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pvt josue reyes
You can't be pessimistic out here. You've got to be optimistic that things will get better, that someday this place will get better.

Why did you decide to join the Army?

I really don't know why. I just want to do something for other people, help them. This is a way of doing it. Some people may not see it that way, whether they know it or not. …

Who are you helping?

These people. I guess to them it may not look like it. To them it may look like we are just shooting up a bunch of people, but things are hard. You can't always do things easily. They need help in so many ways, learning how to do things for themselves. Now we are trying to speed that along, right now by just keeping bad people out. The people who don't want us here are the ones who messed things up before.

We are just trying to find some normality for them so if they want to work, go to school, etc., they can without someone coming in to tell them what to do. Now they can do whatever they want. They don't have to worry about soldiers coming into their house in the middle of the night and taking their dad away or having Saddam down the road doing whatever he wants.

Right now doesn't seem that great because we haven't been here that long. It will take a while.

So you are optimistic?

You can't be pessimistic out here. You've got to be optimistic that things will get better, that someday this place will get better.

photo of reyes

Pvt. Josue Reyes, from Denton, Texas, was sent to Iraq straight out of basic training. At 19, he is the youngest member of Dog Company. Here, he talks about the fog of combat. "You don't really think about people actually trying to kill you," he says. "You just do it. You see a guy running away and he has an RPG. It sounds kind of savage, but if you don't kill him, he will kill you." Reyes also discusses the impact of the death of a fellow soldier, and the anxiety of constantly worrying over whether the car he passes on the street is filled with explosives or whether the base will be hit by a mortar round. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 15, 2004.

Why doesn't it work now?

Because there are so many people who don't want us here because of who we are. It's kind of like your big brother coming into your room and saying you've got to clean your room: You know how to clean your room, and you want to do it yourself, but you don't want anyone coming in to tell you to do it.

Is it so dangerous that you've got to believe it to do it?

We find other things to believe in. Looking forward to the day you go home keeps you going.

How does it feel to be the youngest guy in the unit?

I know I'm young. I know how to do stuff. Guys look out for me, and I ask questions. I used to ask [Spc. Travis] Babbitt a lot of questions. He was a good guy.

Were you close to Babbitt?

Other people were closer, but he was definitely a friend. He was a good and funny guy. He would try to bully me a lot, but not make you scared. More playing around, more like a big brother, a good guy.

Were you there when he was shot?

I was in the third truck. I didn't see him get shot, no. I didn't know he got shot. I only heard when [Capt. Jason] Whiteley had peeled off when the firefight started. We didn't know anyone had got shot. We never thought he was hurt that bad.

What did you feel?

I didn't find out until later when we had to escort the [vehicle] hit by the RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]. When we got up there, somebody came up to us and ask if they got Babbitt. So [PFC Joseph] Creswell, [Staff Sgt. Cesar] Cruz went in, came back out, and said he was in there. One of the medics said he would check out his status. He came out and said Babbitt was gone. Right then the group got quiet. Everyone walked away into their own little place. I felt real bad, but really proud of him for what he had done.

What did you really feel?

I just felt really sad. Everybody feels really sad when you lose someone like that. Some people felt angry, but I just felt sad. You never think you are going to lose somebody; you always think they are going to be there. It didn't sink in, the thought that he was gone: Maybe they are wrong; it was a different guy, maybe a mix-up. Two days roll by, you realize he is not coming back. Really sad.

Every day I think about it. If I'm by myself, I just think about it.

Did you ever feel you had really big boots to fill?

Not really. I want to do everything for Babbitt now. I just feel everything we do, we do it because we lost somebody. Every time we engage, we think of him and wish he was with us. I just want to do everything perfect for Babbitt.

[Do you think about your own mortality?]

You don't really think about people actually trying to kill you. You just do it. You see a guy running away, and he has an RPG. It sounds kind of savage, but if you don't kill him, he will kill you.

You lose everything; you get numb. Out there, I don't remember feeling tired, hot, cold. I just remember shooting my rifle. I don't remember sounds, moving the truck into place. Afterwards my uniform was soaked in sweat. Then you start feeling really tired, feeling the bruises. You just do it, I guess.

When do you feel the fear?

I don't really feel fear. … I try not to think about it. More when I go out the gate, I feel anxious, nervous, but not fear. Everyone feels scared, especially when there is a car at the side of the road just sitting there. You have to go past it. There is a sense that that could be the car that blows up.

I feel more a sense of anger sometimes. You see an Iraqi just looking at you, and you wonder why is he looking at you. Is there anything else he could be doing other than looking at you? Or a car that won't get out of the way -- sometimes you just get angry and want to ram it off the road. Or when you're in traffic and cars don't want to move, so you get out and tell them to move. They don't understand, and sometimes you just want to wring their neck, just kick his ass because he doesn't want to move. …

Sometimes I sit here, and I wonder if a mortar round is going to come through these walls, or if I go to chow now or wait until after -- you never know if the mortar round will hit you or not if you wait five more minutes.

Sometimes you get breaks -- talking with guys, watching movies, calling home. That helps. You can't really let it take over you. You can't be scared all the time. You just have to deal with it. Everybody deals with it in their own way. It's just different how people react in different ways. You get used to it.

