. For the most part we'd just do our maintenance, and the rest of the day we'd have to ourselves."

And at Camp Anaconda there's a lot to do with the rest of the day. "The base had a movie theater, a Burger King, a Taco Bell. There's the PX, the Iraqi bazaar, which had anything you want there -- gold, DVDs, sneakers, whatever."

But it got old, and soon Neeley's Iraq War experience slipped into monotony: Get up, go to work, eat, work out, play XBox, go to bed, repeat. Even the mortars got sort of boring. The whole time he was there, there was one injury from all of those attacks -- he says the Iraqis weren't accurate, and the guns he maintained were.

After a few months, he barely paid attention to the alarms. "Talk to my roommate all the time and say 'Remember when we first got here, we's always diving on the ground and stuff?' Now, we in our room and we hear the alarm we might turn the TV down."

Neeley never left the base, in 14 months. And between the XBox and the Taco Bell and the high-speed internet access right there in his room, the Iraq War for him started to feel like a strange sort of limbo: It had so much of the stuff of home, but was so not home. He would send an email to his girlfriend and if she happened to be online they could chat like normal.

"Sometimes, heh, we'd be online talking and I'd be like, 'Be right back, got to go out and go to one of the guns...' It was weird. It was more hard on her, 'cause it was just her and my son. And you know, of course she'd get lonely, and because of the time difference I wasn't able to be online at the same time."

In between trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, e-mailing about his bizarre life in the desert, her emails about a life he understands all too well... back at home, his own life seemed to be going on without him. In his other life in Iraq, the days bled into each other, and he says everything felt a little off.

"I didn't really think about time or anything until we got within like 10 weeks," Neeley says. "And then we started making a little countdown or what not -- which actually made the time go slower."

Fourteen months of get up, go to work, eat, work out, play XBox, go to sleep, maybe duck occasionally -- all that ended for Neely. He flew home to Seattle, this time on a commercial airliner, and his girlfriend picked him up at the airport. Neeley says it was great to see how his son had grown during the time he was in Iraq.

"When I left, he's like barely crawling -- now I get back, he's running all over the place," Neeley says. "But the good thing was, he still remembered who I was. Which was one of the things I was going to be worried about -- would he remember me or would he be weird around me? But he reacted pretty good to me, which was good."

And for he and his girlfriend, he says that was good too. Before he left, he went to briefings about how difficult the transition can be on couples. But Neeley says they've fallen right back into a good, familiar rhythm. They've been going to his favorite restaurants -- that first night, they went to Applebees. On Sunday, they went to IHOP like they normally do. They tried to go to his all-time-restaurant, Red Lobster, but it was closed. He said they'd go as soon as they got back from visiting family in Los Angeles.

Neeley says he's just happy to be home. He's proud of his service, but happy to put Iraq -- the defining conflict of his generation -- well behind him.

"Thinking back on the things I done in Iraq, it's not going to be thought of too much, really. Just going to be going about my normal daily life or whatever, taking care of my kids and just doing my job. Just try not to think about that stuff, Iraq, too much, because for the most part it did, you know, suck."

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Plants
    CD: Photosynthesis (Strange Attractors Audio)
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