Joe Avis: Citizen Soldier in Iraq

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Joe Avis was living in Morenci last spring, gearing up for another season with a landscaping business. He also put in his obligatory hours as a member of the National Guard.

The obligation changed dramatically as the United States went to war against Iraq. Avis went from landscaper to communications specialist in short order. He was one of 32 Lenawee County Guard members who joined another 106 Michigan soldiers for a two-month training period in the Midwest. After that, it was time to visit Kuwait, on the way to Baghdad.

joe-avis Avis clearly remembers the night he stepped off the airplane outside of Baghdad June 12. The temperature was 102° at midnight.

“Conditions for us were pretty bad,” he said. “I’m not going to beat around the bush.”

Avis was home for short break this month, and as he spoke to Mr. Bostick’s current events class Friday morning at Morenci Area High School, he urged students to imagine what it would be like to sleep outside in a tent with no air conditioner and no fan—just temperatures in the hundreds, night after night.

For 165 consecutive days, the temperature topped 100°.

Avis showed photographs from Iraq via his laptop computer, and eventually what looked like a refreshing view of the Euphrates River was displayed. Refreshing? Think again.

“I was actually thrown into that river once and it’s a really nasty river. We got out of it pretty quickly once we saw a dead cow float by.”

In Iraq

Avis is often out on the road in a convoy of vehicles that could range from two Humvees to more than a hundred. It all depends on the destination and the purpose of the mission.

Generally, convoys are sent to obtain mail and supplies from larger bases, or to obtain more advanced medical care.

Avis showed a photo of a Humvee he travels in, parked behind the armored unit that’s manned with military police. His vehicle has a vinyl top and siding. A later photo showed a close-up view of the bullet holes through a Humvee that was ambushed.

“They don’t provide much bullet-stopping power.”

Avis also heads out on the road to set up telephone service. It’s a non-ending job since the facilities are only temporary. The area isn’t considered secure enough to construct a permanent setup.

“I’m actually doing my job,” he said, noting that not everyone ends up with the job they were trained to do in the Guard.

The variety of job experiences from civilian life is something he finds appealing about the Guard. As a landscaper, he certainly had no knowledge of how to handle a prisoner of war, but some fellow Guardsmen who work as police officers back home helped the rest of the unit learn the ropes.

“When you can incorporate all the civilian jobs with the military, you come up with some creative solutions. We think outside the box.”

Avis confirmed reported differences between the regular enlisted soldiers and Guard and Reserve units.

“The active Army gets all the perks,” he said.

Some might consider it more than mere perks. For example, his Guard unit was in Iraq about five months before members were issued body armor. According to the Associated Press, the Guard and Reserves make up about 27 percent of the U.S. forces in Iraq, but they account for 40 percent of the injuries.

One student asked Avis if he’ll sign up for additional Guard duty when the current 15-month stint ends.

“No,” he was quick to respond.

He was asked if he thinks the capture of Saddam Hussein will lead to a better situation in Iraq. He didn’t see that it would make a significant change.

Avis showed a photo of some troops from Macedonia who share the same dining facility with the Guard.

“We don’t mess with them because they’re crazy,” he said. “They’d rather shoot than ask questions.”

He’s come in contact with people from several other nations who are helping out in the Iraqi mission. That includes some civilian positions, such as in the dining facilities that are manned by workers from the Philippines.

He also meets up with a lot of Iraqi citizens. Several are employed by the U.S. government for a variety of tasks. For many, the $5 a day pay is a phenomenal increase from pre-war wages.

“They think they’re rich,” Avis said.

He says the majority of the Iraqi citizens welcome the American troops, but he’s been given an estimated range of 10 to 15 percent of the population that really hates the U.S. presence.

Avis feels lucky to have drawn the 15-day rest-and-relaxation leave that got him back home to the States. Not everybody in his unit was given the break. That gave him the opportunity to visit relatives and friends, including his fiancee.

He headed back to the Middle East Monday morning, knowing there are no more breaks until his year in Iraq has ended.

For now, the weather is milder and the soldiers will do their best to keep up morale. Watching movies and playing games on computers, tossing around a football or baseball, organizing a basketball tournament when security allows—whatever they can do to pass the time of day when they aren’t on assignment.

And all the while, attacks against U.S. troops continue at a pace averaging 25 a day. Avis was safe in Morenci on Wednesday—one of the most devastating for American troops with 10 dead and 34 wounded—but knowledge of those incidents is something the troops try to push aside.

“We try not to think about it,” Avis said.

- Jan. 14, 2004 

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