Sunday, May 29, 2005
The Work Going on in Iraq, From the Chicago Tribune:Riding on the Baghdad Express
Half a building,half a car,half a road,half a dog,half a man,half the speed,half the way there.We came throughBaghdad on a roadcalled Sword. "As the sun fell into the smoke and thefull moon rose,we entered Taji."
In many ways, Michael Vivirito is a fortunate son. His father, a dentist, provided well for the family: a luxury home in an affluent Chicago suburb, private schools for the kids. A childhood graced by the quiet comforts of upper-middle-class suburbia.
But at the age of 22, bored with academia and searching for a purpose, Vivirito veered off the privileged path, dropping out of college and taking a road less traveled by his friends from Inverness.
Today, Army Spec. Michael Vivirito is a soldier, a truck driver canvassing a desert route known as the Baghdad Express.
"After driving through central Baghdad at 6 p.m., yes, they also have a rush hour, on the worst road here, we arrived on the western side of Taji. Car bombs all over Baghdad, the whole city was on fire."
In a recent phone conversation from a base in Kuwait, Vivirito, 29, acknowledged that his joining the Illinois National Guard in 1998 was "a whimsical decision."
"I saw an [Army] ad in a newspaper I was reading at a coffee shop downtown," he said. "I remember thinking, why not?"
Vivirito is now facing the realities of an impulsive decision.
Like many reservists, Vivirito assumed that his eight-year contract with the military would involve six years with the National Guard, with the last two years designated as IRR--individual ready reserve.
Historically, the IRR was considered a "safe place" in the military for soldiers, who are classified as on inactive duty. But with the U.S. military's pressing need for troops for extended campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army announced last July that it would be forced to call up inactive IRR soldiers--Vivirito and 5,673 others.
While critics liken the decision to activate reservists as the new millennium's version of the draft, soldiers like Vivirito have no use for political rhetoric.
"Smoke rises all around as we come to a stop high above the city on a huge overpass ... stopped because of civilians marching down the street and an accident up ahead. Hard to breathe, hard to see, the flames are smothered out, but the smoke lingers on."
Earlier this month, Vivirito was optimistic that his blogs from Baghdad had reached a denouement. After serving a six-month tour in Iraq, on May 8 Vivirito signed the necessary paperwork to "clear with orders."
The honorable discharge would be granted due to "extraordinary family issues"--Vivirito's wife, Jessica, is expecting the couple's second child in August; their 2-year-old son, Charlie, is recovering from open-heart surgery.
Thus, with two of the three necessary documents approved by his company and battalion, Vivirito was hopeful that he would spend this Memorial Day in Ft. Dix, N.J., where he would complete the required "demobilization" process.
It would be the end of an unexpected detour for the young family, a tumultuous chapter of their lives that began on Aug. 5, 2004, when Jessica Vivirito reached inside the couple's mailbox and touched a stout, brown envelope.
The presidential orders arrived just a day after the couple had sold their townhouse, placing a $500 deposit on a four-bedroom colonial.
While the couple could count on Michael's receiving an income from the military, the paycheck would not match the salary he earned as a general manager for a South Side drywall distributor. After hearing of the couple's predicament, a sympathetic contractor tore up their check, and Jessica and Charlie moved in with her mother in Elk Grove Village.
For Jessica Vivirito, 29, the temporary relocation to her childhood home means returning to a hometown that is mourning the loss of four fallen soldiers in the past year.
In 2004, Marine Lance Cpl. Phillip Frank died in Iraq after being shot by a sniper. In February, Marine Cpl. John T. Olson died in Iraq in a truck bombing. Olson's classmate from Elk Grove High School, Army Spec. Adriana Salem, died in a March truck rollover. And in April, Air Force Capt. James S. Cronin, another Elk Grove graduate, was killed in a plane crash in the mountains of Albania.
Still, despite the memorial services honoring the fallen and the support she receives from her friends and family, Jessica says she feels oddly out of place, a stranger in her own hometown.
"I never pictured myself being a military wife," she says. "Everyone has ribbons on their cars, but unless you have been personally touched by this war, you don't understand."
For Jessica, keeping in touch with Michael during his tour in Iraq has been easier than expected, bolstered by frequent phone calls, e-mails and his online journal. Yet the enhanced technology has proven bittersweet.
Stories from the front, which veterans of past wars carefully recorded in handwritten letters mailed to loved ones back home, are now delivered faster than you can lick a stamp.
"I'm OK when I know he's still at the base in Kuwait," says Jessica, "but the minute I learn he's out on the truck, driving to Baghdad, it's terrible. The violence there is so random."
"Half a building, half a car, half a road, half a dog, half a man, half the speed, half the way there. We came through Baghdad on a road called Sword. As the sun fell into the smoke and the full moon rose, we entered Taji."
On Wednesday, Vivirito was back in Kuwait, driving straight through from Baghdad, the end of another mission. His family and friends are praying it will be his last, that the final piece of paperwork will arrive in Kuwait, ensuring the honorable discharge that will bring their soldier back home.
"It could take two days, two weeks or two months," said Vivirito, who recently broke the news of his imminent departure to six bunkmates, all of whom he considers "friends for life."
Vivirito's new friends from the military include Bobby Rogers, 60, who was drafted in 1966 to serve in Vietnam. After two tours of duty, Rogers returned home in 1969 and re-enlisted in the reserves.
Rogers, a grandfather, did a tour in Desert Storm in 1999 and last year he was among the IRR troops called up to serve in Iraq--a lifelong military man from Virginia who counts among his best friends a dentist's son from Inverness.
"When I was called up, I was devastated. ... I didn't want to be a part of it," Vivirito said. "But when the war began, part of me said, I should be there fighting. I'm a member of the U.S. Army.
"All it took for me to know I should be here was driving up north to Baghdad once," he added. "There were hundreds of children at the side of the road, their hands up to their mouths, begging for food. Some were not able to walk, and I thought they were injured. When we got closer, I could see they were not even as old as Charlie. They were just babies."
"On the other end of camp is another graveyard. Only this one is not for people. Thousands of tanks fill this side of camp. Russian made, American made, and Iraqi made. All seized in the last two years and lined up here to slowly deteriorate. We are here, we are alive, despite the ones we saw on the road coming here. We are waiting to leave and make the thirty-mile trek through the city once again. Tonight we go south."