Calm. He uses that word a lot. “It’s so calm here,” he told me more than once during our interviews. “It’s so peaceful.”
Grant Steward, his wife Esprit and their three children—Dakota (7), Molly (5) and Hailey (4)—moved to Maui last November precisely because of the island’s serenity. We may bitch and moan about Pali traffic jams and over-development and the Superferry, but to Steward, Maui is truly paradise.
He works 20 hours a week at Best Screens in Lahaina. “It’s a great job,” he said. “My boss, Leslie Hill, is really great. The customers are great. Very little stress.” He watches a lot of cartoons—South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy. Comedies, too—he doesn’t have cable, but he’s got lots of comedies on DVD. And he never, ever watches the news.
Steward was a 24-year-old Private First Class in the Oregon National Guard when he first shipped out to Iraq. That was April 2004. He was there until February 2005. His unit—the 2nd Battalion of the 162nd Infantry Regiment (2/162), attached to the 1st Cavalry Division—spent much of the time at Patrol Base Volunteer, just east of Baghdad.
Iraq’s capital city was still fairly calm then—the bloody sectarian killings that led to President George W. Bush’s “Surge” hadn’t yet started—and Steward’s unit had a relatively quiet time. “We actually didn’t lose many guys,” Steward said. “Guys got injured, but no one died. In my actual squad, no one actually got injured. A couple guys in my platoon got hit.”
Still, it was a war. Though discharged not long after he returned to Oregon with the rank of specialist—more authority than a PFC, but less than a sergeant—the after-effects of the war remain with Steward. He’s lost sensation in his fingertips, and he’s not sure why, though it’s possibly due to the many, many hours he spent as a machine gunner in a Humvee. Doctors suggested re-routing the nerves in his elbows, but Steward said no, thanks.
At night, he grinds his teeth. Steward talked about it during U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka’s Aug. 23 field hearing on veterans’ healthcare.
“According to my loving wife, if my bruxism, teeth grinding, is going to keep her awake, her elbow will keep me awake,” Steward said during the hearing, held in the Maui County Council chambers. “I even find myself clinching my teeth throughout the day. I don’t have dental coverage, so my teeth get worse every month. I understand the VA Veterans Affairs department wanting to cut costs, but when you have a service connection for two problems with your head, the VA should include care for the whole head.”
Steward said vets need to be at least “60 percent disabled” to get dental coverage, but he said recent help from a staffer at Senator Akaka’s office got him “night guards,” which fit in his mouth at night and keep him from grinding down his teeth. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he told me. “Hopefully in the next few months I’ll get more work, or I’ll have to pay through the nose.”
Steward also regularly sees a couple counselors. “My father-in-law, a Vietnam Vet, practically dragged me to see him,” Steward told me. “I don’t really think about the war unless I talk to you or the counselors. Then I go and turn on cartoons. I’ve got an iPod that I carry around. I’ll watch The Secret, What the #$*! Do We (k)now!?. I’ll sit there and get lost in that.”
At one point, I asked Steward, who still wears his blondish hair high and tight, if he missed being in Iraq.
“I kinda do,” he said. “I miss helping out.”
* * *
Helping out is a theme Steward often returned to when talking about Iraq. He said it’s why he first joined the army in 1998.
“There was no way in hell I was going to drown at sea,” he said. “I had no urge to be a jarhead. I almost joined the air force, but the army had more bases and I wanted to see the world. I just wanted to serve my country. Where I was, not a lot of people joined. No one was stepping up, serving the country, and it was ticking me off.”
Steward spent two years in active duty U.S. Army, then got an early discharge when his wife became ill. Feeling guilty about not fulfilling his original obligation, he signed up with the Oregon National Guard in 2003. Not long after, his unit got word that they were going to Iraq.
Even before reaching the war, Steward said he earned a reputation as “Mr. Fix-it.”
“When I went to Iraq, we all had limited space to take stuff,” he said. “I took a tool box, so I could fix stuff. I put Internet into their rooms. They don’t have that now. I fixed their computers for them. When stuff breaks now, they just toss it because they don’t have anyone to fix it.”
Before deploying to Iraq, Steward’s unit was sent to Fort Hood*, Texas, where it found itself in barracks that probably should have been condemned. No one else was fixing toilets, showers or air-conditioning units, so Steward set to work.
Exemplifying how much technology has changed a deployed soldier’s daily life, once his unit reached Iraq, Steward set about hooking his company up to the Internet so he and his buddies could chat with their families back home.
“On a lot of missions, you go out five to six hours, then come back and rest,” he said. “The web cam was an insane treat for us. When I first got there, I couldn’t talk to my wife for about three weeks, and it really stressed her out. A cell phone costs a couple hundred dollars a month, but for a flat $50 a month we could go on the Internet.”
