A Soldier's Journey: Stephen M. McGowan

In 2004, Army Cpl. Stephen M. McGowan spent some time in Kuwait before being deployed to Iraq. The following are unedited excerpts from his e-mails to family and friends from the last year of his life.

Hey everyone,
Just a quick note. I found an opening at the internet cafe so I jumped on it. I am in Kuwait and doing fine. We got here at 326 am and it was 98 degrees. I have sand in every orifice thanks to the storm that came while we were getting our bags. and I saw my first camel outside of the zoo today. Pretty eventful so far. Oh and my first meal in country was subway if you can believe it. Steak and cheese. Thank God for American commercialism and the free economy. Take care all and I will contact again as soon as possible. All my love,
Steve

Hey Everyone,
Well if you haven't figured it out yet or you are new to the mailing list [from Iraq], I have little opportunity to write. So, I send out these mass emails with personal notes at the bottom.

SO here's the latest: I have just returned from an OP (observation patrol). In the past 4 days I have gotten 6 hours sleep. Check that, I had 6 hours off and 4 hours sleep. So I have been busy to say the least. Things have been crazy here, but should calm down soon. I have been out on OP's, PSD's (being a bodyguard for the brass), and IED hunting as well as QRF (quick reaction forces). Our first casualties came the second day we were here. It seems hadji is testing the "new unit" he sees patrolling now. One of our HUMVEE's was hit with an IED. One soldier took shrapnel in the leg, one in the arm, one (CPL Kruass a medic) burst his eardrum. But, two civilians were hurt. One died. Then a soldier got shot in the face. The bullet went right through his cheeks. All he lost were some teeth. One sergeant died the other day from an IED. He was too far out of the hatch and caught shrapnel in the face. Tonight we took direct contact and went into the city to search the nearby houses. And after all that, when our shift was over, we came back in the gate and took indirect mortar fire. The rounds hit about 60 meters to our front and to out right. I'm getting used to that though. Mortars come in everyday. Sometimes you just shrug it off and sometimes you seek cover.

We went into downtown Ramadi a couple of times. The people down there do not like us and it is apparent on their faces. Kids throw rocks at us too. There were signs saying "death to the occupiers " and American flags drawn with swastikas instead of stars.

I got a bunch of packages recently so I am getting mail now. I even moved into a new room. It has AC (thank God) and concrete walls. A lot better than the tents we've been living in.

I have a mission tomorrow. We have to guard the battalion commander while he goes to division HQ. HQ is one of Saddam's former palaces by the way. It's looks awesome even though it's bombed out on the back side. I'll send pics.

Well I have to run and get some sleep. I will write when I can. I love you all and hope my fellow soldiers are well.

Hey everyone,
I have been receiving numerous emails from you all, and I appreciate it. I look forward to my mailbox every time I can sit down on a computer. So thank you to all. Most of you are asking if you can send things for the troops here. So I will say this. For the most part we are well stocked on personal supplies. Wet wipes, power bars, snacks and so forth are still greatly appreciated. However, I think the thing that is most beneficial is contact from home. Letters or cards mean a lot to us. It makes our jobs easier when we know that we are remembered back home. So if any of you are interested I would be happy to email you a list of names you could write to.

Anyway, things are still good here. We have anticipated some increased resistance as the elections draw nearer, but we haven't seen much yet. Hopefully, we won't. There is talk now of sending soldiers home on R and R. We all put in our preferences and are waiting to hear back. So maybe in a couple of months you will see my smiling face again.
Love Stephen.

Hi Everyone,
Well here's the latest: The recent talk around the campfire is that we may be moving to Fallujah. This would be a major undertaking considering we just got settled here. So what they are going to do is send us to Fallujah for a week long mission. If they decide that they want us there permanently then we will move later. So we will see.

