Archive for Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Home from Iraq

Soldier mesmerizes family with stories

December 30, 2003

Chances are, the Tate children never will forget the night their brother came home from the war.

"He just sat down on the couch and we just listened to him for about an hour," said younger sister Jenna. "We didn't say one word -- we were just happy that he was home and safe."

Matt Tate, who is in the U.S. Army, was in Iraq from March through October. Since early November, he has been back in the United States, first in Fort Sill, Okla., and since Thanksgiving, in Tonganoxie.

When their brother first came home, the five children, were in awe, said their parents, Jennifer and Doug Tate.

"They just all looked up at him," Jennifer said. "I think it really was overwhelming. He looked like he was 10 feet tall."

Their brother, whom they hadn't seen for a year, was dressed in his desert army fatigues. And, he had grown nearly two inches taller.

For the time being, Matt Tate is on safe ground.

But there are times when he forgets that.

"I got used to having my M16 next to me all the time," Tate said. "I woke up a couple of times here in the middle of the night, reach out to grabbed it and see there's nothing there and start freaking out -- till I wake up and realize where I am."

A tall slender teen dressed in jeans, a Kansas City Chiefs T-shirt and a heavy beaded necklace, Tate, at least temporarily, doesn't bear much resemblance to the soldier in fatigues. But the young man has put his time in. And, there is more time to go.

For the next six months, Tate will be stationed at Fort Sill, Okla.

"After that, nobody knows," said Tate whose four-year enlistment began in August 2002.

He's learned to deal with the unpredictability of military schedules, especially this year.

"Around September they told me we were staying for a year from the time I got there which would have been next March," said Tate, who worked in multiple launch rocket systems. "Then one day we got a call from the general saying you've got 15 days to move your unit to Kuwait."

The men worked around the clock and, in three days, were ready to move.

After a stay in Kuwait to clean their equipment, almost all the members of the battalion boarded a jet for home. It was a celebratory flight.

"We flew over Canada," Tate said. "The pilot came over on the plane and told us we'd crossed over into the U.S. ... Everybody was cheering on the plane."

Dangerous drives

During the war, Tate was stationed in the desert, in Iraq, about midway between Kuwait and Baghdad.

This is where Tate, who drives trucks loaded with ammunition, learned about missiles.

The missiles were fired during the dark of night, he said.

"It turned it from night to day," Tate said. "We fired two of them at about the same time and it was just like daylight."

Tate's last six months in Iraq were when, for him, the situation turned dangerous.

The battalion stayed at an old army airport about 40 miles from Baghdad, and each day, convoyed into Baghdad.

Tate long ago lost count of the number of times the convoys were shot at.

But that couldn't compare with finding a live grenade in a truckload of ammunition. Tate and a buddy were loading ammunition boxes and counting the contents.

His buddy opened a box and saw a live grenade.

"He just grabbed it and held it before somebody could put a pin in it," said Tate. "We were on the back of a truck with missiles and stuff, so I knew if it goes off the whole place is going to be a smoking hole in the ground."

Convoys have been and continue to be targets of homemade bombs put together with artillery rounds and a car battery.

"We had one go off two vehicles behind me one time," Tate said. "It was in the median in the highway and it just sent dirt straight up in the air."

Toward the end of his tour, Tate had a better job -- driving for the sergeant major. And, he worked with others in training the civil defense force.

No communication

For his family at home, Tate's Middle East tour was long.

During the first two months, the family heard nothing at all, said Doug Tate, Matt's father.

"Until he got to the abandoned army base that they took over and he had communications, I had no idea where he was," Doug Tate said.

The mail was equally elusive. Some letters arrived at their destination and some never made it.

Matt said he's learned that's not uncommon.

"We found mail from the first war -- Desert Storm -- in Baghdad," Matt said.

Troops did receive packages from home, Matt said, noting he especially appreciated packages that were sent to him by students at Tonganoxie Elementary School and Genesis Christian Academy.

Time warp

Matt Tate, who enlisted in March of his senior year of high school, said army life hasn't been what he expected. When he enlisted, there was no war.

"I never thought I'd go," Tate said. "I didn't think this would ever happen."

He shrugged, smiled, and added, "But it happens."

When he arrived in Iraq, time stretched before him.

"When we first got there, I never thought I'd ever go home," Tate said. "And now as I look back, I think it actually flew by. When we were doing stuff every day -- you lose track of time."

Despite the uncertainty, the fears, Tate said he's glad he enlisted when he did.

"I don't think it was that bad for me over there," Tate said. "I think it was for some units in different jobs, but I don't think it was that bad for me."

No end in sight

The capture of Saddam Hussein won't solve the problem in Iraq, Tate said.

"It will change a little bit, but not a whole lot," Tate said. "I think it will still be going on the same as it is now, because they realize we're not playing around anymore."

And, Tate said, he doesn't see an end in sight.

"I think that we'll continue to have rotations there," Tate said. "I think we'll end up in that like it is in Korea."

After his six-month stint in Fort Sill, it's anybody's guess where Tate will be sent.

Wherever he is, like others in the military, folks at home will remember him.

His mother, Jennifer Tate, said that, for now, their prayers have been answered.

"We are very proud to have him serve our country," Jennifer said. "And we're proud of all the soldiers who are serving, but I'm ready for them to come home."

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