ON LEAVE FROM BAGHDAD
By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
When Tony Bingham learned he would be going home from Iraq for 12 days, he thought about hiding out in his parents' Union home.
Then he decided he wouldn't do that.
It would be too reminiscent of what he does when he's off-duty in Baghdad. Staying out of sight.
Instead, Bingham is walking around town with his mom, visiting with people he knows, driving to Sacramento, Calif., to visit an Army buddy and look into a possible job. And enjoying at least one, if not two, grilled steaks cooked by his dad, Scott.
The Bingham family talks casually about what life is like with a soldier-son stationed in Iraq. They share little jokes, do a bit of teasing as Tony's sister, Sarah, a Union senior this year, heads out in a car, backing past a line of visitors' cars.
But take a moment to watch their eyes.
Beth Bingham seldom looks away from her son when he's nearby. Tony Bingham, in short-sleeved shirt and slacks, looks relaxed and smiles sometimes, but seldom with his eyes. He has dark brown eyes that seem old for their years.
4/I FA Anthony Bingham has been stationed in Baghdad since mid-April. Less than two weeks ago he learned that, on three days' notice, he and some of his buddies were being given a chance to go home for almost two weeks.
They don't know how long they'll be in Baghdad when they return.
It's a hard lesson. Speaking about when Tony will be finished for good in Iraq, Beth Bingham says, "I just don't expect."
Her son joined the military in June 2001 after completing a course in diesel mechanics at Wyoming Technical Institute. At the time, a stint in the military seemed like a good plan. He had no work experience, so he'd go into the Army, pay off his schooling, get some experience.
He'd just finished basic training and specialized training at Fort Sill, Okla., when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened. He was then posted to Ft. Riley, Kan.
Since then, Bingham has served in Bosnia for six months and, early this year, in Kuwait for four months.
Kuwait, he smiles grimly, at least helped him prepare for the heat in Iraq.
"I'm with an artillery battalion," Bingham explains. "Normally, we provide fire support Â— we lay down supporting fire." Translated, that means normally Bingham wouldn't be in the first wave of any fighting force, he'd be supporting them from a bit further back.
"Then we got to Kuwait, and they told us: Â‘You're not doing artillery'," he says.
Bingham and his buddies got a two-week crash course in what they would be doing Â— police work, riot control, roadside check points, house-by-house search and seizure, sweeping for explosive devices.
His day-to-day work in Baghdad is unpredictable, Bingham says. "Some days we go on a 24-hour ops, sometimes we guard a location, come back, shower, and then go out after two hours.
"Someone says, Â‘OK, let's go.' It varies day to day. Â… Some days it's just chaos."
Sept. 11 Â— last month Â—Bingham says, was one of the chaotic days.
"For 9-11 I was up for four days," he says, in part because his area was undermanned and "there's lots to do."
Baghdad, Bingham explains, isn't really what people might think. It is a huge city and he's in a barracks that's about five miles from the center of the city in the southeastern part. And despite walls around him when he's not patrolling, Bingham says his unit's base gives a false sense of security. "You're never safe."
But familiarity does mean that Bingham and his buddies have learned to deal with frequent sounds of explosions and rifle fire.
"We went from jumping at everything to it's no big deal."
Tony's mother has heard this before, though there's a tiny tightening around her eyes. She met his buddies on an earlier visit to Kansas, and she is considered a second mom to them since she sends packages not only to her son, but to the others. To keep her son feeling special, she admits, she often throws in an extra drink-mix packet or something else special.
Surviving in Baghdad, Bingham shrugs, is "an every day occurrence." There's no other choice, even though he's doing what he wasn't trained to do.
"The detailed stuff we've had to learn as we go. You learn fast as you go, because there's no choice."
Bingham does not regret joining the military, and he doesn't have any questioning thoughts about his role at this time.
"This is what the military does," he says, laughing briefly as he recalls comments such as, "Don't you wish you were home?"
"There's no choice but to grow up. Grow up."
Looking back on the past two years, Bingham thinks that joining the Army was the perfect thing for him to do. It's taught him to manage his time, his money, and himself.
His parents have noticed the changes in him, he said. "Oh yeah, my dad especially."
Bingham wants to deliver a message to friends, families and those watching the military's actions in Iraq.
"Don't believe everything you hear. We've done a lot of positive things over there."
He can't speak for the entire Army, but in his small part of Baghdad a police force has been established, they've trained the Iraqi military in crash courses, money has been put back into circulation, and the soldiers have used their own money to put up playground equipment.
He admits he's seen some soldiers withdrawing from the Iraqi citizens as continued violent incidents happen, "but I don't see that happening a lot. When you see the kids, infants to about 5 years old, you want to help out."
Getting a chance to come back to Union and his parents is a mixed blessing.
"I'd love to stay home," Bingham says with strong emphasis. Then there's a pause as he looks across the picnic table at his mom. "But right now, I'd rather be there with my friends. We're with each other 24-7. We're there all together and we're coming back all together."
"It's just unbelievable what people ask," Beth Bingham says. "Of course I'd rather have him home. I'm proud of him Â… and we know he's capable."
Bingham's shared wishes are those of a soldier far from home.
He weighs about 195 pounds, he says, and in uniform, with Kevlar helmet, flack jacket, boots, long-sleeved shirt and other gear, including water, he does his work weighing about 245 pounds in temperatures that climbed into the 160-degree range this summer Â— with lots of humidity.
He is enjoying every moment he's home wearing civilian clothes Â— "not that monkey suit"Â— and he and his buddies dream about the days at Ft. Riley when they could go out to dinner every week. "We used to go to Chili's every Friday. It's the little things," he says.
Music is the favorite pastime of the American soldier in Iraq, Bingham adds. They could get other items that have troubled soldiers in other parts of the world, but they don't. "You don't want to jeopardize anybody else," he says of the possibility for drug or alcohol use. "I can't say how it is for everybody, but my guys, we don't."
Beth Bingham and the Binghams' friends are working to get as much of home to Tony and his buddies as they can. At one point, Beth packed and sent 100 pounds of care packages from Union to Baghdad.
Tony grimaces as he remembers going to pick up his mail and making trip after trip to bring all the boxes back to the barracks.
"I got like seven packages that day," he says. "I was the most popular guy in the unit for about a month."
He's popular at home, too.
"We're really thankful for all the people praying for him," Scott Bingham says. "I'm glad he's home, and safe for a while."