Hey Everyone,
Well it looks like the move to Fallujah will be delayed for a little while. The Marines want a second chance at securing it. They don't want to give it to a bunch of Army guys and lose face. … Same old same old with the mortar attacks and stuff. I'm just plugging away at the time trying to make it to leave. By the way, sorry for the lapse between emails. The Army has a policy here. When someone dies they shut off the internet and phones. That way no one notifies the family before the Army does. So it has been down lately and I couldn't get back to you all sooner. I hope all is well with you all. Take care and God Bless.
Stephen

Hey Everyone,
Things are getting a bit more intense here. We had a mortar attack yesterday that came in close enough for it to blow out the windows in my room. One of the medics was walking near the battalion office and got hit. He was MEDEVACed out to Baghdad, but he will most likely lose his leg. His name is CPL Luke, so pray for him. … An OP saw where the rounds came from so we went after the guys who did it. We captured one and killed the other. They were outside a local sheiks house and he came out to talk to us. We were about to search his house but he handed my Platoon Seargent a SAT phone and the CIA was on the other end. Turns out the sheik was a friendly and was protected from on high.

Other than that things are the same here. The weather is getting a little colder. It gets to be about 60 degrees at night now. It feels like freezing compared to the 100 degree days though. And it actually rained for the first time. It only lasted for about 5 minutes, but it's the first precipitation we have had. I'm a little scared to come home in March. I think the weather might kill me. Well that's it for now. Take care all and of course all my love.

Hey Everyone,
Well some good news... My buddy Cpl. Luke will be keeping his leg and starting rehab soon. So thank you for the prayers, it seems they worked. … I went to Fallujah the other day for an escort. We were transporting a platoon of newly graduated Iraqi soldiers. They had just completed their training with the Marines and are being sent to various areas to begin securing their homeland. They were really excited. It reminded me of when I graduated basic training. It was great to see something like that. And it's great to know that these guys are the ones who will be securing their country for the future. They were so proud. My seargent equated it to being part of the Revolutionary War for us. Sounds about right. And they were excited to speak to us with the basic English that they have learned. It was pretty cool. Anyway, that is the latest. I hope everyone is well and I will write again soon.
Stephen

Hey Everyone,
We just completed a cordon and search on a very large section of the town. We found some weapons and money as usual. We also found a person we believe to be one of the snipers. But the most troubling thing was a box of addresses we found. Apparently, someone paid a base worker to dump our trash in a certain spot. And then someone else came by and took the return address labels off mail that had been sent to the troops. A list was made of who was on it, and I wasn't, but exercise caution in opening any packages that look suspicious.

On a lighter note, we received no contact on the raid. Actually people were very accomodating. I even got a chance to play with some of the kids. Some of the younger females were also entertained by us. It just proves boys will be boys and girls will blush and flirt with them.
Stephen

Hey Everyone,
A lot of people have been asking me what I want for Christmas. Well I have to say nothing. Unless, I go Tiny Tim and say peace on Earth. But seriously, don't send me anything. I have been getting so many packages from you all that I had to buy an extra footlocker to hold all the snacks and stuff. And now the footlocker is full too. I feel like a fat kid at weight loss camp. I'm hiding Twinkies in my sock drawer now. I appreciate it all, but I would rather do something different for Christmas. Instead of sending me something, send a toy for one of the kids here. Or make a donation to a charity. I am blessed enough to have everything I need, so let's take care of those who don't. Ok that's it. Take care and of course all my love.
Stephen

Merry Christmas Everyone,
Well the latest here is pretty exciting. In the past few days we have gotten a lot accomplished. First we captured the group associated with the two [weapons] caches we found last. Out of the 12, 9 of them were mid to high level insurgents. Two days later we captured 13 males out of which 11 were mid to high level insurgents. One was even an Al-Qedia member. So we were pretty happy. Two days from now I will be pinned with my combat medical badge. I will be representing the medical platoon in the ceremony. So I'm pretty psyched. I'll try and get pics.

It's a little rainy today, but I can't complain. We've been on one mission today. We escourted Santa to a combat outpost so he could visit the soldiers. Later we will be running out chow to everyone who has to miss dinner. So far its been a quiet day and I hope it stays that way.

