When families at home gather around the table to give thanks this year, Major Christopher Emmons will be doing the same, even though he’s separated from his own family by almost 8,000 miles and the rigors of a five-year-old war.
A member of the Army National Guard and a veteran DUI motorcycle officer in the Chandler Police Department, Emmons was deployed to Iraq in September for a year-long tour of duty.
Now, with Thanksgiving approaching, Emmons’ mission takes on an element of special significance with the challenge he and his troops have accepted: to make sure U.S. service men and women know that those at home are appreciative of their small, selfless victories that are making a difference to the lives of the people of Iraq.
Emmons is commanding officer of the U.S. Army’s 123rd Mobile Public Affairs Department in southern Iraq, a part of the 3rd Sustainment Command Expeditionary force.
Although public affairs might sound like a desk job, it’s no less dangerous—or vital—than the duties of soldiers on patrol.
“My job is to make heroes of the sustainment soldiers who go outside the wire each day to assist the Iraqi people,” says Emmons, explaining that “outside the wire” means going beyond the safety of their fortified military installation.
The pride in Emmons’ voice is evident when as he recounts the accomplishments by these everyday heroes.
“These soldiers have helped build a water treatment plant that serves several villages,” he says. “They have helped Iraqi citizens build schools and clinics. They’re showing Iraqi soldiers how to repair truck engines and order tires.”
In summary, he says: “They know the true value of service to others.”
As part of its assignment, Emmons’ group also publishes a weekly, 16-page intra-service newspaper and a monthly 20-minute newsreel that tell the success stories of individual soldiers and their relationship with the Iraqis.
Quoting one newspaper article:
“The 7th Sustainment Brigade and citizens of Al Fawaz joined forces to expand a schoolhouse from a mud shack to six classrooms and two offices with a garden area in the middle. Capt. Audrey Iriberri of the 1st Sustainment Brigade provided Iraqi schoolgirls backpacks filled with school supplies.
“Chief Warrant Officer Christopher J. Gauthreaux assists Iraqi villagers with installing a reverse osmosis water purification system. The water treatment system did more than provide clean water. It also revived the spirits of the villagers.
“As a Marine Engineer, Gauthreaux also has been busy helping villagers build schools, medical clinics and irrigation systems since February of this year.”
One of many color photos illustrating the story captures some of the soldiers’ acts of kindness, in one case showing an unidentified officer handing out sandals during a visit to the Al Ashyabb School in Al Fawaz. Emmons says he provides such success stories to media outlets back home, but laments that good stories often are not what the media seem to be seeking.
In fact, Emmons says, there are a great many “good news” stories coming from the involvement of U.S. soldiers in the downtrodden country.
The real story, he says, doesn’t involve fighting or explosions, but rather peaceful rebuilding and improvements, resulting in a kind of calm that seems to be holding. Emphasizing the point, Emmons mentions a small irony that has occurred to him since he arrived in Iraq:
“It’s the quiet,” he says, “with the exception of the sound of the generators at our command post.”
If helping to protect a nation and preserve the peace is characteristic of the 123rd’s collective mission, individual sacrifice seems to be the hallmark of being deployed overseas during a war.
“Being separated from your family is probably the most difficult part of being here,” says Emmons, who has a 5-year-old daughter who, Emmons says, didn’t understand the reality of her father leaving for such a long time.
To help bridge the gap of his daughter’s understanding, Emmons says tools provided by the USO were useful in explaining her dad’s impending trip away from home, including a video of Elmo to which she could more easily relate.
If the people of Iraq appear to be appreciative of the sacrifices of Emmons and other U.S. troops serving in their country, Emmons himself has a special reason to be thankful: 2008 marks the 10th year of his almost miraculous survival from a nearly fatal motorcycle crash caused by a drunken driver in 1998.
That he is has recovered from the accident, that he has a family eagerly awaiting his return, that he is able to make what he considers an important contribution to the war-besieged people of Iraq—all will help make this one of Emmons’ most memorable Thanksgivings ever.