Steward said he and his buddies could talk to their spouses and children a couple times a day. On days off, he could talk to her all day. The set-up was unique, and quickly became the envy of other troops who passed through the base.”
“It blew their minds,” Steward said. “We were a small forward operating base—our PX was constantly out of everything—but we had a top-notch Internet set-up. The large bases had everything, but the only way to connect to the Internet was at a MWR—Morale, Welfare and Recreation center. And you’d wait a couple hours in line. But we usually had more connections than computers.”
There was never such a thing a “typical” week in Iraq for Steward and his unit. The troops went through what the army called a “mission cycle.” They might spend three weeks providing security at a Forward Operating Base—what Steward referred to as “watching the same patches of dirt and sand for 12 hours.” Then they might spend three to four weeks watching the Palestine and Ishtar hotels in Baghdad. They might then serve duty as a “Quick Reaction Force (QRF)”—a combat unit more or less always on the alert, ready to “leave the wire” within two minutes of hearing about nearby trouble.
They also served as advisers to Iraqi National Guardsmen. “There would be 200 of them and seven of us,” Steward said. “They loved us to pieces. They were great, but I can’t say the same thing about the Iraqi police. Their pay wasn’t much under Saddam, so they had to steal. Their pay’s better now, but we had to tell them not to sell their weapons. We had to tell them not to tell their friends about our missions. We had a really tough time training them to what we would consider good police officers.”
A lot of time, though, Steward and his buddies were just plain bored. To stay preoccupied, and relieve tension, they’d often play video games—sometimes after returning from a mission.
“They’d drop their gear and immediately pick up the controls,” Steward said. “They’d play Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.** It’s a really good way to burn off frustration. There are no rules of engagement in MOHAA.”
* * *
During convoy duty, Steward served as lead machine gunner. Steward would sit atop the lead Humvee with a 25-pound, M240B machine gun. It was his responsibility to keep watch as the convoy rolled through town.
But in late 2004, Steward switched jobs and became a driver. “It posed a huge moral dilemma,” he said. “I was responsible for the safety of the convoy. Now some other guy was responsible.”
For the most part, Baghdad was good terrain for the 2/162, Steward said. It was an urban area that was mostly quiet. The population was mostly Shiite—finally in power after decades under Saddam’s fist—and they were largely grateful to American troops for getting rid of the Baathists.
“Religious leaders have a huge, insane amount of influence over there,” Steward said. “I don’t call them fanatics, but they’re a little more devout that we are. Unfortunately, they don’t get along.”
In any case, while Steward and his unit were in Baghdad, kids would smile and wave at them. There were areas of tremendous poverty in the city—places where garbage piled up on the sidewalk and raw sewage ran through the middle of the street—but for the most part people seemed happy American troops were on patrol.
“There were certain areas that looked like they’d have IEDs [Improvised Explosive Device],” Steward said about one particularly unusual roadside bomb. “Once, a gunner spotted a dog standing on the side of the road. What the hell? It was made of paper mache.” Steward said an army demolition team blew it up, which in turn caused secondary explosions.
During one time when nearby mortar rounds went off, Steward ducked down and snagged a strap on some concertina wire. When he stood, the strap dug into his leg. Steward said a buddy actually had to sit on his leg as blood pooled in his boot. When I asked if he got the Purple Heart for his wound, Steward just laughed.
“It was during the ’04 election,” he said. “No one wanted a John Kerry award.”
At one point Steward’s unit was sent south, to relieve a U.S. Marine Corps unit.
“The area was farms and canals,” Steward said. “And the people hated the marines. You’d look at a kid and he’d just stare you down.”
Steward’s unit spent a month there, training a replacement unit to take over, trying to tell them that not everyone was their enemy and that it wasn’t necessary to blow everything and everyone up—evidently, the previous marine occupiers had been very quick to shoot at the slightest provocation. Then Steward and his unit returned to Baghdad.
“I don’t know what good we did,” he said. “We were replaced by another marine unit. God help ’em.”
Steward said he and his unit always tried to moderate their use of force and keep the general population on their side—a truism of counter-insurgency more generals and politicians should learn and advise. But there were instances, he said, when he had to shoot. And kill.
“There were a few times,” he said. “But the way I look at it is I could have shot a lot more people than I did.”
One of the times occurred at a checkpoint Steward and a few other soldiers were manning. Between two and three in the morning, a car drove up and turned off its lights. “Cool, we thought, he’s not trying to blind us,” Steward said. “But he drove forward.”
The men had strung concertina wire about 150 meters in front of the checkpoint. There was a sign illuminated with chemical lights beyond that, which warned Iraqis driving up that there were U.S. military operations in the area and that they should seek an alternative route.