Well I hope you all have a Merry Christmas and and Happy New Year. I wish I could be there. Take care and enjoy. I will be kicking back today with two beers I hope. That's our Christms gift. And it's just what I wanted. I love you all and wish you the best.
Stephen

Hey Everyone,
Well things have been a little hectic lately. That's why I haven't written in a bit. Good news first: I got hit with another IED the other day. It went off next to my truck, but we were all confused about what it was because it didn't sound like a bomb. … It turns out only the blasting cap went off on the device and the 155 round didn't detonate. If it had we would all be in a lot of trouble right now. So that's good news. Bad news: A commanding officer here was hit with an IED yesterday and it doesn't look good. Everything that could be done was, but he's only been given a 40 percent chance of making it.

We have done quite a few missions lately for the humanitarian effort. And it is starting to pay off. Business is increasing in the area, and electricity and water are almost completely restored for the entire city. So hopefully things will be perfect by the time we leave.

Some of the female medics I know have signed up to be in the "Lioness" program. The Lionesses go with infantry units and deal with the women and children they come in contact with during raids etc. I will be teaching a class for them on operating in close combat. It's kind of funny since I'm a medic. But, I was requested because, as scouts, we are outside the FOB [Forward Operating Base] more than anyone else. So I will be passing on some of my experience here.

I hope all is well back in the States. I miss you all and hope to see you soon.
Love Stephen

Hello to Everyone,
Well the elections are over, as I'm sure you have seen on CNN. Thankfully, they went off with little interuption. Only a few small problems, but nothing too big. The only unfortunate part was that only 1500 people voted. That's about half of one percent of the city's population. So I wouldn't necessarily call it a success, but it was the first real election here. So now they can begin to write their constitution. Next December will be the presidential elections. … Some people are disappointed at the election turnout, but you have to understand the society we're dealing with. These people have never had even a taste of the freedom we are offering them. They have never had a country of their own that was worth fighting for. It's like offering a book of wisdom to a blind man. It's useless without helping them along. But, I do know this country will be left better than we found it. So I will continue to throw on my flak vest and pick up my weapon each day, head out the gate, and try to get them one step closer to freedom, and myself one step closer to home. Take care all.
Stephen

Hello Everyone,
Cruel irony reared it's ugly head the other day. ... A buddy of mine, Sgt. Pope, got hit with an IED and took shrapnel in the foot. He's fine, but he got sent to Germany for some surgery. The "funny" thing was it was one day before he went on leave. So my fingers are crossed that I don't share the same fate because I laughed at him. So I hope my Irish luck holds out. That seems to be it for now. I'm still counting down the days (18) until I can see you all again. Hope this finds you all well.
Stephen

Hey Everyone,
Well, the latest for me is I will be going to an undisclosed location for a 2 week operation. It is a high priority/high risk deal. This is one you should see on CNN soon. I will not be returning to the FOB during this time so emails and phone calls will not happen. I have asked about what will happen if I am supposed to leave in the top of next month for leave, but they have no answer for me. That means I will be pushed back. So my battalion is living up to its reputation for screwing the soldier. So I don't know what to tell you all about leave. As soon as I know, you will know. I will be leaving tomorrow so don't bother writing back. Take care all and hopefully I will see you soon.
Stephen

Hello Everyone,
Well the mission I was on isn't over, but my part is. So when the rest of the elements make their way back in the next few days, I will be able to tell you what all the hoopla was about. … Unfortunately, it's hard to keep up with the losses we sustain. On our most recent mission, a friend of mine was killed. He was a guy I played rugby with in Korea. He was hit in the neck with a mortar during an attack. The good news was that the round didn't explode so five other soldiers walked away from it. I can only hope to do this job long enough to catch the insurgents who did it.

On a lighter note, I have been given a leave date. I am supposed to leave country on the 22nd of March. That should put me in the States around the 25th. As the day gets closer, I will be more certain of times and dates. So keep checking the email. I'm sure you can imagine that I am pretty excited. So hopefully we will be tossing back a few beers together in 3 weeks. Until then, I send all my love to you all.
Stephen