Do you see yourself as a tough guy?

Hell no, I don't see myself as a tough guy. Other people are tougher than me. I just do what I am told when I am told. Does that make me a tough guy? I don't care.

Do you ever think you can't do it?

There are always things I wonder if I can do it, but no, there is never a time when I think I can't. I just have to ask somebody how to do it right. No, never felt that. There is always a way.

Your buddies?

The guys on the team are pretty good. [PFC Benjamin] Morgan and I hang out. I talk to [Spc. Dennis] Cline a lot. Sgt. [Shane] Carpenter is a pretty easygoing guy. Everybody gets along. We clown around. It's a pretty cool team to be with.

I kind of worried when I got here because I was a new guy. I kept my mouth shut. I was the F.N.G. -- the fucking new guy -- but after awhile you become like everybody else. Now it's a pretty good bunch. I like them.

Are you afraid to die?

If I had to. I've no one to come back to, no wife back home. Sometimes I wish it was me and not Babbitt. (Cries.) Yeah, I would.

It is something you got to do. You can't cry about it. People are going to die. You just have deal with it. …

What gets you up in the morning?

I just get up because I guess I have a responsibility to everyone else. Everyone is tired; everyone is sick of this place. There's something wrong with them if they don't. Everybody has the same stuff, and everybody keeps going. Just because you don't want to get up, that's copping out on everyone else. You do because everyone is, because they are counting on you to do your part. If you don't, then things get fucked up. …

What motivates you for the big mission?

We are here to help people. We opened schools; we give out free chickens; we gave out heaters. When we opened schools, and gave them backpacks, we called it Operation Backpack. There's a meatpacking plant we are trying to open, trying to get these people into jobs, get things running like a normal city.

It's weird, because we are just trying to make this place normal, give people a job to be self-reliant. Self-reliance is what we are trying to achieve here, I guess. We can't be here forever. I don't want to be here forever.

What about the AIF [anti-Iraq forces]?

Those guys only care about themselves. If they were in power, everything would just be fucked up -- no schools open, corruption. We are fighting terrorists who just want to kill us and fighting anarchists who don't want us here or to have an organized government, because they benefit from having nothing working so they can smuggle in what they want.

There are people that hate you.

I always thought that they don't actually hate us. There's just so much resentment because they feel that maybe we always know what is right, telling people what to do; this is the right way to do it because we have been doing it for so long. What's the word? Arrogant, I guess.

We are trying to give them something that has been worked out in a lot of places, but they might not see it that way, because it's foreign and comes from us. It just takes time for people to realize that it would be better a different way, and maybe their way is just not working. That's why we are here.

Will you succeed?

It just takes patience. I know you say, "How can you say that when people are dying?," but it just takes patience. ...

How is it going?

Live from day to day. Kind of a weird question. No one wants to be here.

You get quite used to the rockets, mortars?

Kind of weird, but you do. I used to shudder, but now you just go to sleep. It's background noise.

You think you changed out here?

I guess I have to wait until I get home. I don't feel different. ...

It's kind of weird. You have to grow up pretty fast. You have to grow up fast. They want you to act mature. At the same time, they know you are young but want you to act more mature. People are patient with me. I do ask for help. ...

What are you most afraid of?

I guess if I ever screw up. I hate screwing up. I don't want to let anyone down. I don't want anyone to pay for my mistakes. Some people are scared of dying; I just want to do everything right so I get to come back home.

[How do you communicate with the Iraqis?]

I am never shouting at anybody. People tell me to speak up back home. Here you have to be tough with people; you have to be aggressive. Give an inch, they take a mile. I used to be nice to these people. Some people here think if you are nice to them, it's a weakness. You just have to learn to be tough with people -- iron fist, velvet glove.

They tell you hearts and minds. Then you got to be mean, then nice. You don't know what to be. On the roads you have to run people off the road. There could be a VBIED [vehicle-born improvised explosive device, or car bomb] or a guy taking his kids to school. So you have to be all things at once. That is the hardest part. You're always thinking which one you are going to be, a nice guy or a mean guy. ...

You've got to switch back between the two?

You come back from being nice; then someone is aggressive, and you have to switch modes again. Or you come back from a place where people are bad, and you come back and want to run people off the road, but you got to calm down, I guess. I just hope I am not like that when I go home. I just want to be the way I was when I go home. ...

You described how you had to be one thing, then another. Has this been a good thing or bad thing for you?

I think it's like a flip of a coin. You see gruesome things; then you get taught lessons like loyalty, responsibility and courage. It's up to you really. You could go home and be really angry, or you could do something with it. Sometimes you don't have a choice.

I just want to be normal again, to go home and be a kid again, but not such a little kid anymore.

There is not much of a chance of that?

I don't know. I haven't been to war before. This is my first time doing this. I don't know. Hopefully I'll be all right. I am the youngest one in there by far. They have done so many things. They've been on a tank for a long time. I feel smaller than what I am. They move with confidence. That's my problem: I am self-conscious, but I am doing all right.

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posted feb. 22, 2005

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