But this guy, for whatever reason, kept driving, and eventually hit the wire. The rules of engagement were very strict—any car that hits the wire gets fired upon.
“We fired,” Steward said. “He stopped immediately. Bullets apparently bounced off the engine block and hit him.”
Another time Steward was in a convoy, which began taking fire from a nearby rooftop. “We pretty much leveled the house,” he said.
* * *
Steward calls Iraq “a work in progress” that will “take time” to make right.
“My wife is pissed that popcorn takes five minutes to pop,” he said, talking about an American’s typical level of patience. But he has no patience with war protesters.
“Maui’s great,” he told me early on in our first interview. “I don’t have to see retarded anti-war bumper stickers on cars.”
For Steward, opposition groups are ignorant of the real issues and people in the war. “Have you been there?” he asked rhetorically. “Have you talked to them the Iraqis? Have you shared the same food? Until you’ve done that, you don’t know what’s going on over there. Yeah, mistakes were made—are made—but you don’t hear about the good things. Want to start a riot in Baghdad? Throw a kid a soccer ball.”
Knowing Steward disliked hearing news on Iraq, I nonetheless emailed him a New York Times op-ed piece published Aug. 19 of this year. Written by six sergeants and one specialist currently deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division and called “The War as We Saw It,” the extraordinary essay condemns the recent “Surge” of troops in Baghdad in unusually harsh terms.
“The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields of Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework,” the soldiers wrote. “Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere.”
Clearly stated as the opinion of just seven soldiers, the essay was nonetheless a unique view from the front. These were not retired generals or professional pundits in Washington, but actual combat soldiers. In fact, during the writing of the essay one of the authors was shot in the head during a raid and evacuated to the U.S. for medical treatment. A few weeks after the essay came out, two other authors died when their cargo truck overturned in western Baghdad.
Steward read the piece and got back to me the next day. He focused on the essay’s last line: “We need not talk about our morale,” the authors wrote. “As committed soldiers we will see this mission through.”
“That is such a true statement,” Steward told me. “As a soldier, not being able to complete a mission is a horrible feeling. And to have spent so much and to have sacrificed so much for the Iraqis, only to be forced out because the Democrats want to make the Republicans look bad or because we are unable to bring all sides to the bargaining table in Iraq… really, the idea sucks.
“I wish we had less troops, and better management, over there,” he ultimately said. “And an Iraqi force more able to work with us. Most guys over there hate it, but they understand what we’re doing. But that’s just my perspective.”
* * *
Steward still corresponds with a few guys in Iraq and Afghanistan. He sends them mac nuts, of course, but also hard drives loaded with 300 gigabytes worth of Simpsons and South Park episodes. One guy will download the contents of the drive, then pass it on to a friend. It’s expensive, but necessary in Iraq, where silica in the air wrecks havoc with DVDs and players.
About a year after Steward left the National Guard his old unit was sent to Afghanistan. Still trying to be Mr. Fix-it, Steward tried to set a system whereby soldiers could take their computers to their base’s MWR, plug them into a network and then Steward, back home, could diagnose and fix whatever was wrong with them. But setting up the network proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare—Steward said he had to cut corners to set up his unit’s Internet connections back in Iraq—and it ultimately never happened.
In any case, the combat and boredom of Iraq is never really far from Steward. He was, for all intents and purposes, just a regular grunt—an average Joe sent off to war. When he spoke at Senator Akaka’s field hearing, he spoke about the pressure it presents to both him and his family.
“I find it difficult to open up with what’s going on in my head, so unfortunately, my family can get left in the dark,” he said. “My wife has been very understanding, and I do feel guilty for not being able to communicate with her as much as I know I should.”
Generally happy with the level of care he’s received from the VA, Steward told Akaka that veterans could really benefit from having access to legal as well as medical care.
“Recently, I had to deal with a rather messy landlord/tenant issue,” he told Akaka. “If the local VA had a list of lawyers who work with veterans, it would have helped with the stress by pointing me in the right direction. While in the army, whenever a legal issue happened, JAG the Judge Advocate General’s office was full of wonderful answers. These days, I call my counselor and have him tell me to try not to stress out. Unfortunately, with a wife and three little children, not having electricity in your house can bring on lots of stress.”
For that reason, Steward and his family recently moved from Lahaina to Napili. “The place where we were at was insanely hot,” Steward said. “Spending a week without power here was a lot like being back over there. But I found a place with a great landlord. And my boss offered to turn power on for us, which was great. I moved to Maui to take it easy and heal, not deal with stuff like this.” MTW
*This base was originally misspelled.
**This video game was originally incorrectly named.